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EARLY CHRISTIAN HISTORY

AS VIEWED BY ROMAN CATHOLICS

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As described in the "History of the Christian Church" menu, three important beliefs about Christian origins by the Roman Catholic church are:

bulletJesus assigned to Peter the responsibility of establishing the Christian church. Peter traveled to Rome where he was the first pope. At his death, his work was continued by a continuous succession of popes. The 1st century CE popes were:
bulletSt. Peter (30 to 67 CE, approximately)
bulletLinus ( 67 to 76)
bulletCletus (76 to 88) 
bulletClement of Rome (88 to 97)
bulletSt. Evaristus (97 to 105) 1
bulletThe Roman Catholic church was a fully functioning organization with authority centered at Rome, as early as the middle of the 1st century. "History proves that from that time [of Peter] on, both in the East and the West, the successor of Peter was acknowledged to be the supreme head of the [Christian] Church." 2
bulletJesus' Apostles ordained bishops, who in turn ordained the next generation of bishops. This continuous line of ordination, called the apostolic succession, has continued down to the present day. Thus the authority for the ordination of a new bishop today could theoretically be traced back as far as the individual Apostles -- except that accurate records were not kept in the early decades of Christianity.
bulletThe gospel message started in a state of purity. There was a consensus on all beliefs. All of the subsequent heretical movements represented deviations from this initial state.

These beliefs conflict with those of many liberal theologians and religious historians who maintain that:

bulletThe Bible describes Jerusalem as being the initial center of Christianity, with James the brother of Jesus at its head. 
bulletThe book of Acts, Paul's epistles, and others describe Paul as being the main founder and supreme authority of the Gentile churches -- that is of Pauline Christianity. Meanwhile, Jesus' disciples formed the Jewish Christian movement centered in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.
bulletPeter probably did not write any part of the Christian Scriptures (New Testaments). 1 Peter was probably not written by Peter; 2 Peter certainly was not.
bulletAlthough churches are mentioned in the Christian Scriptures (as in Revelation 1:4) they are described as independent groups who met in believers' homes. They were apparently not part of a religious organization that is centrally controlled from Rome.
bulletSiricius, who reigned at the end of the 4th century CE, was the first bishop of Rome to be called pope. 
bulletPope Leo I, who reigned from 440 to 461 CE was the first to claim that the bishop of Rome was highest ranking of the bishops of the church. 
bulletIt took many centuries before the pope could speak for the church. Before that, all decisions affecting Christendom had to be settled by all of the bishops meeting together, as at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.
bulletThe early Pauline congregations were informal faith communities. A formal, hierarchical organization only came much later. 
bulletExcept for the first few years after Jesus' execution, there was no consensus of belief among Christians. The movement was split into many different groups, each teaching different belief system. The main ones were Gnostic Christianity, Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity. Often, there were a number of Christian congregations in the larger cities with competing and conflicting messages.

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Biblical support for Peter's authority to organize the church:

"Catholic Answers - Apologetics & Evangelization," 3 states that "The New Testament contains five different metaphors for the foundation of the Church..." 4 They list five New Testament references: 

bulletMatthew 16:18-19: "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." (King James Version) The Greek word "ekklesia" is translated as church in the King James Version of the Bible. Catholics typically interpret "ekklesia" as referring to a formal church organization. This passage thus assigns Peter the responsibility to begin to assemble a great monolithic religious organization with Peter as its initial head. Many Protestant theologians generally interpret the word as referring to an informal faith community, vaguely similar to today's independent house churches and cell churches. Some liberals interpret this passage as a simple pun without any deeper significance. In Jesus' language, Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic, the word "Cephas" meant both the name "Peter," and the word "rock." Also the word translated as "this" is more accurately translated as "this very." So the 18th verse could  be translated into modern English "...you are Rocky, and upon this very rock I will build my church.
bullet1 Corinthians 3:10-11: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (KJV) This statement by Paul appears to credit himself (and not Peter) as the master builder who has laid the foundation of the church, up on which others are to build further. It contains no reference to Peter's contribution.
bulletEphesians 2:19-22: "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." (KJV) This statement by Paul credits all of the Apostles (presumably including himself) and prophets as forming the symbolic foundation of the church, with Jesus Christ being the main corner stone. Peter appears to be considered as simply one Apostle among equals.
bullet1 Peter 2:2-6: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded." (KJV) The Catholic church doubts that Peter wrote this epistle, and attributes probable authorship to a disciple of Peter, perhaps Silvanus. 5  It says that all believers form part of a "spiritual house, an holy priesthood," with Jesus as cornerstone. The contribution of Peter appears to be as one believer among many equals.
bulletRevelation 21:10-14: "And he [an angel] carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: ...And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." (KJV) The Roman Catholic church teaches that the Apostle John was probably not the author of Revelation. More likely, it was written by a student of John. 6 The author is here describing a vision of the new Jerusalem, which symbolizes the church. It was seen as having the 12 Apostles as its foundation. This again refers to all of the Apostles sharing equally in importance and contribution to the creation of the church. The passage does not indicate who the 12 Apostles are: 
bulletPaul and the original 12 disciples, less Judas, or
bulletThe original 12 disciples, less Judas plus Matthias (chosen in Acts 1).

