The Myth of Papal Primacy

Jason Sylvester
14 min readFeb 28, 2021
St Peter’s Square, Vatican City. Photo Credit: Michael Martinelli

Throughout history, religious institutions have been subject to political authority, as the Vatican was in its early years. However, the bishops of Rome suddenly earned a windfall after finding themselves as the only heirs of a power vacuum starting in 476 when the last Western Roman emperor was deposed. By contrast, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire stayed in power for another thousand years, and the Patriarch of Constantinople remained under imperial control.

That the Vatican rose to such power was mainly due to a series of fortuitous (for the Church) accidents of history, the seeds of which were laid about two hundred years before the fall of the Western Roman Empire. A decision by Diocletian would have unforeseen and long-term impacts on the development of Christianity, as by 286 he had split the empire in two. Diocletian moved the administrative capitals to modern-day Milan for the western half, and to Nicomedia, near what would become Constantinople, in Turkey for the east. This separation into the eastern and western halves would be decisive in the evolution of Christianity into two distinct spheres of influence, as over the centuries the Latin, Catholic western side and the Greek, Orthodox eastern side would permanently schism in 1054. The dividing line between the two halves had repercussions that echo across the millennia, as Diocletian’s border nearly, but not exactly, mirrors the modern boundary for Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia established after a bitter war fought at the end of the twentieth century between an ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population.[1]

Imperial Christianity

After the death of Diocletian and his other co-emperors, Constantine succeeded in reuniting the empire under his sole control by 324, and moved the center of power to his new capital, Constantinople, a New Rome. Now, administrative power was also far from Rome, just as the leading centers of Christian scholarship were in the east, further isolating the bishop of Rome from having much of any influence, to say nothing of primacy. Aside from the fact that Constantine was the first Christian emperor, he is important for many other critical impacts on the direction Christian history took due to his rule, such as his role in defining the Trinity.

Following over a decade of civil war to consolidate his power, Constantine was anxious that the empire return to a pattern of smooth operations. Constantine looked to the Church which had incorporated many facets of imperial bureaucracy into its hierarchical structure, making its integration into the empire much easier, hoping that the administrative network of the Church might be useful in helping to restore order and unity.[2] However, what Constantine found instead of a well-ordered and functioning administration was a Church tearing itself apart in fractious debates over how to define the human/divine nature of Jesus.[3]

Within a year of achieving sole control, Constantine, in his role as Pontifex Maximus or the Chief Priest of Rome, began what became a series of Ecumenical Councils, the first in 325 at Nicaea, to resolve these doctrinal disputes.[4] By doing so, Constantine established a pattern of what came to be known as Roman Imperial Christianity. The defining feature of Imperial Christianity is that it was the emperors and their opinions which dictated what would become Christian orthodoxy regarding the Trinity doctrine. Indeed, every major Ecumenical Council was called by an emperor, not by a Church bishop, and clearly demonstrates the subjugation of the Church and its doctrines to the political needs of the state in maintaining stability. The details of this dispute are not relevant to this discussion, just that there were two factions: the Arians, named after the Alexandrian priest Arius, who advocated that Jesus was similar to God; and the non-Arians, the winning side which has become established orthodox Trinitarianism, who insisted that Jesus was the same as God. That the Arians were the majority opinion did not matter, as Constantine was overwhelmingly concerned with unity and prosperity within the empire, not theological relevance or consistency.

Power Struggles

The Council of Nicaea also passed a series of canons establishing the primacy of the major ‘metropolitan’ bishops, not just of Rome, as having jurisdiction within their respective spheres.[5] Specifically, canons four, six, and eighteen dealt with the jurisdiction of the metropolitan bishops over clerics, deacons, and bishops within their territories. Canon six states:

‘The Bishop of Alexandria shall have jurisdiction over Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis. As also the Roman bishop over those subject to Rome. So, too, the Bishop of Antioch and the rest over those who are under them. If any be a bishop contrary to the judgment of the Metropolitan, let him be no bishop.’[6]

