Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Of the famous dispute, whether Peter made the journey to Rome, is it not in the main as frivolous as most other grand disputes? The revenues of the abbey of St. Denis, in France, depend neither on the truth of the journey of St. Dionysius the Areopagite from Athens to the midst of Gaul; his martyrdom at Montmartre; nor the other journey which he made after his death, from Montmartre to St. Denis, carrying his head in his arms, and kissing it at every step.

The Carthusians have great riches, without there being the least truth in the history of the canon of Paris, who rose from his coffin three successive days, to inform the assistants that he was damned.

In like manner it is very certain that the rights and revenues of the Roman pontiff can exist, whether Simon Barjonas, surnamed Cephas, went to Rome or not. All the rights of the archbishops of Rome and Constantinople were established at the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451 of our vulgar era, and there was no mention in this council of any journey made by an apostle to Byzantium or to Rome.

The patriarchs of Alexander and Constantinople followed the lot of their provinces. The ecclesiastical chiefs of these two imperial cities, and of opulent Egypt, must necessarily have more authority, privileges, and riches, than bishops of little towns.

If the residence of an apostle in a city decided so many rights, the bishop of Jerusalem would have been, without contradiction, the first bishop of Christendom. He was evidently the successor of St. James, the brother of Jesus Christ, acknowledged as the founder of this church, and afterwards called the first of all bishops. We should add by the same reasoning, that all the patriarchs of Jerusalem should be circumcised, since the fifteen first bishops of Jerusalem — the cradle of Christianity and tomb of Jesus Christ — had all received circumcision. It is indisputable that the first largesses made to the church of Rome by Constantine, have not the least relation to the journey of St. Peter.

1. The first church raised at Rome was that of St. John; it is still the true cathedral. It is evident that it would have been dedicated to St. Peter, if he had been the first bishop of it. It is the strongest of all presumptions, and that alone might have ended the dispute.

2. To this powerful conjecture are joined convincing negative proofs. If Peter had been at Rome with Paul, the Acts of the Apostles would have mentioned it; and they say not a word about it.

3. If St. Peter went to preach the gospel at Rome, St. Paul would not have said, in his Epistle to the Galatians: “When they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcisions was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.”

4. In the letters which Paul writes from Rome, he never speaks of Peter; therefore, it is evident that Peter was not there.

5. In the letters which Paul writes to his brethren of Rome, there is not the least compliment to Peter, nor the least mention of him; therefore, Peter neither made a journey to Rome when Paul was in prison, nor when he was free.

6. We have never known any letter of St. Peter’s dated from Rome.

7. Some, like Paul Orosius, a Spaniard of the fifth century, say that he was at Rome in the first years of the reign of Claudius. The Acts of the Apostles say that he was then at Jerusalem; and the Epistles of Paul, that he was at Antioch.

8. I do not pretend to bring forward any proof, but speaking humanly, and according to the rules of profane criticism, Peter could scarcely go from Jerusalem to Rome, knowing neither the Latin nor even the Greek language, which St. Paul spoke, though very badly. It is said that the apostles spoke all the languages of the universe; therefore, I am silenced.

9. Finally, the first mention which we ever had of the journey of St. Peter to Rome, came from one named Papias, who lived about a hundred years after St. Peter. This Papias was a Phrygian; he wrote in Phrygia; and he pretended that St. Peter went to Rome, because in one of his letters he speaks of Babylon. We have, indeed, a letter, attributed to St. Peter, written in these obscure times, in which it is said: “The Church which is at Babylon, my wife, and my son Mark, salute you.” It has pleased some translators to translate the word meaning my wife, by “chosen vessel”: “Babylon, the chosen vessel.” This is translating comprehensively.

Papias, who was, it must be confessed, one of the great visionaries of these ages, imagined that Babylon signified Rome. It was, however, very natural for Peter to depart from Antioch to visit the brethren at Babylon. There were always Jews at Babylon; and they continually carried on the trade of brokers and peddlers; it is very likely that several disciples sought refuge there, and that Peter went to encourage them. There is not more reason in supposing that Babylon signifies Rome, than in supposing that Rome means Babylon. What an extravagant idea, to suppose that Peter wrote an exhortation to his comrades, as we write at present, in ciphers! Did he fear that his letter should be opened at the post? Why should Peter fear that his Jewish letters should be known — so useless in a worldly sense, and to which it was impossible for the Romans to pay the least attention? Who engaged him to lie so vainly? What could have possessed people to think, that when he wrote Babylon, he intended Rome?

It was after similar convincing proofs that the judicious Calmet concludes that the journey of St. Peter to Rome is proved by St. Peter himself, who says expressly, that he has written his letter from Babylon; that is to say, from Rome, as we interpret with the ancients. Once more, this is powerful reasoning! He has probably learned this logic among the vampires!

The learned archbishop of Paris, Marca, Dupin, Blondel, and Spanheim, are not of this opinion; but it was that of Calmet, who reasoned like Calmet, and who was followed by a multitude of writers so attached to the sublimity of their principles that they sometimes neglected wholesome criticism and reason. It is a very poor pretence of the partisans of the voyage to say that the Acts of the Apostles are intended for the history of Paul, and not for that of Peter; and that if they pass in silence over the sojourn of Simon Barjonas at Rome, it is that the actions and exploits of Paul were the sole object of the writer.

The Acts speak much of Simon Barjonas, surnamed Peter; it is he who proposes to give a successor to Judas. We see him strike Ananias and his wife with sudden death, who had given him their property, but unfortunately not all of it. We see him raise his sempstress Dorcas, at the house of the tanner Simon at Joppa. He has a quarrel in Samaria with Simon, surnamed the Magician; he goes to Lippa, Cæsarea, and Jerusalem; what would it have cost him to go to Rome?

It is very difficult to decide whether Peter went to Rome under Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, or Nero. The journey in the time of Tiberius is only founded on the pretended apocryphal fasti of Italy.

Another apocrypha, entitled “Catalogues of Bishops,” makes Peter bishop of Rome immediately after the death of his master. I know not what Arabian tale sent him to Rome under Caligula. Eusebius, three hundred years after, makes him to be conducted to Rome under Claudius by a divine hand, without saying in what year.

Lactantius, who wrote in the time of Constantine, is the first veracious author who has said that Peter went to Rome under Nero, and that he was crucified there.

We must avow, that if such claims alone were brought forward by a party in a lawsuit, he would not gain his cause, and he would be advised to keep to the maxim of “uti possedetis”; and this is the part which Rome has taken.

But it is said that before Eusebius and Lactantius, the exact Papias had already related the adventure of Peter and Simon; the virtue of God which removed him into the presence of Nero; the kinsman of Nero half raised from the dead, in the name of God, by Simon, and wholly raised by Peter; the compliments of their dogs; the bread given by Peter to Simon’s dogs; the magician who flew into the air; the Christian who caused him to fall by a sign of the cross, by which he broke both his legs; Nero, who cut off Peter’s head to pay for the legs of his magician, etc. The grave Marcellus repeats this authentic history, and the grave Hegesippus again repeats it, and others repeat it after them; and I repeat to you, that if ever you plead for a meadow before the judge of Vaugirard, you will never gain your suit by such claims.

I doubt not that the episcopal chair of St. Peter is still at Rome in the fine church. I doubt not but that St. Peter enjoyed the bishopric of Rome twenty-nine years, a month, and nine days, as it is said. But I may venture to say that that is not demonstratively proved; and I say that it is to be thought that the Roman bishops of the present time are more at their ease than those of times past — obscure times, which it is very difficult to penetrate.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01