The issue of whether or not Saint Peter was the first pope is a complex theological question with differing perspectives among various Christian traditions. While the Roman Catholic Church holds that Peter was the first in an unbroken line of popes extending to the present, other traditions do not subscribe to this view of papal succession. Exploring this topic requires carefully examining relevant biblical passages about Peter, understanding the historical development of the papacy, and considering how different traditions interpret this history. This article will survey the evidence in scripture and scholarship regarding Peter’s life and ministry and his purported status as the first pope.
Peter’s Life and Ministry in the Gospels
In the four canonical gospels, Simon Peter emerges as one of Jesus’ closest disciples and as a leader among the Twelve. A fisherman by trade, Peter was one of the first followers called by Jesus in Galilee (Matthew 4:18-20; Mark 1:16-18; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:40-42). Along with James and John, Peter formed Jesus’ inner circle and was present at key moments in Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42). Peter often acted as spokesman for the Twelve (Matthew 15:15; 19:27; John 6:68) and appears frequently in the gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea. His prominence earned him the Aramaic nickname Cephas or Peter, meaning “rock” (John 1:42).
The gospels portray Peter as bold but flawed, a disciple whose faith undergoes testing. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ, but soon after rebukes him for prophesying his death, earning a stern rebuke from Jesus (Matthew 16:13-23; Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-22). During the Last Supper, Peter pledges undying loyalty to Jesus, who foretells Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows (Matthew 26:30-35; Mark 14:26-31; Luke 22:31-34; John 13:36-38). When Jesus is arrested, Peter takes up arms to defend him but then flees along with the other disciples (Matthew 26:51-56; Mark 14:47-50; Luke 22:49-53; John 18:10-11). Most poignantly, while Jesus’ trial is underway, Peter does deny knowing him three times, then weeps bitterly upon hearing the cock crow just as Jesus predicted (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27). Yet following the Resurrection, Jesus forgives and reinstates Peter, pointedly asking him three times if he loves him, then charging him to feed his sheep (John 21:15-19).
Beyond the gospels, the book of Acts and New Testament epistles shed further light on Peter’s leadership in the early church. Peter oversees the selection of Matthias to replace Judas among the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26). On Pentecost, he preaches boldly to the crowds and adds three thousand converts to the nascent church through his testimony and baptism (Acts 2:14-41). Peter and John heal a lame beggar and again preach the gospel with boldness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 3-4). The apostles perform signs and wonders among the people, with the sick laid in the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall on them (Acts 5:12-16). Peter travels to evangelize in Samaria (Acts 8:14-25), receives Cornelius’ invitation to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and holds himself accountable to the Jerusalem church for eating with uncircumcised men (Acts 11:1-18). He escapes prison with angelic help (Acts 12:1-19) and later addresses the Jerusalem Council regarding requirements for Gentile believers (Acts 15:6-11). This abbreviated survey shows Peter functioning as a leader among the apostles and using the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19) to open the doors of faith to both Jews and Gentiles.
Peter and Rome
While the New Testament contains no explicit evidence of Peter traveling to or exercising authority in Rome, early church tradition associates him with leadership of the Roman church. In the first century, 1 Clement, a letter attributed either to Clement of Rome or another Roman leader, references Peter’s suffering and Paul’s martyrdom as examples for the Roman church to emulate (1 Clement 5:1-7). Some scholars see this as possible evidence that Peter died in Rome under Nero, though others dispute this inference. By the late second century, writers like Irenaeus were referring to the church of Rome as “the greatest church, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” (Against Heresies 3.3.2). This tradition identified Peter and Paul as joint founders of the Roman church.
During his conflict with the Gnostic teacher Marcion in the mid-second century, Tertullian described the Roman church as the “Apostolic Church” founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul (The Prescription Against Heretics 32; 36). As these examples show, early tradition held that Peter traveled to Rome, founded the Roman church, and served as its first bishop. The exact chronology is uncertain, but tradition holds he arrived in Rome in the rule of Claudius (AD 41-54) and 20 or 25 years thereafter was martyred under Nero between AD 64-67. The First Epistle of Clement and the First Epistle of Peter (likely a posthumous letter from c. 90-95 AD) are both attributed to Peter’s authorship from Rome. While the details remain ambiguous, Peter and Paul emerged in early tradition as the twin pillars of the Roman church.
Development of the Papacy
In western tradition, the bishops of Rome came to be seen as successors of Peter and inheritors of his authority. But the exact nature and extent of papal authority developed over centuries. Clement of Rome, Hermas, and especially Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108 AD) reflect incipient monarchical episcopacy, with Ignatius insisting that nothing be done by Christians apart from the bishop (To the Smyrnaeans 8.1). Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD) spoke of the church of Rome as preeminent in authority because it traced its lineage directly back to Peter and Paul as its founders (Against Heresies 3.3.2). The role of Rome increased after the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion c. 312 AD and his establishment of the city as an imperial capital in the early 4th century.
The powers of the Roman see expanded through the decree of Valentinian III in 445 AD affirming Rome’s appellate jurisdiction. Rome’s authority was also enhanced by the writings of Leo I “the Great” (440-461), who used Petrine texts like Matthew 16:18 to argue that as the heir to Peter, the pope occupied a personal seat of authority above other bishops. The rise of the palatiumLateranense (Lateran Palace) by the 5th century gave the Roman church a headquarters befitting an imperial capital. Over subsequent centuries, leading ecclesiastical figures like Gregory I “the Great” (590-604), Gregory VII (1073-1085), and Innocent III (1198-1216) expanded papal supremacy using the Petrine claims of the Roman church.
