Was Peter the First Pope?
Is Peter the rock on which Christ built his church? What are the keys that Jesus gave to Peter? Were the keys handed down to successors? Did Peter claim to be the first pope? Did he act like a pope? Here are the answers form God’s own Word.
HONEST-HEARTED persons do not object to an examination of the pope’s titles “Vicar of Jesus Christ” and “Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles.” Are they Scriptural? Priests refer any inquirer to Jesus’ words at Matthew 16:18, 19 in the Catholic Douay Bible: “I say to 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 to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Does this mean, as the Roman Catholic Church claims, that Jesus appointed Peter the head of his church and the first pope?
To understand what Jesus meant it is well to examine, with the benefit of an accurate, modern translation of the Bible, Jesus’ words and their context. One day, while Jesus and his apostles were in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them: “Who are men saying the Son of man is?” The various answers people gave were wrong. So Jesus asked his apostles: “You, though, who do you say I am?” Simon Peter was quick with an answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To this Jesus replied: “I say to you, You are Peter [Petros, ‘a stone,’ in the masculine gender], and on this rock-mass [Greek, petra, ‘a rock-mass,’ in the feminine gender] I will build my congregation.”—Matt. 16:13-18, NW.
What readily becomes apparent is this: the rock on which Christ built his church is not the same original Greek word that Jesus used when he referred to Peter. Petros, the name Jesus gave Peter, is in the masculine gender and means a movable stone, a piece of rock; but petra, the rock on which the church is built, is in the feminine gender and means a “rock-mass.” If Jesus had meant for Peter to be the head of his church he would have said the obvious: “You are Petros and on this Petros I will build my church.’ But Jesus never said that! Nor did he say: “You, Peter, will build my church.” Rather, Jesus said: “I will build my church.” Who, then, is this petra, the “rock-mass,” upon which Christ builds his church?
THE ROCK-MASS IDENTIFIED
To “make sure of all things,” as the Bible says we must, it is vital to search the Scriptures to find out how Peter himself understood Jesus’ words. Did Peter really think he was the petra, the rock-mass foundation? On the contrary! He understood that foundation to be Christ himself: “Then Peter, filled with holy spirit, said to them: ‘ . . . in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you impaled but whom God raised up from the dead, by this one does this man stand here sound in front of you. This is “the stone which was treated by you builders as of no account that has become chief cornerstone”.’”—1 Thess. 5:21; Acts 4:8-12, NW.
If Peter was the rock on which the church was built, he certainly would have known it; and if he knew it he would have made that powerfully clear in his own epistles. But even in his own writings Peter never calls himself pope or speaks of himself as the head of the church. Rather, he identifies Christ as the rock-mass foundation: “Coming to him as to a living stone, rejected, it is true, by men, but chosen, precious, with God, you yourselves also as living stones are being built up a spiritual house for the purpose of a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . It is to you, therefore, that he is precious, because you are believers; but to those not believing, ‘the identical stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,’ and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock-mass of offense’.”—1 Pet. 2:4-8, NW.
Peter recognized himself as only one of the living stones that make up the Christian church. True, being an apostle of Jesus Christ, Peter was in the foundation of the Christian church: “The wall of the city also had twelve foundation stones, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” But no Bible writer names Peter as the head of the church. Not a literal building, the church is a spiritual temple made up of 144,000 living stones, who form the bride of Christ, the Christian congregation. That Christ is the head of the congregation the Bible provides abundant testimony. Declared the apostle Paul concerning Christ: “He is the head of the body, the congregation.” And again: “You have been built up upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, while Christ Jesus himself is the foundation cornerstone.”—Rev. 21:14; Col. 1:18; Eph. 2:20, NW.
If there was any doubt remaining as to the identity of the rock-mass, it would be utterly shattered by the apostle’s words at 1 Corinthians 10:4 (NW), which make unmistakably clear the identity of petra, the rock-mass: “They used to drink from the spiritual rock-mass which followed them, and that rock-mass [Greek, petra] meant the Christ.”
So when Jesus spoke those words at Matthew 16:18, he meant that he himself, the one who had just been identified by Peter as the Messiah, was the rockmass foundation on which the Christian congregation would be built.
