Early Papal Martyrology

A Catholic apologist challenged something I had written concerning a letter by Clement of Rome that supposedly validated the oft-heard Catholic claim of papal supremacy.

Read again Clement’s letters. I would also recommend of good source on the historicity of the early Popes...all of whom, btw, gave their lives for the faith in the first 3 centuries.

Clement spoke for the Universal Church, when he wrote to the church of Corinth and exhorted them to keep to the traditions of the apostles as passed on to them and taught to the faithful by the Bishop..

Those claims, though frequently proposed by clearly uninformed Catholic faithful, cannot be supported from history. Not having time to take a crash course on the historicity of the early popes, I turned to Catholic historian Richard P. McBrien's Lives of the Popes, HarperSanFrancisco (1997). All quotes below, with the exception of passages from the Scriptures, are from that volume:

I am not 100% convinced Peter ever made it to Rome, but I agree he was martyred.

Although Catholic tradition, beginning in the late second and early third centuries, regards St. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome and, therefore, as the first pope, there is no evidence that Peter was involved in the initial establishment of the Christian community in Rome (indeed, what evidence there is would seem to point to the opposite direction) or that he served as Rome's first bishop. Not until the pontificate of St. Pius I in the middle of the second century (ca. 142-ca. 155) did the Roman church have a monoepiscopal structure of government (one bishop as pastoral leader of a diocese).Those whom Catholic tradition lists as Peter's immediate successors (Linus, clement, et al.) did not function as the one bishop of Rome.(The succession lists were passed down by St. Irenaeus of Lyons [d. ca. 200] and the historian St. Hegesippus [d. ca.180], and were attested by Eusebius of Caesarea [d. ca. 339], often called the "Father of Church History.") The Roman community seems instead to have had a corporate or collegial form of pastoral leadership. Those counted among the earliest popes, therefore, may very well have been simply the individuals who presided over the local council of elders or presbyter-bishops of the community. In any case, the popes of the first four centuries—that is, until the watershed papacy of Leo I in the middle of the fifth century—functioned with relatively limited authority beyond Rome and its immediate environs. (page 25)

By the way, McBrien is Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University. I reckon he qualifies as a "good source on the historicity of the early Popes." In his discussion of the authority enjoyed by the earliest "popes," McBrien added:

For example, Pope Sylvester I (314-35) seems to have exercised no discernible influence over the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in 325. He neither convened it nor attended it. The same can be said of Pope Damasus I (366-84) with regard to the second ecumenical council held in Constantinople in 381, and of Pope Celestine I (422-32) with regard to the third ecumenical council held at Ephesus in 431. (page 25)

My Catholic antagonist attempted to protect his claims by remarking that many early church documents were destroyed in the early years of the church, but he reckoned enough have survived to back up his argument.

History tells us that many of the documents of early church history were destroyed during the pagan persecutions of the first three centuries, but ample records remain to show that the Bishops of Rome exercised the supreme power of teaching, ruling and judging.

Is that the case? Did those early bishops of Rome truly exercise "the supreme power of teaching, ruling and judging"? Not according to Professor McBrien:

Neither is there any evidence that the bishops of Rome actually governed other local churches, legislated for them, or appointed their bishops. At most, the bishops of Rome during those first four centuries may have exercised a kind of metropolitan authority over neighboring Italian sees, which came to be known as suburbicarian sees. But there is less evidence even for this that there is for the clearly "sovereign" authority exercised by the see of Alexandria over all the churches of Egypt and Cyrenaica. (page 2)

Wow! This "good source on the historicity of the early popes" does appear to disagree with the popular Magisterial party line as concerns the power and authority of all those early popes. How many times have I read a claim that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was universally recognized by all Christian bishops from the time of Peter? If what McBrien writes is true, and I have a greater inclination to believe him than I do someone who has abrogated the right to think for himself, when did the Roman bishops begin to assert authority over other sees?

