Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes / Edition 3

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Overview

This abundantly illustrated book encompasses the extraordinary history of the papacy, from its beginnings nearly two thousand years ago to the reign of Pope John Paul II.
"Duffy offers a comprehensive overview of the 2,000-year history of the papacy. . . . This digestible survey provides a compelling introduction to one of the most durable and significant institutions to influence the course of Western civilization."—Booklist
"As [Duffy] works his way through the papal roll of honour and dishonour, he is always careful to re-create the political, social and economic background to different reigns. He eschews opaque ecclesiastical jargon and, where a theological or doctrinal dispute has to be explained, he does so in a way that even those unversed in biblical concepts or Christian history will immediately grasp. . . . [An] outstanding work of popular scholarship."—Peter Stanford, The Daily Telegraph
 
 

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Sunday Globe - Katharine Whittemore

"Wonderfully readable."—Katharine Whittemore, Boston Sunday Globe
John Adamson
[A] minor masterpiece which is everything good, popular history ought to be... . The most comprehensive single-volume history of the popes in print.
Sunday Telegraph
Piers Paul Read
Duffy enlivens the long march through church history with anecdotes that bring the different pontiffs to life... . Saints and Sinners is a remarkable achievement.
The Times (London)
Henry Chadwick
A distinguished text ... offering plenty of historical facts and sobering, valuable judgments.
New York Times Book Review
Economist
Will intrigue the faithful as well as the skeptical.
Gloria J. Tysl
A wonderful history of the popes ... a book that will fascinate anyone wishing to better understand the history of the Catholic Church and the forces that have shaped the role of the papacy.
Christian Century
Donald L. Gelpi
Duffy's sprightly and sometimes anecdotal style moves the reader effortlessly through the centuries, highlighting popes whose tenure changed the shape of the papacy.
America
Gary Wills
[A] fine survey of the papacy.
New York Review of Books
Patrick Collins
A grand and critical overview of an institution which Duffy believes has been ‘on balance a force for human freedom and largeness of spirit'.
Times Literary Supplement
Robert Louis Wilken
This new book offers the most comprehensive one-volume history in English of the popes from ancient times to the pontificate of John Paul II... [Duffy's] account is judicious and fair throughout.
Commonweal
Peter Stanford
An outstanding work.
The Daily Telegraph
R.A. Markus
This is as fair-minded, as full and as interesting a survey as a one-volume history of the papacy can be expected to be. Clear, elegant and lively, the book is very readable. It is a stunning achievement, to be grateful for.
The Tablet
Bookwatch
An excellent college-level reference.
Jerry Bartram
Lively and informative read... Duffy peoples his story with real men, and casts interesting, sometimes poignant light on their lives.
Globe and Mail
Catholic News Service
The history of the papacy is a fascinating study whether you consider it theologically, politically, or economically. Duffy offers a masterful blending of all three in this beautiful book.
Catholic News Service
Mario Basini
The story has all the ingredients of a best-seller. Love, lust, nail-biting struggles for power, a passion for goodness, sometimes an almost equal appetite for evil.
The Western Mail
John Morrill
A wonderful study of heroism and flawed humanity.
Catholic Herald
Thomas Shelley
The narrative is full of charming vignettes... deserves to be sipped like good wine.
Church
Henry Chadwick
Includes both good illustrations and a distinguished text...offering plenty of historical facts and sobering, valuable judgments.
The New York Times Book Review
John Adamson
A minor masterpiece which is everything good, popular history ought to be...the most comprehensive single-volume history of the popes in print.
Sunday Telegraph
Kirkus Reviews
A sumptuous feast of popes and kings, nimbly prepared by historian Duffy, a fellow at Magdelen College, Cambridge.

