Literature on the early papacy and succession lists

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Puritan Board Freshman
Roman Catholic apologists make a big deal out of the “ancient” nature of their church. But historical scholarship of the last 50-60 years has greatly put a damper on those claims, first in the evolution of the office of bishop, then in terms of the evolution of the office of the bishop of Rome and later the papacy.

Since Reformed believers who are active on blogs and in discussions may come across some of the claims of these Roman apologists, I thought it would be important to provide just an overview of some of the really groundbreaking work I’ve read on the early papacy. This by no means is a comprehensive list, but the authors here are all distinguished in their own fields, and (a) they all seem to agree, and (b) their work supports and builds on each other’s work. There is no one that I am aware of (other than these Roman apologists) who disagree with the conclusions offered by these authors. Even the Roman Catholic “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly the Inquisition, formerly the Holy Office, recently led by Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI) has tacitly agreed with their work and admitted openly that “In the history of the Church, there is a continuity of doctrinal development on the primacy.”

Primacy of Peter

This admission of development is highly significant; as recently as 100 years ago, there was no admission that there was anything but an unbroken line of popes from the earliest ages, all of whom were entitled to “rule” the church in the same way that Peter supposedly was given the total power to “rule”:

Jesus Christ, therefore, appointed Peter to be that head of the Church; and He also determined that the authority instituted in perpetuity for the salvation of all should be inherited by His successors, in whom the same permanent authority of Peter himself should continue. … It was necessary that a government of this kind, since it belongs to the constitution and formation of the Church, as its principal element that is as the principle of unity and the foundation of lasting stability - should in no wise come to an end with St. Peter, but should pass to his successors from one to another. … For this reason the Pontiffs who succeed Peter in the Roman Episcopate receive the supreme power in the church, jure divino. "We define" (declare the Fathers of the Council of Florence) "that the Holy and Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold the primacy of the Church throughout the whole world: and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him, in Blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ to feed, to rule, and to govern the universal Church, as is also contained in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons" (Conc. Florentinum). Similarly the Fourth Council of Lateran declares: "The Roman Church, as the mother and mistress of all the faithful, by the will of Christ obtains primacy of jurisdiction over all other Churches." These declarations were preceded by the consent of antiquity which ever acknowledged, without the slightest doubt or hesitation, the Bishops of Rome, and revered them, as the legitimate successors of St. Peter.


Recent scholarly works on the papacy that I’ve seen are dedicated to reconciling the more recent “development” view of the papacy with such pronouncements as Vatican I and the Satis Cognitum statement just above.

On the other hand, some very unscholarly Roman apologists will just merely assume that the old story is the correct one, and they will ignore the work that Catholic historians have done.

* * *

Probably the first and best of this new work on the papacy is Oscar Cullman’s 1953 work “Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr.” Cullman was a Lutheran and a very ecumenically-minded one at that. He was one of the Protestant observers at Vatican II. Karl Barth joked with him that his tombstone would carry the inscription "advisor to three popes." Cullman provided a detailed study of virtually all of the scriptural and historical information known about Peter. He does consider, exegetically, Peter to be “the Rock” of Matt 16, but comes to these conclusions at the end of the work: There is no basis whatever in any ancient text for the assertion that Rome inherited the legal succession from Jerusalem” (231)

And concerning Clement of Rome, he says: ”it cannot be proved from reliable sources that he received his office from Peter or that he was the leader of the church at large.” (230) Now, you’ll be tempted to say “cannot be proved” doesn’t disprove it. But hold on, I’m not done with Clement yet.

One more thing, regarding “binding and loosing.” Cullman says: this cannot take place in the sense of a limitation to the future occupants of one Episcopal see. This principle of succession cannot be justified either from Scripture or from the history of the ancient church. In reality the leadership of the Church at large is not to be determined by succession in the sense of a link with one Episcopal see. (238)

Somewhat later (1960) came a work by “Daniel Wm. O’Connor,” Professor of Religion of St. Lawrence University, Columbia University Press. In “Peter in Rome” subtitled “The Literary, Liturgical, and Archeological Evidence,” O’Connor traces the pedigree of all the original “succession lists” from Rome.

