Jesus Never Existed

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Jesus Never Existed

The curious career of "Saint Peter" Linking Rome back to the Godman

In reaction to the runaway success of Marcion’s Pauline Christianity, scribes in Rome concocted a sacred history to bolster their own claim to singular authority. Their chosen hero figure was Peter, “first of the apostles“.

But why did Rome need to make a saint out of Peter?

Making a Saint out of Peter

It seems curious, to say the least, that a Galilean fisherman, a married Jew and the designated ‘apostle of the circumcision’, should become the iconographic, patronising and protecting hero-figure at the heart of Roman Catholicism. With Jesus, Mary and the Father already in the pantheon, why did the church need another celestial hero?

The answer is: politics. The politics of power. In the first three centuries of the Christian era, Rome was not an especially important centre for the Faith. The great sees of the early Christian world were AlexandriaEphesus and Antioch – each a centre of early proselytising and of a large Christian community. Each claimed some justifying link to an apostle. Paul had lived in Antioch, for example and John, it was said, had seen out his days in Ephesus. Mark was associated with Alexandria. Rome, in contrast, had no direct apostolic connection.

Jerusalem, the original Christian ‘centre of the world’ and anticipated venue for Christ’s descent from the clouds, had been destroyed in 70 AD. To the pious mind, the pagan ‘new town’ of Aelia, built upon its ruins, had lowly status and was subordinate to the see at Caesarea. Again, Caesarea could claim an apostolic connection: here, ‘Philip the evangelist’ had supposedly lived. In these eastern cities, the early church produced its first leaders, the Fathers who made the earliest attempts at defining doctrine and establishing the uniqueness of their faith. These were the ‘apologists’ who engaged in debate with Greek philosophers and competed with the priests of Mithra and other mystery religions. It was their stylii that wrote the earliest Christian scripture. For centuries, schools of philosophy, mystics, prophets and magicians had speculated on reality. Now that were joined by speculators in Christ, many themselves trained in rhetoric and classical philosophy.

The Many Colours of Christianity

The Christ legend, as it existed in the mid-years of the second century, was still in the process of forming. The churches of the Mediterranean world were functioning as a number of autonomous entities, with only a minimal degree of doctrinal agreement. Centuries later it would be held that there had been some sort of ‘orthodoxy’ from the very beginning and everything else was a marginal heresy, ultimately falling by the wayside as ‘orthodoxy’ triumphed. Yet this is very much, the history of the victors. In truth, nothing was so clear cut.

All of the ‘Church Fathers’ were heretics judged by the standards of later centuries. In their own day, they clashed violently with each other on central issues, such as: was Christ God, an emanation of God or a creation of God? If Christ was a creation, yet was himself a god, was Christianity a two god faith? Jewish theologians certainly attacked the Christians for such an apostasy. Again, if Christ was a creation, had there been a time when he had not existed? Was the creation less than the creator? If less than the creator, could his death atone for the sins of the world? After all, would it not require the sacrifice of at least a god to redeem the whole of humanity? Yet if Christ was more than a normal man, could his death and resurrection be an example for normal men to follow? Perhaps Jesus was a human upon whom the holy spirit had descended or was he God taking on the appearance of human form? If wholly or even partly God could he have suffered an agonizing death or did it just appear so? The questions were endless and the answers just as numerous.

Doctrine, of course, went hand-in-hand with secular authority; and with secular authority went earthly rewards. Resolving doctrinal issues by their own lights, the churches in Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, Armenia and Syria spun off in their own direction, establishing idiosyncratic versions of Christianity. To proselytize their particular ‘variation on a theme,’ they wrote gospels which confirmed the correctness of their own beliefs, attributing authorship to their adopted apostle. Each Christianity sent out missionaries, some east, into Persia; several of them to Rome, the great pagan city.

