Monday, November 28, 2011

The Papacy’s Missing Link

One of the more remarkable documents that I have not been able to track down, because it does not seem to be available in English, is Rudolf Pesch’s, Simon-Petrus, Gechicte un geschichtliche Bedeutung des ersten Jungers Jesu Christi (Stuutgart, 1980). I would love to read this work.

Robert Eno, S.S. did read and comment on it. He said:

Pesch concludes, among other things, that neither the story of the historical Peter nor the image of Peter in the later New Testament traditions is of immediate importance for the primacy of the Roman bishops. Indeed, later references back to Peter in the New Testament, primarily Matthew 16:18, may sometimes appear almost to be an afterthought. For Pesch, an issue such as a general leadership of the Church is an open question. Even if Peter is conceived as a sort of leader among the Twelve, whether his “Petrine office,” if there was such a thing, had successors is also an open question. Even if one could argue for such a successor on the basis of the New Testament text, there remains the most elusive and fascinating question of all: is there a missing link in the first and second centuries between the historical peter and a bishop of Rome conceived of as a successor to him? (From Robert Eno, S.S., “The Rise of the Papacy”,pgs 15-16)

A while back I wrote a fairly extensive series on House Churches in first century Rome. I cited a number of authors, including Peter Lampe, William Lane, Robert Jewett, F.F. Bruce, and others, all writing on the house church network and the various roles of elders in and among these groups of early Christians.

This series – and other things I’ve reported on – documents the “missing link” – what was actually there in place of the grandiose stories of the early papacy that Rome bandied about for centuries.

In support of the “new” history of the nonexistent early papacy that we have, The Shepherd of Hermas is one of the best contemporary second-century Roman documents that we have access to. In his Introduction to this work, Michael W. Holmes (“The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition”, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, pg 442) writes:

The Shepherd of Hermas is one of the more enigmatic documents to have survived from the postapostolic period. Relatively simple in style and widely popular in the second and third centuries (there are more surviving early copies of The Shepherd than of many canonical writings), it stands as an important witness to the state of Christianity in Rome in the early to mid-second century. Expressing Jewish Christian theological perspective by means of imagery, analogies, and parallels drawn from Roman society and culture, The Shepherd reflects the efforts of its author(s) to deal with the questions and issues … of great significance and concern to him and to that part of the Christian community in Rome to which he belonged. 

Please note that Hermas, author of “Shepherd of Hermas”, lived and wrote in Rome in the first half of the second century. Note *carefully* what he wrote about the leadership of the church at that time:

As I slept, brothers and sisters, a revelation was given to me by a very handsome young man, who said to me, “Who do you think the elderly woman from whom you received the little book was? I said “The Sibyl.” “You are wrong,” he said. “She is not.” Then who is she?” I said. “The church,” he replied. I said to him, “why then is she elderly?” “Because,” he said, “she was created before all things; therefore she is elderly, and for her sake the world was formed.”

Afterwards I saw a vision in my house. The elderly woman came and asked me if I had already given the little book to the elders (presbuteroi, plural). I said that I had not given it. “You have done well,” she said, “for I have words to add. So when I finish all the words they will be made known to all the elect through you. Therefore you will write two little books, and you will send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Then Clement will send it to the cities abroad, because that is his job. But Grapte will instruct the widows and orphans. But you yourself will read it to this city [Rome], along with the elders (presbuteroi) who preside (proistamenoi – plural leadership) over the church.” (Vis 2.4)

Hermas could not be more clear. There is a plurality of presbyters who “preside over” the church at Rome. This is no fuzzy mention, as in Ignatius, of a church in “a place of honor”. This is a primary source document from within the city of Rome that provides support for all of the “scholarship” that some of you decry, the “snippets” which speak of a “gap” in the “unbroken succession within the first century of the church. But this is not all there is. Later, Hermas reiterates the structure of this leadership, and the fact that they are not leading, but rather that they fight among themselves. He calls them “children”.

Now, therefore, I say to you [tois – plural] who lead the church and occupy the seats of honor: do not be like the sorcerers. For the sorcerers carry their drugs in bottles, but you carry your drug and poison in your heart. You are calloused and do not want to cleanse your hearts and to mix your wisdom together in a clean heart, in order that you may have mercy from the great King. Watch out, therefore, children, lest these divisions of yours [among you elders] deprive you of your life. How is it that you desire to instruct God’s elect, while you yourselves have no instruction? Instruct one another, therefore, and have peace among yourselves, in order that I too may stand joyfully before the Father and give an account on behalf of all of you to your Lord.” (Vis 3.9)

Roman Catholics often point out much later sources about “papal primacy” and authority. But virtually all of these sources are wrong about the “pope and the scriptures vis-à-vis the origin of the holy Father’s authority”, as one Roman Catholic writer suggested to me. By the time of Augustine, and probably much earlier, the great Roman propaganda machine was well under way, extolling its own glories, its own authority, and why not? It had tremendous amounts of money, a tremendous level of influence within the city and later the surrounding regions.

But, “the Rise of the Papacy”, as Robert Eno, S.S. aptly titled his work, was not “development”. It was an act of conquest. There were armed insurrections. It took centuries. But when you’ve got money, power, and influence, you can “have your way” with a lot of lesser folk.

Hermas already, in the first half of the second century, provides us with a very clear picture of the leadership of the church of Rome at that time. Hermas is chastising the multiple leaders of the church at Rome. This is important to note because Hermas identifies himself as a slave (Vis. 1.1). It will not do to say that this is a group of priests who work for a bishop. The entire group “presides.”

Here, in the leadership of the church of Rome, there are multiple elders who “preside”; they are acting like sorcerers. Already, amidst the persecutions, they exult in their wealth. They take the seats of honor. They want to teach, but they are guilty themselves of having no instruction. They fight among themselves as to who is greatest.

This is very clear writing. Very clear reporting of what the church was like. For those of you who want to understand what the leadership structure of the church at Rome was like, it is hard to find a better primary source witness than Hermas.

There was no “Bishop of Rome” for the first hundred years. After that, Rome supported its own propaganda effort by the “back-fill” method which I’ve called “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”. Look for it, it’s there.

So by the late fourth, early fifth century, its no wonder that you’ve got bamboozled bishops like Augustine, thinking that a pope is something great. Once Augustine is bamboozled, later generations of Roman Catholics use HIM as well, to support the papacy. It all built on itself over the centuries. But it was built on a foundation of Hermas’s elders who fought among themselves over which one of them was greatest. 


  1. "The Papacy’s Missing Link"

    Catholics accuse Protestants of revisionism.

    Protestants accuse Catholics of revisionism.

    You're doing invaluable yeoman's work John. If nothing else, the Called to Communion crowd should appreciate you for being the Iron that sharpens their Iron.

  2. Thanks Truth. This is a compilation of some other stuff I've posted in other places; I have posted a lot of the background material, but I have wanted to try now to bring things together in more of a "soundbite-ready" form. The scholarship behind it is pretty widely known and agreed upon in those circles. The thing to do is to have an easy-to-comprehend story that the average reader can understand.