This book is intended as a tie-in to a six-part British television series on the history of the papacy, scheduled to appear on the History Channel in the spring of 1998. For a companion volume, this history is surprisingly dense and sophisticated. More important, although Duffy certainly remarks on the papacy's more salacious past (like Boniface's comment that sex with boys or women was no more sinful than "rubbing one hand against another"), he never stoops to a tabloidesque fascination with the all-too-human foibles of the pontiffs. Rather, Duffy uses the evolving institution of the papacy from Peter to John Paul II as a lens through which to view two millennia of Western civilization. He profiles the missionary activity of the early Church, the consolidation of power with the bishop of Rome (who became the acknowledged pope), the emergence of monastic reform, the schism with Constantinople, the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy in 14th-century Avignon, Luther's protest, and the Catholic Reformation that met his challenge. If the last third of the book seems to lose some of its energy, it might be because, as Duffy subtly observes, the modern papacy is a quite different institution than its predecessor. Shorn of political power and the most obvious signs of avarice, it now commands a holy respect. Duffy claims that the current pope asserts "a spiritual status . . . greater than at any time since the high Middle Ages."

With its 150 well-chosen illustrations, 100 of them in color, this is a coffee-table book that transcends its genre.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115970
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2006
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 380,122
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity, and fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, is also the author of The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 and The Voices of Morebath, both published by Yale University Press. 
 

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Table of Contents

I 'Upon this rock' c. AD 33-461
I From Jerusalem to Rome 1
II The bishops of Rome 13
III The age of Constantine 23
IV The birth of papal Rome 37
2 Between two empires 461-1000
I Under gothic kings 48
II The age of Gregory the Great 59
III The Byzantine captivity of the papacy 72
IV Empires of the West 86
3 Set above nations 1000-1447
I The era of papal reform 110
II From papal reform to papal monarchy 128
III The pinnacle of papal power 138
IV Exile and schism 151
4 Protest and division 1477-1774
I The Renaissance popes 177
II The crisis of Christendom 196
III The counter-reformation 208
IV The popes in an age of absolutism 230
5 The pope and the people 1774-1903
I The church and the revolution 247
II From recovery to reaction 260
III Pio Nono : the triumph of ultramontanism 286
IV Ultramontanism with a liberal face : the reign of Leo XIII 305
6 The oracles of God 1903-2005
I The age of intransigence 319
II The attack on modernism 325
III The age of the dictators 332
IV The age of Vatican II 354
V Papa Wojtyla 369
VI The way we live now 386
App Chronological list of popes and antipopes
App How a new pope is made
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

`UPON THIS ROCK' AD 33-461

I From Jerusalem to Rome

Round the dome of St Peter's basilica in Rome, in letters six feet high, are Christ's words to Peter from chapter sixteen of Matthew's Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum (Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church and I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven). Set there to crown the grave of the Apostle, hidden far below the high altar, they are also designed to proclaim the authority of the man whom almost a billion Christians look to as the living heir of Peter. With these words, it is believed, Christ made Peter prince of the Apostles and head of the Church on earth: generation by generation, that role has been handed on to Peter's successors, the popes. As the Pope celebrates Mass at the high altar of St Peter's, the New Testament and the modern world, heaven and earth, touch hands.

The continuity between Pope and Apostle rests on traditions which stretch back almost to the very beginning of the written records of Christianity. It was already well established by the year AD 180, when the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons invoked it in defence of orthodox Christianity. The Church of Rome was for him the `great and illustrious Church' to which, `on account of its commanding position, every church, that is the faithful everywhere, must resort'. Irenaeus thought that the Church had been `founded and organised at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul,' and that its faith had been reliably passed down to posterity by an unbroken succession of bishops, the first of them chosen and consecrated by the Apostles themselves. He named the bishops who had succeeded the Apostles, in the process providing us with the earliest surviving list of the popes -- Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, and so on down to Irenaeus' contemporary and friend Eleutherius, Bishop of Rome from AD 174 to 189.

All the essential claims of the modern papacy, it might seem, are contained in this Gospel saying about the Rock, and in Irenaeus' account of the apostolic pedigree of the early bishops of Rome. Yet matters are not so simple. The popes trace their commission from Christ through Peter, yet for Irenaeus the authority of the Church at Rome came from its foundation by two Apostles, not by one, Peter and Paul, not Peter alone. The tradition that Peter and Paul had been put to death at the hands of Nero in Rome about the year AD 64 was universally accepted in the second century, and by the end of that century pilgrims to Rome were being shown the `trophies' of the Apostles, their tombs or cenotaphs, Peter's on the Vatican Hill, and Paul's on the Via Ostiensis, outside the walls on the road to the coast. Yet on all of this the New Testament is silent. Later legend would fill out the details of Peter's life and death in Rome -- his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ (the `Quo Vadis' legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus in the time of the Emperor Nero. These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church -- Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter's later life or of the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve.

