You know by now that Benedict XVI has abdicated the papacy and the college of Cardinals have been preparing to elect a new pope. on Tuesday they are set to begin the process of actually electing a new pope. Over the next few days, news coverage will be intense and, until a pope is elected and if coverage follows the usual pattern, we will likely witness reporters standing outside the Vatican breathlessly saying or implying that this is the way things have been since the 1st century. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. As a matter of history, the papacy is a collection of myths.
Our word “myth” is derived from the Greek word muthos (μυθος). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in English usage, “myth” denotes a
traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.
This sense of the word “myth” partly captures what I mean by it here. The papacy is largely the result of a long series of practical and political developments that have been cloaked in the fabric of piety and supernaturalism. In that sense the current papacy invokes a myth involving supernatural explanations of the papacy when there are perfectly natural, historical explanations.
The OED adds a layer of explanation as it begins to list a series of definitions:
a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.
This captures exactly what I mean by myth in this context. There is a widespread but untrue story about the papacy. It is partly the result of assumptions but it is partly the result of a grossly anachronistic story told by Romanist apologists.
The historical truth is that the papacy as we know it today did not begin to exist until Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440–61. In fact, the pope has not always been “the Pope.” There is absolutely no evidence in the Book of Acts that Peter had primacy among the apostles. Indeed, if we consider that Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch for denying the gospel (apparently “Peter” never learns), then the very notion of an unbroken succession of Petrine popes speaking infallibly from from a divinely instituted throne seems most unlikely indeed.
Though it is indeed possible and, depending upon how one reconstructs the patristic histories, even probable that Peter was in Rome, when the apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome he made no mention of Peter, who, on this reconstruction, was in Rome under Claudius 14 years before. Were Peter regarded as primus inter pares (first among equals) then we would expect some recognition of that status but there is none nor do we find any such recognition in the rest of the NT. It’s at least possible that other NT documents were written to the congregation at Rome and yet there is no recognition of Peter’s alleged primacy. He certainly did not assert any such primacy in the two epistles under his name. In the gospel of Mark, likely written as a follow-on to his visit to Rome and closely associated with his ministry, gives not a hint of Petrine primacy.
The case for the papacy in the 2nd century (from 100 AD) is just as weak. There is no evidence in the so-called Apostolic Fathers (a somewhat arbitrary, if illuminating and important collection of texts from the early to mid-2nd century) that they regarded Peter as the first pope. Terrence Smith says, “There is an astonishing lack of of reference to Peter among ecclesiastical authors of the first half of the second century.”1
Robert Eno says,
The evidence (Clement, Hermas, Ignatius) points us in the direction of assuming that in the first century and into the second, that there was not bishop of Rome in the usual sense given to that title. The office of the single mon-episcopos was slowly emerging in the local Christian communities around the Mediterranean world.2
This is what one finds in the Apostolic Fathers. Because Patristic texts have sometimes been translated under what we might call an “Episcopal assumption,” i.e., under the assumption that when a text says “Episcopos” (επισκοπος) it signals a single, centralized regional manager of the church, we are sometimes left with a misimpression. If, however, we read the Apostolic Fathers in context it quickly appears that we cannot read into “episcopos” the later monepiscopal office and authority.
There was a variety of church governments in the second century. There is good evidence for a variety of ecclesiastical structures in the second century. Three offices are mentioned consistently, episcopos, presbyter, and deacon. These are often used in a non-hierachical sense and the plurality of presbyters is not uncommon.
Gradually, however, in the face of the pressure of persecution, through the third century the churches began to gather around pastors in leading cities (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem) and those pastors began to exert more authority in the organization of the church. The rise of a bishop-centered polity, where a regional pastor exercised authority over local pastors and elders, was a pragmatic, development that modeled itself not on the New Testament pattern but on the prevailing pattern of (Roman) civil government. This, by the way, is yet another reason why Christians need to think carefully, historically, and intelligently about the problem of Christ and culture. When imitate the surrounding culture, when we fail to criticize the influence of the culture in the church, and when we baptize the prevailing culture—under whatever pretense—it has typically not gone well for the church.
The papacy as we know it today is a medieval creature. It did not exist in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, or even the sixth. It was Damasus I, who served 366–84, who first asserted the title “Pope” (Papa) and there was nothing like the papacy as we know it until Gregory I, who was in office from 590–604. As we will see in the series the power and influence of the papacy grew, gradually, by steps until the early 14th century, when, in 1302, in the papal decree (Unam Sanctam) the papacy asserted its primacy against Philip of France. That was likely the highpoint of genuine papal authority and the beginning of a long, ugly decline.
It seems likely that, if the college of cardinals (a medieval development), elects a pope, it will likely be the cardinal protodeacon who announces “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”). That announcement is symbolic of the myth of the papacy. Reporters intone about the ancient rituals, about St Peter’s Basilica, as if things have always been this way. It just isn’t so, however. During this week of March-Papal-Madness, I’ll try to add some historical perspective.
1. Terrence V. Smith, Petrine Controversies in Early Christianity: Attitudes Towards Peter in Christian Writings of the First Two Centuries (Tübingen: Mohr, 1985), 174 cited in Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papcy (Eugene: W & S, 1990), 15.
2. Eno, Ibid, 29.