The Epistles of Peter

By E. H. Plumptre

From the Book The General Epistles of St. Peter & St. Jude

Life of St Peter. The Traditions and Legends of the Church.


It will be convenient, I think, to give in the first place the "Legend of St Peter" in the form in which it has been received at Rome for some thousand years or more1, and then to enquire how far it contains any elements that may fairly be treated as historical. It may be premised that its chronology is based on the assumption that the Crucifixion took place A. D. 29.

In A. D. 33 St Peter, it is said, left Jerusalem for Antioch and founded the Church there, and after staying for seven years, appointed Euodius, or, according to another version, Ignatius, as his successor. During this period, however, he travelled on his Apostolic work, and so chanced to be at Jerusalem when St Paul came there from Damascus in A. D. 37 (Gal. i. 18). His wife travelled with him, but they lived together as bound by a vow of perpetual continence, and his daily diet was limited to a small quantity of lupines or other vegetables. During this period also he preached the Gospel to the Churches to whom his first Epistle is addressed, i.e. he reached the Northern and Western shores of the Black Sea. In A.D. 40 after the death of James the son of Zebedee (according to one form of the legend, after that of the Mother of the Lord, for which they had waited), the Twelve Apostles separated. Each contributed an Article of the Creed, St Peter giving the first, as their future bond of union, and as they divided the provinces of the Empire between them, he chose Rome, and accordingly made his way there, and be came the founder and first Bishop of its Church. He reached the imperial city in A.D. 40, and returned to Jerusalem in time to share in the persecution under Herod Agrippa. On his miraculous deliverance from prison he returned to Rome, and this accordingly was the "other place" of Acts xii. 17. The decree of Claudius, however, drove him and the other Jews from Rome in A. D. 49, and so, returning to Jerusalem, he was present at the Council held there in A.D. 51. During his stay at Rome he became acquainted with Philo, the Jew of Alexandria, and converted him to the faith in Christ. On leaving Jerusalem after the Council he revisited Antioch, and there encountered St Paul's rebuke, either (as Augustine thought) accepting it meekly, or (as Jerome held) arranging the whole scene before hand with his brother Apostle so that the lesson might be more vividly and dramatically impressed on the minds of the spectators. His Epistles, before he left or after his return to Rome, were written about this time (A.D. 45 55), and the Babylon from which he wrote was not the city on the Euphrates but the capital of the Empire under its mystical, symbolic name. On his return his work took a wider range. He had before lived among his own people in the Transtiberine quarter of the city appropriated to the Jews. Now he was received into the house of the Senator Pudens on the Viminal Hill, and baptized him and his two daughters Praxedis and Pudentiana. Two churches in that quarter dedicated to them as S. Prassede and S. Pudenziana preserve the memory of this tradition, and the substructures of the latter are identified with the house in which the Apostle lived for many years. At Rome, how ever, he encountered once more his old foe and rival, Simon the sorcerer of Samaria. According to the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions (apocryphal Ebionite books of the second century) they had met and disputed in the mean time at Caesarea, at Tyre, at Sidon and at Berytus. Simon, worsted in all these conflicts, found his way to Rome and gained by his magic arts the favour of the Emperor Nero. The years passed on, and Peter was still at Rome when tidings reached him that his brother Apostle, whom he had not met since their dispute at Antioch, had landed at Puteoli. The Roman Christians who met St Paul at Appii Forum and the Three Taverns were sent by Peter. They worked together as friends and brothers. He preached the Gospel over all Italy and other provinces of the West. Together or separately they be- came the founders of the British Church. They were together when Simon the Sorcerer, as if counterfeiting an Ascension like that of Christ, declared to the Emperor that he would fly up towards Heaven, and by their united prayers they defeated the demons who were helping the impostor, and so he fell to the ground and came to a shameful end. It was partly in consequence of this, as well as to turn aside the suspicion of being implicated in the great fire of Rome, that Nero began his persecution of the Christians. The disciples urged Peter to flee, and he left the city by the Appian Way. A little way beyond the Porta Capena (now the Porta S. Sebastiano), the modern Church known as "Doming quo vadis?" records the vision that turned him back. He saw his Master's form and he asked, "Lord, whither goest Thou?" and from His lips there came the words "I go to Rome to be crucified yet again." The Apostle felt the rebuke, turned his steps back, and was soon afterwards taken and thrown into the Tullianum, or Mamertine prison. There, in what is now the crypt-like chapel of S, Pietro in Carcere, he converted his gaolers, and a spring of fresh water burst out of the ground that he might baptize them. The day of execution came and the two Apostles were led out of the city on the Ostian Way. A small Oratory marks the place where they bade each other their last farewell. St Paul was led on to the spot now known as the The Fontane and beheaded. St Peter, whose wife had suffered martyrdom before him, and had been strengthened by his exhortations, was taken to the height of the Janiculum or Transtiberine region, and on the spot now marked by a small circular chapel in the churchyard of S. Pietro in Montorio, suffered the punishment which the Romans inflicted on slaves and outlaws and barbarians, and was nailed to the cross. He desired, in the intensity of his humility, something that would make his death more ignominious and shameful than his Master's, and at his own request he was crucified head downwards. So at last he gained the Martyr's crown, and ended the twenty-five years of his Episcopate, those "years of St Peter" which by a singular chance have never been equalled by any of his successors, till the fisherman's ring was worn and the chair of Peter filled by a Pontiff (Pius IX.) who arrogated to himself more dogmatically than any who preceded him had done, the full in heritance of the Apostle's supremacy and infallibility. When all was over, the body was interred in the Catacombs outside the city on the Appian Way, probably in those known as the Catacombs of S. Callistus. After they had remained there for a year and a half, they were removed, probably by Jewish converts who inhabited the Transtiberine region to which the ground belonged, to the Ager Vaticanus. In the crypt of the "Confession" of the stately Temple which bears his name, and in which we find the remains of the older Basilica erected in his honour by Constantine, the tomb of the Apostle still attracts the reverence of the faithful, and they pass from it to the marble chair in which he is reported to have sat.