The oldest of them all is from Hegesippus, who wrote in or around 166. Of course we only have the writings of Hegesippus because some of them are preserved by Eusebius. Hegesippus “claims to have compiled himself” the list of the bishops of Rome. That is, it was not a historical document; it did not exist prior to his arrival there. The reason he compiled it “was purely practical:

Hegesippus mentions that while he was at Corinth, he noticed that the Corinthians had remained in the true doctrine until Primus. Heresy was widespread at Rome, however, under Marcion, Basilides, and Valentinus. Therefore, Hegesippus wished to draw up a bishops’ list to be used in combating these heresies. By demonstrating the authorized channel through which the true doctrine had come down to the present (probably to the period of Eleutherus) from Peter and Paul, he hoped the Roman succession would serve as ‘a guarantee of the unbroken transmission of the original faith.’ (27-28)

O’Connor goes on to say that the names for the list were supplied “with reasonable accuracy” from the memories of those still living. He relies fairly heavily on the work of J.B. Lightfoot, the conservative Anglican bishop of the late 19th century who compiled the works of the “Apostolic Fathers.”

Regarding Peter in Rome, O’Connor gives these four conclusions:

1. Peter did reside in Rome at some time during his lifetime, most probably near the end of his life.
2. He was martyred there as a member of the Christian religion.
3. He was remembered in the traditions of the Church and in the erection of a simple monument near the place where he died.
4. His body was never recovered for burial by the Christian group which later, when relics became of great importance for apologetic reasons, [mistakenly] came to believe that what originally had marked the general area of his death also indicated the precise placement of his grave.

(“Peter in Rome,” 209).

Keep in mind, too, that there was not any such thing as a “monarchical episcopacy” for maybe the first hundred years or more of the church. It evolved over time; many have traced this evolution. It is not in question except by individuals such as these Roman apologists who want to maintain the fantasies of some kind of unbroken succession.

Interestingly, regarding Peter and succession, the Catholic writer Raymond Brown says, “The claims of various sees to descend from particular members of the Twelve are highly dubious. It is interesting that the most serious of these is the claim of the bishops of Rome to descend from Peter, the one member of the Twelve who was almost a missionary apostle in the Pauline sense – a confirmation of our contention that whatever succession there was from apostleship to episcopate, it was primarily in reference to the Puauline tyupe of apostleship, not that of the Twelve." (“Priest and Bishop, Biblical Reflections,” Nihil Obstat, Imprimatur, 1970, pg 72.)

The Catholic historian Paul Johnson goes a bit further than Brown, in his 1976 work “History of Christianity”:

By the third century, lists of bishops, each of whom had consecrated his successor, and which went back to the original founding of the see by one or the other of the apostles, had been collected or manufactured by most of the great cities of the empire and were reproduced by Eusebius…

Eusebius presents the lists as evidence that orthodoxy had a continuous tradition from the earliest times in all the great Episcopal sees and that all the heretical movements were subsequent aberrations from the mainline of Christianity.

Looking behind the lists, however, a different picture emerges. In Edessa, on the edge of the Syrian desert, the proofs of the early establishment of Christianity were forgeries, almost certainly manufactured under Bishop Kune, the first orthodox Bishop.

In Egypt, Orthodoxy was not established until the time of Bishop Demetrius, 189-231, who set up a number of other sees and manufactured a genealogical tree for his own bishopric of Alexandria, which traces the foundation through ten mythical predecessors back to Mark, and so to Peter and Jesus.

Even in Antioch, where both Peter and Paul had been active, there seems to have been confusion until the end of the second century. Antioch completely lost their list; “When Eusebius’s chief source for his Episcopal lists, Julius Africanus, tried to compile one for Antioch, he found only six names to cover the same period of time as twelve in Rome and ten in Alexandria.
-- “A History of Christianity,” pgs 53 ff.)

Going back again in time, it is interesting to note the development of certain “enhancements” to the stories of succession. Of course Irenaeus passes along the whopper suggesting that Peter and Paul founded the church at Rome. He says, “Since it would be too long, in a work like this, to list the successions in all the churches (helpfully provided above by Johnson), we shall take only one of them, the church that is greatest, most ancient, and known to all, founded and set up by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul at Rome …” (Against Heresies, 3.3.2).

Peter and Paul neither “founded” nor “set up” the church at Rome. Paul of course wrote to the Romans in 56 or 58 ad that he had never been there, although the church was existing, thriving, and was attested as early as the Edict of Claudius as early as 49 ad (see Acts 18:2-3), having traveled there from Jerusalem, maybe as early as Acts 2, via the Puteoli-Rome trade routes.

