Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.25

Otto Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom: die literarischen Zeugnisse. Mit einer kritischen Edition der Martyrien des Petrus und Paulus auf neuer handschriftlicher Grundlage. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd. 96.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 476; 4 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783110208085.  $137.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Zeist, The Netherlands (

Otto Zwierlein, well-known for his important work on the Roman dramatists, argues in this provocative and well documented study that the apostle Peter never visited Rome, did not undergo martyrdom there, was not buried there, and certainly was not the first bishop of Rome. Although Zwierlein does not say much about what his thesis implies for the historical power claims of the Vatican (but see pp. 334-5), these implications are clear enough: the claims are completely unfounded. Yet this is certainly not a theological 'Streitschrift,' it is rather a very sober and thorough philological and historical analysis of all the literary documents from antiquity that are commonly supposed to underpin the Vatican myth.

First, Zwierlein persuasively argues that the reference to Babylon in 1Peter 5.13 cannot be regarded as a metaphor for Rome but only for the (Jewish and Christian) diaspora mentioned in 1.1. Then he demonstrates that, contrary to what is often assumed, the first Epistle of Clement has no knowledge about Peter's life other than what the author could garner from the canonical Acts of the Apostles, and hence he does not know anything about a stay, let alone a martyrdom, of Peter (and Paul) in Rome. The first Christian documents that do mention such a stay and martyrdom (apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, Dionysius of Corinth, etc.) all date from the final two or three decades of the second century and are not based upon historical knowledge; their information can be demonstrated to be based upon a (wishful) misreading of earlier literary sources (e.g., John 21.18-19; Acts 12.18-19).1 Moreover, Peter's activity in Rome is incompatible with the information given in the New Testament about the division of tasks between Peter and Paul according to which Peter was to be the 'apostle of the circumcised' (Gal. 2.8) while Paul was the apostle to the gentiles; and Paul certainly did visit Rome (Acts 28). The fact that early Christian legends had it that Simon Magus, who had been refuted by Peter in Samaria according to Acts 8, moved to Rome where Nero befriended him, necessitated a visit of Peter to that city for a frontal collision between the two to take place (thus the Pseudo-Clementines and Eusebius). This legend was created in the period of the church's struggle with Gnosticism, of which heresy Simon was believed to be the founding father and that, for that reason, had to be refuted again by Peter. The origin and development of the legend of Peter's activities and death in Rome are described in minute detail by Zwierlein who extensively quotes from the relevant sources in the original languages and shows his critical acumen on every page. He proves how in this process of anti-Gnostic struggle, which went hand in hand with the consolidation of the monarchic episcopate, developments that took place in the second half of the second century were retrojected to the middle of the first century (as happened so often) in order to provide them with apostolic authority.

Since the first Letter of Clement and the Letters of Ignatius play a dominant role in the debate about the historicity of Peter's stay and martyrdom at Rome, the question of the date and authenticity of these letters is of paramount importance, and Zwierlein devotes some 150 pages to it. He agrees with the growing number of scholars that regard the Ignatiana as spurious and not dating from the second decade but from the final decades of the second century. The Ignatian corpus bases its theory of a stay of Peter in Rome upon a misunderstood passage from the first Epistle of Clement, a document that itself, too, is spurious and does not date to the final decade of the first century but to the third decade of the second century since it shows obvious knowledge of most, even the latest, New Testament writings;2 and there is little doubt that some of the late New Testament writings were composed in the first two decades of the second century. In this section of the book, Zwierlein demonstrates a considerable familiarity with debates in biblical scholarship. As regards the first Epistle of Clement, he concludes that 'Clement' (the author) is not identical with the third bishop of Rome called Clement, a man who probably never existed (since in the years around 100 CE Rome did not yet have a monarchic episcopate) but whose existence was postulated on the basis of Paul's remark in Phil. 4.3. The upshot of all these - sometimes very technical - arguments is that there is not a single piece of reliable literary evidence (and no archaeological evidence either) that Peter ever was in Rome.

A very important part of the book that follows (337-449) is a new critical edition of the Greek text of the Martyria of Peter and Paul, presented with a full and meticulous critical apparatus and accompanied by a German translation on the facing pages. The importance of this new edition is that for the first time a manuscript from Ochrid (Macedonia, 11th cent.), which is of a higher quality than most other mss., could be used (some photoes are provided at the end of the book). Among many other things, this codex confirms that in the famous 'Quo vadis' scene the original wording was not ποῦ ὧδε = quo vadis? (where are you going?), but τί ὧδε = quo venis? (why do you [Jesus] come here [to Rome]?). The manuscript evidence for both martyria is discussed at great length and a stemma is given at p. 360. Indices locorum et rerum conclude this impressive book.

Zwierlein presents a strong case and his conclusions have a great historical plausibility (although orthodox Catholic scholars will certainly try to disprove them). The reader should know that this book is not an easy read. It is full of technical details. The many hundreds of quotations in Greek and Latin are sometimes provided with translations, sometimes not, and it is unclear what is the guiding principle here, if any (sometimes only a translation is presented). The style of the many footnotes is infelicitous in that only in the first mention of a publication are the full details given, later on only the author's name, which is awkward in the many cases where the first mention was hundreds of pages back and no longer easy to find; and there is no cumulative bibliography. Also the arrangement of the material is sometimes a bit rambling. But to anyone interested in early Christian myth-making this is certainly an indispensable book.


1.   Another case of glaring misreading is Justin Martyr's remark that Simon Magus, once in Rome, even received divine honour in the form of a statue on a bridge over the Tiber with the inscription 'Simoni sancto deo,' but when this inscription was found it turned out to read 'Semoni Sanco deo' (CIL VI.567), being dedicated to the old Italic god Semo Sancus (the case is discussed by Zwierlein at pp. 129-133).
2.   Not all instances of Clement's use of New Testament writings adduced by Zwierlein are equally convincing.

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