Imperial Reflection

In the second half of the first century, Christ-followers, like the adepts of every other mystery religion, made their way to Rome. For more than a century, the ‘Roman church’ was an evangelising mission run by Greek-speaking migrants from individual churches in the east. The city was a magnet and yet to the early Christians Rome was also the new ‘Babylon’, the fount of baseness, false gods and the enslaver of mankind. Christianity in Rome had to jostle with gods both old and new; Mithraism in particular was a blossoming religion, also from the east and with a character very similar to Christianity. For the Christ-followers, theirs was the bridgehead at the heart of a competitive pagan empire. The church in Rome had no particular link with the distant land of Palestine, maybe; no shrines or sacred tombs, no great theologians perhaps; but nonetheless, it was there, at the very centre of the world.

These early Roman Christians, far from being the epitome of ‘orthodoxy’, were riven by all manner of division. Reflecting the diversity of its founders, the ‘Roman church’ was not one but several ‘churches’, a ‘constellation of independent churches, meeting in the houses of the wealthy members of the community.’ (Duffy, Saints and Sinners, p6) Each church advocated its own particular variant of the new faith and competed with the others for membership.

Established initially within the Jewish and Greek enclaves of the city, membership only gradually spread into the native population where traditional paganism was strongest. When it did, the flow of ideas became two-way: the new faith was influenced by the very cults it sought to displace. For example, icons of ‘the good shepherd’ – a tussle-haired Greek youth with a lamb upon his shoulders – were an adaptation of traditional images of the sun god Apollo.

The Roman Church, for at least two centuries, remained junior to others, even in the west. ‘Well into the third century Christianity in Rome would remain turbulent, divisive, prone to split.’ (Duffy, Saints and Sinners, p11) Even when the Greek influence diminished, in turns, LyonsCarthage and Milan intervened in the affairs of the Roman church, their elders commanding greater authority. Yet the simple reality of geopolitics, gave the Churches in Rome, in the eyes of its partisans at least, special status, a reflected glory from the city’s own frightening pre-eminence. First, it had to put its own house in order, and when it did so it was as a reaction to what had gone before.

‘As conflicting teachers arose, each claiming to speak for ‘true’ Christianity, a tighter and more hierarchic structure developed.’

–  DuffySaints and Sinnersp7.

Having been diverse and ill-disciplined it became homogenous and ordered. All it lacked was its own monarch – and he was about to take the regal throne.

The calling of Peter

Was it in Galilee and after John was imprisoned?

“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee …

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.”

– Mark 1.14-17.

Or was it across the Jordan and before John was imprisoned?

“This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing …

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus … The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas, which, when translated, is Peter. The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee.”

– John 1.28-43.

“After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside … This was before John was put in prison.”

– John 3.22-24.

Emergence of a Bishop at Rome

Before 120 AD there had been no bishop of Rome. One of the earliest elders whom we can be confident actually existed, Clement (81-97), though often referred to as a bishop or even as a ‘pope’ was actually a presbyter. He is credited as the author of a letter to fellow Christians in Corinth, defending the presbyters there who had been deposed by dissatisfied members. But he does not identify himself in the letter. Unlike popes of later centuries, he claims no highfalutin pre-eminence. Just possibly he is the author of Shepherd of Hermas, usually given an early second century date, which refers only to elders in charge of the church.

The office of bishop, emerging from the body of presbyters, occurred in Rome later than elsewhere – sometime in the mid-second century. Anicetus (156-166) was the first to be identified as a bishop in correspondence with Polycarp of Smyrna. By Anicetus’s day, Christian hopes of an imminent Judgement Day (and, in consequence, Christian rejection of the material world) had finally passed away. The Church had become a property owner, as dying believers bequeathed to her their estates. It became clear that the management of a religion, and control of its justifying doctrine, were now paramount. Earthly minds had to make decisions having profound secular consequences. The newly elevated bishop moved first to establish discipline over the warring cohorts. As patriarch of the great city Anicetus was none too happy to play second fiddle to any cleric in the east. But as yet, the Church in Rome could offer no clear lead in doctrine. Church ‘Fathers’ from the east continued to interfere in the nascent Roman Church and were themselves appealed to as authoritative figures in schismatic feuding.