Matthew 16 appears to be an ambiguous passage that is open to many opposing interpretations. The remaining 4 passages which may refer to the foundation of the church do not give special authority to Peter. They seem to imply that the responsibility to organize and develop the church lay with:

bulletPaul and "others."
bulletall of the Apostles and prophets, with Jesus as cornerstone.
bulletall Christians, with Jesus as cornerstone.
bulletall of the Apostles.

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Non-biblical sources of Peter's authority to organize the church:

There are many early Christian writings which confirm that Peter was given the authority to organize the church. But none appear to have been written earlier than 170 CE, over a century after Peter's death:

bullet170 CE: Tatian the Syrian repeated the contents of Matthew 16 in The Diatesseron, 13
bullet200 CE: Tertullian also referred to Matthew 16 in Demurrer against the Heretics, 22
bullet220 CE: Tertullian made a second reference to Matthew 16 in Modesty 21:9-10
bullet221 CE: Clement refers to Peter being "...set apart to be the foundation of the Church..." in his Letter of Clement to James, 2
bullet221 CE: Clement appears to refer to a conversation between Peter and Simon Magus at Rome in which Peter refers to himself as "...a firm rock, the foundation of the Church." in the Clementine Homilies, 17:19 
bullet248 CE: Origen refers to Peter as "that most solid of rocks, upon which Christ built the Church" in Homilies on Exodus 5:4. 4

The lack of earlier non biblical references might have been due to those writings having been lost. Very few writings survived from that era. An alternative interpretation is that the concept of Peter founding the Christian church in Rome did not develop until after the middle of the 2nd century CE.

There are many early Christian writings which confirm that Peter was recognized by the early church fathers as having a place of primacy among the disciples. But none appear to have been written earlier than about the start of the 3rd century, over 130 years after Peter's death:

bullet200 CE: Clement of Alexandria referred to Peter as: "...the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with himself the Savior paid the tribute..." ("Who is the rich man that is saved?," 21:3-5)
bullet211 CE: Tertullian wrote: "...remember that the Lord left the keys of it to Peter here, and through him to the Church..."  ("Antidote Against the Scorpion," 10).
bullet220 CE: Tertullian also wrote that God said to Peter "Upon you...I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church; and whatever you shall have bound or you shall have loosed, not what they shall have bound or they shall have loosed" (Modesty, 21:9-10). 7

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Were leaders in Rome recognized as the head of the Christian religion? 

Some ancient letters have been cited as proof of a functioning Pope in Rome who controlled all of Christendom. Some date from the late 1st century to the late 2nd century CE.

