Did the Papacy exist when St. John was alive?

Did the Papacy Exist While John Was Alive?

For my money, one of the strongest arguments against the papacy (or at least one of the most interesting) is that the Catholic view requires us to hold that the first few popes after Peter had authority over St. John the Evangelist, even though these popes weren’t Apostles, and John was.

So how do we answer that? I think that the easiest way is to look to history. In particular, what did the Church look like while Clement was in charge of the Apostle John was still living? We can actually answer this question to a certain extent, because we have the writings of both Clement and John. The answer may surprise you. To explore this, I propose asking three questions: (I) when did St. Clement write to the Corinthians?; (II) when did the Apostle John die?; and (III) why does this matter?
I. When Did St. Clement Write to the Corinthians?

Pope St. Clement (Clement of Rome), Author of 1 Clement

Answer: c. 95-96 A.D.

As the University of Exeter’s David G. Horrell explains, “Although a precise and irrefutable dating of 1 Clement is impossible, there is widespread agreement that it was written in the last decade of the first century, perhaps around 95-96 CE.”

On this issue, the modern scholarly consensus is in agreement with the testimony of the earliest Christians, who say that Clement was the third Bishop of Rome (or fourth, if you count St. Peter, who was both Apostle and bishop). Tertullian, writing around 200 A.D., describes how, unlike heretical sects, the Catholic Church has Apostolic Succession. In describing this succession, Tertullian notes that St. Clement was ordained by St. Peter, and was Bishop of Rome:

Let them exhibit the origins of their churches, let them unroll the list of their bishops, coming down from the beginning by succession in such a way that their first bishop had for his originator and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men; one, I mean, who continued with the apostles. For this is how the apostolic churches record their origins. The church of Smyrna, for example, reports that Polycarp was placed there by John, the church of Rome that Clement was ordained by Peter. In just the same way the other churches produced men who were appointed to the office of bishop by the apostles and so transmitted the apostolic seed to them.
Eusebius, the first Church historian, writes that “Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies [in Philippians 4:3], his co-laborer and fellow-soldier.”
This also agrees with the text itself. Pope Clement refers to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul as examples of spiritual heroes from “our own generation”:
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.
Clement also begins the letter by explaining that its tardiness was due “to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves,” an apparent reference to the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian. Finally, he calls upon his readers to “remember” the sayings of Jesus, rather than quoting one of the Gospels, all of which supports a dating of c. 95-96.
II. When Did the Apostle John Die?
1Pontormo, St. John the Evangelist (1525)

Answer: Sometime after c. 96 A.D.

Christian Courier has a very good summary of why the Book of Revelation likely dates to c. 96 A.D., rather than 68-69 (the Preterist view). Meanwhile, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible explains that the Gospel of John isn’t a second-century document, as was once claimed by the opponents of orthodox Christianity:

During the nineteenth century, scholars dated the Gospel [of John] to the last half of the second century because of its perceived Hellenistic influence. In the twentieth century, however, two factors combined to push the likely date of composition somewhat earlier. First, the John Rylands Library Papyrus (P52), a small fragment of a papyrus codex with a few verses from John 18, was discovered in 1935 and dated variously from 117-150 C.E., indicating a date of composition no later than the end of the first century, given the time needed for the text to spread to Egypt. Second, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1948 and their subsequent analysis provided additional evidence both for the complex diversity and thorough Hellenization of first-century Judaism and also for the Jewish background of Johannine motifs previously thought drawn from the gentile world, such as the light/dark duality so prominent in the prologue (1:4-5). A latest reasonable date for the Gospel’s composition, then, is before 100 C.E.

The encyclopedia goes on to argue that while establishing an earliest possible date is more difficult, the general consensus is that John’s Gospel dates to the 90s.

Once again, we find an emerging scholarly consensus on the dating of John’s Gospel and Revelation that correspond with what we find testified to by the Church Fathers, who are clear that John wrote Revelation shortly after the Emperor Domitian’s death, while John was in exile. St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes in Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.) that Revelation was written not long ago, “almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”
St. Clement of Alexandria (155-215) [this isn’t Pope Clement, by the way, but the second-century Bishop of Alexandria] agrees on the date, and notes that the Apostle John was still active as an Apostle during this time period:

For when, on the tyrant’s [Domitian’s] death, he [the Apostle John] returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.

