Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Why Did The Corinthians Seek Help From Paul, Not Peter?

I recently received an email asking me for a response to a popular Catholic argument for the papacy. Since First Clement suggests that the Corinthian church in the late first century was seeking help from the bishop of Rome in settling a dispute, instead of seeking help from the apostle John, doesn't that suggest that the Roman bishop had more authority than John? Or, if help wasn't sought, but, instead, the bishop of Rome took the initiative to involve himself, doesn't that suggest some sort of claim of authority over the apostle John, who was geographically closer to Corinth? Here's a thread that addresses First Clement and the papacy.

One of the answers we can provide to Catholics who bring this issue up is to ask them if they apply the same reasoning to the Corinthian church's efforts to seek Paul's help rather than Peter's earlier in the same century (e.g., 1 and 2 Corinthians). See the thread linked above for some other responses.


  1. It is also worth noting an important historical point: Prisca and Aquilla were removed from Rome and went to Corinth and then returned to Rome again. William Lane proposes that this personal relationship created personal ties between the churches. Corinth may well have done the same thing if the situations were reversed. Numerous internal indicators also make an appeal to 1 Clement for the Papacy untenable.

  2. Clement of Alexandria relates a tradition about John that had been circulating among multiple sources with some variations, suggesting that it was widespread (Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). In that tradition, which is set in John's elderly years, John is said to have lived in Ephesus, but to have sometimes been "away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations". It seems that he was based in Ephesus, but sometimes traveled. There's good evidence that John was in Jerusalem, Antioch, Patmos, and other locations during his lifetime, but I don't recall any report that he was in Corinth. If he traveled a lot in his last years, as Clement's tradition tells us, and he never had much of a relationship with the Corinthian church, why should we think the Corinthian church would have been inclined to try to contact him or have known where he was during the relevant timeframe? Or why should we think John would have taken the initiative to involve himself in Corinth's affairs when he had been so uninvolved in Corinth previously and already was so involved in other churches?

    As hakalonhumas notes, we know that there were contacts between the Roman and Corinthian churches prior to the time when First Clement was written. We should also keep in mind how significant the Roman church was for other non-papal reasons. Rome was the capital of the empire, and, as such, had a lot of wealth and received a lot of travelers. The earliest sources to comment on the significance of the Roman church cite such factors, not a papacy, as reasons for the Roman church's importance. Rome's personal ties with Corinth (like what hakalonhumas referred to), wealth shared with other churches, and location in the capital of the empire could put the Roman church on familiar terms with the Corinthian church. No papacy is needed to explain First Clement. Shoehorning a papacy into the situation creates more problems than it solves.

  3. Notice what Dionysius of Corinth wrote several decades after the time of First Clement:

    "For this has been your [the Roman church's] custom from the beginning, to do good to all the brethren in various ways, and to send resources to many churches which are in every city, thus refreshing the poverty of the needy, and granting subsidies to the brethren who are in the mines. Through the resources which ye have sent from the beginning, ye Romans, keep up the custom of the Romans handed down by the fathers, which your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved, but added to, sending a splendid gift to the saints, and exhorting with blessed words those brethren who go up to Rome, as an affectionate father his children….Therefore you also have by such admonition joined in close union the churches that were planted by Peter and Paul, that of the Romans and that of the Corinthians: for both of them went to our Corinth, and taught us in the same way as they taught you when they went to Italy; and having taught you, they suffered martyrdom at the same time." (Fragments From A Letter To The Roman Church, 1, 3)

    Here we see financial ties between Rome and Corinth, the significance of people traveling to and from Rome, and the relational common ground of having the same double apostolic association (Peter and Paul).