Tomorrow, Pope Benedict XVI will step down as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the first pope to step down in hundreds of years. For Roman Catholics, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this event. Does it herald in a new era when popes will retire gracefully, rather than die in office? Will March bring in a pope that isn’t European? The possibilities are endless, though most likely the cardinals will select another pope not too unlike the previous 200+ of them.
I was raised Roman Catholic and while these events no longer impact my faith directly, it has inspired me to look back and relearn the biblical origins of the papacy. While Protestants and Orthodox Christians disagree, Roman Catholics trace the office of the pontiff all the way back to St. Peter, on the explicit instruction of Jesus himself. And did you know there is not just one, but two popes mentioned in the bible? Read on for more.
Before we jump in, for my non-Catholic (or even non-Christian) readers, what the office of pope means. Just as St. Peter was seen as the first among the apostles of Jesus, as the church spread out after Jesus’s death the “pope” would gradually become the first among the bishops of the new church. For obvious political reasons, the seat of this papacy was to be the city of Rome itself: where better to organize a universal church than in the universal city, the center of the known-civilized universe at the time. The pope is, even today, considered the Bishop of Rome in addition to his world-spanning congregation. While there is some doubt among historians of the earliest popes, by the early fourth century and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the seeds of the modern papacy were in place. One ironic fact is that one of the titles of the pope, the “pontiff” (pontificus maximus) had previously been the title of the head of Roman paganism!
But enough of history, let’s talk the bible. The first and most important reference which is interpreted as being of the future papacy comes in Matthew chapter 16. Jesus is traveling in his ministry, at the coast of Caesarea Philippi in the far north of Israel (now part of the Golan Heights). While traveling, he asked his disciples a very important question:
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In this passage, Peter is the only one of the apostles that has the clairvoyance to see Jesus as the son of God and not simply as another prophet of the Hebrew scriptures. The name Peter means “rock” in Greek and so when Jesus says “thou art Peter, and upon this rock” he’s really making a bit of a pun. Always good to know your God can joke around a bit! But more importantly, Roman Catholics hold that this passage contains some of the important summations of the papacy:
- When Jesus says “upon this rock, I will build my church”, he means that Peter will be the establishment of the “true” Church and that Peter will be its first leader.
- When he says “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” he affirms the infability of this role, essentially delegating a tiny piece of Godhood.
Of course, Jesus giving away the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” is also where we get the idea that St. Peter is the one who greets and judges the newly dead at the pearly gates.
While this theme is not directly touched on again in the Gospel of Matthew (or Mark or Luke), there is a strikingly parallel scene at the end of the Gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus has already returned from the dead, but his followers don’t recognize him:
After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise shewed he himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
Unlike in the Gospel of Matthew, it is not Peter that recognizes Jesus for who he is, but rather the Beloved Disciple. The identify of that disciple is murky, but many scholars believe it to be John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, referring to himself.
Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.
This leads into another exchange between Jesus and Peter which closely mirrors the one from Matthew. Instead of a metaphor of a foundation and a gate, Jesus instead portrays Peter as a shepherd, repeatedly instructing him to “Feed [his] lambs” and “sheep”– possibly another metaphor for the Church:
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Protestants can (and do) read these passages without the implication that Jesus was laying the foundation for an all-encompassing church.
So, now we have Peter as the head of a central church. But how the heck did he get to Rome and what does the bible say about that? This one is a little tricky. Peter continues to have a huge role in the New Testament, starring in the first twelve chapters of the Acts of the Apostles as well as being the reported author of the First and Second Epistles of Peter. In none of these books does it state that he ministered to Rome. The capital of the empire was 1500 miles away over water and even father over land. But, Acts chapter 28 reveals that the Apostle Paul managed to make it all the way to Rome, so presumably St. Peter could have has well.
The clearest clue that Peter was in Rome comes at the end of the First Epistle:
By Silvanus, a faithful brother unto you, as I suppose, I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand. The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son. Greet ye one another with a kiss of charity. Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.
1 Peter 5:12-14
The church is at Babylon (now Iraq), but at that stage in history Babylon had ceased to be a major city. In fact, it was mostly a ruin. Scholars suggest that this is in fact code for Rome as Peter did not want to give up his position. Unlike the book of Acts, Peter may have been active in Rome at the time and not just passing through on his ministry. There may have been more of a reason to be coy and presumably his audience knew what he meant. (Or, perhaps he really was at Babylon, your choice.)
In my introduction I did promise you two popes and there is a second mentioned in the bible: Pope Linus. He has the tiniest of mention in Second Timothy:
Salute Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus abode at Corinth: but Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick. Do thy diligence to come before winter. Eubulus greeteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia, and all the brethren.
2 Timothy 4:19-21
Although there may have been a Pope Linus, I’m not sure that this passage isn’t so vague as to make it impossible to know if it was him: he doesn’t appear to have a position of seniority in this list (he’s practically “all the brethren”) and there is nothing here to tie him to Rome or even as a key member of the early church. Still, there he is: the last biblical pope.
I hope you enjoyed this quick trip though biblical papacy. Now, back to work on my post on biblical weather….