The venerable Polycarp of Smyrna (he was in his eighties at the time) visited the city and held discussions with Anicetus over the dating of Easter. In the eastern sees, the Jewish Passover festival, held on the 14th of Nisan, had been modified into a Christian ‘Easter’ pageant. In Rome, there was as yet no special annual festival, the ‘passion’ being marked in some fashion on every Sunday. Anicetus would not give way to the eastern practice and continued to expel any of the brethren who followed the so-called ‘Quartodeciman’ calendar.

Anicetus may not have been able to compete with Polycarp on theology but he was certainly struck by how Polycarp constructed his argument. The old man claimed to have known the Apostle John when they had both lived in Ephesus and that the Easter festival had been taught him by the apostle himself! Who could argue with the authority handed down from an apostle? Anicetus must have had his shovel ready before the old sage had left the city, and lo! – nearly a century after the supposed event – he was able to find the very spot where the apostle Simon (aka Peter) had been buried! Anicetus had a so-called ‘trophy’ – a pagan-style altar – built on the spot. Adding to his delight he was soon able to identify the place where Paul had been intered – linking Rome to not one but two apostles! Says the leading Church scholar, W. H. Frend, with charming disingenuousness:

Why it was only after nearly a century that the Roman Christians selected this spot as the burial place of Peter (and Paul) is a mystery.

– Friend (The Rise of Christianity, p27)

With an apostolic connection provided by a grave, the first pious drop of sanctity in a veritable holy flood to come, the age of shrines had arrived in Rome! Fortunately a supply of holy relics was assured by the extensive catacombs and pagan graveyards just beyond the city walls. Anicetus was among the first of a new breed of ‘worldly’ clerics. The physical ‘evidence’ of bones was useful but a doctrinal problem for the ‘Roman Church’ was that the whole ‘birth/ resurrection’ story, and the meanderings of apostles, had been played out in distant lands in the east, which gave the churches there so much more authority. How, then, could Rome claim a grander role?

The Man of Many Names

Merely to concoct a story that Simon (soon to be Peter) the Apostle had, say, visited or even died in Rome, would scarcely serve to elevate the Roman see above the others. What was needed was a ringing endorsement from the godman, Christ himself. A place for the insertion of such an accolade was found in what would become Mark 8.29,30:

“And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.”

A clever scribe penned a memorable multi-lingual pun that slid into this passage and it surfaced in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew (16.15,20):

“He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto 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 unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.”

An abridged version of the same interpolation was later added to John’s Gospel (this time moved forward to the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry) and with subtle differences (John 1.40):

“And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.”

What’s curious about all this is, what language is Jesus speaking? Petros (the name Peter) / petrus (a stone) makes a pun in Latin – and he surely wasn’t speaking Latin? ‘Matthew’ seems to suggest the use of Greek, yet the pun (Cephas, a rock / Simon, the name) breaks down in Greek and would the holy carpenter have used clever Greek to ‘unlearned and ignorant’ (Acts 4.13) Aramaic-speaking fishermen? The author of ‘John’ in using Cephas implies the use of Aramaic, hence he had to attach the translation into Greek ‘which is by interpretation, a stone’ for the benefit of his Greek readers. But the pun does not work in Aramaic – Kipha, a rock / Shimeon, a name – although we could allow calling someone ‘Rocky.’ The dialogue would be something like ‘Shimeon, you are a Kipha.’

But if the language was Aramaic, in that case, what on earth did Jesus use to express ‘church’, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’? For example, ekklesia – Latin and Greek for ‘church’ in the modern sense, has no equivalent in Aramaic. There was nothing like ecclesia known to the Jews. Why should there be? First-century Judaism was based upon the one and only Temple and its daily sacrifice, not on a geographically dispersed hierarchy of clerics owning landed estates! Similarly, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are late Christian constructs, used to induce and frighten converts. Judaism had no notion at this stage of life after death, merely a belief in a temporary existence in ‘gehenna’, prior to oblivion. The later Jewish sheol contained both the righteous and the wicked; it was neither the Christian heaven nor hell. And the terms ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ are suspicious, being drawn from jurisprudence not theology.