That the leadership of the Christian Church should be associated with Rome at all, and with the person of Peter, in itself needs some explanation. Christianity is an oriental religion, born in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine. Its central figure was a travelling rabbi, whose disciples proclaimed him as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes, the Messiah. Executed by the Romans as a pretender to the throne of Israel, his death and resurrection were interpreted by reference to the stories and prophecies of the Jewish scriptures, and much of the language in which it was proclaimed derived from and spoke to Jewish hopes and longings. Jerusalem was the first centre of Christian preaching, and the Church at Jerusalem was led by members of the Messiah's own family, starting with James, the `brother' of Jesus.

Within ten years of the Messiah's death, however, Christianity escaped from Palestine, along the seaways and roads of the Pax Romana, northwards to Antioch, on to Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica, and westwards to Cyprus, Crete and Rome. The man chiefly responsible was Paul of Tarsus, a sophisticated Greek-speaking rabbi who, unlike Jesus' twelve Apostles, was himself a Roman citizen. Against opposition from fellow Christians, including Jesus' first disciples, Paul insisted that the life and death of Jesus not only fulfilled the Jewish Law and the Prophets, but made sense of the world, and offered reconciliation and peace with God for the whole human race. In Jesus, Paul believed that God was offering humanity as a whole the life, guidance and transforming power which had once been the possession of Israel. His reshaping of the Christian message provided the vehicle by which an obscure heresy from one of the less appetising corners of the Roman Empire could enter the bloodstream of late antiquity. In due course, the whole world was changed.

Paul's letters to the churches he founded or visited make up the largest single component of the New Testament, and the story of his conversion and preaching dominates another major New Testament text, the Acts of the Apostles. He was, without any question or rival, the most important figure in the early history of the Church. But he was never its leader. From the start, the Church had no single centre: it was founded at Jerusalem, but Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, and already there were flourishing churches throughout the Empire at Antioch (where the disciples of Jesus were first called `Christians') at Corinth, at Ephesus and at Rome itself. Paul's authority was immense, even beyond the churches he himself had founded. But he had never known Jesus, and did not feature in the foundation stories of Christianity. Though he claimed and was conceded the status of `Apostle', he was not one of the `Twelve', and had not walked the roads of Palestine with the Son of God. With Peter, however, it was a different matter.

The New Testament speaks with many voices. It is not a single book, but a library, built up over half a century or so from traditions of the remembered sayings and actions of Jesus, early Christian sermons, hymns and liturgies, and the letters of the great founding teachers of the early Church. Despite that, the Gospels do offer a remarkably persuasive portrait of Peter the Apostle, a Galilean fisherman whose original name was Simon Bar Jonah. Warm-hearted, impulsive, generous, he was, with his brother Andrew, the first to respond to Jesus' call to abandon his old life and become `fishers of men'. Ardently loyal and constantly protesting his devotion to Jesus, Peter is just as constantly portrayed in all the Gospels as prone to misunderstand Jesus' mission and intentions, angrily rejecting Christ's prophecy of his Passion, refusing to have his feet washed at the Last Supper, snatching up a sword in a misguided attempt to protect Jesus when the Temple police come to arrest him in Gethsemane. Peter acts first and thinks later. His denial of Christ in the courtyard of the High Priest -- and his subsequent bitter repentance -- are all of a piece with the other actions of the man as he emerges from the sources.

In all the Gospels he is the leader, or at any rate the spokesman, of the Apostles. Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke Peter's name occurs first in every list of the names of the Twelve. In each Gospel he is the first disciple to be called by Jesus. At Caesarea Philippi, at the turning-point of Jesus' ministry, it is Peter who recognises and confesses him as the Messiah, thereby explicitly expressing the Church's faith in its Lord for the first time. Peter is the first of the inner circle of disciples permitted by Jesus to witness his transfiguration on the mountain, and it is Peter who (foolishly) calls out to Christ in wonder and fear during it.

