Traditionally, in the Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter (formally Simon) is regarded as the first pope in spite of the fact that the word “pope” would not have been attributed to Peter himself. There are several separate, interwoven theological concepts that explain the specific relation between Peter and the papacy: the primacy of Peter, petrine function, and apostolic succession. First, we will turn to an examination of St. Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, which is of specific importance for understanding the primacy of Peter, and then examine the concepts of petrine function and apostolic succession.
Generally, Peter is in the Gospel narratives as having a leading role among the apostles, especially in Matthew’s account. He is among the first two apostles called to follow Christ (4:18-20), is present during the transfiguration of Christ (17:1-13), walks on water (14:22-33), and is the single apostle who has the most recorded dialogue with Christ throughout his ministry. However, the passage which is most important to Peter’s primacy among the apostles, especially in Roman Catholic tradition, is Matthew 16. This passage is believed by the Catholic tradition to be scriptural support for deeming Peter the leader among the apostles of the early church.
In the passage Jesus is conversing with the disciples and begins asking them, “Who do people say that the Son of man is?” (16:13). The disciples respond by listing some of the claims: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or another one of the prophets. After hearing this Jesus follows up with another question: “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15). The only one of the disciples who is said to respond is Peter, who claims, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). It is important to note that at this point in the narrative none of the disciples have identified Jesus as such; they, in fact, seemed to be having difficulty grasping who Jesus is when he attempts to explain. So, this clear and bold identification comes as quite a shock amidst the former confusion and tentativeness.
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