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Evils of religion, part 2: Was Peter the first Catholic?

Statue of the apostle Peter
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

If you keep saying the same thing over and over, does it make it true? I can’t tell you how many people have screamed at me since my previous column was published, ‘Catholicism is the ONE TRUE FAITH! How dare you attack the ONE TRUE FAITH!’ Boy, if they felt that was an attack, they are really going to hate what comes next.

They seem to base their ‘We’re the one true faith’ claim on Matthew 16:18, where Jesus told Peter, "You are Petros (a rock), and on this petra (rock) I will build my church.” (MNT) Catholics believe this is where their church started, that this was Jesus putting Peter in charge; further, they claim they can prove a solid line of succession from Pope Peter to Pope Francis. Is there any truth to that?

According to any number of Bible scholars, the answer is No.

The passage is open to two possible interpretations; well, three if you count the Catholic claim. But the Greek text simply does not allow for that interpretation. The word for ‘Peter’ is a pun on ‘a piece of rock,’ like a rock chip. The other word Jesus used would be best translated ‘rock mass’ or ‘rock ledge.’ It implies massiveness. The same word is used in Matthew 7:24. "Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.”

The two legitimate possibilities are:

  1. Jesus could have been contrasting his play on words referencing Peter’s name, with himself, like this: ‘You are Peter, like a chip off the rock,’ then pointing to himself he continues, ‘On this rock I will build my church.’
  2. Jesus had just asked the apostles who they believed him to be, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then praised Peter for allowing himself to be guided by his personal study of scripture and holy spirit, comparing that with what he’d seen with his own eyes, to arrive at the correct conclusion, rather than simply following other people’s conclusions. In that context, Jesus’ saying ‘On this rock’ could have been a reference to Peter’s faith-based testimony; as if he were saying, ‘If enough of my followers have this kind of faith, I can build my church on that.’

According to Bible scholar A.T. Robertson, instead of focusing on the identity of the rock, or the ‘pun’ Jesus made about Peter’s name, readers should focus on the point of the illustration, the building: ‘On this rock I will build…’

“If one is puzzled over the use of "building" with the word ekklêsia [church, or congregation] it will be helpful to turn to 1 Peter 2:5. Peter, the very one to whom Jesus is here speaking, writing to the Christians in the five Roman provinces in Asia (1Pe 1:1), says: ‘You are built a spiritual house.’ It is difficult to resist the impression that Peter recalls the words of Jesus to him on this memorable occasion.”

In case that isn’t clear enough, in verse 7 Peter makes it very plain that he views Jesus, not himself, as “The stone which the builders cast away as worthless, this has become head cornerstone.”

Peter would have been horrified to think that, 20 centuries later, some would view him as the foundation stone of Christianity!

Did Peter’s peers view him as their leader? Hardly. Acts 15 records an early Christian conference. The question of the day was whether circumcision was required of Gentile converts.

  • Verse 2 says “It was therefore settled that Paul and Barnabas and others of their number should go up to Jerusalem, to consult the Apostles and Officers of the Church about the matter under discussion.” If Peter were the pope, wouldn’t this verse say that they went to ‘consult Peter’?
  • Verse 4 says they were welcomed “by the Apostles and the Officers.” Not Pope Peter.
  • Verse 6: “The Apostles and the Officers of the Church held a meeting to consider this question.” Not Pope Peter.
  • In verse 7 we finally hear from Peter: “Peter rose and said: ‘Brothers, you know how a good while ago God made choice among you, that from my lips the Gentiles were to hear the message of the gospel and believe.’” Aha! Is this Pope Peter settling the dispute? No, sorry. It is simply Peter recounting how he had been the first one to preach Christianity to a Gentile, i.e., a non-Jew named Cornelius. And his wasn’t the final word in the discussion.
  • Verse 12: “Barnabas and Paul gave an account of the signs and wonders which God had done among the Gentiles by them.” So Peter, along with Paul and Barnabas, were simply witnesses, providing testimony on which all the assembled brothers could base a decision.
  • Verse 13: “And when they had come to an end, James, answering, said, ‘My brothers, give ear to me.” How could James conclude the conference if Peter were the pope?
  • In verse 19 James wraps up: “For this reason my decision is…” (Too bad the Catholic Church didn’t claim James as their first pope, right?)
  • And the verdict? Verse 22: “It was then decided by the Apostles and the Officers, with the assent of the whole Church, to choose some of their number, and send them to Antioch...”

There is in fact not a single scripture indicating Peter’s primacy over the other apostles. In a letter to several churches in Galatia, (Galatians 2:6-9) Paul spoke of the brothers in Jerusalem as “those (plural) in authority.” He listed Peter along with James and John as “pillars of the Church,” but he didn’t call Peter the pope, or even name him first:

“When they saw that I had been made responsible for preaching the good news to those without circumcision, even as Peter had been for those of the circumcision…and when they perceived the mission which was graciously entrusted to me, they, that is to say, James, Peter, and John, who were considered to be the pillars of the Church, welcomed Barnabas and me to their fellowship on the understanding that we were to go to the Gentiles and they to the Jews.”

This dividing up of the workload, incidentally - Peter preaching to Jews and Paul to Gentiles - explains why Paul ended up in Rome and Peter went the other direction. Peter’s letters are addressed from Babylon. The entire nation of Israel had been deported to Babylon 600 years earlier, and a huge community of them still lived there. There is no support for the Catholic Church’s contention that Babylon meant Rome; Babylon meant Babylon. Scream as much and as loud as you want, Catholics, there is zero proof that Peter was ever in Rome. Repeating it, loudly and often, doesn't make it so. Esteemed Bible scholar Adam Clarke says:

To me there is not the slightest evidence that St. Peter ever saw Rome; much less that he was first or indeed any bishop of that city. Those who mention his having been there, give us no evidence that they had any fact or history to vouch for their belief, but a sort of uncertain report that never attempts to show its origin or vouch for its truth."

One other significant reference to Peter appears in Galatians. In verses 11-14 of this same chapter 2, Paul tells us about an occasion on which he had corrected ‘Pope’ Peter! Peter was guilty of a fairly serious sin, sort of the opposite of anti-Semitism. As the congregation continued to add Gentiles to the original Jewish Christians, Jewish Peter worked hard to overcome his prejudice against them, even bringing himself to where he could sit down and eat a meal with Gentiles. However, when Jewish Christians from Jerusalem - who considered Gentiles beneath them - showed up, Peter left his new friends and joined the Jews in snubbing Gentile Christians. Paul chewed him out, loudly and publicly:

“As soon as I saw that they were not walking uprightly in the spirit of the Good News, I said to Peter, before them all, ‘If you, though you are a Jew, live as a Gentile does, and not as a Jew, how can you make the Gentiles follow Jewish customs?’”

Can you picture a bishop or cardinal today doing something similar to Pope Francis?

To recap:

  • Peter never held any primacy over the other apostles.
  • Peter never held the title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ and would have been insulted had anyone called him that.
  • Peter identified Jesus as the rock mass on which the church was built.
  • Peter’s ministry took him to Babylon, not Rome.
  • Peter was not infallible, he was corrected by Paul.

Peter was NOT the first pope. Were he walking around today, he wouldn't even be Catholic. And I think he'd consider that a compliment.

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