The first pope who reached out to assert his authority beyond the borders of his own ecclesiastical community and its suburbicarian sees was Victor I (189-98), an African. It was Victor who ordered other churches to conform to the Roman practice of celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (the day of Passover). (page 26)

Well, enough of this good stuff. Time to move on and look at some history concerning how all those popes of the first 300 years "gave their lives for the faith." I am going to name every one of those popes and provide a comment concerning his martyrdom. What follows was found in McBrien's book, cited above:

1. Peter [d. ca. 64] "…there is increasing agreement among historians and biblical scholars that Peter did go to Rome and was martyred there…However, there is no evidence that before his death Peter actually served the church of Rome as its first bishop, even thought the "fact" is regularly taken for granted by a wide spectrum of Catholics and others…" (pages 29-30)

2. Linus (67-76) "There is no evidence to support the legend that Linus died as a martyr and was buried on Vatican Hill close to Peter…" (page 34)

3. Anacletus (76-88) "The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ca. 339) reports that he did in the twelfth year of the Emperor Domitian's reign (81-96). The tradition that he died a martyr is also unattested." (page 34)

4. Clement (88-97) "There is no historical evidence to support the claim that Clement died a martyr or that he was banished to Crimea, where he is said to have preached the gospel while doing forced labor in the mines and was later drowned in the Black Sea with an anchor around his neck." (page 36)

5. Evaristus (97-105) "There is little or no reliable information about him. Specifically, there is no basis for the claim that he died as a martyr and was buried on Vatican Hill near St. Peter." (pages 36-37)

6. Alexander I (105-115) "The Liber Pontificalis repeats a Roman tradition that Alexander was beheaded on the Via Nomentana, a road leading outside of Rome, but the tradition evidently had confused him with an actual martyr of the same name whose tomb was discovered along that road in 1855. Indeed St. Irenaeus (d. ca. 200) identifies no martyrs among these early Roman leaders until Pope Telesphoros (ca. 125-ca. 136)" (page 37)

7. Sixtus I (115-125) "There is also no foundation for the claim that he died as a martyr and was buried on Vatican Hill near St. Peter." (page 38)

8. Telesphoros (125-136) "Telesphoros is the only second-century pope whose martyrdom is historically verifiable." (page 38)

9. Hyginus (136-140) "Hygenus was regarded as a martyr (and was included in the Roman Martyrology), but there is no historical evidence to substantiate that belief or the pious tradition that he was buried on Vatican Hill near St. Peter." (page 38)

10. Pius I (140-155) "Pius I was the first of the listed popes to have functioned as the single, or sole, Bishop of Rome. Before his pontificate, the Roman church seems to have been governed by a council or group of presbyters or presbyter-bishops. Those regarded by Catholic tradition as popes before the pontificate of Pius I may simply have been the most prominent members of those governing groups…Although Pius is mentioned in a somewhat unreliable ninth-century martyrology compiled by St. Ado of Vienne (d. 875), there is no evidence that he was martyred or that he was buried on Vatican Hill near St. Peter." (page 39)

11. Anicetus (155-166) McBrien supplied no information concerning the death of Anicetus.

12. Soter (166-175) "Although Soter was later venerated as a martyr, there is no evidence that he died a martyr's death." (page 41)

13. Eleutherius (175-189) "Eleutherius is first mentioned as a martyr in the somewhat unreliable ninth-century martyrology complied by St. Ado of Vienne (d. 875)." (page 41)

14. Victor (189-198) "Though later venerated as a martyr, there is no evidence that Victor suffered a martyr's death or that he was buried on Vatican Hill near St. Peter." (page 42)

15. Zephrynus (199-217) "There is no evidence, however, to support the tradition that Zephrynus died a martyr's death, but there is some basis for the belief that he was buried in his own cemetery near that of Callistus on the Apian Way." (page 43)

16. Callistus I (217-222) "Callistus is the first pope, after Peter, whose name is commemorated as a martyr in the oldest martyrology of the Roman church, the Depositio Martyrum (ca. 354)…Although his name appears in the oldest Roman martyrology, it is questionable whether he was, in fact, a martyr. As historians point out, there was no persecution during his pontificate. (pages 43-44) p align=justify>17. Urban I (222-230) "Urban had a generally peaceful pontificate, because it fell within the imperial reign of Alexander Severus (222-35), in which there were no persecutions of Christians…Contrary to pious belief, Urban did not die a martyr's death." (pages 44-45)

