Wenham’s argument in this chapter can be outlined as follows:
- By the year 57 the church in Rome was famous and had been in contact with the apostle Paul for a number of years.
- Well-grounded tradition says this church was founded by the apostle Peter in the second year of the reign of Claudius.
- This tradition fits with the account of Peter given in Acts.
- Rome’s claim of a Petrine foundation was unchallenged throughout the church.
Modern scholars commonly hold that Peter ministered in Rome only for a short time period before his death around 67. But older tradition holds that Peter arrived in Rome in 42 after his escape from prison (Acts 12:17). The date that Peter arrived in Rome is important in determining the date of composition for the Gospel of Mark. Wenham admits the space available to him is not adequate to treat the subject with the fullness it deserves. He recommends the interested reader consult The Church in Rome in the First Century by George Edmundson.
By the year 57 the church in Rome was famous and had been in contact with the apostle Paul for a number of years
The Roman historian Suetonius, among others, informs us that the Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius. He said the Jews were rioting at the instigation of Chrestus. It would have been natural for a Latin historian to write Chrestus for Christus. Acts 18:1-3 says Aquila and Priscilla had come from Italy because Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome. Paul stayed with them (Acts 18:11, 18; 1 Cor. 16:19). The edict lapsed upon the death of the emperor. Aquila and Priscilla eventually moved back to Rome and the church met in their house (Rom. 16:3-5). The relationship between the couple and Paul would mean Paul was in continual contact with Roman Christians for 5-6 years.
Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans in 57. By that time, the faith of the Roman church was proclaimed throughout the world (Rom. 1:8). Paul implies he knew personally of the goodness and knowledge of the church (Rom. 15:14). He had longed to visit them for many years (Rom. 15:23), implying the church had been around for a decade or more. In fact, Andronicus and Junia were “in Christ” before Paul (Rom. 16:7)! This means they were converted in the earliest years of the church (at Pentecost? Acts 2:10). The names in Rom. 16:1-23 show further that Paul knew many members of the church. It is possible that Rufus (Rom. 16:13) is the son of Simon of Cyrene mentioned by Mark (Mark 15:21). When Paul arrived in Italy in 60 he was met by Christians from Rome (Acts 28:13-15).
Well-grounded tradition says this church was founded by the apostle Peter in the second year of the reign of Claudius
Paul indicated he only intended to pay a visit to the church in Rome before going to Spain. He did not want to build on another man’s foundation (Rom. 15:20-24). This suggests Paul knew the church in Rome was founded by another man.
The tradition of Peter’s 25-year episcopate is found in the Liber Pontificalis, which was compiled between 514 and 530 and based on the Liberian Catalogue of the Roman Bishops. But the Liber Pontificalis only follows the Liberian Catalogue in part. The Liber Pontificalis dates the Petrine episcopate from the second year of Claudius to the last year of Nero (42-67). The Liberian Catalogue dates it from the ascension (30) to 55. Concerning Peter’s episcopate (his time as an overseer), the Liber Pontificalis follows Jerome, who follows the Chronicon of Eusebius, who compiled his episcopal lists from those of Hegesippus and Irenaeus of the second half of the second century. The Liberian Catalogue is based on the work of a chronicler, perhaps Hippolytus, from about fifty years later. All agree that Peter’s episcopate lasted 25 years but differ on its beginning and end dates.
Jerome was the secretary of Pope Damasus at the time of the latter’s death in 384. He must have had access to the papal archives. Around that time he probably met Filocalus, who was the illuminator and probably the editor of the Liberian Catalogue. Jerome’s divergences from the Liberian Catalogue must have been intentional and based on other traditions. So we have tradition rooted in four individuals who had first-hand knowledge of Rome: Jerome, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus.
Doubt about the accuracy of this tradition arises because we lack supporting records from the first and second centuries. However Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Irenaeus all attest that Peter did visit Rome and his name always precedes that of Paul. Irenaeus says Peter and Paul established the church in Rome. If the church was already famous when Paul wrote to the Romans in 57 then it suggests the church had been there awhile. Clearly Paul did not found the church so this leaves Peter as the obvious candidate.
Wenham attempts to buttress the tradition about Peter with a few more pieces of evidence. First, he notes second-century traditions indicating the apostles, at the word of Christ, were to stay in Jerusalem for 12 years after the ascension (Eusebius, HE 5.18.14 [referring to a book against the Montanists by Apollonius]; Acts of Peter 2.5; Clement, Stromateis 6.5.43 [quoting the lost Preaching of Peter]). The lost Preaching of Peter must have been from an even earlier date. Acts 8:1 states that everyone but the apostles fled Jerusalem after Stephen’s death. The persecution under Herod Agrippa I, who came to power in 41, led to Peter’s imprisonment. Peter escaped from prison and left for another place (Acts 12:17). Even if the supposed instruction by Jesus is apocryphal, it may still attest to the fact that the apostles dispersed at around that time.
Another piece of evidence concerns the magician Simon Magus. Acts 8:4-25 mentions Simon Magus in connection with the founding of a church in Samaria. Eusebius, using Justin Martyr and Irenaeus as sources, states that Simon Magus went to Rome during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Shortly thereafter, he says, Peter followed him to Rome to confront Simon Magus. Justin was born in Neapolis in Samaria in 103. Between 150 and 160 he was in Rome. He must have heard quite a bit about Simon Magus. Irenaeus was in Rome about 10-15 years after Justin.
This tradition fits with the account of Peter given in Acts
After the death of Stephen, Peter was in Samaria (Acts 8:14); moving among the churches in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (Acts 9:31ff.); and initiating the first Gentile mission at Caesarea (Acts 10:1-11:18). During Agrippa’s reign (41-44) Peter escaped from Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-17). But he was back in Jerusalem for the visit of Paul and Barnabas in 46 (Gal. 2:1-10) and for the Apostolic Council in 49 (Acts 15:1-21). He visited Antioch (Gal. 2:11) and had associations with churches in Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1). In 54 Paul speaks of Peter leading around his wife (1 Cor. 9:5), implying he was moving from place to place in missionary work. This indicates that Peter was not a permanent resident in Rome from 42-67. However, he could still have been the church’s overseer much as Paul was with his churches (Acts 15:36).
Rome’s claim of a Petrine foundation was unchallenged throughout the church
The simple point here is that no one in the many lands where Christianity spread and over the course of several centuries disputed that Peter founded the church in Rome and died there.
This chapter presents a cumulative argument. I think Wenham has proven that, by the year 57, the church in Rome was famous and had been in contact with the apostle Paul for a number of years. No one line of evidence for Wenham’s second and third points is overly impressive. This is all the more the case when it comes to exact dates. However, the way different, small pieces of evidence fit together convince me that Peter either founded the church or helped it grow in the middle of the first century.