Was the Apostle Peter Ever in Rome?
Among the many differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is the subject of Peter's relation to the church at Rome. The focus of this study is not to determine whether or not Peter was the first pope or bishop of the Roman church; this is assumed to be in error. This paper will simply seek to answer the question, "Was Peter ever in Rome?" The questions of his supposed papacy and mere presence in Rome are not necessarily related; the issues should remain divorced. But was Peter ever in Rom at all? Did he die there? Of course all Roman Catholics say "yes." Protestants are divided on the issue. This paper will present a brief summary of the Biblical and historical evidence supporting the claim that Peter did, indeed, die in Rome under the persecution of Nero, the Roman Emperor.
The Biblical evidence centers on 1 Peter 5:13 where Peter, writing to those of the dispersion, claims to be writing from "Babylon" — "The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, salutes you; and so does Marcus my son." The question to be answered here is "What Babylon?" Is this the infamous Mesopotamian Babylon of Daniel? Or is it another? Three solutions have been suggested.
One suggestion is that this Babylon is not that of Mesopotamia but the small Egyptian town on the outskirts of Cairo. This suggestion will be discarded out of hand, There is absolutely no reason, except to counter the claim of the Romanists, to believe that Peter ever went down into Egypt except to counter the claim of the Romanists. This little Babylon was so insignificant that it would have deserved explanation by Peter if he did, in fact, write from there. To write of Babylon in the ancient near east speaking of the little town of Egypt is comparable to an American easterner speaking of Manhattan and referring to Manhattan, Kansas; exact clarification would be required. Some tradition survives of Mark going to Egypt, but none at all of Peter.
Another suggestion, of course, is that Peter's Babylon is that of Mesopotamia. While there is no evidence or tradition that Peter ever went east to Babylon, the question cannot be settled so easily. The issue here that must be settled is whether or not that Mesopotamian Babylon even existed in the second half of the first century, A.D. If it can be shown that it did not stand in the days of the apostles, then of course this cannot be Peter's Babylon. In 309 B.C. Antigonis I of Macedonia leveled Babylon. Later, in 275 B.C., Antiochus I took away the remaining civilian population and deported them to other cities. Pausanias, a Greek writer and geographer of the Roman period, said that there was absolutely nothing within the walls of Babylon. The city was later re-founded by Antiochus Epiphanes around 160 B.C., and it was later captured by the Parthians in 127 B.C. In the 30's B.C. Hercanus II was in residence there for a while and from him it is known that there was not much to the city at that time. The Roman geographer, Strabo, writing about the time of Christ said "the great city Babylon has become a wilderness." Evidently, the Euphrates River dried up during the time of the Parthians; after that, Babylon was no more (see Jeremiah 51:41-43). From Strabo to Trajan there is no mention of the city extant. Trajan (the Roman Emporer), eager to visit the infamous Babylon, was disappointed when he arrived at the site; it was only a wasted pile of rubble. Add to this observation that there is absolutely no tradition that Peter ever went to Babylon and that there was never a strong Mesopotamian church, it seems rather obvious that the Babylon of 1 Peter 5:13 can not be Babylon of Mesopotamia, the city of the exile.
The third and most probable choice is Rome. Three reasons support this choice. The first is found in 1 Peter 5:13 itself; Peter speaks of his associate, Marcus — no one could ask for a more Roman name. Although this in itself in not necessarily determinative, it does give the impression that Peter is in a Roman area. Next, it is common in ancient Jewish writings to find Rome designated Babylon. This is what John does in Revelation chapter seventeen, and possiblye chapter eighteen. Rome had been the source of great grief to the Jewish people, and the term Babylon was most fitting. The figure was so common to them that it would have been easily understood to be Rome. The last reason for identifying Peter's Babylon with Rome is the overwhelming amount of ancient tradition which states that he died in Rome. Clement of Rome (d A.D. 97) wrote that Peter and Paul were martyred together at Rome. (Lest the critics object that this tradition was begun by the Roman church to bolster their position, notice that this statement came from a man who died probably before the apostle John – long before "Roman Catholicism.") Tertullian, writing about A.D. 200 said the same. Eusebius, the fourth century church historian, said the same as well, adding that Peter's grave was in the Vatican "whether or not this is true may be debated, but he could not have been motivated by any "catholic" sentiment, for the Vatican was nothing then). Eusebius cites as his authority Caius, a Roman writer of the early third century, who said that Peter was buried in a shaft grave in Rome.
The question which rises at this point is whether or not this is an invention of the Roman Catholic Church to justify their own claims. Probably not, for two reasons: 1) The statement of Clement is much too early, and 2) by at least A.D. 170 all Christian burials were in the catacombs, not individual graves. If Caius, or anyone else of his time, had invented the story, he would have said that Peter was buried in the catacombs, for people of his era knew virtually nothing of earlier burial customs. To make the story believable, he (if he had invented it) would undoubtedly have said Peter was in the catacombs. To say that he was in an individual grave, he must have had ample reason.
It seems most in keeping with all information to date to conclude that while Peter was not the first Pope of the church of Rome, he was indeed in Rome. This gives fair evaluation of all the data, while the other theories are virtually without historical support. Scripture (1 Peter 5:13) is still accepted in it's plain meaning, viewing it in its historical context, while the strong tradition is given its place also.