WAS PETER IN ROME?
At first glance, it might seem that the question, of whether Peter went to Rome and died there, is inconsequential. And in a way it is. After all, his being in Rome would not itself prove the existence of the papacy. In fact, it would be a false inference to say he must have been the first pope since he was in Rome and later popes ruled from Rome. With that logic, Paul would have been the first pope, too, since he was an apostle and went to Rome.
On the other hand, if Peter never made it to the capital, he still could have been the first pope, since one of his successors could have been the first holder of that office to settle in Rome. After all, if the papacy exists, it was established by Christ during his lifetime, long before Peter is said to have reached Rome. There must have been a period of some years in which the papacy did not yet have its connection to Rome.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
Admittedly, the Bible nowhere explicitly says Peter was in Rome; but, on the other hand, it doesn’t say he wasn’t. In fact, very little is said about where he, or any of the apostles other than Paul, went in the years after the Ascension (cf. Acts 12:17). For the most part, we have to rely on books other than the New Testament for information about what happened to the apostles, Peter included, in later years.
Boettner is wrong when he claims: “There is no allusion to Rome in either of [Peter’s] epistles.” There is, in the greeting at the end of the first epistle: “The Church here in Babylon, united with you by God’s election, sends you her greeting, and so does my son, Mark” (I Pet. 5:13). Babylon is a code-word for Rome. It is used that way six times in the last book of the Bible and in extra-biblical works like the Sibylline Oracles (5:159f), the Apocalypse of Baruch (2:1), and 4 Esdras (3:1). Eusebius Pamphilius, in The Chronicle, composed about A.D. 303, noted that “It is said that Peter’s first epistle, in which he makes mention of Mark, was composed at Rome itself; and that he himself indicates this, referring to the city figuratively as Babylon.” Consider now the other New Testament citations: “Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of her impure passion”” (Rev. 14:8. See also Rev. 16:19; 17:5; 18:2; 18:10; 18:21). These referencescan’t be to the one-time capital of the Babylonian empire. That Babylon had been reduced to an inconsequential village by the march of years, military defeat, and political subjugation; it was no longer a “great city.” It played no important part in the recent history of the ancient world. From the New Testament perspective, the only candidates for the “great city” mentioned in Revelation are Rome and Jerusalem.
“But there is no good reason for saying that “Babylon” means “Rome”,” insists Boettner. But there is, and the good reason is persecution. The authorities knew that Peter was a leader of the Church, and the Church, under Roman law, was considered organized atheism. (The worship of any gods other than the Roman was considered atheism.) Peter would do himself, not to mention those with him, no service by advertising his presence in the capital- after all, mail service from Rome was then even worse than it is today, and letters were routinely read by Roman officials. Peter was a wanted man, as were all Christian leaders. Why encourage a manhunt? We also know that the apostles sometimes referred to cities under symbolic names (cf. Rev. 11:8).
EARLY CHRISTIAN TESTIMONIES
Once St. Peter had been martyred, the testimonies of his sojourn in Rome with St. Paul poured forth in a flood from the early Christian writers.
William A. Jurgens, in his three-volume set The Faith of the Early Fathers, a masterly compendium that cites at length everything from the Didache to John Damascene, includes 30 references to this question, divided, in the index, about evenly between the statements that “Peter came to Rome and died there” and that “Peter established his See at Rome and made the bishop of Rome his successor in the primacy.”
Perhaps the most detailed of these early accounts came from St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 200) in his apologetics work, Against Heresies. He gave a detailed account of succession of the bishops of Rome, from St. Peter down to his own day. He referred to Rome as the city “where Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel and founded the Church.” Clement wrote his Letter to the Corinthians perhaps before the year 70, just a few years after Peter and Paul were killed; in it he made reference to Peter ending his life where Paul ended his. Other notable early examples were St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), who referred to the Church at Rome as “the Church of Peter and Paul” (Letter to the Romans); St. Cyprian (d. 251), who described Rome as “The place of Peter” (Epistle 52); and St. Jerome (d. 420), who called Rome “the See of Peter” (Epistle 15, to Pope Damasus). Around A.D. 166, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth wrote to Pope Soter, “You have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome . . .” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2:25).
No ancient writer claimed Peter ended his life anywhere other than in Rome. On the question of Peter’s whereabouts they are in agreement, and their cumulative testimony carries enormous weight.
WHAT ARCHAEOLOGY PROVED
There is much archaeological evidence that Peter was at Rome; to the point that Pope Paul VI was able to announce officially something that had been discussed in archaeological literature and religious publications for years: that the actual tomb of the first pope had been identified conclusively, that his remains were apparently present, and that in the vicinity of his tomb were inscription s identifying the place as Peter’s burial site, meaning early Christians knew that the prince of the apostles was there. The story of how all this was determined, with scientific accuracy, is too long to recount here. It is discussed in detail in John Evangelist Walsh’s book, The Bones of St. Peter. It is enough to say that the historical and scientific evidence is such that no one willing to look at the facts with an open mind can doubt that Peter was in Rome. To deny that fact is to let prejudice override reason.