Ecclesiasta, of course, was redolent with meaning in second century Rome. The Christians had adapted the term from its original (Greek) meaning, the ‘assembled community’ of a city state. In Rome, the ecclesiasta was coming into its own, as ‘matrons’ bequeathed their fortunes to clerics administering to their spiritual needs. The fact that the holy carpenter had expected an imminent return in first century Judaea – scarcely leaving time for a ‘Church’ to form – could be over-looked:

“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16.28) Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Matthew 24.34,35)

“But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God. (Luke 9.27) Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.” (Luke 21.32.33)

Reality Check

Unfortunately, the whole sorry Petrine saga is undermined at every turn. For example, when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans he greeted twenty nine of the brethren there by name – and Peter was not one of them! (Romans 16.3,16). A holiday aside, there was of course no particular reason for Peter to be in Rome. Indeed, what makes the Cephas/Petros pun seem even more fraudulent is that in Corinthians 1 Paul only refers to Cephas and in Galatians 2 Paul refers to Cephas and Peter as if they were separate individuals:

“But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter;
(For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:)
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.
Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.”

– Galatians 2.7,11.

It is likely that Paul only ever referred to a Cephas and, separately, to a Simon, and that all the Peter references were a later substitution. Giving the game away, even Jesus reverts to referring to Simon as Simon, not Peter or Cephas!

“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?”

Jesus repeats this three times as the ‘risen Christ’ (John 21.15,17).

From two apostles to one apostle

For a number of years both Peter and Paul shared a joint patronage of Rome. But in the mid years of the century, another eastern bishop, Marcion, had commandeered and popularised the foremost of them, Paul, in his Gospel of the Lord. Originally a financial backer and ally of the Roman church, Marcion and the church elders had parted acrimoniously. According to Irenaeus, Marcion was ‘excommunicated because of a rape committed on a certain virgin…’

Marcion returned to Asia and set up his own church. To Anicetus and the Roman presbyters, Paul (at least in the hands of Marcion) was dangerously gnostic. His letter-writing and missionary work, however, provided a model for a more ‘orthodox’ figure. The Roman church slowly dropped the duality of ‘Peter and Paul’ and Peter began his towering ascent. Various gospels began circulating, containing passages suggesting he was a leadership figure, always addressed first. Peter was about to become a super-apostle, one who could overshadow Paul and forge a solid link between the drama of Christ in Judaea and the Bishop of Rome.

A Gospel for Peter: Marks!

Simon Peter, as a figure of legend, of course wrote nothing, and Paul had written a great deal – his letters make up a quarter of the entire New Testament. How, then, to elevate Peter as an literary source? ‘Mark’ provided the answer. Versions of this early gospel were in wide circulation and yet Mark was not an apostle. Taking advantage of this short-fall, ‘Mark’ was adopted as the ‘companion of Peter’ and Mark’s gospel became, effectively, ‘the gospel that Peter would have written’, boosting the apostle’s status.

Clement of Alexandria, at this stage allied with the Roman see, spread rumours that, though seemingly written in Alexandria, ‘Mark’ had been writing in Rome, recalling the deeds of his master Peter ‘as best he could.’ In the intense rivalry of Christian sees, that link was at best tenuous and not convincing, not least because Peter had been proclaimed the ‘apostle of the circumcision’ with a mission to the Jews. He had even been linked to Antioch. Peter needed missionary activity equal to Paul’s, journeys that would place him incontrovertibly in Rome.

Man with a Mission

Thus far, the apostles had been rather shadowy figures – one can imaging them as ‘the crowd’ in a resurrection pageant, barely named as characters and scattering at the end of the drama. Now they would acquire an heroic story – Acts of the Apostles. The work barely merits the title for it is really about just two of them (Philip gets a brief role, Stephen ‘The Martyr’ even less; but the others, including seven ‘new appointees,’ are mere shadows). Acts 1- 12 tell Peter’s story; chapters 13 – 28 tell Paul’s – or rather, the first part is the fabricated tale of a fictional character (not mentioned after chapter 15); the second half is a re-write of Paul, purged of his gnosticism and made into a conservative disciplinarian. Amazingly, the join is very visible – the narrative switches from the third person to the first person at chapter 16! In a clumsy bit of invention Acts has the real Paul, shortly after his conversion, meet the imaginary apostles. According to Paul’s own epistle he was in Arabia at the time!