Of all the evangelists, it is Matthew who insists most on the centrality of Peter. In particular, Matthew elaborates the account of Peter's Confession of Faith at Caesarea Philippi. In his version, Jesus declares Peter's faith to be a direct revelation from God, and rewards it by renaming Simon `Kephas', Peter, the Rock. He goes on to declare that `upon this Rock I will build my Church, and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven', the text that would later come to be seen as the foundation charter of the papacy (Matthew 16:13-23). There is an equivalent scene in the final chapter of the Gospel of John. Christ, in an exchange designed to remind us of Peter's threefold betrayal of Jesus during the Passion, asks Peter three times, `Do you love me?', and in response to the Apostle's reiterated `You know everything, you know that I love you,' Jesus three times commands him, `Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.' For John, as for Matthew, Peter is the privileged recipient of a special commission, based on the confession of his faith and trust in Christ (John 21: 15-17). The special status of Peter in the Gospels, his commission to bind and loose, to feed the sheep of Christ, flow from his role as primary witness and guardian of the faith. In the subsequent reflection of the Church that complex of ideas would decisively shape Christian understanding of the nature and roots of true authority. The office of Peter, to proclaim the Church's faith, and to guard and nourish that faith, would lie at the root of the self-understanding of the Roman community and their bishop, in which it was believed the responsibilities and the privileges of the Apostle had been perpetuated.

Unsurprisingly, the relationship between Peter and Paul seems to have been uneasy, and Paul's attitude to Peter prickly and defensive. Paul himself provides the evidence for this unease in the earliest New Testament document to mention Peter, the Epistle to the Galatians. Anxious to vindicate his independent claims, he seems determined to concede as little as possible to the senior Apostle. Nevertheless, he recognises Peter's special place. It is to Peter, he tells us, that he went for information after his conversion, staying with him for fifteen days and seeing no other Apostle except James, the Lord's brother. He tells us also that Peter was charged with the mission outside Palestine to the Jews of the diaspora, while he, Paul, was sent to the Gentiles. In chapter two of the Epistle, Paul tells of his famous rebuke to Peter at Antioch, when he `withstood Peter to his face', protesting against the fact that the leader of the Apostles had tried to conciliate hard-line Jewish Christians worried about breaches of the kosher laws, by abandoning his previous table-fellowship with Gentile converts. Paul tells this story to vindicate his own independent authority, and maybe his superior fidelity to Gospel teaching, over against Peter's notorious proneness to cave in to hostile criticism. The whole account, however, derives its rhetorical power from Paul's awareness of the shock-value for his readers of his temerity in `withstanding [even] Peter to the face'. If Peter's authority were not recognised by Paul's readers as being especially great, Paul's rebuke would not have carried the frisson of daring which the passage clearly intends.

The picture of Peter which emerges from Paul's writings, as the most authoritative Apostle and head of the mission to the Jews of the Mediterranean diaspora, is developed and elaborated in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles. Though other disciples play important roles, here in these early chapters of Luke's continuation of his Gospel Peter is the dominant figure. He leads the Pentecost proclamation of the resurrection, presides over the meetings of the young Church, works many miracles, is rescued from prison by angels, and even pre-empts Paul's later role as Apostle to the Gentiles by baptising the centurion Cornelius, having received a vision from heaven revealing that this was God's will. Mysteriously, however, Peter fades out of the Acts of the Apostles, and of the New Testament, after his escape from prison in chapter twelve. Luke tells us enigmatically only that Peter sent word of his escape to James, now the leader of the Jerusalem church, and then `departed and went to another place'. Of his subsequent career the New Testament has nothing at all to say.

Neither Paul, Acts nor any of the Gospels tells us anything direct about Peter's death, and none of them even hints that the special role of Peter could be passed on to any single `successor'. There is, therefore, nothing directly approaching a papal theory in the pages of the New Testament. Yet it is hard to account for the continuing interest in Peter in the Gospels and Acts unless Peter's authority continued to be meaningful after his death. Matthew, whose Gospel was probably written for the church at Antioch, clearly thought so. He follows his account of the giving of the keys of the kingdom to Peter, the commission to bind and loose, with an extended section of instructions about the ordering of Church life. In it the authority of the community is backed up with the promise that `whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven' (Matthew 18:18). Peter was widely believed to have founded the church at Antioch, and this unmistakable echo of Christ's words to him about binding and loosing in Matthew 16:16 seems to imply that, for Matthew, Peter's authority continued within his community.

