The Apostle Peter in Rome

Jesus’ chief disciple examined

In this blog post, Brown University Religious Studies professor Nicola Denzey Lewis answers frequently asked questions about the apostle Peter. Denzey Lewis appears in the CNN series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, which aims to investigate artifacts that shed light on the world in which Jesus lived.—Ed.


 
What traditions connect the apostle Peter to Rome?

peter-el-greco

The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco. Photo: The Phillips Collection.

Jesus’ chief disciple, Peter (also called Simon Peter or Cephas), has been associated with Rome for nearly 2,000 years. The earliest testimony to the apostle Peter’s presence in Rome is a letter from a Christian deacon named Gaius. Writing probably toward the end of the second century C.E.—so, around 170 or 180 C.E.—Gaius tells about the wondrous things in Rome, including something called a tropaion (see below for more) where Peter established a church—in fact, the Church, the Roman Catholic church at the site where St. Peter’s Basilica is today. But there are other traditions besides Peter’s tropaion. One early Christian text, the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, recounts many things that Peter did in the city. At one point in Acts of Peter, Peter is taunted by a flamboyant heretic, Simon Magus. Simon challenges Peter to a flying contest around the Roman Forum, but Peter’s prayers make Simon crash to the ground, proving that Simon’s powers are not as great as his own. At the end of this text, Peter, not wishing to be martyred for his faith, flees from Roman authorities on the Via Appia leading out of the city. Rather unexpectedly, Peter meets Jesus, who is traveling in the opposite direction. He asks Jesus, “Where are you going?” Jesus tells Peter that he is going to Rome “to be crucified again.” Peter realizes, from this, that he cannot flee from his fate. “Where are you going?” in Latin is “Quo Vadis?” and there’s a medieval church in Rome called the Church of Quo Vadis at the spot where Peter met Jesus. To prove that his vision was real, you can still see there a bit of marble pavement which the faithful say miraculously preserve Jesus’ footprints.

Is it likely that the apostle Peter went to Rome and founded the church there?

Interestingly, the Bible says nothing about Peter ever traveling to Rome. When the gospels end, Peter is in Jerusalem. It’s the same in the Book of Acts. The apostle Paul, in his letters, also talks about meeting Peter in the eastern Mediterranean. After Jesus’ death, Paul says that Jesus’ brother, James, and Peter are the co-leaders of the “church,” or assembly, of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem. In short, there is no early textual evidence for Peter in Rome, so for some people, it’s very hard to believe that he ever traveled there. Not only is it a very long way, according to the New Testament, Peter was a fisherman who was not very educated and who spoke only Aramaic; he was not the type of person that might travel widely across the Roman Empire to a large city where Latin and Greek were the dominant languages. The absence of connection between Peter and Rome in the New Testament, the lack of references to him in our earliest Roman Christian literature, and what we know of Peter’s background and character all combine to make it unlikely, to my mind, that he ever went to Rome.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

Is there any evidence that the apostle Peter died in Rome?

st-peter-basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the traditional burial site of the apostle Peter.

There is no solid evidence—textual or even archaeological—that Peter died in Rome. Starting around the end of the second century, Christian pilgrims went to see Peter’s tropaion. But a tropaion is not a tomb. The word itself is very unusual; sometimes translated as “trophy,” it means something like a war memorial or a cenotaph (i.e., an empty grave). It’s not the word used in the Roman Empire for a burial place. Yet this spot—which was originally in the middle of an ancient cemetery—was quickly understood as the place where Peter was buried. When it was excavated in the 1950s, archaeologists were shocked to find that there was no grave and no bones under the tropaion. Only later were some bones produced from that excavation, and it’s a fascinating story we talk about in Finding Jesus. Are these Peter’s bones? That appears to be a matter of faith. The official Vatican position, first stated in 1968, is that they might be.

Why are there two places in Rome where the apostle Peter was supposedly buried?

This is another fascinating thing we explore in Finding Jesus. Most people know about Peter’s traditional burial site at St. Peter’s. But it turns out that there’s a second site in Rome where pilgrims went for hundreds of years, which was known as the Memoria Apostolorum (the Memorial to the Apostles). It’s off the Via Appia at the modern site of the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, and you can still go and visit it today, although the memorial itself is largely built over. What’s amazing is that the site preserves around 600 graffiti scrawled by Christian pilgrims in the early Middle Ages, most of them prayers to Peter and Paul, the joint patron saints of Rome. It certainly looks like people believed that Peter was buried there, but excavators found no evidence of a tomb there, either! As far as I can tell, this leaves us with two options: Either Peter’s body was at both these sites at one point and moved from one to the other, or Peter’s body was never at either site, but people still associated him with the site. It didn’t always take a body or a tomb for a site to be sacred, after all.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 31, 2017.
 


 
nicola-denzey-lewisNicola Denzey Lewis, Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University, specializes in Gnosticism, Late Antiquity, Roman social history, the history of Christianity, and women and gender. Her recent publications include Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and the Graeco-Roman World (Brill, 2013) and Introduction to “Gnosticism” (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).
 


 

Related reading in the BAS Library:

Pheme Perkins, “Peter: How a Flawed Disciple Became Jesus’ Successor on Earth,” Bible Review, February 2004.

“Peter in Rome,” Bible Review, February 2004.