Peter is said to have died in 64 ad, under Nero. There were many legends that Peter arrived at Rome during the reign of Claudius (41-54), and was “bishop” of Rome for 25 years. But Acts 15 places him in Jerusalem and Paul’s letters place him in Corinth and Galatia (not as a leader, but as a missionary) well into the 50’s, long after the church had been “founded” in Rome. Cullman, after a thorough investigation of the historical sources, says that he “became the leader of the Jewish Christian mission; that in this capacity, at a time which cannot be more closely determined but probably occurred at the end of his life, he came to Rome and there, after a very short work, died as a martyr under Nero.” (Cullman, “Peter,” pg. 152) Cullman refuses to discuss the notion that Peter lived in Rome for 25 years, noting that it is so obviously fictitious that it did not merit any serious discussion.

Continuing with the survey of the literature, there is a work by Peter Lampe, a Lutheran NT scholar who later signed a document requesting that Lutherans NOT agree to the 1999 “Joint Declaration on Justification.”

Lampe’s work, “From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries,” was written in 1987 and translated to English in 2003. The Catholic historian Eamon Duffy, said “all modern discussion of the issues must now start from the exhaustive and persuasive analysis by Peter Lampe.” (“Saints and Sinners,” “A History of the Popes,” Yale, 1997, 2001, pg. 421).

Here’s a review of this work, from Oxford’s Journal of Theological Studies:
Reformation500: Review of "From Paul to Valentinus"

“From Paul to Valentinus” is a breathtaking achievement that has already become a classic and will repay careful attention for decades to come from researchers of early Roman Christianity or those seeking a model for writing a social history for other centres of ancient Christianity.

…the scholarly world owes a debt of gratitude to Lampe for presenting so thoroughly and rigorously the primary literature, archaeological data, and epigraphic material relating to ancient Roman Christianity, as well as distilling such a vast secondary literature on ancient Roman Christianity. Lampe shrewdly and expertly argues for his reconstruction of a socially diverse, theologically variegated Roman Christianity, non-centralized until the later second century, and bearing the marks of its domestic origins amongst the urban poor even as it progressively moved through the latter part of the second century into more élite circles. …

The picture that finally emerges from Lampe's analysis of surviving evidence is one he names 'the fractionation of Roman Christianity' (pp. 357–408). Not until the second half of the second century, under Anicetus, do we find compelling evidence for a monarchical episcopacy, and when it emerges, it is to manage relief shipments to dispersed Christians as well as social aid for the Roman poor (pp. 403–4). Before this period Roman Christians were 'fractionated' amongst dispersed house/tenement churches, each presided over by its own presbyter–bishop. This accounts for the evidence of social and theological diversity in second-century Roman Christianity, evidence of a degree of tolerance of theologically disparate groups without a single authority to regulate belief and practice, and the relatively late appearance of unambiguous representation of a single bishop over Rome.

I’ve provided these endorsements from Duffy and JTS because Roman apologists will seek to dismiss the importance of this work in every way they possibly can.

For those of you who are interested in original research into primary source documents, Lampe seems to investigate virtually every piece of paper – every public record, every archaeological investigation, every public record – remaining from, or dating to, that time period. At the end of his investigation, he draws a picture of a “fractionated” church in Rome – a large network of house churches, modeled after the existing Synagogue structure which is known to have existed in that city.

One of the notable things that Lampe does is to analyze the “succession list” offered by Irenaeus in 3.3.2 of his work “Against Heresies.” Lampe connects the dots, and through a thorough comparison of the lists given by Hegesippus and Irenaeus, confirms that Irenaeus relied on the Hegesippus list, which he calls a “fictive construction.” (That is, as I’ve described above, it used names from recent memory in that city, and attributed to them a position on the list.)

Robert Eno, SS (order of the Sulpicians, an order whose mission is to teach Roman Catholic seminarians: "If there were no bishop of Rome [no monarchical bishop at all until about 175], then how can one speak of a Petrine Succession?" (Eno, "The Rise of the Papacy, pg 29.)

What I found to be highly significant is that while Eno carefully traced "the rise" of the papacy, he did not come to any conclusions at the end of his work about the legitimacy of this process. For example, some Catholic writers point to the judgment of the church in deciding these matters, Eno says nothing. The reader is left with Eno's unanswered question.