The same sense that Peter's authority is perpetuated within the Christian community is in evidence in the New Testament writings attributed to Peter himself. The First Epistle of Peter claims to have been written by the Apostle, in a time of persecution, from `Babylon', an early Christian code-name for Rome. Many scholars have detected an early Christian baptismal sermon buried under the letter format, however, and the elegant Greek style of the letter make it very unlikely indeed that it is Peter's unaided work. Possibly it represents Peter's teaching mediated through an educated amanuensis. Whether he wrote it or not, however, Peter is presented in the letter not merely as an apostle and witness of the saving work of Christ, but as a source for the authority and responsibilities of the elders or governing officials of the Church. He writes to `the elders among you', uniquely for an apostle, as `a fellow elder', thereby underlining the continuity between the authority of the Apostles and that of the elders who now lead the Church which the Apostles had founded. The other hearers of the letter are urged to submit to the elders, whose role is presented as that of shepherds, tending the flock of Christ, the Chief Shepherd, and leading by humble example. This imagery might of course be derived directly from any number of Old Testament passages in which God is depicted as the Shepherd of his people, but its similarity to the Johannine commission to Peter, `feed my lambs, feed my sheep', is very striking, and can hardly be a coincidence.

A general belief in the precedence of Rome emerged in the Christian writings of the second century, and was accepted apparently without challenge. From its beginnngs, this was rooted in the claim that both Peter and Paul had ended their lives in martyrdom at Rome under the Emperor Nero. On this matter, the New Testament is not much help. The last chapter of John contains a mysterious reference to Peter in old age having to `stretch out his arms' and being led where he does not wish to go: the early Church believed this referred to his crucifixion (John 21:18). As we have seen, I Peter places Peter in Rome, and is very much a letter of comfort in the face of persecution. It is shot through with references to the `fiery ordeal' and sufferings which its hearers are enduring, but it says nothing direct about Peter's own death. The Acts of the Apostles, similarly, ends with Paul in Rome, preaching `quite openly and unhindered', with no hint of a coming martyrdom.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt the ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome during the Neronian persecution of the mid 60s AD. The universal acceptance of this belief among early Christian writers, and the failure of any other Church to lodge competing claims to the possession of the Apostles' witness or their relics, is strong evidence here, especially when taken together with the existence of a second century cult of both saints in Rome at their `trophies' -- shrines at their graves or cenotaphs over the sites of their martyrdoms. These monuments were mentioned by a Roman cleric around the year AD 200, and their existence was dramatically confirmed by archaeology in this century. Building-work in the crypt of St Peter's in 1939 uncovered an ancient pagan cemetery on the slope of the Vatican Hill, on top of which Constantine had built the original Christian basilica in the fourth century. As excavation proceeded, it became clear that Constantine's workmen had gone to enormous trouble to orientate the entire basilica towards a particular site within the pagan cemetery, over which, long before the Constantinian era, had been placed a small niched shrine or trophy, datable to c. AD 165. This shrine, though damaged, was still in place, and fragments of bone were discovered within it, which Pope Paul VI declared in 1965 to be the relics of St Peter. Unfortunately, controversy surrounds the methods and some of the findings of the excavations, and we cannot be sure that the shrine does in fact mark the grave of Peter. The fragments of bone discovered there were at the foot of the wall and not in the central niche. We cannot be certain that they are his, especially since executed criminals were usually thrown into unmarked mass graves. It is possible that the excavation uncovered the site of Peter's execution, rather than his burial. Whether it is Peter's grave or his cenotaph, however, the mere existence of the shrine is overwhelming evidence of a very early Roman belief that Peter had died in or near the Vatican Circus.

The early written sources support this tradition. A letter written around AD 96 on behalf of the Roman church to the Christians at Corinth speaks of Peter and Paul as `our Apostles', suffering witnesses of the truth who, `having born testimony before the rulers', went to glory. Writing to the Roman Christians about the year 107, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, declared that `I do not command you, as Peter and Paul did,' a clear indication that he believed that the Apostles had been leaders of the Roman church. Two generations further on, Irenaeus wrote that the Church had been `founded and organised at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul.'