Paul’s whereabouts according to Acts:

“But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem.” (Acts 9,27)

Paul’s whereabouts according to Paul:

Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians I.17,19)

Better Miracles

Peter’s ‘mission’ takes him to the coastal cities of Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea. Actually, not very impressive compared to Paul’s epic voyages. ‘Apocrypha’ rescues the situation by sending Peter into Syria, Cappadocia, Pontus and beyond. Indeed, a startling amount of the Petrine fable comes from documents even the Catholic church regards as spurious. The Gospel of Peter, for example, was condemned at Rhossus (near Antioch) in 190 as ‘heretical’. The Apocalypse of Peter, provided a graphic description of hell. The Preaching of Peter furnished more astounding miracles and the Acts of Peter gave a description of his martyrdom. All this prolific ‘romantic fiction’ of the second century provided the currency of the legend, generating the ‘belief’ and ‘tradition’ that the hero had been active in Rome.

Acts, however, does not fail in the miracle department, attributing Peter with many astounding deeds. Peter it seems both restored life (he raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9.32,43) and dispensed death (poor Ananias and his wife Sapphira – wasted by Jehovah for holding back some of the proceeds from the sale of their land!) (Acts 5.1,11).

Like Jesus himself, Peter cured the sick and healed the lame – according to Matthew, of course, he had even walked on water! In fact, the No. 1 apostle healed a ‘multitude’ merely by allowing his shadow to fall on them, way beyond anything Paul could accomplish! (Acts 5.15,16) Angels abet Peter’s escape from prison, even if it resulted in the execution of his guards. Paul, sadly, needed a military escort when the procurator took him from gaol and on another occasion, ‘The timely intervention of Roman troops from the Antonia fortress rescued Paul from a lynch mob.’ (Two Kingdoms, p36) No guardian angel for him!

Astounding Visions, Better Conversions

In a truly stunning vision Peter, it seems, learned that all his food did not need to be kosher, because a great sheet descended from the sky ‘wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air ’ and that incorrigible meat-eater Yahweh boomed out ‘Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.’! (Acts 10.9,16) Not quite as subtle as Paul’s scholarly discourse on dietary prohibitions, but a colourful story for the rednecks. The miracle served as a prologue to getting at the goyim – without the permit, Peter, sectarian Jew that he was, would have been stymied.

And Peter was no light-weight when it came to conversions. A gnostic magician and ‘half Jew’ – Simon Magus – had built up a personal following in Samaria. Peter, after the display of ‘talking in tongues’ at Pentecost, takes the power of summoning the Holy Ghost to Samaria, where he completes the baptisms made by Philip with the laying-on of hands. But the apostle refuses to sell this ‘power’ to the magician and, it seems, upbraids Simon on the folly of his ways (Acts 8.20,24). The remorseful arch-enemy of Christ (a would-be convert?) is left to his fate and all future gnostics would be deemed his acolytes!

Peter also pre-empted Paul by converting the first non-Jew. Odd for the apostle of the circumcision but quite appropriate for forging links to the Roman see, Peter converted a Roman centurion no less, ‘Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band’ (Acts 10.1).

The whole point was to establish an ‘apostolic pecking order’ in which Peter prevailed over Paul and the Roman Church could claim a superiority over its contenders. But still there was a struggle to get Peter into Rome. In a story so patently silly that it did not make it into Acts but is to be found in the Clementines – second-century texts described as ‘curious religious romance’ by the Catholic Encyclopedia – Peter and Simon Magus are placed in Nero’s palace in Rome competing in magic. Peter bests his adversary’s levitation trick by bringing him down with a well-aimed prayer. Compare this with the supposed encounter of Paul with the magician Elymas (“a Jew whose surname was Bar Jesus”!) to be found in Acts 13.6,11. Paul merely blinds his rival.