Roger Collins (Roger Collins | Staff | School of History, Classics and Archaeology | University of Edinburgh) has written a very thorough history of the papacy: Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy (9780465011957): Roger Collins: Books

Collins’s work is called “A definitive and accessible guide”; Collins seems to go even further than Lampe and the others do to say the first person who could possibly have been even a "local bishop" of Rome was Anicetus, 155-160 ad, and that the "office" that was supposed to have been "a permanent principle" and "visible foundation" actually had no basis whatever until perhaps the year 236 when "Fabian (236-250) has been proposed as the first bishop of Rome in the full sense" (14).

Regarding Clement, who is traditionally held to be the author of the letter 1 Clement, Adrian Fortescue (in his 1920 work "The Early Papacy," re-published in 2008) wrote that Clement "commanded" with an authority, "one would almost say with an arbitrary tone, that has not been exceeded by any modern pope."

Michael Holmes, in his "The Apostolic Fathers" (Third edition), describes 1 Clement as a "symbouleutic" (or "deliberative") letter -- "a category widely discussed by ancient rhetoricians and to which 1 Clement closely conforms". It is impossible for this letter to carry "commands." It is a letter written in a form by which a politician seeks to persuade.

In this matter, Collins even goes beyond Lampe, suggesting that Clement was in reality the messenger Clement cited in Hermas -- but he goes into a great bit of detail about how that church, a network of small, scattered house churches employed, as its means of communication, a person who travelled among these churches carrying letters and other messages. Collins says that “Clement of Rome,” the third “pope” on the list, was in reality, this messenger. (He delivered the letter to the Corinthians, thus the letter, which does not name its author, bears the name of Clement.)

This is significant; Collins is not some kind of flaming liberal, with the late dating of these texts. In fact, he holds that Paul actually wrote the Pastoral Letters in his lifetime. But the lateness that he gives to Clement (20 years later than the traditional date) and an even later date given to Ignatius ("it is now generally agreed" that these letters "cannot be dated more precisely than to sometime between AD 125 and 150) make it more than plausible that the "authoritatively commanding" Clement really was no more than the church messenger, the amaneusis whose name became attached to a "symbouleutic" letter.

Beyond that, he goes into some detail about "Irenaeus and Tertullian's apparent rewriting of the history of Christianity in Rome." This is exactly what has been said by the other scholars I have cited, to much ridicule here. "Neither was interested in the history of the Church in Rome for its own sake" (15).

"There was ... no individual, committee or council of leaders within the Christian movement that could pronounce on which beliefs and practices were acceptable and which were not. This was particularly true of Rome with its numerous small groups of believers. Different Christian teachers and organizers of house-churches offered a variety of interpretations of the faith and attracted particular followings, rather in the way that modern denominations provide choice for worshipers looking for practices that particularly appeal to them on emotional, intellectual, aesthetic or other grounds (15-16).

This is not an esoteric or a "liberal" interpretation of history. This is a mainstream historical position.

That is why, for the first time, the Vatican changed its story from "permanent" and "immediately given" to "we are conscious of development of the papacy" in 1996. They are trying to salvage the sinking "barque of Peter." The papacy is built on a foundation of quicksand -- of less than that -- its foundation is nonexistent. It will go down; and thanks to the speed of the Internet, it may go down faster than anyone expects.


Puritan Board Freshman
Hey John, I know this is obscure, but is there a Roman Catholic historian at the University of Chicago that also denies the historicity of apostolic succession? In the mean time, I'll check back with the friend from church who told me.


Puritan Board Freshman
Hi Deborah -- I am not familiar with who you might be talking about. But Catholic scholars in general seem to agree that "the episcopate is the fruit of a post-New Testament development," though they suggest that this development "was so evidently guided by the Holy Spirit that it must be recognized as corresponding to God's plan for the structure of his Church." (Francis Sullivan, "From Apostles to Bishops," pg 230).

My understanding is that (as in the Paul Johnson quote above) just as it was an "expedient" for a mono-episcopal structure to develop, it was also (first noted by Hegesippus and repeated by Irenaeus) that it was an apologetic expedient to claim a succession back to the apostles. But as Johnson relaes, that didn't work out so well in practice.

In other words, these "succession lists" weren't historical -- that is, they weren't consciously kept from the beginning. They were assembled at a later date, from names that were remembered from the past.


Puritan Board Post-Graduate
John you closed your post appropriately when you said "That is why, for the first time, the Vatican changed its story from "permanent" and "immediately given" to "we are conscious of development of the papacy" in 1996. They are trying to salvage the sinking "barque of Peter." The papacy is built on a foundation of quicksand -- of less than that -- its foundation is nonexistent. It will go down; and thanks to the speed of the Internet, it may go down faster than anyone expects."