David R. Cartlidge, “The Fall and Rise of Simon Magus,” Bible Review, Fall 2005.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

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  • Donna says

    There was a time, when I really trusted articles from a university/professor. I myself very much appreciated my college education. However, when it comes to believers in Jesus Christ, the lukewarm are spit out. Jesus says this in Revelation 3:15-16. Also read Colossians 2:8-10 for yourself ” Beware lest any man spoil you through vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world and not after Christ”. There is a major difference between human education and Faith. Rely on God’s education through His Word to manifest your Faith and Trust in His Word, so that there is a purely distinguishable Truth. Everything else is irrelevant in the words of Paul (a very educated man):
    Please Read Phillipians 3:7-11.
    Also, 1 John 4 “Beloved believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…”.
    We are in the end times as you can evidently see around you. This is the time for repentance and to walk out the scripture John 4:23-24 “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”. These scriptures came to me after reading this article. My prayer is that this helps educate and bless many in Jesus name. Amen.

  • GODWIN says

    Thank you, Nicola Denzey Lewis.
    I really love your write up. May you remain blessed

  • History says

    And… my favorite quote from antiquities:

    CYPRIAN OF CARTHAGE
    “If anyone considers and examines these things, there is no need for a long discussion and arguments. There is easy proof of faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord says to Peter: “I say to you,” he says, “that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .” [Mt 16:18–19]. On him he builds the Church, and commands him to feed the sheep [Jn 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, by which it is made clear that there is one Church and one chair. . . . If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he think that he holds the faith? If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [c. A.D. 251]).

    “There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. Another altar cannot be constituted nor a new priesthood be made, except the one altar and the one priesthood. Whosoever gathers elsewhere, scatters” [Letters 39:5 (A.D. 251)].

    Feel free to do further research:

    https://www.amazon.com/s?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ante-nicene+fathers

  • History says

    Cont’d

    IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH (Taught by the Apostle John.)
    “I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you [Romans]. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: They were free, while I am, even until now, a servant” [Letter to the Romans 4 (c. A.D. 110)].

    EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA
    “Victor . . . was the thirteenth bishop of Rome from Peter” [Church History 5:28:3 (c. A.D. 312)].

    “And Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle which they say that he wrote in Rome itself, as is indicated by him, when he calls the city, by a figure, Babylon, as he does in the following words: The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, salutes you; and so does Marcus my son. 1 Peter 5:13” [Church History 2:15:2 (c. A.D. 312)].

    CYRIL OF JERUSALEM
    “[Simon Magus] so deceived the city of Rome that Claudius set up his statue. . . . As the delusion was extending, Peter and Paul, a noble pair, chief rulers of the Church, arrived and set the error right. . . . [T]hey launched the weapon of their prayers against Magus, and struck him down to the earth. And marvelous though it was, yet no marvel. For Peter was there, who carries the keys of heaven [Mt 16:19]” [Catechetical Lectures 6:14–15 (c. A.D. 350)].

    THEODORE ABU QURRAH
    “As for us, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, our sole goal is to build ourselves on the foundation of St. Peter, he who directed the six holy councils. These councils were gathered by command of the Bishop of Rome, the city of the world. Whoever sits on that city’s throne is authorized by Christ to have compassion on the people of the Church, by summoning the ecumenical council, and to strengthen them, even as we have demonstrated in other places. We ask Christ to confirm us in this forever, that we might inherit through it his kingdom, in that we have joined with it the doing of his commandments. To him be praise, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and forever.” (Theodore Abu Qurrah; On the Death of Christ [800 A.D.]).

  • History says

    This is not a very well researched article/opinion piece.

    IRENAEUS (Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp. Polycarp was taught by the Apostle John.)
    “Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the churches, we put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vanity, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings, by indicating that Tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every church agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, in so far as the apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere” [Against Heresies 3:3:2 (c. A.D. 189)].

    “Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church” [Against Heresies, 3:1:1 (c. A.D. 189)].

    TERTULLIAN OF CARTHAGE
    “Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s! Where the apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island exile!” [Prescription Against Heretics 36 (c. A.D. 200)].

    PETER OF ALEXANDRIA
    “Thus Peter, the first of the apostles, having been often apprehended, and thrown into prison, and treated with ignominy, was last of all crucified at Rome” [Penance, canon 9 (A.D. 306)].

    LACTANTIUS
    “And while Nero reigned, the apostle Peter came to Rome, and, through the power of God committed unto him, wrought certain miracles, and, by turning many to the true religion, built up a faithful and steadfast temple unto the Lord. When Nero heard of those things, and observed that not only in Rome, but in every other place, a great multitude revolted daily from the worship of idols, and, condemning their old ways, went over to the new religion, he, an execrable and pernicious tyrant, sprung forward to raze the heavenly temple and destroy the true faith. He it was who first persecuted the servants of God; he crucified Peter, and slew Paul” [Deaths of the Persecutors 2 (c. A.D. 318)].

    OPTATUS OF MILEVIS
    “You cannot then deny that you know that upon Peter first in the city of Rome was bestowed the episcopal cathedra, on which he sat, the head of all the apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one cathedra, unity should be preserved by all. Neither do the apostles proceed individually on their own, and anyone who would [presume to] set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. . . . Recall, then, the origins of your chair, those of you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church” [Schism of the Donatists 2:2 (c. A.D. 367)].

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