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Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and the Claim of Rome to Preeminence

From the March 2010 issue of The Word, magazine of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America)

by Deacon Gregory Roeber, Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies, Department of History, Penn State University

The Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul is very ancient, and at the same time, the last historically to be preceded by preparation with a lengthy fast. The Feast is described, in the Byzantine tradition, technically as a "third class/ Vigil rank commemoration" — and in the West as the " Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul." Though it does not rank with Pascha, Nativity, Theophany or Pentecost, it is still very important, as it is the patronal feast of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Most Christians, however, identify Saints Peter and Paul with the city – Rome –where they were martyred, according to tradition. Why Rome? And why does the city and its bishop, and the memory of the two Apostles, matter?.

The Akathist Hymn to the Holy Apostles gives us an important clue, incorporating what we find in the Scriptures as well: Saint Peter is given the place of honor. The Hymn addresses the Head of the Church first – Christ, the Good Shepherd, who "said unto thee, O first-enthroned Peter: If thou lovest Me, feed My sheep." The same Christ admonishes the other apostles about the suitability of the former persecutor Saul of Tarsus (quoting here Acts 9:15); Christ confirmed "thee, O preeminent Apostle Paul: He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear my name before the gentiles." But Christ then addresses the entire college of the apostles with the universal commission of the Gospel of Matthew – to preach to all the nations.
These themes – the primacy of Peter, Paul as the last-called but Peter’s equal before God, and the collegial nature of the apostles’ approach to difficulties – is reflected in the opening of the Akathist Hymn. The Hymn recognizes the primacy of Peter, the linkage of the Church of the Circumcised and the Uncircumcised in the two apostles’ dual ministries, and the collegial obligation of all the apostles and their successors, the bishops of the Church, to spread the Gospel, at the risk of martyrdom, if necessary. The hymn’s scriptural teaching is confirmed in the theology of some of the early fathers, including Saint Irenaeus of Lyon and the Montanist theologian Tertullian. Taken together, they provide us with a proper view of a Petrine ministry, Rome, and the role of a primacy among the bishops for Orthodox Christians in the 21st century.

The commemoration of the apostles’ deaths began around the year 258 during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Valerius. Oral tradition held that the apostles had perished under the emperor Nero sometime in the 60s. Given his Roman citizenship, Paul was granted the privilege of execution by beheading, but Peter, as a Jewish Christian deemed an enemy to the cult of imperial worship was crucified first, according to tradition. The site on the Vatican Hill was, from before the time of Constantine, believed to be the place where Peter’s relics had been hidden. Over an earlier structure whose ruins were excavated in the 1940s beneath the present Renaissance building, the emperor Constantine had constructed that first basilica. The Basilica of Saint Peter is not the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome, but a memorial church where the apostle’s relics have been revered since the fourth century. In 258 the remains of the two apostles had been moved to prevent the persecutors from desecrating them, and a common date chosen to honor them both. By ancient oral tradition, it was Peter who suffered death first, and Paul perhaps a day later. According to Farmer and Kereszty’s Peter and Paul in the Church of Rome, that tradition has left traces in "graffiti on the walls of San Sebastiano near the via Appia [that] show that the cult of Peter and Paul was firmly established there in the first half of the third century," (that is, by the early 200s).
That cult of veneration sprang from the connection between the two men revealed in Holy Scripture. The two knew of each other before Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The account in Acts does not remember Paul after his conversion journeying to talk to Peter (as Paul in the Letter to the Galatians reveals he did). After being sent to Antioch by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), Paul’s argument with Barnabas (vs. 39) "became so sharp that they parted from one another," a reminder that the apostles didn’t always get along swimmingly, as indeed Peter and Paul did not. In his own confession made to the Galatians about his conversion, Paul revealed that he did not go to Jerusalem immediately, but spent time in Arabia. After three years in Damascus, however, when he did arrive in Jerusalem, he visited Peter, not James, the head of the Christian community in the city (Galatians 1:17–18). His choice reflected what he had been taught, since he reminded the Church at Corinth that when Christ arose from the dead "he appeared to Cephas [that is, Peter]; then to the twelve; then he appeared to about five hundred brethren at the same time …; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles" and finally, "last of all, as to one born out of due time, he appeared also to me" (1 Corinthians 15:3–7). In Galatians Paul names those among the "pillars of the church in Jerusalem" who decided that Paul and Barnabas should "go unto the Gentiles, and they [that is, James, Cephas and John] unto the circumcision" (Galatians 2:7–9).