I hope many cradle Protestants who have become soft on popery in may ways read your post.

The following statement was made by Martin Luther.

"I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture ... I cannot and will not retract ... Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God, Amen."

When you and I and other former Roman Catholics became Presbyterians we made a public confession of faith in a church service and accepted the Westminster standards. I was examined a few weeks before my reception into the Presbyterian church by the Elders. I said in that meeting that I rejected all the traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic church and Roman Catholicism and her pope and as a Protestant I accept, embrace and believe it is Christ alone who is salvation to our souls, not the Church of Rome or the Pope".

I further stated:
I renounce the errors and pretensions of Roman Catholicism and its false teachings and I further disclaim her bishop of Rome, the pope to be the successor of Peter and the head of Christ's church.

I said I believe in the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, the authority of the Bible alone in all matters of faith and practice and that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

I Dudley Davis believe in One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- and I do confess anew the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, and acknowledge Him only as Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body.

I hope many of the cradle Protestants read your post. I think it is an excellent piece and I agree completely the papacy is sinking fast.


Puritan Board Post-Graduate
John There are so many biblical proofs that the papacy is not intended by God.

Matthew 23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

There is no scriptural foundation for the support of the papacy. It is why I am a Reformed Protestant and why I renounced the pope, I know and am sure you also saw the truth

Call no man your father upon earth. Another honorary title given to the pope, "holy father" The scribes delighted to be called Abba, father. So do the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. So do all who welcome such honorary titles as Rev. Right Rev. Lord Bishop, etc. These I now believe are all forbidden. No apostle was ever so called. The early church was riled by Elders, it was Presbyterian, in nature.

It is why Our Westminster Confession of faith so clearly states:
Chapter XXV. Of the Church

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God


Puritan Board Freshman
The following statement was made by Martin Luther.

"I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture ... I cannot and will not retract ... Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God, Amen."

One can imagine what Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers could have done had they had the benefit of this historical research.

My understanding is that it was a common practice in the early church (especially in post-Constantinian times) (a) to glorify fictional, non-Canonical sources (such as the legend that Peter founded the church at Rome and ruled there for 25 years) and also to burn or at least "modify" such sources as, for example, the passage in Irenaeus "Against Heresies," 3.3.2: "it is a matter that every Church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere."

This is one of their primary prooftexts that there was something like an early papacy (c. 180 ad). First, this passage only exists in a Latin translation of the Greek original. That is not enough to disprove that it wasn't in the original, but there are further problems. Second, this is a contested translation of the Latin. Other writers (such as J.N.D. Kelly) provide what they believe is a better, clearer translation of the Latin which suggests that the orthodoxy of the Roman church was maintained not because of anything inherent in itself, but rather, that because it was the center of the empire, that orthodox Christians from all quarters traveled there, and so the Roman church reflected the orthodoxy of the entire empire. See J.N.D. Kelly, "Early Christian Doctrines," pg. 193, where Kelly points out inconsistencies in the language and anachronistic thought that is attributed to Irenaeus.


Puritan Board Freshman
"The papacy is built on a foundation of quicksand -- of less than that -- its foundation is nonexistent. It will go down; and thanks to the speed of the Internet, it may go down faster than anyone expects."

"the papacy is sinking fast"

I'm surprised to hear you guys say this. If the papacy is the antichrist, then it's not going anywhere until the Lord returns. If anything, it will rise again.


Puritan Board Freshman
Louis, I'm fully convinced that the papacy is "antichrist" and even a stronghold of satan. I would suggest that "antichrist" and "the Antichrist" are not identical.

But as an earthly institution, its foundation is quicksand, and nonexistent. And in the same way that the printing press spread the word about "justification by faith alone" at the time of the Reformation, I believe the internet will be a vehicle of communication that enables virtually everyone who cares about this topic to really increase their level of understanding about what the papacy really is.


Puritan Board Freshman
I think you overestimate mankind's capacity for understanding, and vastly underestimate the Roman church.


Puritan Board Freshman
I think you overestimate mankind's capacity for understanding, and vastly underestimate the Roman church.

Well, I can agree with you in this, to some degree. The Reformation didn't happen in a day. It took 50+ years before the Reformed confessions were written. Many years of war. I don't envision an all-of-a-sudden break, in which a Pope steps down and shuts down the Vatican saying "it was all a fake." But I can envision a gradual increase in understanding of the papacy for what it is. And I'd consider that to be a good thing.
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