When I first published my article, The Circus of Roman Emperor Nero: Were Saint Peter Was Martyred in 2016, my intention was to simply present that the Christians were not martyred in the Colosseum, as tradition has it, but rather at another location, the Circus of Nero. However, my title caused a few readers to argue that Peter the Apostle was never in Rome. They state that there’s no historical or biblical proof that he was ever there. Again, my intention at that time wasn’t to get into a theological debate.
But those comments got me thinking; how did this tradition get started if there wasn’t any historical or biblical reference? And if he were indeed in Rome, as traditions says, then why is there no proof? After a little arm chair researching, I found some interesting bits of information that may help to shed some light on this question, was Saint Peter ever in Rome.
Saint Peter in Rome and the New Testament
One of the main arguments used against Peter being in Rome is the New Testament of the Bible. Those using this argument point to the fact that the New Testament doesn’t mention Peter being there. But when you compare the dates as to when the books of the New Testament were written, with those of the Christian persecutions, it becomes quite clear why Peter being in Rome isn’t mentioned.
Most historians and theologians agree that the first three gospels were written between 50 and 60 AD and the Epistles of the Apostles at around 44 to 70 AD. Also, the only book of the New Testament that directly tells the history of the early Christian church and the Apostles is the Book of Acts, which was written at around 62 AD. Now compare those dates with the accepted time of Nero’s persecutions and Peter’s arrest and martyring, which was between 64 and 68 AD. So, it would be very hard for the writers of the New Testament to include an event that hadn’t happened yet.
But some theologians believe that one gospel writer knew of Peter’s crucifixion and death, and wrote about it. The last gospel, the Gospel of John, was written between 80 and 90 AD, which was long after Peter’s death in Rome. In John 21:18 and 19 the author has Jesus saying to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” Was the writer then describing Peter’s martyrdom by crucifixion in Rome?
Saint Peter in Rome and Historical Accounts
The second question, why is there no historical records of Peter being in Rome, is also very easy to understand. At the time of Nero’s reign Christianity had only been in existence for less than thirty years. Roman historians, such as Titus Flavius Josephus and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, do mention Christians, but only in the context as a small movement within the Jewish faith. In addition, during that time period Christians worshiped privately and in secret. They did this not so much because of the Romans, but rather from being persecuted by Jewish leaders. So, it’s not surprising that ancient historians had no idea what the names of the leaders in this new budding religion were.
If Saint Peter being in Rome isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, or in historical writings, then how did this tradition of him being crucified in Rome get started? To answer this we need to turn to the writings of Christian leaders of that time.
Saint Peter in Rome and Early Christian Accounts
In the first three centuries AD it was universally accepted by Christians that Saint Peter, and also Saint Paul, had ministered in Rome and then were martyred there by the Emperor Nero. One of the earliest recorded accounts of Peter’s martyring is the first century apocryphal work, Ascension of Isaiah. In chapter 4:2f, the author writes, “…the king of wickedness who murdered his mother…,” the king being referred to here is Nero, who was the only Roman emperor accused of killing his mother. It goes on to say that one of the 12 apostles will be, “delivered into his hands.” The apostle mentioned here couldn’t be Paul, because he wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles.
The most referred to early Christian leader who writes of Peter being in Rome is Clement I of Rome. Clement lived in Rome at the same time that Peter was supposed to have been there; this would have made him a firsthand witness. In addition, church tradition has Peter, shortly before he was crucified in the Circus of Nero, ordaining Clement as the overseer of the church in Rome. In his first century work, the Epistle of Clement to James, Clement writes to Saint James, one of the original twelve apostles. Clement writes of Peter’s death, “He himself (meaning Peter), by reason of his immense love toward men, having come as far as Rome, clearly and publicly testifying, in opposition to the wicked one… by saving men by his God-inspired doctrine, himself, by violence, exchanged this present existence for life.” Clement also tells of Peter’s death in his Letter to the Corinthians.
Besides the many documented letters by Christian leaders of the first centuries AD, there is another major source supporting Peter in Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Church, who’s had a sometimes contentious relationship with the Church in Rome over theology, has never questioned that the Apostle Peter had indeed been in Rome. Because of their differences, it’s believed that if the Orthodox Church had any doubt what so ever of Peter being there, they would have disputed it.