Fantasies of this ilk had to suffice, allowing the ‘tradition’ to emerge that Peter not only met his death in the city (at the hands of Nero) but also (a mutually exclusive proposition!) that he had been the Bishop of Rome for twenty five years! But none of this is to be found anywhere in the Bible. The story of this Prince of the Apostles peters out in chapter 12 of Acts with a fuzzy reference to him going to ‘another place.’ Thereafter, no word is to be found of any visit to Rome, of founding a church, of martyrdom, etc. Nor does any scrap of archaeology or secular history confirm that the character ever existed. Legend and tradition alone fills the void. And a legend that the Roman church inherited from earlier times was of Janus, a fisherman-god, keeper of the heavenly keys, who had had a shrine on the Janiculum hill close by the site of the Vatican!

More Legend, More Authority

Irenaeus, Bishop not of Rome but of Lyons, was among the earliest clerics to boost Rome’s maturing pretensions. Perhaps because his own diocese was a provincial ‘new town’ he more readily identified with the imperial city. At the time (170s-180s), Irenaeus was in conflict with ‘heretics’, independent theologians whose musings increasingly fractured aspirations of a ‘universal church.’

Irenaeus was very much an ecclesiasta, an apparatchnik who put ‘the organisation’ first. His gnostic opponents claimed the authority of a secret knowledge, handed down to initiates from Christ himself. Impatient with such anarchic, individualistic ideas, Irenaeus countered with ‘bishop lists’, purporting to show that it was the succession of bishops – clerical managers rather than theologians – who had the divine seal of approval. For example, the first bishop of Rome, said Irenaeus, had been Linus, appointed by the apostle Paul. The next – making the chronology a complete farce – was Anacletus, appointed by the apostle Peter! (Peter could hardly have perished at Nero’s hand yet appointed a bishop ten years later!) He listed ten others, up to his own day to make up the magic number twelve. Rather suspiciously, the obscure (non-existent!) sixth bishop Irenaeus identified as Sixtus!

A Jewish/Christian theologian, Hegesippus (160s/170s), had probably been the source for Irenaeus. He drew up one of the earliest Church ‘histories’ in an attempt to answer pagan critics. Origen, an Alexandrian theologian, introduced a novel twist of his own to the story of Peter’s death: at his own request (‘out of respect for the Lord’) Peter had been crucified upside down, though quite how the suffocation process would have worked that way is hard to say.

Origen’s successor, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) added to the growing myth by adding in Peter’s children and ‘his wife’s martyrdom.’ It is also at this time that some questionable epistles appear. New ‘Pauline’ letters (the so-called Pastorals, universally recognised as fakes – Timothy 1 & 2, Titus and probably Ephesians) and the equally fraudulent epistles of ‘Peter.’ Their purpose was to refute widespread gnostic doctrines. Attaching apostolic authorship to them was a simple device which gave them authority. Famously, the fraudulent 1 Timothy 2.11,14 has Paul say:

“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

By the close of the century, a North African – Victor (189-199) – became the first Latin-speaking Bishop of Rome. Latin lacked the subtlety of Greek, and tended to lock the Roman church out of the doctrinal debates raging in the east. But Victor scored in other ways. He was an associate of a mistress of the dissolute emperor Commodus. He began to clash regularly with the Greek churches, notably over the continuing issue of Easter. Rome had adopted its own calculation of the date and forbade observance of the eastern practice. The result was a feud with Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus – leader of the largest Christian community – who reminded him that Easter was ‘the date kept by the great luminaries, the apostles John and Philip.’

The church in Carthage rallied to Victor’s support. A fellow North African bishop, Tertullian, writing at the end of the second century, contributed ‘additional details’ of the apostle’s death; a few years later, he was the first to make reference to Peter’s ‘keys’ in a little tract called Scorpiace (‘The Scorpion’s Sting’) written about 211. In this he says:

“For, though you think heaven is still shut, remember that the Lord left to Peter and through him to the Church, the keys of it.” (Scorpiace, x; ANF. iii, 643.)

Quite probably Tertullian was the “clever scribe” who penned that memorable multi-lingual pun of Matthew 16, taking as his source and inspiration Isaiah 22, where the prediction is made that Eliakim will become “chief minister of the kingdom” for Hezekiah, the 7th century BC king of Judah. Eliakim also gets a key and the power to “bind and loose“.