It is helpful to understand the relationship of the major urban bishops to each other, and how Vatican claims to primacy in later centuries are not grounded in historical fact. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch together are known as the Petrine sees, given the purported ties of all three cities to Peter. Unlike Paul who was executed in Rome, the claims that Peter had actually been in Rome are widely considered by biblical scholars to be unfounded.[7] Whereas Peter does have strong ties to the city of Antioch, as reported by his rival Paul, where Peter established its community and tradition claims founded its bishopric.[8] And the Alexandrian Church claims to have been founded by Mark, said to be a companion of Peter and the author of the Gospel attributed to him. Antioch and Alexandria had long been the leading centers of Christian scholarship, and would remain so until these cities were captured during the Islamic conquests of the seventh century — another historical fluke which conveniently removed two more obstacles to Rome’s self-declared claims to primacy. Further, the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria operated independently of each other, with neither subject to any imagined authority of their counterpart in distant Rome.

Despite the claims which arose in later decades of papal primacy, Pope Sylvester I did not attend the Council of Nicaea, and only five Latin bishops were recorded as having gone.[9] In fact, the bishop of Rome never called any of the major councils, and only in 1123, almost a century after the Great Schism, did the Catholic Church call one: the First Lateran Council. Additionally, by moving the seat of imperial control to Constantinople, Constantine created a new seat of Christian power by elevating the bishop of the city to archbishop, a position which would come to rival the other metropolitan bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome for authority.

The Nicene council did not put the issue of the Trinity to rest, and the next council was held in Constantinople in 381. While the Latin bishops were underrepresented at Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople had no western representation whatsoever, and MacCulloch notes that Augustine seemed to have been completely unaware it had taken place.[10] The First Council of Constantinople further reaffirmed the independence of the metropolitan bishops in canon two, but also raised the status of Constantinople in canon three with a passing nod to the status of Rome in ‘prerogative of honour’ only, not in authority.[11] Indeed, this situation indirectly led to the first claims of papal primacy through Peter as a result.

It may have been the lack of the western Church’s inclusion, in addition to upgrading the bishop of Constantinople’s status, which helped fuel assertions of primacy by Pope Damasus I (366–84). Historian Charles Freeman notes that the elevation of the bishop of Constantinople so infuriated Pope Damasus that he retaliated by claiming their primacy rested on their succession from Peter. Further, MacCulloch states that it was only at this time that Peter came to be regarded as the first bishop of Rome and the first claims of direct succession from Peter emerge.[12]

Freeman goes on to stress the highly political nature of the Church in its new Imperial Christian incarnation, particularly for the bishop of Constantinople. Freeman notes that it was important for these bishops to be politically savvy, as ‘in Constantinople more than anywhere else the church was subservient to the state.’ The bishops of Constantinople, being so close to the emperor, evoked resentment in their colleagues from the established Petrine sees and treacherous plots were hatched by their demoted counterparts in Alexandria. Three times within a seventy year period, the Alexandrian bishops succeeded in getting the bishop of Constantinople removed. In 403, John Chrysostom was successfully undermined by Bishop Theophilus; in 431, Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, managed to get Nestorius driven into exile; and in 449, Dioscorus had Flavian deposed.[13] Cyril was no saint, and he, by his own hand, admits to bribing members of the imperial court.[14] Further, Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford, notes that Cyril’s machinations were all about ‘jostling for power,’ triggering the Council of Ephesus in 431 which ‘destabilised the church as bishops hastily changed their theological positions one way and then another.’[15]

As Ephesus failed to settle the status on the divine nature of Jesus as formulated by Nestorius, a further council was called in 451, the First Council of Chalcedon. At this council, the bishop of Jerusalem attained the same full autonomy as his four counterparts, creating a fifth contender for special honor. Given Jerusalem’s history as the place of the crucifixion, the bishop there was granted supra-metropolitan status with authority over the communities in Palestine.

The title for the five bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was changed to patriarch under Justinian in 531, in what came to be termed the Pentarchy, as these positions were given authority over all other metropolitan bishops within their vast territories. The ordering represented priority of special honor only, and in no way conferred any authority of one over any others.[16] The Pentarchy proved to be politically irrelevant to the empire in the long-term, as just over one hundred years after Justinian’s creation, the Muslims captured Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Though the Muslims allowed the Christians to retain their posts, they no longer held any political capital within the Roman Empire. Only Rome and Constantinople remained to exercise authority in western and eastern Europe, respectively, and the Patriarch of Constantinople continues to be the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, just as the pope is in the Roman Catholic Church.