For all these reasons, most scholars accept the early Christian tradition that Peter and Paul died in Rome. Yet, though they lived, preached and died in Rome, they did not strictly `found' the Church there. Paul's Epistle to the Romans was written before either he or Peter ever set foot in Rome, to a Christian community already in existence. First-century Rome had a large and thriving Jewish population, perhaps as many as 50,000 strong, scattered throughout the city but especially concentrated in Trastevere, across the river from the city proper, and organised in over a dozen synagogues. The Roman Jews were an expansive and self confident group, eager to make converts, and they had strong links with Palestine and Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the first centre of the Christian mission, and so it is not surprising that Jews believing in Christ found their way to Rome by the early 40s. By AD 49 they had become a significant presence in the Roman synagogues, and their beliefs were causing trouble. According to the pagan historian Suetonius, the Emperor Claudius became alarmed by the constant disturbances among the Jews over `Chrestus' (a common early form of the name Christ), and expelled them from the city in AD 49. This expulsion can hardly have included all 50,000 Jews, but Jewish Christians certainly were obliged to leave the city, for two of them surface in the pages of the New Testament. The Jewish Christian tent-maker Aquila and his wife Priska or Priscilla were among the victims of Claudius' purge. They moved to Corinth, where they befriended the Apostle Paul (Acts 18:2), accompanying him when he moved on to Ephesus. They eventually returned to Rome, however, where their house became the meeting place of a church (Romans 16:3-5).

Of a church, notice, not of the Church, for Christian organisation in Rome reflected that of the Jewish community out of which it had grown. The Roman synagogues, unlike their counterparts in Antioch, had no central organisation. Each one conducted its own worship, appointed its own leaders and cared for its own members. In the same way, the ordering of the early Christian community in Rome seems to have reflected the organisation of the synagogues which had originally sheltered it, and to have consisted of a constellation of independent churches, meeting in the houses of the wealthy members of the community. Each of these house churches had its own leaders, the elders or `presbyters'. They were mostly made up of immigrants, with a high proportion of slaves or freedmen among them -- the name of Pope Eleutherius means `freedman'.

To begin with, indeed, there was no `pope', no bishop as such, for the church in Rome was slow to develop the office of chief presbyter, or bishop. By the end of the first century the loose pattern of Christian authority of the first generation of believers was giving way in many places to the more organised rule of a single bishop for each city, supported by a college of elders. This development was at least in part a response to the wildfire spread of false teaching -- heresy. As conflicting teachers arose, each claiming to speak for `true' Christianity, a tighter and more hierarchic structure developed, and came to seem essential to the preservation of unity and truth. The succession of a single line of bishops, handing on the teaching of the Apostles like a baton in a relay race, provided a pedigree for authentic Christian truth, and a concrete focus for unity.

A key figure in this development was Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop from Asia Minor arrested and brought to Rome to be executed around the year 107. En route he wrote a series of letters to other churches, largely consisting of appeals to them to unite round their bishops. His letter to the Roman church, however, says nothing whatever about bishops, a strong indication that the office had not yet emerged at Rome. Paradoxically, this impression is borne out by a document which has sometimes been thought of as the first papal encyclical. Ten years or so before Ignatius' arrival in Rome, the Roman church wrote to the church at Corinth, in an attempt to quieten disputes and disorders which had broken out there. The letter is unsigned, but has always been attributed to the Roman presbyter Clement, generally counted in the ancient lists as the third Pope after St Peter. Legends would later accumulate round his name, and he was to be venerated as a martyr, exiled to the Crimea and killed by being tied to an anchor and dropped into the sea. In fact, however, Clement made no claim to write as bishop. His letter was sent in the name of the whole Roman community, he never identifies himself or writes in his own person, and we know nothing at all about him. The letter itself makes no distinction between presbyters and bishops, about which it always speaks in the plural, suggesting that at Corinth as at Rome the church at this time was organised under a group of bishops or presbyters, rather than a single ruling bishop.