bullet80 CE:  About 15 years after the executions of Peter and Paul, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. He apparently was recommending that the Corinthians expel "a few rash and self-willed persons" who have promoted "abominable and unholy sedition." He asks the church to "Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret...If anyone disobey the things which have been said by him [God] through us let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger...You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy" (Letter to the Corinthians 1:1, 58:2-59:1, 63:2). He is claiming to know the will of God and the Holy Spirit. He appears to be write the letter as a Christian leader, much like Paul's letters to the same group at Corinth. But, it is not clear whether he is writing as the supreme authority within Christendom, i.e. as the pope. It is worth noting that Clement seems to have written this document some 8 years before the Roman Catholic church believes that he became pope. If the Church is correct in its dates, then Clement did not write the letter as a pope.
bullet80 CE: Hermas wrote "Therefore shall you [Hermas] write two little books and send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, because that is his duty." (The Shepherd 2:4:3). Clement is described as having the responsibilities of a type of corresponding secretary for the churches "abroad." Again, this letter appears to have been written some 8 years before the Roman Catholic church believes that he became pope. 
bullet110 CE: Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter "...to the church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father" (Letter to the Romans 1:1). Ignatius seems to view Christendom as being composed of a number of churches of which the one at Rome is the most important; it holds "the presidency." It makes sense that the Roman congregation would be considered the principal  Christian church, early in the 2nd century. It was located at Rome, which was the economic, cultural, educational, and political center of the known world. However, Ignatius' letter says nothing about a single individual, a pope, within the Roman congregation controlling the rest of the the churches.

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The Apostolic Succession:

From the 3rd century onwards, there is a consensus within the Roman Catholic church that each generation of bishops were ordained by previously ordained bishops. The church teaches that the original bishops were ordained by the Apostles, who in turn had been ordained by Jesus. 8 This continuous, unbroken line of ordination from Jesus to modern-day bishops is called the "Apostolic Succession."

We have only been able to locate one quotation prior to 180 CE which mentions the Apostolic Succession:

bullet80 CE: Clement of Rome wrote: "Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops (episkopoi) and deacons (diakonoi) of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier....they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry." (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5 and 44:1-3). 8

In the third and later centuries, there were numerous references to the Apostolic Succession. For example:

bulletCirca 260 CE: Firmilian wrote: "Christ breathed upon the Apostles alone, saying to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive any man his sins they shall be forgiven, and if you retain any man's sins they shall be retained.' The power of forgiving sins was given to the apostles and the churches which these men, sent by Christ, established and to the bishops who succeeded them by being ordained in their place." (Epistle to Cyprian, 75:16).

Whether there were any bishops (in the modern meaning of that term) in the 1st century CE is a topic of debate among theologians.

Paul "behaved as the supreme authority under God and Christ for the Gentile churches." 9 But theologians do not agree about the early congregations' leadership structure.  Paul and Clement used Greek terms like:

bullet"Episkopoi" - which has been variously translated as bishop, church leader, overseer, pastors, presiding elders
bullet"Diakonoi" - which has been variously translated as deacons, helpers, aides. 

But their exact roles and levels of authority are not defined, and can only be guessed at. 

"The idea that a spiritual gift is imparted at ordination first appears in 1 Timothy 4:14 [&] 2 Timothy 1:6..." 9 Unfortunately, there is no consensus on who wrote these books and when they were written:

bulletThe Catholic Church teaches that the letters to Timothy "were written early...the first perhaps as early as...48 [CE], and the second about ten or twelve years later..." 13
bulletMany conservative Protestants frequently believe that Paul wrote them early in the 7th decade CE (perhaps during the years 62 to 64). 
bulletMost liberals say that the author(s) are unknown and that the books were written much later, in the first half of the 2nd century. 

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References:

  1. R.C. Broderick, ed., "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Nelson, (1987), Page 479
  2. "Peter - or - Christ -- the Rock?" at: http://www.netacc.net/
  3. "Catholic Answers - Apologetics & Evangelization," at: http://www.catholic.com/ 
  4. "Peter the Rock," at: http://www.catholic.com/
  5. R.C. Broderick, op cit, Pages 473 to 474.
  6. R.C. Broderick, op cit, Page 526.
  7. "The Primacy of Peter," at: http://www.catholic.com/
  8. "Apostolic Succession," at: http://www.catholic.com/
  9. S.E. Johnson, "The New Testament and the Christian Community," essay in C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's one-volume commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press (1991), Page1120 &1121. 
  10. The Beggar King homepage at: http://webusers.anet-stl.com/ 
  11. "Biblical evidence for Catholicism" at: http://ic.net/ 
  12. "Probing questions for Evangelicals," at: http://www.angelfire.com/
  13. R.C. Broderick, Ed., "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Nelson, (1987), Page 579 & 580.

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Copyright 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-SEP-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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