Myth of Papal Primacy

The simple fact is that every early major council was held in the east, amply testifying to the lack of importance the western Church played in shaping doctrine, and reinforces the point that notions of Roman primacy are completely devoid of any historical foundation. Further, from the beginning, the bishop of Rome was never the sole authority, nor was he seen to be by the two other major bishops.

These historical facts are important for understanding why the claims of the later Catholic Church, under Gregory the Great and beyond, which sought to retroactively inject itself into the importance of early Christian history are not only false, but are merely Vatican attempts to deliberately rewrite history in the service of Catholic propaganda.

However, given the handful of appeals to the bishop of Rome in eastern disputes, Catholic apologists claim this is evidence of primacy. For example, the bishops of Alexandria and Caesarea sought the input of Pope Damasus I for the disputed claims to the bishopric of Antioch during the Meletian schism (360–418). Unfortunately for Catholic propagandists, an appeal to an arbitrator does not indicate, nor transfer, any authority to that arbitrator. A sovereign nation seeking a resolution before the International Court of Justice or the World Trade Organization does not transfer any of its sovereignty to those bodies in the matter to be decided. The reason eastern bishops appealed to Rome was to seek concurrence for their views from the Latin Church which had largely remained outside of the great theological debates in the east, particularly regarding the incorporation of Greek philosophy into Christianity.[17]

The leadership of the Catholic Church and its rank and file priests know very well the history of early Christianity, having learned it in their seminary studies, and as such they know the claim of Vatican primacy is a lie. And yet, they perpetuate it nonetheless — which would make any studious observer wonder just how seriously these pious Christians take the ninth commandment: thou shalt not lie. To perpetuate this myth, the Vatican counts on both the Catholic faithful not to question their authority in making such claims, and on the laity’s woeful ignorance of history and people’s general indifference to fact-checking.

In summary, in order to sustain the Vatican’s illusion of primacy, Catholics must wholly ignore four inconvenient truths:

1. That the original ministry was an End-Times cult comprising followers who believed the Kingdom of God would manifest in their lifetimes, and as such there would be no need for a long-term administration in the form of an established church.

2. Consequently, the verse in Matthew naming Peter as the foundation of a church, in addition to Peter’s promotion being absent in the other Gospels and Pauline letters, is considered by biblical scholars to be a later editorial insertion.

3. The other major metropolitan bishops in Alexandria and Antioch were never subordinate to Rome, and by the Nicene canon each was independent.

4. That only well into the first millennium was Rome free from both imperial control and opposition from the Greek half, when popes such as Gregory the Great began to assert primacy only in western Europe, and began a program of rewriting early Christian history and the Vatican’s importance within that context.

Excerpted from Dangerous Ideas


[1] MacCulloch 2009, 196.

[2] Atiya 1991, 1790–92. MacCulloch (2009, 320) posits that following the collapse of the Western Empire many men from prominent families, who would otherwise have entered imperial service, entered the ranks of the Church as an alternate career.

[3] ‘…the profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited’ among the battling bishops. Gibbon 1862, 300.

[4] Some readers may note that Pontifex Maximus is a title used by the popes. This was a title taken over by Augustus and used by emperors until 366, when Bishop Ambrose convinced Emperor Gratian to surrender the role and title during the papacy of Damasus I. The title was taken up and passed on to future popes beginning only in the fifteenth century.

[5] Atiya 1991, 1790–92.

[6] Schaff & Wace 1900, 15. Metropolitan appears as a title for the first time in the documents from the Council of Nicaea.

[7] MacCulloch 2009, 110–11; 292–94. Scholars note that it was odd to associate Rome with Peter over Paul, as Paul had died there, which MacCulloch states leads to lingering suspicions of a retroactive fiction that Peter died there. Further, in the letters of Paul, there was no mention that Peter ever visited Rome. One of Constantine’s lasting impacts on the evolution of Christian history was his prioritization of Peter over Paul by endowing the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica, which added weight to Rome’s claims of primacy through Peter.