The Scriptures make no attempt to disguise the disagreements between the first and the last of the Apostles that reflected deep division within the broader Church. In Acts Chapters 10 and 11, Luke records Peter’s vision prior to the arrival of Cornelius in which he was instructed not to call unclean anything God has made clean. Tensions and disagreements about the relationship of the Church of the Circumcised to the Uncircumcised persisted, and had to be resolved by conciliar meetings, quite obviously tense and probably unpleasant. Paul says bluntly that he opposed Peter "to his face" (Galatians 2:11) on the question of converted Gentiles being circumcised and observing the Mosaic Law. That this former Pharisee who confessed that he was "zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (Galatians 1:14) should become the defender of the Gentiles as equal heirs of the promises made to ancient Israel figures as one of the more astonishing reminders that God acts in strange ways. The Scriptures point to Paul’s acknowledgment of Peter’s primacy among the apostles, do not hide disagreements between them, and note the important consensus among the "pillars" of the Church in Jerusalem, and the resolution of conflict in the college of the apostles.

It is not this scriptural relationship, however, that actually attracted the attention of the Church fathers. As Farmer and Kereszty note, "the most important early patristic texts which speak of the martyrdom of Peter, and his role in the foundation of the church of Rome (1 Clement, the Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans and the Letter of Bishop Dionysius of Corinth to the Bishop of Rome) do not speak about Peter alone. Paul is always joined with Peter. The two are associated as apostles, martyrs, and the founders of the church of Rome. The two most prominent theologians of the second century, Ireneaus and Tertullian, continue this early tradition."

Were the Church fathers trying hard to get beyond the obvious disagreements by insisting on pairing these two giant personalities as martyr-founders? It would seem so. Having been in Rome himself in 177 AD, Irenaeus informs us in his Against Heresies that it would take too long to "enumerate the successions of all the churches," but he emphasizes instead the tradition – that which was handed down – about "that very great, oldest, and well-known church, founded and established at Rome by those two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, received from the apostles, and the faith she has announced to men, which comes down to us through the successions of bishops … ."

Irenaeus and the other fathers knew their Scriptures, and they did not mean to imply that Peter and Paul "literally" founded the many house churches that may have sprang from the synagogues in pagan Rome. Paul’s Letter to the Romans addresses no particular bishop or elder in the imperial capital and that fact was as well known to Saint Ireneaus as it is to us. Instead, as the Montanist writer Tertullian of North Africa, like Irenaeus, concluded, what everyone remembered was their common witness – that the two apostles "poured their whole teaching along with their blood" into what gradually became a unified church in that city under one overseer or episkopos, his deacons and presbyters. As Allen Brent in his Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order observes, what Irenaeus, along with St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Cyprian and other early writers emphasized, was a connection of bishops "in communion with all other father bishops … [and] the See of Rome … as a focus of unity. The Catholic Church thus became an alternative imperium, presided over by bishops in communion with each other, which now stands in stark contrast to pagan Imperial Order."

The post-apostolic writers were not, therefore, much interested in the historical founding of Christianity in Rome. Rather, theirs is a theological meditation about the importance of martyrdom – the witness of the faith – and it is this apostolic faith that is the key to the two apostles’ importance: they shed their blood along with countless others in the very heart of the pagan empire. That point, recognized by Tertullian in the 200s, informs a sermon delivered in the early 400s by another North African, St. Augustine of Hippo (Sermon 295). St. Augustine notes that the Apostles share the same feast even though they suffered on different days: "Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith." 

Placing the confession of faith first and last in his list – giving it, in classic Latin oratorical style, the place of honor – the Bishop of Hippo points to the central and important aspect of the feast. This same emphasis can be seen in a sermon by Pope Leo the Great, who reminded his listeners that "Rome owes its high position to these Apostles. The whole world, dearly beloved, does indeed take part in all holy anniversaries, and loyalty to the one Faith demands that whatever is recorded as one for all men’s salvation should be everywhere celebrated with common rejoicings. But … it is to be honored with special and peculiar exultation in our city, that there may be a predominance of gladness on the day of their martyrdom in the place where the chief of the Apostles met their glorious end … through whom the light of Christ’s gospel shone on thee, O Rome, and through whom thou, who wast the teacher of error, wast made the disciple of Truth." Leo concludes by insisting that "no distinction must be drawn between the merits of the two … because they were equal in election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death."
Would this story be the same if the two apostles, before their later journeys to Rome, had been martyred in Antioch? Would that city, where the followers of Christ were first called Christian (Acts 11:26), not have assumed the kind of preeminence that the capital city of the Empire received instead? This may appear to be pointless speculation, but it is not. Important though Antioch was, its bishop never (as far as we know) was addressed by the term pope or papa (meaning "father"); however, this term of address to the bishop of Rome was also "from the third century … of the titles of the bishop of Alexandria" (Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West). The understanding of Rome as the first among the bishoprics did not arise because of the political structure of the empire, that is, it was not defended because of "civil pre-eminence, [but] rather … on its status as an unequivocally apostolic see." The term "’apostolic see’ – apostolica sedes – was first used by Pope Damasus (366-84) (Louth). If apostolic presence alone explained Rome’s primacy, however, Antioch surely might have had the prior claim? In truth, the reverence shown for the Church in Rome by the majority of Christians who lived in Asia Minor and Africa, not Europe, did not have anything to do with political considerations, or even just the fact that apostles had once been there.(1)