Where DID they get their ideas?

Isaiah 22.20.

“And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah … and I will commit thy government into his hand … And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; and he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

Matthew 16.18-19.

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Paganising Catholicism

The old senatorial class in Rome were more able to come to terms with the upstart Christian religion when it took on familiar forms. Remnants and residue of the old religions became part of the pope’s inheritance, the fixtures and fittings of the previous tenant. Images of Peter were fashioned after traditional statues of Jupiter. The mystery religions had symbolic keys to the inner mysteries; keys now found their way into papal regalia. The pontiffs inherited a throne, decorated with the twelve labours of Hercules, which the Popes used for centuries. The Pope’s retinue of cardinals took on the title from ‘cardo’, meaning hinge, from the hinge on the door guarded by Janus, the god of entrances. Peter himself, of course, would similarly become the doorman on the ‘pearly gates’ of heaven.

A half-century later, friction with the east was still continuing, but now the North African church was also alienated. Pope Stephen I (254-257) – the first to claim ‘Petrine authority’ by quoting Matthew 16.18,19 – clashed with the Greek theologian Cyprian of Carthage. The immediate issue was Rome’s recognition of baptisms performed by heretical priests. In the drive for recruitment, it mattered little to Stephen who had performed the sacrament. But Cyprian was more sensitive to the nuances of theology.

In Cyprian’s hands apostles were interpreted as the ‘first bishops’ – and bishops in turn were called ‘apostles.’ Not just anyone could perform baptism. Establishing authentic Apostolic Succession (or ‘divine spiritual descent’) became more important than ever. It now became orthodox to believe that the first pope had been Saint Peter himself and by calculation it was adduced Peter’s sojourn in Rome had lasted a quarter of a century! Says the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Into the Roman list of bishops dating from the second century, there was introduced in the third century the notice of a twenty five year pontificate for St Peter.”

Peter, posthumously promoted to first Pope, now acquired a feast day: 18th January – the first day of the Mithraic zodiac!

Though initially junior, and rent by sectarian divisions, by the close of the third century the Roman Church had brought discipline into its own ranks and was asserting Roman imperium in a new guise. It had built a claim to command the ‘one true faith’ on the fabrication of an apostolic commander-in-chief, fused from Jewish scripture and re-worked pagan motifs, particularly Mithras and Janus.

With re-written gospel as its justifying doctrine, a fraudulent apostolic succession to give credence, and obsequious toadying to superstitious emperors to win imperial endorsement, Roman Catholicism set about the task of re-conquering the world.

Alan Hall, The History of the Papacy (PRC, 1998)
Michael Grant, Saint Peter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1994)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Alan Bernstein, The Formation of Hell (UCL Press, 1993)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
W. H. Friend, The Rise of Christianity (Augsburg, 1986)
Arthur Frederick Ide, Unzipped: The Popes Bare All (AAP,1987)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus (Harper, 1996)
J.N. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (OUP, 1986)

St Peter – Fisherman Who Made the Big Time or fabricated raison d’être for the Church of Rome?

Vicar of Christ
The non-entity that hit the jackpot

Pope Sylvester I (314-335)
This minor bishop had the grand fortune to be in office when the real ‘Bishop of Bishops’ Emperor Constantine took the Christian option.

Sylvester was never part of the imperial entourage, and was not summoned to Nicaea in 325. However, Constantine gave him a redundant palace – the Lateran. This massive structure had once belonged to Constantine’s wife Fausta, murdered by the emperor in 326.

One of the longest reigning popes, Sylvester did nothing but enjoy his windfall, a bonanza beyond his wildest dreams.

To make up for the lack of edifying heroics, invention took a hand from the 5th century onwards.

Admits the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“The accounts given … concerning the persecution of Sylvester, the healing and baptism of Constantine, the emperor’s gift to the pope, the rights granted to the latter, and the council of 275 bishops at Rome, are entirely legendary.”