When did the doctrine that Peter is the head of the church and that he supposedly has successors begin? It was established in the Roman Catholic Church in the Nicene Creed, A.D. 325 and 381. But the pure, uncorrupted Christians living in the days of the apostles never knew such a doctrine. Indeed, up till the fourth century professed Christians did not hold to such a teaching. When the Austrian Roman Catholic bishop Joseph Strossmayer made his speech before the college of cardinals in 1870, the time when the dogma of the infallibility of the pope was discussed, he made that point clear:
“Of all the doctors of Christian antiquity St. Augustine occupies one of the first places for knowledge and holiness. Listen then to what he writes on his second treatise on the first epistle to St. John: ‘What do the words mean, I will build my church on this rock? On this faith, on that which said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ In his treatise on St. John we find this most significant phrase—‘On this rock which thou hast confessed I will build my church, since Christ was the rock.’ The great bishop believed so little that the church was built on St. Peter that he said to the people in his thirteenth sermon, ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock (petra) which thou hast confessed, on this rock which thou hast known, saying, Thou art Christ the Son of the living God, I will build my church—upon Myself, who am the son of the living God: I will build it on Me, and not Me on thee.’ That which St. Augustine thought upon this celebrated passage was the opinion of all Christendom in his time [about 400 A.D.].”
KEYS OF THE KINGDOM
What, though, of the keys that Jesus gave to Peter? Do they prove that Peter was the first pope? To answer we need to know what the keys were. A key is used Scripturally to represent the privilege of unlocking hidden truths. For example, the scribes and Pharisees were duty-bound to explain the truths of God’s Word to the people, but they failed to do this; even worse, they took away from the people the opportunity to understand. So Jesus said of those religious leaders: “Woe to you who are versed in the Law, because you took away the key of knowledge.” The keys that Jesus gave Peter, then, are not literal, but they symbolize or represent the unlocking of the knowledge of opportunity of entering into the kingdom of heaven.—Luke 11:52, NW.
The knowledge that Christ was to have a heavenly kingdom and that 144,000 from among mankind would reign with him in his kingdom was for long a secret. But at Pentecost, A.D. 33, God through Christ used Peter to unlock the meaning of the sacred secret to the Jewish believers. Thus Peter, being directed by heaven, unlocked the meaning of “the sacred secret which was concealed from the past systems of things and from the past generations.”—Col. 1:26, NW.
For three and a half years the apostles preached the gospel to the Jews exclusively. Then the time came for Peter to use the second key. This was A.D. 36. Heaven directed Peter to go to the home of the Roman soldier Cornelius, a Gentile, to explain the good news. Cornelius and his family believed. And to the surprise of the Jewish Christians God’s holy spirit was poured out on non-Jewish believers: “While Peter was yet speaking about these matters the holy spirit fell upon all those hearing the word. And the faithful ones that had come with Peter who were of those circumcised were amazed, because the free gift of the holy spirit was being poured out also upon people of the nations.” And the “sacred secret” had vital meaning for people of the nations for the first time. For now the door of opportunity to enter into the heavenly kingdom was open to people of any nation. “In other generations this secret was not made known to the sons of men as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by spirit, namely, that people of the nations should be joint heirs and fellow members of the body and partakers with us of the promise in union with Christ Jesus through the good news.”—Acts 10:44, 45; Eph. 3:5, 6, NW.
So Peter was blessed with the privilege of unlocking the door of opportunity into the heavenly kingdom, first to the Jews and then to the non-Jews. Said Peter: “Brothers, you well know that from early days God made the choice among you that through my mouth people of the nations should hear the word of the good news and believe.”—Acts 15:7, NW.
Notice Peter’s words: “God made the choice among you.” Always God through Christ directed matters. Never did Peter have the prerogative to teach whatever he felt was right to teach. Heaven directed all of Peter’s moves. Said Jesus: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you may bind on earth will have been bound in the heavens, and whatever you may loose on earth will have been loosed in the heavens.” Peter had the power to teach only what was already loosed in heaven by Christ. In other words, Peter was not to formulate any teaching of his own, but must wait for Christ to loose it in heaven. So Peter’s receiving of the keys never gave him absolute supremacy over the church in the matter of teaching.—Matt. 16:19, NW.
Moreover, once Peter used the keys, there was no further use for them.
NO RESEMBLANCE TO ANY POPE
If Peter had been the first pope, would he not have known it? Yet never once did he call himself “Supreme Pontiff” or pope. Nowhere in his writings did he claim supremacy, infallibility or the right to have a successor. On subjects so important as this it is unthinkable that Peter would remain silent.
If Peter was the vicar of Jesus Christ, how is it that he never acted like a pope? Peter never established himself in a sumptuous residence. He never hired a small army of soldiers to guard him. He never dressed in clothes drastically different from his brothers. He never had himself carried about by his brothers on a papal chair similar to one used by Egyptian kings. Why did he never act like a pope? Because he obeyed Jesus’ command: “Do not call anyone your father on earth, for One is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders’, for your Leader is one, the Christ.”—Matt. 23:9, 10, NW.
