The papacy is 1600 years old, not 2000 years old

In news accounts concerning the upcoming retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and a new papal conclave, one way to check to see if the particular news outlet you are watching had actually checked its facts is if it maintains that the papacy is a 2000 year old institution.

In fact, the overwhelming preponderance of scholarship on the topic – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – affirm that “the papacy” was a late development in the history of the church.

While it is almost universally acknowledged that Peter was an important Apostle, a friend of Jesus of Nazareth and an eyewitness to his life, death, and resurrection, it cannot be said that he was “bishop of Rome” in any meaningful sense, nor can it be said that he had “successors”.

In fact, the Roman Catholic writer Klaus Schatz, in his work “Papal Primacy, From its Origins to the Present”, (the Order of St. Benedict, Inc, Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book published by The Liturgical Press, 1996), makes the following statement:

It is clear that the Roman primacy was not a given from the outset; it underwent a long process of development whose initial phases extended well into the fifth century (pg 36).

How do we account, then, for the notion that “the papacy extends all the way back to Peter? One key reason given may be termed “pious romance”. As Eamon Duffy says, in his work, “Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes,” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 2001), though tradition is fairly certain that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero, nothing else is known, and remaining details, often supplied in the second and third centuries, were “pious romance” – works of fiction that were created to fill in some missing details:

These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church — Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (Duffy, pg 2.)

Yet another writer, Daniel William O’Connor “Peter in Rome: the literary, liturgical, and archeological evidence”, (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969), describes in this exhaustively detailed work, that the early church was so eager for details that within one hundred years after the deaths of these Apostles, it created the full accounts which are found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Paul, and other Apostles.

7 thoughts on “The papacy is 1600 years old, not 2000 years old

  1. That’s interesting, John. But so much depends on the definition. If we allow for “unbroken” succession to be our guide then, after starting in the 2nd or 3rd century the papacy stopped in the 14th or 15th with the popes chosen by the aristocratic families of Rome. If “bishop of Rome” is the criteria, then the papacy ceased with the Avignon papacies. It’s unfortunate for those who try to uphold the dogmatic pronouncements of Rome.

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  2. Hey Paul — I understand. I think the larger contention I would like to make is to say that there was no “divine institution”. That’s an important distinction for Lutherans. Then, in that case, the leadership structure (whatever it was — and we know it became an episcopacy, based on succession), with no “divine institution”, was rightly cast off at the time of the Reformation.

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  3. I am not a religious scholar by any means, but quite interested in much of religious history and I read quite a few of your posts, especially the ones on Catholicism and the popes. I don’t understand the last paragraph and the book mentioned is not available from the link. What were the “full accounts” the paragraph referrs to? And, are the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, the Acts in the Bible?

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  4. Hi Lauren, I suppose I could have been more clear about that. I was pressed for time and wanted to get that posted.

    A tremendous amount of fictional and even forged literature sprung up around the Apostles and others; while the Biblical “Acts of the Apostles” was said to have been written in the early 60s AD. There were “Acts of Peter”, “Acts of Paul”, “Acts of Paul and Thecla”, and others — all fictional, and all written in the late second or early third centuries. And in some cases, these phony “Acts” were cited favorably and passed along by (as Duffy says) Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, and others.

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  5. Thank you, and of course I should have known the Acts in the Bible are the Acts of the Apostles. I am a Unitarian Universalist, by the way. I’m wondering if you can answer another question……Off this particular topic…..I have read that most of the new RC converts are from developing countries. I spent some time in Guatemala and was fascinated by the Maya religion with a Catholic veneer. Am wondering if it is similar in the new converting countries, that are counted as Catholic, but really are not so much? And, do you think the Vatican is just ignorant of this reality, or what? I also wonder how much longer the Vatican will last and whether it will slowly die, or implode. Any thoughts?

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    1. Lauren, I’m not all that familiar with what’s going on in Latin America. Of course, Roman Catholicism is highly syncretistic. That is, it absorbs local cultures and incorporates many disparate practices and beliefs into itself (think of the Roman pantheon of gods being transformed into the cult of the saints in the fourth century).

      I don’t think the Vatican is “ignorant” of such things — perhaps they don’t know just how disparate the beliefs and practices are that are coming in in “the global south”. I don’t think the Vatican will “implode” — the culture and bureaucracy within it are very well defined and it still has a lot of money. Those factors alone will give it life for some time. Now, as more and more people begin to find that it is irrelevant …

      Right now I’m reading a good book by Alister McGrath on the history of Protestantism — Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. McGrath talks about the Protestant strength, of being able to adapt to different times and cultures while retaining its dependence on “Scripture alone” as a guiding principle.

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