Vicar of Christ
Compassionate Murderer

Pope Sergius III (Dec 897, 904-911)
Deposed shortly after gaining the bishop’s chair by the local monarch of Spoleto, the aristo’ Sergius waited 7 years for his come back.

A split in the pro-Formosus gang in 904 gave him his chance. He took Rome with hired troops, “moved by pity” murdered his two papal predecessors Christopher and Leo V who were languishing in jail, and used violence to bring the local clergy into line.

He then secured his position with the local boss of bosses Theophylact, papal treasurer and commander of the garrison, by getting his 15 year old daughter Morozia pregnant.

To ingratiate himself with Leo VI in Constantinople he ‘over-ruled’ the eastern patriarch and endorsed the emperor’s 4th marriage.

The only other notable event of Sergius’s reign was ordering the 10-year-old corpse of Pope Formosus re-exhumed, beheaded, 3 more fingers cut off and thrown back into the river Tiber!

Thus secure, Sergius minted coins with his own effigy and took to wearing a tiara – the first pope to do so.

He even managed to die peacefully in his bed, almost unique for a 10th century pope. What a guy!

Vicar of Christ
Pope who knew how to party

Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici) 1513-21

Abbot at 7 and cardinal at 13, Giovanni began his papacy with the words “Now I can really enjoy myself.”

To fund his reckless gambling and lavish parties he sold at auction more than 2000 papal appointments.
A flamboyant homosexual, Leo ran his own bawdy theatre (for which he wrote risque plays) and kept a pet elephant.

He had no interest in religion but did excommunicate a troublesome priest called Luther.

Vicar of Christ
“Cavorting on the bed of whores”

Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) (1492 – 1503)
Everyone knows about Alexander VI, the Borgia pope – he’s the one ‘bad’ pope, compared to all the ‘good’ ones.

Actually Alexander maintained the standards of the papacy quite well, using the time-honoured practices of bribery, violence and nepotism to advance his own interests and cause suffering to others. He was just a tad more blatant than most of the others.

Made a cardinal at 25 by his uncle Pope Callistus III, Alexander headed up a vast ecclesiastic empire even before he bought the papal throne in 1492. One business alliance, with the Farnese family, was secured by taking the 15 year old Guilia as his mistress, although most of his many children were sired with another young woman, Vanozza de Cattanei.

Fabulously wealthy Alexander lived a sybaritic existence, laced by the occasional murder, often of members of rival ‘great families’ or troublesome priests like Savonarola.

A famous “chestnut orgy” – recorded by papal aid Johann Burchard – earns Alexander his place in the Party Animals Hall of Fame. To celebrate his son Cesare’s marriage,

“50 prostitutes danced nude, then scrambled on all fours for chestnuts, for which they were rewarded with silks and precious gifts.”

Such fun!

Sadly Alexander’s party days were cut short when he mixed up poison intended for a redundant cardinal – and killed himself!

Lucrezia Borgia – a girl for her times

Vicar of Christ
Warlord with appetite for “unnatural vice”

Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) (1503 – 1513)
Julius, affectionately known as “Il Terribile”, is proof that not all popes were sybaritic sloths.

Not for him any ‘gentle Jesus’ – he took his cue from the battling patriarchs of the Old Testament, put on his armour and subjected Italy to almost continuous warfare.

His big break came when “uncle” Francesco made pope (as Sixtus IV) and Guiliano became an 18 year old Cardinal and boss of extensive Church businesses.

Hatred for Rodrigo Borgia made it necessary for Guiliano to flee to France when his rival made pope. With Alexander’s death, Guiliano returned, bought the papacy, and set about conquering Italy.

First ally, then enemy, of France; first enemy, then ally, of Venice (and with use of Swiss troops), this ruthless, violent pontiff re-established the papal states and made the papacy loathed and feared.

He paid for his wars, luxurious apartments (and an intended rebuilding of St Peters) with an army of clerics set to high-pressure selling of benefices and “indulgences” – the final straw as far as Luther was concerned.

But Guiliano did have some fun. Scandal was, he enjoyed “unnatural vice” with the gay sculptor Michelangelo and “pressured” him into painting the Sistine Chapel.

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