Did the apostle Peter found the church in Rome and serve as its first bishop?

The church at Rome was already established when Paul arrived there as a prisoner (Acts 28:15-16) following his appeal to Caesar (Acts 25). No first- or second-century evidence supports the view that Peter founded the church in Rome or was its sole bishop.

Luke mentions Peter’s activities in many passages of Acts. If he knew that Peter had already visited Rome and founded the church there, he probably would have mentioned it. Paul’s epistle to the Romans doesn’t mention Peter (Romans 15:24), nor does he mention a connection between Peter and Rome in any of his other epistles.1 It is therefore reasonable to assume that Peter could not have arrived in Rome until after the completion of Acts and Paul’s epistles.

Although Peter was clearly a leading apostle, nothing in Acts or the New Testament epistles implies that he possessed a unique authority that his chosen successor would inherit. Nor is there any strong historical evidence about the last years of Peter’s life or about how he died.

Existing evidence implies that a single bishop never governed a unified Roman church until the mid-second century.2 Until then, the Roman church may have been comprised of several leading congregations, each with its own key leaders. References to Peter as “Bishop of Rome,” or to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:17-19 conferring authority to Peter’s “successors” date from the third century or later.3 The title of pope (taken from the Greek word for “father”—pappas) had already been used in reference to eastern bishops, and was probably first applied to the Roman bishop in the fourth century.

  1. Paul lists Apollos in connection with the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9), Timothy in connection the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2-5), and Epaphras in connection with the church in Colosse (Colossians 1:7; 4:12). Back To Article
  2. Church historian David L. Edwards describes the development of the role of bishop in the early church, and notes that the church in Rome was late in coming under the governance of a dominant bishop:

    The leaders who gained the exclusive right to the title of episkopos seem to have emerged from the ranks of the presbyters at different places in different churches. Very little evidence about the process has survived, but it seems reasonable to suppose that much depended on local personalities and circumstances. We do know that in the first half of the second Christian century, first Ignatius of Antioch and then Polycarp of Smyrna were dominant bishops in their part of the world. Ignatius told the church in Smyrna that “nothing to do with the church should be done without the bishop’s approval.” Polycarp and four other bishops are mentioned in his surviving letters, and he could tell the church in Ephesus that similar leaders had been appointed “all over the world.” But this seems to have been a rhetorical flourish, for he mentioned no bishop in his letter to Rome, and as we noted the letter to Corinth from that church does not suggest that there was a bishop in the Ignatian sense in either place. Hermas speaks of bishops and presbyters as one group and Justin mentions only a “president” of the presbyters. It seems that the church in Rome was so conservative that it kept this New Testament pattern for its clergy for years after the development of Ignatian-style bishops in Asia Minor, although of course it is probable that at any one time one of the presbyter-bishops (for example Clement) was specially gifted and respected (Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years, Orbis Books, p.52). Back To Article

  3. “The history of the bishops of Rome was affected by personalities and events as well as by traditions and ideals. Damasus I, for example, was bishop only because his supporters had massacred the supporters of his rival in the election of 366. He did much to attract and spread wealth, building churches, restoring catacombs and exercising magnificent hospitality. He often referred to Rome as the “apostolic see,” and Theodosius the Great, when he made Christianity the religion of the eastern empire in 380, defined it as the creed once taught by Peter in Rome and now by the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. Yet Damasus never entirely lived down the circumstances in which he had been elected and his successor Siricius also faced difficulties. He was the first bishop of Rome to be called “pope” (which meant “father”) and the first to issue decretalia in the style of the emperor’s decrees, and Ambrose of Milan acknowledged his seniority; yet in fact Ambrose overshadowed him” (ibid. pp.195-96). Back To Article
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