18. Pontian (230-235) "Pontian was the first pope to abdicate the papal office…He did so only because he had been deported by the new, anti-Christian emperor Maximus Thrax to labor in the mines on the island of Sardinia…Pontian died less than a month after his resignation…A fourth-century martyrology lists Pontian as the first Roman bishop-martyr (after Peter)" (pages 45-46)

19. Anterus (235-236) "Because his pontificate was less than two months long (he died a natural death), there is nothing to be said of Anterus except that he was the first pope to be buried in the newly-completed papal crypt in the cemetery of Callistus on the Apian Way." (page 46)

20. Fabian (236-250) "Almost all of Fabian's fourteen-year pontificate was peaceful (two emperors, Gordian III and Philip the Arab, were generally tolerant of the Church), but after Decius ascended to power (249), a new and vicious persecution was initiated. Fabian was arrested and was among the first to die, probably as a result of brutal treatment in prison." (page 46)

21. Cornelius (251-253) "When the new emperor, Gallus, resumed the persecutions in June 252, Cornelius was arrested and deported to Centumcellae (present-day Civitivecchia, the port of Rome). Before dying there the following June, Cornelius received a warm letter of support from Cyprian." (page 48)

22. Lucius I (253-254) "Because he suffered for the faith in exile, Lucius can be regarded as a confessor (the technical name for one who suffers for the faith, short of death). There is no evidence, however, that he died as a martyr. (page 49)

23. Stephen I (254-257) "Stephen appears to have been the first pope to have appealed to Matthew 16:18 ("…you are Peter…") as the basis of the primacy of the Roman church and its bishop. He died a natural death and was buried in the papal crypt in the cemetery of Callistus on the Apian Way." (page 50)

24. Sixtus II (257-258) "More correctly known as Xystus, he is one of the Church's most highly venerated martyrs." (page 51)

25. Dionysius (260-268) "Contrary to one tradition, Dionysius was not a martyr. He is buried in the papal crypt in the cemetery of Callistus on the Apian Way." (page 52)

26. Felix I (269-274) "Contrary to one tradition, Felix did not died a martyr. He is buried in the papal crypt in the cemetery of Callistus on the Apian Way." (page 53)

27. Eutychian (275-283) "The tradition that he died a martyr is without foundation, however." (page 53)

28. Caius (283-296) "The pontificate of Caius, more accurately known as Gaius, occurred during a continued period of peace when the Roman church seems to have consolidated its position." (page 54)

29. Marcellinus (296-304) "It is not clear when, and if, Marcellinus either voluntarily abdicated his office or was formally deposed…Because of various reports of his execution by the emperor after allegedly repenting of his actions, he came to be venerated as a martyr and his name was included in the ancient Roman Canon of the Mass. However, he is not mentioned in the martyrology of St. Jerome or in the Gelasian Sacramentary." (pages 54-55)

Well, there you have it. I did as my Catholic correspondent suggested; I consulted "a good source on the historicity of the early popes." Did you notice? That Catholic source failed to support the allegation that every one of the popes during the first 300 years gave his life for the faith. In fact, this knowledgeable Catholic source failed to confirm that all those men named in the Roman Church's list of early popes actually were popes or, for that matter, even bishops. Following the party line and faithfully parroting everything one is told may be an easy way for a guy to convince himself that he is an authority on Catholic esoterica, but if he fails to check out on what he is told, it is quite possible that he might be shown to have placed his trust in a false prophet.

In my articles, I make a practice of identifying the sources from which I draw support. Personal opinion is fine, but unsupported personal opinion carries little weight in a serious discussion, and even less in an apologetic polemic. There is another, secondary, benefit from using sources other than one's own opinion, especially when one's antagonist assumes a superior or pontifical mien. Unless an apologist is quite certain of the accuracy of his data, it may not be a good idea for him to tell the opposition to consult an external source. The antagonist might just do that and, perhaps, make the one who suggested doing so look a fool.

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not. - 2 Peter 2:1-3

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