With such an abundance of early Christian documentation supporting Peter’s ministering and then crucifixion in Rome, why is it so wildly disputed by some? To answer that question we need to look at the time period known as, the Protestant Reformation.
Saint Peter in Rome and the Protestant Reformation
It never ceases to amaze me when I come across little tidbits of historical information, which outwardly seems totally unrelated to the subject I’m writing about, but ends up adding tremendously to the completion of my story. And that’s what happened when I found the unlikely connection between Saint Peter in Rome and the 16th-century European Protestant Reformation.
Historians point to October 31, 1517, as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation movement. That’s when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his “95 Theses” onto the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg Germany. The Protestant Reformation grew from there, with other reformers, as John Calvin and even King Henry VIII of England, added their own insights to this Christian movement.
By the time of the Reformation the Holy Roman Catholic Church had become the controlling voice of Christianity in Europe. So powerful was the Church over its members, that it was inconceivable to ever question the Church’s doctrines. The Protestant Reformation became the first major pushback against those doctrines that the reformers believed were based more on church traditions, rather than on the Bible.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on the two Catholic doctrines which involve Saint Peter being in Rome: the Apostolic Succession and the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome. These two doctrines upset the reformers so much, that it would lead to the protestant’s denial of Saint Peter ever having been in the Eternal City.
Saint Peter in Rome, Apostolic Succession and
the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome
So, what is the doctrine of Apostolic Succession? Apostolic Succession comes from the tradition that while in Rome the Apostle Peter founded what would become the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In addition, this tradition also says that Saint Peter was the first bishop, or pope, of that church. The Apostolic Succession doctrine states, that from Saint Peter all the popes that follow are his successors. And as his successors, they have the Apostle Peter’s authority through the doctrine of “the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.”
So now what’s the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome? This doctrine does have a, somewhat, biblical foundation. It’s linked to what is known as “the Primacy of Saint Peter.” The Primacy of Saint Peter is based on verse 16:18 of the Gospel of Matthew. In this verse it’s believed that Jesus Christ gave primacy, or authority, over His church to Simon Peter. Catholic doctrine states: that since Saint Peter was given authority over the church by Christ, and Peter being the first pope, that authority is then passed to each Pope through the apostolic succession. This authority is the doctrine of the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
It’s the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome that gives the popes their unquestionable and absolute authority over all doctrine of the Catholic Church, and so dictates how Christians practiced their faith. Although the protestant reformers disavowed these doctrines as being non- scriptural, and rejected the primacy of the pope, this connection of the pope’s authority back to one of the twelve apostles, was quite bothersome. For the reformers it would have been better if Saint Peter had never been in Rome at all. So they tried to make that happen.
Saint Peter in Rome and Protestant Prejudice
From what sources I found, in their attempt to separate Saint Peter from these two Catholic doctrines, protestant leaders began a centuries long campaign of aggressively disavowing all writings and documentation, that would put Saint Peter anywhere near Rome, or even in Italy itself for that matter. But was all their rejection of historical records of Saint Peter being in Rome really necessary?
No, not so much. They seemed to have missed the fact that Simon Peter, and the other apostles, including Saint Paul, were actually traveling evangelist. This is supported both historically and scripturally. There’s also another simple reason why Saint Peter couldn’t start a church while he was in Rome. That reason, he wasn’t there long enough. All accounts have him in Rome for just a couple of years, four at the very most, before he was martyred. Not long enough to organize and head a church.
While many Protestants still argue that the Apostle Peter was never in Rome, one protestant theologian and historian disagrees with their attacks and denials. German Lutheran theologian Adolph von Harnack (May 7, 1815 – June 10, 1930) wrote, “To deny the Roman stay of Peter is an error which today is clear to every scholar who is not blind. The martyr death of Peter at Rome was once contested by reason of Protestant prejudice.”
So, if the Protestant denial of Peter being in Rome was to disprove Catholic doctrine; then where did the Catholic Church get these traditions that it was the Apostle Peter who founded their church and was also its first pope. Neither of these traditions is supported in ether scripture or by historians?
