The Record Is Clear: St. Peter Taught in Rome, and Died in Rome
The cumulative historical evidence provides a compelling case for the Catholic claim of Peter’s presence and eventual martyrdom in Rome.
Tertullian wrote circa 200 regarding Rome: “How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s!”
That St. Peter taught and died and Rome is a tradition of the Catholic Church, yet some have disputed the historicity of this claim. However, even outside of comments by Church Fathers, there is Scriptural evidence that also strongly attests to this tradition.
Tim Gray makes a strong case that the typology of Jonah finds fulfillment in Peter. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines typology as “a person, a thing, or an action, having its own independent and absolute existence, but at the same time intended by God to prefigure a future person, thing, or action.” Christians are familiar with Jesus’ comparison to Jonah, prophesying that he will rise from the dead after three days, but Peter also is a type of Jonah.
We know from the Gospel of John that Peter’s father was named John. Yet, when Jesus declares he will build his Church on Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, he refers to Peter as “Simon Bar-Jona,” meaning “Simon, son of Jona.” Some have suggested the Jona here is simply a contraction of John, but just earlier in the same chapter of Matthew speaks of “the sign of Jonah,” which refers to the resurrection after three days, just as Jonah’s body was in the fish for three days. It is unlikely to be coincidental that Peter’s father is referred to as “Jona” shortly after Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah. Just as Jesus is titled the son of David, signifying he will be a type of David by sitting on the throne of David, so too Peter, as the son of Jonah, will be a type of Jonah in some manner.
- There are plenty of similarities between the two:
- Jonah left with a boat from Joppa, while Peter preached in Joppa;
- Jonah fled from God’s presence after being given a command to go to Nineveh, while Peter fled from Christ at the trial of the Sanhedrin;
- Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days in Sheol, while Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, an action that caused loss of salvation;
- Jonah becomes faithful to the God after disobeying his command, while Peter also returns to the faith after denying Christ;
- and so on.
Most significant for whether Peter was in Rome is God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh. As Gray notes in his book Peter: Keys to Following Jesus, Nineveh was the “was the archenemy of Israel.” He writes:
The parallel between Peter and Jonah is that Peter, who was from Zebulon and Naphtali, just like Jonah, would end up taking a ship with Gentiles from Caesarea Maritima so far west that he ended up in Rome. Like Jonah preaching in Nineveh, Peter would preach in Rome, the current archenemy of Israel, in the adversary’s own city.
Peter disappears from the narrative in Acts 12 around the year 42, with Luke writing, “he departed and went to another place.” St. Jerome claims this was the year Peter journeyed to Rome, where he would serve as its bishop until his crucifixion 25 years later.
When Peter reemerges in Acts, it is around the year 50 during the Council of Jerusalem recounted in Acts 15. It just so happens that the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the year 49, and Peter would have been expelled along with them, for he was a Jewish Christian and there was not a sharp distinction between Jews and Christians in the eyes of the Romans.
In the letter to the Romans, written by Paul around the year 55, he declares, “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation.” Commenting on “someone else’s foundation,” Gennadius of Constantinople writes, “The explanation as to why Paul had not yet managed to visit the Romans seems to be that he believed that Peter had already come to them as their teacher.” It wasn’t until later that Paul went to Rome to help build up the Church of Rome with Peter. It is interesting to note that the word “foundation” is used, for this Greek word (themelios) is the same word used by Luke in an analogy for the strength of the Church:
Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation (themelios) upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.
Matthew’s Gospel also contains this passage, but instead of themelios it uses the Greek word petra, the word used by Christ for Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock (petra) I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
Gray’s assertion of Peter’s residency in Rome is implicitly confirmed by Peter himself in his first letter: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” Babylon is a codeword for Rome, confirmed by multiple sources. For example, Chapter 17 of Revelation mentions “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations,” with Babylon resting on a beast with “seven heads,” representing “seven hills,” that is, the seven hills of Rome.
This interpretation is also confirmed by the Church Fathers. For example, the Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea writes, “And Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle which they say that he wrote in Rome itself, as is indicated by him, when he calls the city, by a figure, Babylon.”
That Peter was in Rome so late in his life contextualizes what Jesus says in John’s Gospel about Peter’s fate:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.)
In light of the evidence above, we can conclude that Jesus was referring to Peter’s crucifixion, and due to his advanced age when his first letter was written points to it taking place in Rome. The cumulative evidence provides a compelling case for the Catholic claim of Peter’s presence and eventual martyrdom in Rome, the Petrine tradition having a sound basis in Scripture and Tradition.
- st. peter