We ask as we read this elaborate narrative on what evidence does it rest. The silence of Scripture, though it cannot, of course, prove that it is baseless, is at least a presumption that it is so. and requires to be balanced by proportionately weighty proof. It is not in the nature of things probable that neither St Luke, in a history which ends in Rome, nor St Paul, in the Epistles which he writes both to and from that city, should have given the slightest hint as to such events as these, had they really come within their knowledge, and that they should have occurred and not come within their knowledge is, it may be said, simply incredible. The conjecture that the "other place" of Acts xii 17 was Rome, is against all the probabilities of the case, and the assumption that the Apostle anticipates the mystic and apocalyptic application of the name of Babylon cannot be said to rest on any adequate grounds, though it is not absolutely incredible (see notes on 1 Pet. v. 13).

Turning to evidence outside the books of the New Testament it is unsatisfactory, to say the least, that the statements become fuller and more definite in proportion as we recede from the time when the events are said to have occurred. Clement of Rome (i. 5) speaks of Peter as having "borne his witness and gone to the place of glory that was due to him," but though he speaks of Paul's labours as having carried him to the "furthest bounds of the West," and of his "having borne his witness before the prefects (or rulers)," is silent as to the extent of Peter's labours or the scene of his death. It may be conceded, however, that this would not be an unnatural way of referring to the event if he assumed it to be as well known to his readers as it was to himself. Ignatius writing to the Romans (c. 4) says incidentally "I do not command you, as Peter and Paul might do," but it is a precarious inference from this that he names them because they had suffered martyrdom at Rome. Papias (circ. A.D. 150) is referred to but not quoted, by Eusebius (H. E. 11. 15) as stating that Peter's teaching was the basis of St Mark's Gospel, and that it was written for the disciples at Rome. Clement of Alexandria (to whom Eusebius also refers as an authority for the same statement) names Peter's parting counsel to his wife but says nothing as to the time or place of their martyrdom (Strom, vii. 11). The earliest statement with any approach to definiteness is that of Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth (quoted by Eusebius (H. E. II. 25), in his letter to the Roman Church in which he speaks of it as having, as the Corinthians had, a common interest in the teaching both of Peter and of Paul. "Both came to our Corinth and planted us as a Church there, both taught in Italy, and bore their witness at the same time." Irenaeus, in like manner (iii. 1. 3), speaks of the Church at Rome as having been founded by both Apostles and of both taking part in the appointment of Linus. Caius a presbyter of Rome (circ. A.D. 210) is quoted by Eusebius as speaking of the monuments (τροπαῖα) of the Apostles as being one in the Vatican and the other on the Ostian Way, which agrees with the popular tradition. Tertullian (circ. A.D. 210, de Praescr. c. 36) assumes as a known fact that Peter and Paul had both suffered at Rome. He also assumes that St John had been there and had escaped unhurt from a caldron of boiling oil. In a passage not found in his extant writings but quoted by Eusebius (H. E. II. 25) he, like Caius, appeals to the inscription on their tombs (coemeteria) as shewing the manner of their deaths. Origen and Cyprian are silent on the matter. The "Domine quo wadis?" story appears first in Ambrose (Serm. 68, but it is doubtful whether it is really by Ambrose and is not included in the Benedictine edition of his works).

The most that can be said of this evidence is that it leaves it fairly probable that St Peter ended his life at Rome. Of the twenty-five years of his Episcopate and of his having thus been the first of the long line of Pontiffs there is not the shadow of any evidence till we come to Eusebius himself, who states (H. E. II. 14) that Peter followed Simon Magus to Rome in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41) and there defeated him. He does not give the details of the defeat but wraps them in a vague rhetoric. The true sources of the Petrine legend are accordingly not to be found in the early Fathers of the Church, nor in any local tradition of an earlier date than the latter part of the second century. We find their starting-point, however, elsewhere, in the elaborate Apocrypha of the Ebionite heretics, the successors of the Judaising, Cephas-party of the Apostolic age. There, in the Clementine Homilies, we find him journeying to Caesarea and Tyre and Sidon and Byblus and Tripolis and Laodicea and Antioch, and at well-nigh every place entering into elaborate discussions with Simon the Sorcerer. There, in the romance known as the Recognitions (practically a replica of the Homilies) we have Simon's journey to Rome (III. 74, 75) and Peter's intention to follow on his track and defeat him. In the still later Acts of Peter and Paul, the narrative opens with Peter's residence at Rome, tells how he sent messengers to meet Paul, and gives in full the legend of Simon's flight and fall, of Peter's downward crucifixion, of the Domine quo vadis vision, of the burial in the Vatican, near the spot where naval combats used to be exhibited. It is, of course, difficult to say how far the last-named book embodied and embellished a pre-existent tradition, how far it was the basis of a new tradition, but it is not without significance that the claims of the Bishops of Rome as heirs of the supremacy of Peter, and the legends on which those claims rest, are an inheritance not from the authentic teaching of the Apostles or the Apostolic Church, but from the Ebionite heretics whom she condemned.



1) I take Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints as representing the Roman tradition in a fairly authoritative form, quoting other authorities as occasion may require.