Peter had ample opportunity to act as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church does, but he never did. When Peter used the second key and brought Jehovah’s way of salvation to Cornelius, the Bible account says: “As Peter entered, Cornelius met him, fell down at his feet and did obeisance to him. But Peter lifted him up, saying: ‘Rise; I myself am also a man.’” (Acts 10:25, 26, NW) Did Peter extend a ring to the prostrate Cornelius? No, Peter lifted Cornelius up, saying: “Rise; I myself am also a man.” Who ever heard of a pope lifting up a man prostrate before him, admitting his own comparative unimportance and equality with other men?
And where is the resemblance in the matter of simony? Simon the magician tried to bribe Peter into giving him the privilege of conferring the holy spirit on anyone he wished. Peter refused. Yet the popes are notorious for accepting and offering bribes. Alexander VI, in 1492, gained the papacy by bribery. When the reformer Savonarola made a list of this pope’s crimes, the pope tried to silence him by holding out a cardinal’s hat! Pope Benedict IX sold his popehood to Gregory VI. Julius II, says The Catholic Encyclopedia, “did not hesitate to employ bribery” to gain the papal crown. Though ostensibly opposed to simony, popes have resorted to it so often that in the matter of papal elections alone The Encyclopædia Britannica (ninth edition under “Conclave”) says: “A study of the history of the Papal conclaves leaves the student with the conviction that no election untainted by simony has ever yet been made, while in a great number of instances the simony practiced in the conclave has been of the grossest, most shameless, and most overt kind.” Peter acted most unpopelike when he refused Simon’s bribe: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought through money to get possession of the free gift of God.”—Acts 8:9-24, NW.
If Peter was the first pope, how is it that Jesus did not choose one that could set the proper example for future popes? For popes are not allowed to experience the marital state; yet Peter was married. Both Mark and Luke spoke of “Simon’s mother-in-law.” And the apostle Paul wrote: “We have authority to lead about a sister as a wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [Peter], do we not?” But popes do not have this authority.—Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38; 1 Cor. 9:5, NW.
If Peter was an infallible pope, how is it that he showed up so many times to be in error? Just a few moments after Christ spoke the words of Matthew 16:18, Peter appeared far from infallible; and Jesus had to rebuke him, saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumblingblock to me.” Would Christ address the infallible head of his church with terms such as “Satan” and “stumblingblock”? Time and again Peter showed he was not infallible. Once he lost faith while walking on water, and sank. Once he used his sword when he should not have. He even denied knowing Jesus. And after Christ’s death he still did not understand that Christ must be raised from the dead. Later Peter slipped into a wrong practice and had to be corrected by the apostle Paul.—Matt. 16:22, 23; 14:29-31; Luke 22:31-34; John 18:10, 11; Gal. 2:11, NW.
NOT “PRINCE OF THE APOSTLES”
The pope is called “Successor to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles.” But the Bible does not give the slightest trace that he was “prince of the apostles.” On the contrary, it gives abundant evidence that he was just one of the apostles and not the chief one. At Galatians 2:9 (NW) Paul writes of “James and Cephas [Peter] and John, the ones who seemed to be pillars.” Yet he puts James first. Would Paul have slighted the “prince of the apostles” by putting his name second in his list, if Peter was really chief of apostles? At a meeting in Jerusalem Peter made a speech but it was James who presided and made the decisions. If Peter was chief apostle it is unthinkable that he would have allowed James to preside over a most important meeting.—Acts 15:13-19, NW.
Finally, the last living apostle was John, not Peter. This would not be the logical arrangement if Peter was a pope. And here is something thought-arousing: The Catholic Encyclopedia lists four popes as succeeding Peter, St. Linus, St. Anacletus I, St. Clement I and St. Evaristus, the last of whom reigned about A.D. 99. Now the apostle John lived until about A.D. 100 or later. Yet John, in his writings, never once mentioned the name of any of these popes or even the fact that any pope existed. Why the silence on such extremely vital matters? Stranger yet is the fact that four popes supposedly succeeded Peter during the life span of the apostle John. Yet, if there was to be a successor, John, the beloved disciple of Jesus and apostle of the Lamb and one of the twelve foundation stones, would be the most logical choice.
What conclusion must we come to, then? That Peter never had a successor. That Peter was merely one of the apostles, one of the twelve foundation stones and not the chief cornerstone or rock mass upon which the congregation is built. That Peter used the keys of the kingdom and that the keys cannot be used again or passed on to another. That Peter was not “prince of the apostles.” That Peter never acted like a pope. That the rock on which Christ builds his congregation is Christ himself. Thus in the error-destroying light of God’s Word lies exposed one of the most colossal hoaxes of all time. Peter was not the first pope.