Papal authority is founded on fanciful claim of succession


In his letter to the Galatians, Paul, sometimes described as the co-founder of Christianity, writing in around AD 50, well before any of the Gospels were written, told of a bitter argument he had in Antioch with the apostle of Jesus, Peter (whom Paul called “Cephas”).

The argument reflected a division among the early followers of Jesus on whether non-Jews could be admitted to the Christian religion – in essence it was whether Christianity was to be a sect of Judaism, which would require circumcision and adherence to Judaic dietary regulations, or an entirely new religion.

Paul wrote of Peter: “I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned; for, until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas [an associate of Paul] was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews’?”


There seemed to have been no appreciation on the part of Paul that Peter was head of the new church, certainly no deference. Indeed, it seems Peter himself had no appreciation of that either for, according to this account, he, Peter, deferred to instructions from another apostle, James, the brother of Jesus, who was regarded in Jerusalem as head of the new religion.

The argument about whether non-Jews should be admitted to the new religion provoked the convening of the first council of the new church, the Council of Jerusalem, which happened apparently shortly after the confrontation between Paul and Peter. What occurred there is told in chapter 15 of Acts of the Apostles. In it is reported Peter spoke in favour of opening the church to non-Jews.

Then Paul and Barnabas told the assembly “of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles”. Then James spoke, saying he had “reached the decision” that the Gentiles should not be troubled by the circumcision requirement but would have to succumb to the Judaic dietary demands. And that was agreed.

So who was running the show at that stage? James? Or the assembly as a whole? Certainly not Peter and it seems Peter did not think so either.

Some several decades later, the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) were written and the Gospel of Matthew – and Matthew alone – recorded Jesus as saying: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (chapter 16.18). Many biblical scholars doubt that this quotation is authentic.

There are other bits of the Gospel which seem to give primacy to Peter but the troublesome bits remain, which, at the very least, cast doubt on the primacy of Peter.

Then there is the fairly stunning evidence that at the moment on which arguably by far the most significant decision in the history of the Catholic Church was taken, the pope was nowhere to be seen. This was at the Council of Nicaea, which was summoned not by any bishop but by the then Roman emperor, Constantine, to adjudicate on competing claims concerning the divinity of Jesus. The council decided Jesus, the son of God, was co-eternal with the father and begotten from the father. It was the basis for what we know now as the Nicene creed.

Yes there is a catalogue of important fathers of the church who subsequently took a different line on the primacy of Peter, but there is no escape from the reality that the great theologian of Christianity, Paul, had scant regard for the status of Peter, and that no one else in the early days of Christianity seemed to have regarded Peter as the gaffer. Certainly from what we know of the Council of Jerusalem, that was so. And, anyway, the great apostle of Jesus turned out to have been someone who had never met him: Paul, not Peter.

Bishop of Rome

And then there is the issue of whether Peter ever made it to Rome and whether, therefore, he could ever have been bishop of Rome. At the very least there is some doubt about that.

Nevertheless, in the next few weeks, amid great and splendid ceremony, 115 elderly men in scarlet robes will decide who should succeed to the primacy of Peter, a primacy Peter probably never possessed, on the basis of a bishopric succession from Peter, a bishopric which may never have existed in the first place. And the elected one will be endowed with a status and authority not known since the fall of empires.

Even from the perspective of Catholic belief, this seems fanciful.

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