So Pope Clement and the Apostle John are both writing in the immediate aftermath of the Domitian persecution. This gives us a very precise date to work with: September 18, 96, the date of the Emperor Domitian’s assassination. As for the death of St. John, it obviously occurred later. The date 100 A.D. is the consensus (accepted even by those who don’t accept the 96 A.D. dating for Revelation), which is in accord with the Patristic testimony that John wrote Revelation while he was an “old man.”
III. Why Does This Matter?
Map depicting St. Paul’s third missionary journey, including to Corinto (Corinth)

The last two points are relatively non-controversial: it’s generally accepted that 1 Clement was written about 96, and that the Apostle John died about 100. So what? Well, consider how 1 Clement begins. Pope Clement, speaking on behalf of the entire Roman Church, says:

The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from Almighty God through Jesus Christ, be multiplied.

Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury.

What does this mean?

It means that when there was schism within the Corinthian church, they appealed all the way to Rome for assistance and consultation, even though the Apostle John was alive at the time. We don’t know exactly when the Corinthians wrote, but it was early enough that Clement is apologetic for his delayed response in 96 A.D.

Apart from the pope and the Apostles, no one is afforded this kind of respect and deference in the Apostolic age. And when Clement responds, he’s not afraid to order the schismatics to return to the true Church:

Ye therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.

So you have the Roman church intervening in a local church dispute, and issuing orders. You’ve got the Bishop of Rome speaking on behalf of the whole church of Rome. And you’ve got all this going on while the Apostle John is still alive. A standard Protestant ecclesiology would suggest that this matter would have been handled entirely at the congregational level, or barring that, by appealing to the still-living Apostle.

IV. What was the Church’s Reaction to 1 Clement?
The other Clement: St. Clement of Alexandria

How do the early Christians respond to this Roman intervention into the affairs of Corinth? Do they view this as a papist usurpation of John’s Apostolic authority, or as a violation of the autonomy of the local church? Nope. On the contrary, the major dispute following Clement’s letter is whether or not it should be considered Scripture.

St. Clement of Alexandria (the other Clement, mentioned earlier), after citing Scriptural passages on martyrdom, continues:

Moreover, in the Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Clement also, drawing a picture of the Gnostic, says: […]

Even as late as St. Jerome’s book De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), from the late fourth century, we hear that Clement’s letter is still being read liturgically, as if it were Scripture:

He [Clement] wrote, on the part of the church of Rome, an especially valuable Letter to the church of the Corinthians, which in some places is publicly read, and which seems to me to agree in style with the epistle to the Hebrews which passes under the name of Paul but it differs from this same epistle, not only in many of its ideas, but also in respect of the order of words, and its likeness in either respect is not very great.
Of course, this is not to suggest that 1 Clement (or any other papal encyclical, after 2 Peter) is Scripture. Rather, it’s to show that the early Church looks a whole lot more papal than you might expect.
This also puts John’s own Gospel in a whole new light. John makes repeated reference to Petrine authority; for example, in the midst of his Resurrection account, John points out that he waited for Peter before entering the Tomb (John 20:4-5). In the next chapter, he talks about how, at Christ’s command, Peter was able to singlehandedly haul in the net of fish (Jn. 21:11) that the other Apostles were incapable of hauling in (Jn. 21:6). Then he recounts Christ’s commissioning of Peter as Shepherd  (Jn. 21:15-17). In each case, these are details that only John reports, and (assuming that the general consensus on the dating of his Gospel is correct) he is doing so decades after Peter’s death. So why emphasize Petrine authority? Because John wasn’t a rival to Clement or any of Peter’s successors. Both men had roles to play in the Body of Christ, and John built up that Body, from the papacy on down.

2 thoughts on “Did the Papacy exist when St. John was alive?

  1. All I can say is what Jesus said to Simon Peter “upon this rock build my Church”. Jesus cannot deceive nor be deceived.

  2. Pingback: Did the Papacy exist when St. John was alive? | Christians Anonymous

What say you???

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s