Sunday, 21 August 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 24

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time

In the dragon's den
by G.R. Ballleine

No CLEAR statement that Peter visited Rome can be found earlier than about A.D. 170; so in the thirteenth century the Waldenses denied that he ever went there. But the controversy died away.

Even the debates of the Reformation failed to revive it. Luther said: `Some scholars deny that Peter came to Rome. I give no decision on this.' But modern historians are divided. The great majority believe in his visit, but some dissent strongly.

Both sides agree that by the end of the second century all Christians believed that Peter died in Rome. About 170 Dionysius of Corinth wrote in a letter to Rome, `Peter came to Italy, and, having taught there, suffered martyrdom.' A few years later Irenaeus in Gaul declared that Peter and Paul `entrusted the bishopric of Rome to Linus'. About the same time Clement of Alexandria stated that Mark's Gospel was compiled from memories of `what Peter had taught in Rome'; and Tertullian in Carthage referred to `those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber'. The contexts show that these writers were not copying one another, but alluding to a fact believed in places as far apart as Greece and Egypt, North Africa and Gaul.

It is strange that no earlier document survives which mentions Peter's death, for readers of Acts must often have wondered what happened to him. But an immense number of Christian manuscripts were systematically seized and burnt during Diocletian's persecution, and some may have told the story. But, in spite of the lateness of the evidence, Peter's visit is probably true.

The argument from silence is impressive. The Fourth Gospel, when it speaks of `the death by which he' (Peter) `would glorify God', assumes that everyone knew that he had been martyred; and, if many knew this, some must have known where it happened. Yet no city but Rome ever claimed to possess his grave.

A greeting in his Epistle, however, seems decisive, `She who is in Babylon salutes you'. He is evidently writing from a place which he calls `Babylon'. A few scholars maintain that he means the famous city in Mesopotamia. But nine out of ten are convinced that, when he says `Babylon', he, like the author of the Book of Revelation, means Rome.' If so, it is clear that towards the end of his life he was in Rome.

How long did he work there? Tertullian states that he was martyred under Nero, who died in June 68. It is often assumed that he was one of the victims of the massacre of 65; but the scanty evidence we possess points to a later date. No early Father took much interest in dates till Eusebius, about 325. He puts Peter's death in 67, and so does the Liber Pontificalis. Epiphanius (375) puts it in 66, Jerome in 68. But all agree that it was later than 65.

One clue may help to fix the year more precisely. If the story is true that Peter died in Nero's garden, only the Emperor could have given permission for that. But he was in Greece from September 66 till March 68. So our choice lies between the first half of 66 and April or May 68. The latter date is unlikely. As soon as Nero returned to Italy, he heard of the revolt. His last two months were spent in frantic efforts to save his crown. But in 66 he had leisure. Christians were still under suspicion of having caused the fire. The wholesale slaughter was over, but, whenever a Christian was caught, he would be executed; and the crucifixion of a leader like Peter might well be made one grisly item in some public spectacle. This date would account for the tradition that Peter was Bishop of Rome for twenty-five years. If he first went to Rome after his escape from Herod at Easter 42 and died in August 66, ancient methods of reckoning would count the odd months as a year.

It seems reasonable therefore to assume that Peter reached Rome soon after the massacre, and worked there for nearly two years before his arrest. This was a different Rome from the city he had visited twenty-three years before. That had been a friendly place, welcoming strangers, and interfering with no man's religion. Now in apocalyptic language it was the den of a seven-headed dragon, a harlot city drunk with the blood of Saints, the most dangerous spot on earth for an Apostle to enter. If Peter had played the coward once in the High Priest's courtyard, he more than atoned when he ventured into Rome to help the remnant cowering under Nero's maniac fury.

The stunned survivors of the butchered Church sorely needed a leader, and the way Rome revered Peter later shows that it realized how much it owed him. Paul, too, had taught in Rome, and been martyred there; but Rome regarded Peter as its Bishop, and it was round what it thought was Peter's tomb that its early Popes were buried. If he had welded the shattered groups into a united Church, this would explain his prestige. Paul had been an honoured visitor, but, whoever may have founded the Church in Rome, Peter was its re-founder.

The most urgent problem was, what should a Christian's attitude be towards a Government so ruthlessly hostile? Peter discussed this in the letter he sent about this time to Asia Minor, where he believed, perhaps mistakenly, that persecution would soon break out; and we may be sure the advice he sent to Pontus he would also give in Rome, `Submit to the civil authorities for the Lord's sake.' Nero may be a monster, but he and his magistrates exist to preserve order and suppress crime. Respect the Government. Obey the laws. Don't provoke Rulers recklessly. One policy, and one only, can check persecution. Well-doing is the best reply to the charge of evil-doing. Real goodness wins respect even from hostile neighbours. `Let your life among pagans be so praiseworthy, that they learn to glorify God by seeing your good deeds.'

Peter bade them face their trials with cheerful courage: `Keep cool. Keep awake.' `Don't get flustered at the fiery ordeal.' `Gold has to be tested by fire, and your faith is more precious than gold.' `You will be sharing Christ's sufferings.' `Therefore be glad.' Never hide your colours. `Always be ready to explain your hope to any who ask you; but do it courteously, that revilers of the Christian life may feel ashamed.' Above all let there be no divisions among you. `Be of one mind, full of brotherly love.' `Love draws a veil over countless faults.' `Welcome one another into your homes.' `Greet one another with a kiss.'