A generation later, this was still so in Rome. The visionary treatise The Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome early in the second century, speaks always collectively of the `rulers of the Church', or the `elders that preside over the Church', and once again the author makes no attempt to distinguish between bishops and elders. Clement is indeed mentioned (if Hermas' Clement is the same man as the author of the letter written at least a generation before, which we cannot assume) but not as presiding bishop. Instead, we are told that he was the elder responsible for writing `to the foreign cities' -- in effect the corresponding secretary of the Roman church.

Everything we know about the church in Rome during its first hundred years confirms this general picture. The Christians of the city were thought of by themselves and others as a single church, as Paul's letter to the Romans make clear. The social reality behind this single identity, however, was not one congregation, but a loose constellation of churches based in private houses or, as time went on and the community grew, meeting in rented halls in markets and public baths. It was without any single dominant ruling officer, its elders or leaders sharing responsibility, but distributing tasks, like that of foreign correspondent. By the eve of the conversion of Constantine, there were more than two dozen of these religious community-centres or tituli.

Rome was the hub of empire, the natural centre for anyone with a message to spread -- which was of course why the Apostles Peter and Paul had made their way there in the first place. Early Christianity jostled for space cheek by jowl with the other blossoming new religions of empire, a fact graphically illustrated by the presence of Mithraic shrines under the ancient churches of San Clemente and Santa Prisca (the reputed site of the house of Paul's friends Aquila and Priscilla). Late into the second century the language of the Christian community in Rome was not Latin but Greek, the real lingua franca of an empire that increasingly looked east rather than west. The Christian congregations in Rome themselves reflected the cosmopolitan mix of the capital city, and many had strong ethnic and cultural links back to the regions from which their members had migrated. As a result, the life of the Roman Church was a microcosm of the cultural, doctrinal and ritual diversity of Christianity throughout the empire. By the early second century, for example, the churches in Asia Minor had begun to keep the date of the Jewish Passover, fourteenth Nisan, as a celebration of Easter, whether or not it fell on a Sunday. Those Christian congregations in Rome who came from Asia Minor naturally maintained this regional custom, and this marked them off from `native' congregations, who celebrated Easter every Sunday, and had not yet evolved a separate annual commemoration. Despite these differences, the governing elders of the `native' Roman congregations maintained friendly relations with these foreign communities, sending them portions of the consecrated bread from their own celebrations of the eucharist as a sign of their fundamental unity.

This variety in the customs of Roman Christians was not confined to their calendar. Christianity all over the Roman world in the first and second centuries was in a state of violent creative ferment. What would come to be seen as mainstream orthodoxy coexisted alongside versions of the Gospel which would soon come to seem outrageously deviant, `heretical'. But the outre and the orthodox were not always easy to distinguish at first sight, and the early Christian community in Rome had more than its fair share of competing versions of the Gospel. For Rome was a magnet, attracting to itself a stream of provincial elders, scholars and private Christians, eager to see and learn from so ancient a church, above all eager to visit the resting place of the two greatest Apostles.

Among them came a succession of teachers and thinkers determined to make their mark in the greatest city of the empire. They included the arch-heretic Marcion, who arrived in the city in AD 140. Marcion denied that matter could be redeemed, rejected the whole of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament scriptures, and taught a radical opposition between the angry Creator God of the Old Testament and the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ. He was a wealthy shipowner from the Black Sea, and by way of credentials presented the Roman church with a handsome sum of of money (22,000 sesterces, roughly the annual income of a noble citizen). For a largely lower-class urban organisation with its own overstretched social welfare system for widows, orphans and the elderly, and with an expanding aid-programme to needy churches elsewhere in the empire, wealth on this scale was an eloquent testimonial. Marcion was able to function as an accepted Christian teacher in Rome for several years before his expulsion from communion by the elders of Rome in AD 144: his money was returned.

But Marcion was merely the most influential of a succession of such deviant teachers round the mid century -- men like Tatian, the Syrian philosopher who came to reject the whole of Hellenic civilisation as incompatible with the Gospel, or Valentinus, who taught a bizarre gnostic system (from the Greek word for knowledge) in which thirty `aeons' or spiritual powers emanate from the Supreme God, in male and female pairs, Christ and the Holy Spirit forming one such pair. All these men to begin with at least operated within the loose framework of the Roman church, and Valentinus for a time even entertained hopes of election as bishop or ruling elder.

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