From Peter: IV.
Catholic tradition holds that Peter brought the faith to Rome. Today, the Vatican’s view of this long-battered, almost certainly inaccurate belief is highly qualified. The actual founder of Roman Christianity is not known. The scholar Peter Lampe, in his groundbreaking work on the origins of Roman Christianity, used multiple sources—ancient pagan history, scripture, archaeological studies—to determine beyond all reasonable doubt that Roman Christianity began as a number of Jewish cells in some of the poorest Roman neighborhoods, particularly the crowded, stinking, and destitute harbor quarter and brick-making neighborhood of Trastevere. Once established, Christian believers gathered in homes across the city and worshipped according to their own understandings, with no centralized authority. There was evident friction between these new Christians and the city’s Jews, one cause of which might have been the Christians’ successful efforts to win non-Jewish God fearers* away from the synagogue. The synagogues fought back in some manner dramatic enough to have moved the emperor Claudius to take action. In the late 40s, Claudius banned a large number of “Jews” (early Christians, almost certainly) from Rome. This expulsion marks Roman Christianity’s first historical appearance.
Despite its eventual destruction of Jerusalem, Rome was not a fierce enemy of the Jews. In fact, Diaspora Jews frequently sought out Rome’s protection, and Rome (Claudius’s expulsion edict notwithstanding) usually provided it. Josephus, the great first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, and others suggest that, among Diaspora communities at least, elite Jews could find favor among the Roman authorities. Even during the Jewish War against Rome, Jews did not suffer unusual maltreatment in Rome, provided they did nothing to support the insurrection.
The first Christians in Rome might have anticipated equal benevolence: as immigrant slaves, many of them occupied a position of similar social ambiguity. In fact, Christianity likely infiltrated Rome via slavery, as a number of Jewish (and, thus, Jewish Christian) slaves were sold to Roman aristocrats by members of the Herodian dynasty. Later, many Roman Christians voluntarily sold themselves
into slavery, the proceeds of which they apparently used to feed the poor in their communities.
The break between Gentile God fearers and Roman Jews did not happen instantly. In all likelihood, a theologically immature form of Christianity reached Rome by the late 30s or early 40s. A decade would go by before Claudius’s expulsion edict. During this time, early Roman Christians, many of them former God fearers, most likely periodically attended the synagogues of their choice, and most of the Jews of these synagogues, however grumblingly, tolerated them. One result of Claudius’s expulsion was to permanently separate Christians from Rome’s synagogues. Less than twenty years later, during the anti-Christian terror of Nero, Jews and Christians were viewed as distinct groups of people.
Well into the third century, not a single Roman church was anything other than a private home. (The world “basilica” does not occur in the Roman tradition until the fourth century.) This lack of a public place of worship made early Christianity much unlike Judaism or paganism; meetings between pagan groups often occurred in private homes, but to worship there was unusual. Yet Roman Christianity as a whole apparently had access to quite a bit of money. Various scattered references allow us to infer that by the middle of the second century Roman Christianity was the richest of all the world’s Christian communities and had been for some time. Roman support was a good thing for the Christians of the Mediterranean world, but it caused unease among the Christians of Rome, who feared the corruption of the faith as it moved deeper down the corridors of power. The Shepherd of Hermas,
a product of early Roman Christianity that dates from the beginning of the second century, contains a devastating portrait of rich, hypocritical Roman Christians.
Just as there were no churches in early Roman Christianity, there were no “popes.” There were, perhaps, presbyters or bishop-like figures but no single recognizable leader of the faith. Paul mentions no leader in his letter to the Romans, and neither does Ignatius in his letter to the city, written roughly fifty years later. The first titles of identifiable ecclesiastic authority do not occur before the middle of the third century.
For Catholics, then, it would seem that the only salvageable part of Peter’s foundation of the Roman church was the idea that Peter came to Rome and ultimately died there. And now, in the grottoes, Zander and I were getting close to his supposed tomb.
He encouraged me to explore, but much of the area was a red-velvet-rope-lined maze used to corral those not fortunate enough to have Zander guiding them. There were two grottoes: the Old Grottoes (the part contiguous to Saint Peter’s nave) and the New Grottoes (a U-shaped gallery beneath the basilica’s central crossing), which are older than the Old Grottoes but were opened to visitors later. Hulkingly squat columns divided the Old Grottoes into three aisles festooned with the doorless crypts of several popes and esteemed Catholics, including John Paul I; Queen Christina of Sweden; and Adrian IV, the lone Englishman in the history of the papacy, who had been entombed beneath a Medusa-headed sarcophagus for reasons unknown even to Zander. Also here was Pius XI, whose death had instigated the grottoes’ refurbishment.
Hundreds of people were moving through the grottoes’ velvet-rope maze in herd-animal silence. Many of them were priests and nuns. No cameras flashed, and no guidebooks were consulted. A good number of the grottoes’ visitors seemed in a state of reverently subdued grief. Zander suggested we abscond to the part of the grottoes found directly beneath the basilica’s confessio
and directly above the site of Peter’s purported grave.
Above the archway leading into this space was a carved marble scroll sculpture, on which was written sepulcrum sancti petri apostoli
. On either side of the archway, a stone lion lay with its paws forward. Mounted nearby was a pair of angel statues salvaged from Constantine’s Basilica. The archway itself was roped off. Zander seemed genuinely pained he could provide no escort closer than this to the “tomb,” which seemed to glow within a soft ocher light that had no immediately discernible source, other than, possibly, God.
The anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate once rather cunningly condemned the Christian practice of revered burial: “You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers, and yet in your scriptures it is nowhere said that you must grovel among tombs and pay them honor.” There was a time, however, when Christians venerated the dead by drinking half a bottle of wine with a few like-minded friends beside small memorials; when secrecy governed all ritual; when proofs of faith were more personal if no less strongly felt. A few scattered leavings of this abandoned form of Christian devotion could be found in the necropolis, toward which Zander and I now headed.
* Again, pagans who took an interest in the god of the Jews, attended synagogue, or maintained some of Judaism’s behavioral requirements.
Copyright © 2016 by Tom Bissell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.