After Peter's arrival the crippled Church enjoyed a brief respite. Other problems kept Nero busy. The rebuilding of the city was a gigantic task. The Emperor himself was designing a Golden Palace. In the spring of 65 a plot was unearthed among the Senators, and many heads fell. A Government plunged in a life-and-death struggle with its own aristocrats has no time to think of obscure sectaries. Peter had eighteen months or more in which to rebuild the Church.

One picturesque idea must be dropped. Films have shown Peter and his flock burrowing like rabbits down a maze of underground tunnels to hold their services. The catacombs are one of the sights of Rome, five hundred miles of narrow tunnels lined with tiers of tombs. But most of these were made in the fourth century. It is doubtful whether any existed in the days of Peter, and, if they did, they were burial places, not places of worship. In Rome, as in Jerusalem, Christians worshipped in private houses.

Three miles out of Rome on the Appian Way near the present Church of St. Sebastian are ruins of a tiny chapel, on the walls of which some fifth-century visitor scratched Domus Petri (the home of Peter). He probably had before him the Latin inscription, which we know Pope Damasus placed on one of the buildings in this group. His tablet has disappeared; but a seventh-century pilgrim copied it:

"You who are seeking the names of Peter and also Paul, Know that it was here that these Saints once dwelt."

This evidence is late, and sounds improbable. Why should Peter live so far out of Rome, and next door to a large police station, which would make it impossible for Christians to resort to him for services? Its very improbability, however, suggests that some truth may lie behind the tradition, and we know from Juvenal that there was a Jewish settlement here. There are ruins of a Roman villa behind this little chapel. Was the owner a Christian? Had he once received Paul as a guest? And when the hunt for Peter grew hot, had he hidden him in one of his outbuildings, on the site of which the Domus Petri Chapel was later built?

But for most of the time Peter must have lived inside the city. Two churches claim to stand on the site of houses in which he stayed, St. Pudenziana on the site of the house of the Senator Pudens (Pudenziana was his daughter), and St. Prisca on that of the house of Prisca and Aquila; but in neither case does the claim stand close scrutiny.

Somewhere, however, he must have found a large room in which he could meet the Brethren, and here he gathered round him a group of helpers-Silvanus, an old friend whom he had known in Jerusalem, Linus, whom he is said to have chosen as his successor, Clement, who was made the hero of the Clementine Romances, and Marcus (`Marcus, my son,' Peter calls him') the author of our earliest Gospel, Peter's interpreter when talking to Latin-speaking Romans.

It is generally assumed that this Marcus was the John Mark, of whom we read in Acts. But Marcus was a very common name, and there are grounds for thinking that Marcus of Rome and John Mark of Jerusalem were different persons.

Thanks to Marcus we can listen to fragments of Peter's Roman sermons, for early authorities agree that Mark's Gospel was based on his memories of Peter's teaching. Papias said about 140, `Marcus, Peter's interpreter, wrote accurately all he could remember.' Irenaeus about 186 said, `After the death of Peter and Paul, Marcus, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing what Peter preached.' And Jerome said, `Marcus, the interpreter of the Apostle, did not himself see the Lord, but narrated faithfully those things which he heard his master preach.'

So by his help we can picture the old Apostle telling his flock, who were daily in danger of martyrdom, how Jesus had foreseen their troubles: `Brother will betray brother to death, and fathers their children. The whole world will hate you.' `Anyone who wants to follow Me must be ready to shoulder his cross and carry it to the place of execution.' `Anyone who tries to save his life will lose it.'

But He had added, `He who holds out to the end, he will be saved.' This was the teaching that inspired those words, quoted in II Timothy: `If we die with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him.'

From time to time we seem to catch glimpses of current events in Rome. The story of the tribute-money sums up Peter's policy towards Nero, `Give Caesar what is due to Caesar and God what is due to God.' The rebuke to John for checking someone who was working in Christ's Name, `because he followeth not us', was perhaps a warning against the jealousies that had proved so fatal in Rome.

The many stories of conflict with the Pharisees suggest that the Jews in Rome were proving antagonistic. But on the diet laws Peter had evidently changed his mind since his Antioch days. When reporting Christ's saying, `Nothing that enters a man from without can defile him'-persons cannot be defiled by things-Marcus's comment is, `By saying this He pronounced all food to be clean.'

Peter's sermons were unlike those of Paul. Paul had never known Jesus. So his teaching was largely doctrinal, dealing with deep, abstract ideas, election, redemption, sanctification.

Peter talked about the Jesus of History, the Friend he had known in Galilee. Acts says that Peter told Cornelius how `God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, and He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by demons. They hanged Him on a cross and killed Him; but on the third day God raised Him again.' That is almost an exact summary of Mark's Gospel. Peter's constant aim was to make everyone feel how wonderful was this strong Son of God. Nothing evil could stand against Him. Those who fell beneath His spell renounced all to follow Him.

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