The Pope in Early Christianity

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  • 0:02 The Early Papacy
  • 0:39 St. Peter & Rome
  • 2:46 After Constantine
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the gradual transformation of the early Christian church in Rome, and specifically its bishop, into the incredibly powerful papacy of today.

The Early Papacy

Have you ever been to Vatican City? The halls of the Vatican, and specifically St. Peter's Basilica, are some of the grandest and most ornate edifices in the world, a testament to the grandeur of the Catholic Church and the global religion that is based there. A country unto itself, the home of the Catholic Pope is completely surrounded by the city of Rome. Considering what it is today, it's hard to believe that the Pope and Christianity were once routinely persecuted inside the city's walls. In this lesson, we'll explore just how that changed through examining the changing nature of the Catholic Church's highest office, the Pope.

St. Peter & Rome

The current papacy traces its lineage all the way back to Jesus' most revered apostle, Peter. Prior to Jesus' crucifixion, Jesus purportedly gave the reins of his budding religion to Peter, symbolically gifting him the 'keys to the kingdom'. Peter is therefore recognized by the modern Catholic Church as the first Pope. Peter and the other Apostles after Jesus' crucifixion traveled across the Roman countryside spreading the teachings of Jesus and gaining followers along the way. Eventually, Peter set up his personal ministry in Rome, in the capital of the Empire.

However, it was not all travel and happy converts for the early Christians, especially in Rome. Christianity was considered a small religious cult during the Roman Empire, and Christians were subject to intermittent but brutal bouts of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities and Roman mobs. Some were tortured and killed for refusing to pray to the Roman gods or acknowledge the authority of the Roman Emperor, while others were fed to lions and tigers as part of Roman sporting events.

Because of this, early Christians were rather secretive in their worship. The great cathedrals that dot the landscapes of Europe and North America today were nonexistent in Roman times; instead, Christian worship was often conducted inside the homes of Christians. As such, there was no large, overarching organizational structure as there is today in the Catholic Church.

The Church in Rome, founded by Peter, Paul, and other Apostles, was considered a bishopric of the early Christian Church, but it was only one of several. Other important bishoprics existed in Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and other ancient metropolises. Because of this, the Popes of the first few centuries A.D. were actually little more than bishops of Rome rather than Popes in the traditional sense. What we know of them shows many of them engaging in intense theological debates with the bishops of other cities while simultaneously conducting regular mass for their followers. With Christianity still a small religious cult inside Rome, many of these early Popes died for their beliefs, martyred alongside their followers during episodes of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities.

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