The Earliest Popes

Raised a Lutheran, I have an uneasy relationship to the doctrine of apostolic succession.  This doctrine of the Roman Catholic church claims that the line of Popes extendes backwards in history in unbroken succession all the way to the Apostles.  Therefore, each Pope carries the same apostolic authority as the apostles themselves.

The difficulties Lutherans have with this are several-fold.  First of all, nothing in Scripture defines, mandates, or gives greater value to any  sort of apostolic succession.  While the New Testament makes reference to several types of offices within the Church it does not provide a template for how people are placed into these positions.

Secondly, even if apostolic succession could be said to have any sort of ideal value, the abuses of the papal succession through history demonstrate the objective value of this succession to be severely compromised.  The Western Great Schism, when two popes were simultaneously installed and claimed exclusive authority in the 14th century comes to mind.

Thirdly, on a more pertinent basis to Lutherans, if apostolic succession were somehow Biblically required, we don’t meet that criteria since we have broken off from  the Roman Catholic Church.  This would also apply to every other Christian group outside of the Roman Catholic Church (and to be clear, the Roman Catholics are  not the only ones who maintain a form of apostolic succession but they’re easily the biggest, most obvious group).

Personally, it seemed sketchy to me that we knew who the immediate successors of St. Peter and the other apostles were, since I had never studied this historically.

Well, as I’m currently working my way through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, low and behold here is where that list is most clearly articulated.  In Book III, Chapter III.3, Irenaeus lists the popes  in power up until his lifetime  (this information is also published in the Annuaria Pontifico, a yearly publication of the Roman Catholic Church that details all officials in the Holy See.  Publication of this began in the early 18th century though, and therefore  relies on other writers and historians – such as Irenaeus – for information on the ancient Church:

  • Linus– Irenaeus claims this is the same Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21, the only place he is mentioned in Scripture.  Tertullian makes the claim Clement succeeded the apostles but this is not as well testified to as Linus.  Linus is said to have presided over the Church from somewhere between 64 and 79 AD, though the dates are fuzzy.  While there are a variety of traditions regarding Linus’ rule, few if any of these can be verified.  He is claimed to be the first Roman pope, hailing from Tuscany, and likely designated by Peter and/or Paul before their executions in Rome.
  • Anacletus – Historical documents make mention both of an Anacletus as well as a Cletus and it is uncertain if these were one in the same person.  Little is known of Anacletus, he is not mentioned in Scripture, and he is said to have ruled from the death of Linus until his death in roughly 91AD.
  • Clement – Although Tertullian and later writers claim Clement directly succeeded the apostles the better historical attestation is that he was third in succession.  This is the first pope we have much definite historical data for.  He is presumed by many to be the same Clement mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 4:3.  We have one writing of his that is widely presumed to be authentic – a letter to the church in Corinth.  Other writings are attributed to  him but are also widely disputed.  It is interesting that in relying on the history provided in the translation of these Church Fathers, Clement is presumed to be the successor to the apostles.
  • Evaristus– Not mentioned in Scripture and no historical data about him other than he was fourth in succession after the apostles and died in roughly 107AD.
  • Alexander– Not mentioned in the Bible and other data about him is uncertain.  he is said to have ruled about 10 years, until about 116 AD.  Some believe the site of his martyrdom and burial (traditionally ascribed  as a martyr’s death of decapitation) was discovered by archaeologists in 1855, but this is also disputed.
  • Sixtus– (also spelled Xystus in several ancient documents) He ruled for roughly 10 years until 127AD.
  • Telephorus– Irenaeus indicates he was “gloriously martyred” but we have little other information than this.  He is believed to have ruled until 136AD.
  • Hyginus – Said to have ruled until about 142AD.  Little reliably is known about him but he is said to be of Greek birth.
  • Pius– Said to have ruled from roughly 140AD to 154AD.  Heresies that began to bubble up during the rule of Hyginus continue and expand during Pius’ rule.  This includes Valentinius, Cerdon, and Marcion, all Gnostic teachers who attempted to legitimize their mythologies through metaphorical interpretations of certain verses and details of Scripture, and against whom Ireneaus directed his best known work.
  • Anicetus – He followed Pius and ruled until about 168AD.  Anicetus is said to have debated the proper date to celebrate Easter with St. Polycarp, who  knew St. John personally.  Pope Anicetus maintained the practice in Rome of always celebrating Easter on a Sunday, since the first Easter fell on a Sunday.  St. Polycarp followed the tradition of celebrating Easter on 14th of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week it was, since that was the date of Jesus’ resurrection.  Neither was able to convince the other and both parted amicably and followed their respective traditions, though this issue would continue to be a source of contention between the Western and Eastern churches.
  • Soter – He follows Pius and ruled until 175AD.  Little else is reliably known about him.
  • Eleutherius – Is said to have followed Soter and ruled until about 189AD.  During this time the heresy of the Montanists continued to spread.  Montanus claimed prophetic powers along with two women, Maximilla and Prisca/Priscilla.  They claimed the ability to be mouthpieces of God, not simply speaking in his name but channeling his words as though possessed by Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.  This sect was eventually condemned by the larger church for this emphasis on continued prophetic revelations, moreso than for any particular false doctrine, at least  according to the earliest available (and not entirely reliable)records.

These are the men indicated first by Ireneaus as succeeding the apostles themselves in leadership of the church based in Rome.  There are other sources and lists of the earliest popes often with conflicting or alternate dates, but these sources are deemed less reliable due to their later origins and our inability to determine what their information was based on.

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