Who was the first pope?
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.
St. Peter in the Bible
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.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession of faith is equally bold and affirming. He says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (16:17-19). There are four important points in this short passage. The first is that the Father in heaven inspired this revelation that appears to be specific to Peter. The second is that Simon receives a new name, Peter, meaning “rock” in Greek. The recipients of name changes, specifically those given by God, are indications that they have a very particular and special role to play in salvation history. For example, Abram receives the name Abraham (Gen. 17:3-6) and Jacob receives the name Israel (Gen. 35:9-10). Third, Jesus’ indication that he will build the church upon this “rock,” which is the new name given to Peter, implies that Peter will be the leader or foundation of the Church. This is a particular point of contention amongst various denominations, some of which suggest that Jesus was not meaning to reference Peter as the “rock” that the church would be built upon, but rather the “rock” is in reference to Peter’s profession of faith. Lastly, Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” with which Jesus gives him the power of binding and loosing. As far as Catholic tradition is concerned each of these four points are explicitly designating a special role unto Peter: the leader of the Church. This is what is known as “the primacy of Peter.”
The Bishop of Rome & Petrine Primacy
This primacy of St. Peter as depicted in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles is extended in Roman Catholicism to the office of the Bishop of Rome, or the papacy. According to tradition (and several patristic sources which will be discussed later) Peter was the first to hold this office--the first bishop of Rome. The office, by virtue of it being held by Peter, maintained an especial role among the episcopate or hierarchical structure of the church. What kind of authority is and was to be exercised by those sitting in the chair of Peter remains a central controversy among eastern and western Christian factions.
The primacy of Peter, and thus, the Bishop of Rome, is closely related to the notion of apostolic succession. It is believed that those who succeeded Peter as Bishop of Rome inherited the leadership role that Peter had been given by Christ. This transference of leadership, and primacy, was extended through ordination or the laying on of hands. The first successor of Peter is widely believed to be St. Linus. Eusebius records Linus as Peter’s successor in his Ecclesiastical History.Many believe this is the same Linus mentioned by Paul in his first epistle to Timothy.
There are numerous Patristic texts that support an early notion of petrine primacy in specific relation to the Bishop of Rome. Cyprian of Carthage (third century) expresses that primacy was given to Peter in order to maintain unity in the church and even further purports that acknowledgement of such is a mark of the truth church According to Russel Murray, Cypian understood this primacy as, “as a service that is realized in the preservation and promotion of the communion in faith and love that unites all the Churches as the one Church of Jesus Christ.” Tertullian also claims in On Modesty that the power of binding and loosing pertains specifically to Peter. That Peter was conferred this specific power because he was the first of all the apostles to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Similarly, Clement of Alexandria refers to Peter as the “the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first of the disciples.”
Ultimately, answering this question will largely depend on the tradition and perspective you are approaching it from. There are substantial resources in the Roman Catholic Tradition to assert that the primacy of Peter and thus the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was instituted by Christ at the time of Peter’s confession of faith and then preserved thereafter, making Peter the first pope. Catholics do claim that an unbroken line of succession can be traced from Peter to the present day pope. There is at least some indication that several of the early church fathers assented to and perpetuated belief in the primacy of the Roman Bishop, though many Protestant scholars have found counter-evidence among Patristic texts which challenges such a belief. This, of course, undermines that support of the pontificate was unanimous among the early church and that a hierarchical structure with a central figurehead, the pope, was probable. Thus, acknowledgement of Peter as the first pope largely depends on what Patristic authors are given preference and how one interprets Matthew 16.
- See: Eusebius, of Caesarea, trans. Christian Frederic Crusé. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History: Complete and Unabridged. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).
- Collins, Roger. Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy. (New York: Basic Books, 2009)
- Murray, Russel. "Assesing the Primacy: A Contemporary Contribution from the Writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 47, no. 1 (2012): 41-63.
- See: Tertullian, On Modesty, trans. S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
- Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?” trans. by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.