Instead, Rome, rather than Antioch, came to be revered for a more somber reason. Had the Christian community in Jerusalem, for example, been martyred for the faith, instead of being warned not to perish alongside their rebellious neighbors in the year 70, presumably Jerusalem, had it not been totally destroyed, could also have claimed a preeminently "apostolic" witness. The martyrdom of the Apostle James in that city already counted for much. Instead, as Christianity became first tolerated, and then gradually the official faith of the Empire, Rome acquired the preeminence that is reflected in all of the ecumenical councils’ surviving documents and canons. The gradual displacement of Alexandria by New Rome between the first Council of Nicea in 325 and the reaffirmation of the new capital see’s status of honor by Chalcedon in 451 never cast doubts on Rome’s primacy and orthodoxy. Saint Athanasius the Great fled westward to the bishop of Rome’s protection against his Arian enemies, and Rome continued to witness even at the risk of imperial displeasure, a fact acknowledged by no less an eastern saint than Maximus the Confessor. It was no accident that he made his way to the Lateran Synod of 649 to aid in the condemnation of heresies whose toleration was being promoted by the emperor. Though never personally present at any of the great councils held in the East, the bishops of Rome through their legates played a critical role in articulating the confession of faith – spelling out the implications of Peter’s assertion of what flesh and blood had not revealed to him but the Father: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:17).

If we take seriously the primacy of Peter and his ministry, we are constantly reminded of Peter’s frailty, and the brashness of his faith because of his loving relationship with Jesus. Warned that Satan desired to sift him like wheat, Peter must have reflected often later in life on Jesus’ words that, nonetheless, "I have prayed for you so that when you return to me, you will strengthen your brethren." St. John’s Gospel not only reaffirms that Christ appeared first to Peter after his resurrection – as Paul reminded his readers as well – but that Jesus predicted Peter’s martyrdom: "When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish" (John 21:18).

It is the degree to which Peter – and any bishop of the church anywhere in the world – is willing, like the Good Shepherd, to lay down his life for his sheep that explains the veneration in which the ancient church held both of the apostles, the place where they witnessed, and those who came after them. The persecutions in Rome were, in the last half of the third and the beginning of the fourth century, particularly harrowing. Each of the bishops and their deacons was systematically hunted down and killed by imperial authorities. As a result, a kind of "succession crisis" in the wake of these deaths led the priest Novatian to expect election to the bishopric, only to be passed over. In the resulting conflicts that produced letters exchanged with Cyprian of Carthage in North Africa, one important point emerged: the honor in which Rome was held was an honor based on that Church’s history of heroic martyrdom. Both then and subsequently, regional councils pursued their own business and did not wait for Rome’s approval to deal with their own local disciplinary matters; furthermore, appeals to Rome, including appeals from Christians in the East, stemmed from the universal conviction that Rome was a martyr church, not primarily that it had a legal or juridical claim. The identification of Peter and Paul with Rome is a theological one, and their deaths there, their ultimate confession of faith, is the foundation of "apostolicity" in Orthodox Catholic Christianity, then, and now. (See J. E. Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine for a good survey of the relationship of the African Church to Rome.)

Any "definition" of a "primacy" in the universal Church begins and ends as the Akathist Hymn does – addressing the "most glorious Apostles who laid down your lives for Christ and beautified His pasture with your blood." The definition of primacy must focus on who most closely resembles the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, as the Apostles and Martyrs did. That is why many Orthodox theologians have said that among the many accumulated titles now attached to the bishop of Rome, the most appropriate and theologically correct is also one of the most ancient: "the servant of the servants of God," the title adopted by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, the Dialogist (590–604).

What the continuing dialogues between the Orthodox and the separated bishop of Rome will eventually produce is known only to God. Within the Orthodox community itself, a universal honor of Saints Peter and Paul begins with our own examination of how we, both individually, and collectively, centered on the Eucharist, reflect, or fail to reflect the confession of faith handed down from Peter and Paul with all the holy Apostles. If we are inclined to become dismayed at the absence of the original "first see" from the Orthodox communion, or downhearted about the Primus who struggles to survive in semi-captivity in Istanbul, or troubled by any absence of servanthood among bishops in North America, we should take heart. We have the witness of the Church’s own first apostle – the stumbling, but always penitent Peter who was willing to listen to the sometimes abrasive Paul, and who in the end fulfilled the prophecy Christ made about his laying down his life to strengthen the faith of all the brethren. That peculiar charge of suffering servanthood is given to all the bishops of the Church, but it is not theirs to bear alone. We also, by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, are given the power by the Holy Spirit, whatever our calling in life, to be His witnesses and to rejoice in the communion of all the saints.


1. For a succinct summary of the claim that Rome’s primacy was either of divine origin (Pope Damasus’ Decretum Gelesianum) versus the claim that it was purely honorific in terms of the size and centrality of the imperial capital, see John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 59-66.

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