Introduction to Peter and the Popes by A. Burt Horsley (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 1–4.


When one walks through the narrow streets and alleys of Rome with their overladen evidence of agelessness, emerging eventually into one of the larger plazas or squares with the ever-present church shrine or monument, there is strong awareness of much religious tradition. Here, indeed, of all places, there transpired many of the great follow-up events of developing historical Christianity. However, one also senses the haunting suspicion that this is window dressing, that it is not properly representative of that which was originally the religion of Jesus. Somehow, the rocks and the mortar and the fungus, the accumulation of centuries, seem to misrepresent the simplicity of that beginning. There is something lacking that can be discovered and renewed to the mind and the memory only with the eventual reference back to the Holy Land itself.

Nevertheless, Catholic tradition has insisted upon a divine founding and inspired perpetuation linking its beginnings with the charge given to Peter in the 16th chapter of Matthew. Therefore, this work will begin with the story of Peter in its proper setting in the Holy Land, but it will also seek to account for the subsequent events and developments which eventually place him in Rome.

In a brief summary-history of the papacy itself, an attempt will be made to portray the evolution of an idea—a concept—that of Petrine primacy or Roman supremacy. The biographical elements cannot be ignored entirely, although they should be minimized. The responsibility of identifying the popes—who they were and what their contributions were—could not be neglected with any degree of justification in a work whose scope pretends to comprehend such things. It will be necessary to examine more carefully and with proper consideration the available evidence and data, claims and counter-claims, the possibility of Peter’s having been the first of the popes as identified in the Catholic tradition. What is really the meaning of the concept or the terminology “upon this rock”?

The great Caesaro-papal conflict, the problem of the relationship of church and state, will be examined with reference to the possible implication of such a relationship for the course of Christian history, the direction of its tradition, the unfolding of its policy and doctrine, and the development of its ecclesiastical structure. The great age of godlessness—the palaces, the luxury, the grandeur, the pontiffs who enjoyed and partook of all that was worldly and available in the Babylon of that day—will come into focus, as also the days of glory and papal power, when the pope as Pontifex Maximus was a great ruling force asserting great civil and secular authority as well as presiding over things religious and spiritual. The days of infamy and humiliation, when the papacy found itself in captivity and removed from Rome—days of confusion and schism within the great institution itself—are also part of this account.

The great medieval synthesis of centuries of new and old ideas in tradition and of the huge accumulation of policies, practices and cultures, barbaric and classic must be examined carefully. What is the effect of the papal annunciation, papal bull or constitution? What force do they carry? What command to duty? What mandates are implied in the concept of papal infallibility? This will be examined searchingly in the light of all that is implied in the phrase “when Peter speaks.” We need also to examine the papacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with reference to the relationship of conciliar authority brought into focus during the two most recent councils, Vatican I of 1869 and Vatican II of 1962–65.

Finally, what of tomorrow—what does the future hold for this great institution we call the papacy of the Roman Catholic church? Of course, it will not be possible to see it in all its grandeur or in its weakness; however, from a certain historical, theological, and cultural perspective, we shall view critically at least some of its many facets. Like other institutions, it has had periods of infamy and greatness as it played out its historical, traditional role. The proportion between the human and the divine in our religious establishments has always claimed premium attention and evoked commentary and opinion while stirring up claims and counter-claims among interested students of theology and history over the centuries. In no single historical institution has the disproportion appeared so immeasurable as in the story of the bishops of Rome. The record shows that the papacy, almost from its inception, has imbibed the imperfections of humanity, albeit to a greater degree in some ages than in others.

From this vantage point in history, it would appear that the memories of those who attempted to perpetuate a reliable account of the unfolding events of the early centuries soon corrupted for us certain impressions which might otherwise have been preserved in fidelity, had they been assisted by a contemporaneous written record. Since they burdened their recollections with the added weight of religious feeling, the problem was compounded all the more. Occasionally, an irrepressible suspicion arises that neither the authors of the Petrine tradition nor Peter’s biographers were any more careful of historical truth than papal historians of subsequent generations. Some, for example, have been accused by later critics of having deeply colored their accounts with popular traditions and fancy. Since the experience of the race has taught us that unrestricted devotion tends to enlarge the object of its affection so that legend takes form gradually under the influence of sympathizing devotees, one might well inquire, where does reliable history begin? In the case of Peter, the story has its beginning in scripture and its ending in the never-never wasteland of Roman-Christian legend and tradition. And, since neither legend nor tradition are to be regarded as historically authentic in the scientific sense, it will be necessary to accept whatever conclusions are arrived at in that frame of reference.

In like manner, the disparity between some of the writings of Paul compared with Luke’s account in Acts, although not really of that serious a nature, has caused some historians to reverse a tradition of priority in primary and secondary source documentation. Normally, biographical writings are accepted as more likely to be objective than autobiographical data in validating historical events. In the case of Paul and Luke, the opposite has apparently been true. Paul, as an autobiographer, has been considered by some critics and historians as a more reliable reporter of the events and people related thereto than Luke as a biographer.

Reflecting this school of thought, Raymond E. Brown refers to the difficulty in distinguishing between Lucan redaction and pre-Lucan sources:

It is still more difficult to move back beyond Lucan redaction . . . to the historical level, . . . and to compare the historical picture of Peter’s role detected behind Acts and its sources with the historical picture we have detected behind the writings of Paul.

He further notes that even though “the apologetic character of Paul’s letters may have lent a subjective coloring to Paul’s report of what happened. . . . Paul was closer to some of the events concerning Peter than was Luke” (Brown, et al., 39–42).

In the meantime, since every qualified inquirer has a right to examine the data and form his own opinion, to search under the rubble of Rome, behind every facade, within the canon or among the pseudepigrapha and, since honest inquiry can do no worse than offer another version, let us return to the sources in search of Simon Peter and his story (see McKay, Ancient Apostles 9).