Pastor John D. Keyer, presents and intriguing theory to this conflict. In his article “Did the Apostle Peter Ever Visit Rome?” he proposes that there were possibly two Simon Peters in Rome at that time: one, the Apostle and the other, Simon Magus. He suggests that it was actually Simon Magus, not the Apostle, who founded the Church of Rome and became its first pope. He believes that over time, these two Peters may have been confused as being the same person. It’s a very interesting article to read.
So, Was Saint Peter in Rome or Not?
What an interesting and revealing journey I’ve been on, trying to determine if the Apostle Peter was martyred in the Circus of Nero, or even if he was ever in Rome at all. I’ve explored the most often sited reasons given for him not being there. Those reasons being, that it’s not mentioned in the New Testament or even in ancient Roman records that he was ever in that city. But I also found evidence of abundant documentation, written by early church leaders in the first, second and third centuries, telling of Saint Peter’s visit to Rome, and then being put to death there.
But my most amazing discovery, was that this whole “Peter in Rome” controversy may be rooted in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th-century. Could the rejection of Saint Peter in Rome actually been fueled by Protestant leaders, just to disavow Catholic doctrine. And add to that Pastor John D. Keyer’s theory, that perhaps there were two Simon Peters in Rome. All of this provides much food for thought.
So, my personal conclusion is yes, it’s very possible, and very likely, that Peter the Apostle was indeed in Rome and martyred there. But I’d also like to point out, I’m not a theologian, and I only consider myself to be an armchair historian. Most of my research was with online sources, and I’ve cited those sources below, to help you in your own quest to discover, was Saint Peter martyred in the Circus of Nero.
“Apostolic succession.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 18 Jan. 2021, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostolic_succession.
Catholic Answers. “What the Early Church Believed: Peters Primacy.” Catholic Answers, Catholic Aswers, http://www.catholic.com/tract/peters-primacy. Dec. 2020.
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.” Britannica, Encyclopedia Britanncia, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Treatise-on-the-Power-and-Primacy-of-the-Pope. Nov. 2020.
History Channel . “The Reformation.” History.com, History Channel, http://www.history.com/topics/reformation/reformation. Nov. 2020.
“HISTORY OF THE BIBLE-NEW TESTAMENT.” History World, History World, historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlanTextHistoriesResponsive.asp?historyid=aa11. Nov. 2020.
Keyser, John Keyser. “Did the Apostle Peter EVER Visit Rome?” Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH, Hope of Israel Ministries, hope-of-israel.org/petrome.htm. Nov. 2020.
Lewis, Nicola Denzey. “The Apostle Peter in Rome.” BIBLE HISTORY DAILY, Biblical archaeology Society, 25 Apr. 2020, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/pople-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/the-apostle-peter-in-rome/.
Nathan, Peter. “Was Peter Ever in Rome?” VISION, VISION, 2008, http://www.vision.org/was-peter-ever-in-rome-952.
Oakes, John. “What is the evidence that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome?” EVIDENCE FOR CHRISTIANITY, EVIDENCE FOR CHRISTIANITY, 20 Mar. 2010, evidenceforchristianity.org/what-is-the-evidence-that-peter-was-crucified-upside-down-in-rome/.
Petersen, Jonathan. “When Was Each Book of the Bible Written?” BibleGateway Blog, Bible Gateway Blog, 1 Feb. 2016, http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2016/02/when-was-each-book-of-the-bible-written/.
“Primacy of Peter.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Dec. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primacy_of_Peter.
“Primacy Of The Pope.” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcript-and-maps/primacy-pope. Dec. 2020.
“Saint Clement I.” Britannica , Britannica Encyclopedia , http://www.britannica.com/place/Vatican-City. Dec. 2020.
Slick, Matt. “When were the gospels written and by whom.” CARM, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, 8 Dec. 2008, carm.org/about-the-bible/when-were-the-gospels-written-and-by-whom/.
“Tradition Of Peter In Rome.” Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/letters-of-Peter. Nov. 2020.
Wasson, Donald L. “Tacitus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2 June 2020, www,ancient.eu/tacitus.
“When were the Bible books written?” Grace to You, Grace to You, http://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA176/when-were-the-bible-books-written. Nov. 2020.
“When were the Gospels written?” Compelling Truth, Compelling Truth, http://www.compellingtruth.org/when-gospels-written.html. Oct. 2020.