By the reign of the medieval popes, Rome had developed a robust Petrine theology declaring that the keys of the kingdom given to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and the power to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18) represented papal authority over Christendom. Rome invoked Peter’s commission to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:32) to assert papal teaching authority over doctrine for the universal church. Peter’s charge to feed Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-17) undergirded Petrine claims of papal jurisdictional authority.
Reaching its zenith at the Council of Florence (1439-1445), the medieval theory of papal power claimed the Roman pontiff was “father and teacher of all Christians” and the “true vicar of Christ” who held “the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church” (Laetentur Caeli). In 1870, the First Vatican Council constitution Pastor Aeternus declared the pope possessed “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church” as “the true vicar of Christ” and “head of the whole church” (2, 3). Papal primacy and infallibility became dogma. Despite challenges during the Reformation and modern times, the Roman church continues to adhere to this doctrine of Petrine supremacy.
Eastern Orthodox Perspective
While honoring Peter’s preeminence among the apostles, the Eastern Orthodox generally dispute that Peter’s primacy entailed jurisdiction or authority over the whole church. As John Meyendorff explains, “All that we have said here about the primacy of Peter must, however, be understood in light of the basic Orthodox doctrine that all bishops are equal…No ‘absolute’ monarchical power, therefore, was conferred on Peter himself” (Catholicity and the Church, 50). Orthodoxy rejects an ontological distinction between Peter’s primacy and that of the other apostles.
The authority given to Peter functions within collegiality and conciliarity, not atop it. Eastern tradition cites John 20:21-23 and Matthew 18:18 to argue that the power of the keys and binding and loosing were conferred on all the disciples equally, not Peter alone. Jesus’ charge to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:32) falls to all bishops as successors of the apostles. Though Peter stood out in zeal and labored more abundantly than all the rest, as Chrysostom commented (Homilies on First Corinthians 36.5), he exercises no authority over the other apostles.
While affirming Peter’s historical primacy of honor among the apostles, the East rejects later Roman claims of jurisdictional authority deriving uniquely from Peter. According to Kallistos Ware, “Orthodoxy does not accept the Roman Catholic and Protestant conception of the church as a centralized government, with the pope as vicar of Christ on earth” (The Orthodox Church, 251). That is a medieval deviation from the decentralization and regional autonomy of early church polity. For Orthodoxy, the idea that Peter uniquely founded and presided over the church in Rome represents part of later Roman “interpretation and elaboration of the facts” (Nicholas Afanasiev, The Primacy of Peter, 119).
Beyond the Eastern dissent from papal primacy, Protestant traditions depart even more sharply from Roman claims of Petrine authority. Luther and the early Reformers strenuously objected to the Roman idea that the pope as successor of Peter uniquely possessed authority over the whole church. Rather, Protestants hold that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for the church. The Petrine texts in Matthew 16, John 21, and elsewhere certainly accord Peter special esteem and responsibility. But Reformers argued that a careful and unbiased reading does not substantiate that Christ conferred monarchical authority on Peter beyond the other apostles.
Responding to Roman Catholic apologetics, John Calvin systematically dismantled Petrine arguments to reject papal primacy or succession from Peter (Institutes 4.6-7). Regarding the famous “on this rock” passage (Matthew 16:18-19), Calvin held that the “rock” refers not to Peter alone but to the confession of faith he made. Christ charges all ministers of the gospel to responsibly preserve the true doctrine of Christ. Calvin argued that papal supremacy represents a gross distortion of God’s will for church governance, instead arguing for leadership by bishops or pastors along Presbyterian lines according to the New Testament precedent.
Other Protestant traditions like Anabaptists and Baptists reject papal authority even more forcefully, arguing the Catholic hierarchical model lacks New Testament warrant. They emphasize that Peter never acted alone with autonomous authority but collegially alongside the other apostles like James, John, and Paul. Peter’s ministry did not center on hierarchical control or ecclesial jurisdiction. And the New Testament recognizes Christ alone as supreme head of the church. Attempts to legitimize papal primacy on the basis of Peter contradict the New Testament model, they argue.
This survey shows that the question of Peter’s relationship to the bishopric of Rome and modern papal authority remains intricate and contested. While Catholics see Peter as the first pope in an unbroken Petrine succession, Orthodox and Protestants interpret the evidence differently. Debate continues over whether Peter was the local founder and first bishop of the Roman church or was appointed by Jesus to universal jurisdiction over Christianity. And scholars differ regarding how biblical texts concerning Peter should apply to church governance structures in subsequent generations. Ecumenical dialogue may help diverse traditions listen and learn from each other regarding this critical chapter in Christian history.
But for all Christians, Peter stands out among the apostles as an exemplary disciple – flawed but devoted, zealous yet teachable, a natural leader who discovers humility and dependence on Christ. His journey of faith and fulfillment of Jesus’ call to strengthen his brethren remain an inspiration today. And the church in all its diversity retains Peter in written testimony as an anchor to the foundational proclamation of the gospel of Christ (2 Peter 1:12-15).