The emphasizing of Peter over Paul, in order to solidify the claims to the primacy of Rome, was based on the fraudulent passage of Matthew 16:18, “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” On the illegitimacy of this passage, see Vermes (2003, 361–65) who notes that its absence in the other Gospels should be taken as a sign that Peter’s promotion was not original to Jesus, and should considered as the later creative addition of Matthew or a later editor. Further, considering the early believers were awaiting the End of Days within their lifetimes, there would have been no need for Jesus to establish a long-term Church or a hierarchy of priests, bishops, and popes; all of which were later second-century developments of a community which needed to settle in for the long-haul once the apocalyptic predictions failed to come true.

[8] Peter was strongly associated with Jerusalem and Antioch, not Rome. Indeed, Antioch had a much better claim to primacy through Peter, who had actually been there. See Galatians 2 and Acts 11.

[9] Herbermann et al,. 1913, 44. Pope Sylvester I was represented by two priests, as he was apparently ill and unable to attend.

[10] MacCulloch 2009, 310.

[11] ‘The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved…And the aforesaid canon concerning dioceses being observed, it is evident that the synod of every province will administer the affairs of that particular province as was decreed at Nice.’ Schaff & Wace 1900, 176–78.

[12] Freeman 2002, 204. MacCulloch 2009, 293–94. For further reading on the structure early Church and the eventual emergence of bishops, see the Peter as Bishop subsection in Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene by Bart Ehrman.

[13] Freeman 2002, 204; 255–57.

[14] Cyril of Alexandria 2007, 151–53. An example of just one of the thirteen itemized bribes: ‘(5) To the prefect Chryseros, that he would cease to oppose us, we were forced to dispatch double amounts: six larger wool rugs, four moderate rugs, four larger rugs, eight place covers, six table cloths, six large bila rugs, six medium sized bila, six stool covers, twelve for chairs, four larger caldrons, four ivory chairs, four ivory stools, six persoina, four larger tables, six ostriches; and if he shall have acted in accordance with what were written to him by the most magnificent Aristolaus with the lord Claudianus as mediator: two hundred pounds of gold.’

[15] Frankopan 2015, 52–53.

[16] Schaff & Wace 1900, 382. The ordering and independence were reaffirmed at the Council of Trullo in 692 in canon thirty-six: ‘Renewing the enactments by the 150 Fathers assembled at the God-protected and imperial city, and those of the 630 who met at Chalcedon; we decree that the see of Constantinople shall have equal privileges with the see of Old Rome, and shall be highly regarded in ecclesiastical matters as that is, and shall be second after it. After Constantinople shall be ranked the See of Alexandria, then that of Antioch, and afterwards the See of Jerusalem.’ Western bishops did not attend this conference and rejected the Pentarchy concept.

[17] Freeman 2002, 273. MacCulloch 2009, 290–91.


Atiya, A. (Ed.). (1991). The Council of Nicaea. In The Coptic Encyclopedia (Vol. 6) (pp. 1790–92.). Internet Archive. Retrieved from

Cyril of Alexandria. (2007). Letter 96. In The Fathers of the Church: St. Cyril of Alexandria letters 51–110 (pp.151–153). (J. I. McEnerney Trans.). Catholic University Press.

Frankopan, P. (2015). The Silk roads: A New history of the world. Vintage.

Freeman, C. (2002). The Closing of the Western mind: The Rise of faith and the fall of reason. Vintage.

Gibbon, E. (1862). The History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Internet Archive. Retrieved from

Herbermann, C. G., Pace, E. A., Conde, B. P., Shahan, T. J. & Wynne, J. J. (Eds.). (1913). Nicaea. In The Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 11) (pp. 43–46). Internet Archive. Retrieved from

MacCulloch, D. (2009). Christianity: The first 3000 years. [Kindle Reader version]. Penguin Books.

Schaff, P. & Wace, H. (Eds.). (1900). The canons of the 318 Holy Fathers assembled in the city of Nice [sic], in Bithynia & Canons of the one hundred and fifty fathers who assembled at Constantinople. In Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, second series, (Vol. 14) (pp. 8–42; 172–87). Internet Archive. Retrieved from

Vermes, G. (2003). The Authentic gospel of Jesus. Penguin.



Jason Sylvester

Jason summarizes the socio-political impacts of religious history