The Third Century — Tertullian and Origen
Tertullian In our study of statements linking Peter with Rome by the early ecclesiastical writer, we come now to the first of the Latin writers, Tertullian, a Carthaginian whose works were done in the first quarter of the third century. It is from this Western presbyter that we receive the most definite statements about Peter's death at Rome — along with some other surprising statements.
Though he later had a falling out with the Roman clergy for his Montanist views, Tertullian was a vehement opponent of heresy and wrote profusely, especially against Marcion and Valentinus. In his Prescription Against Heretics we read:
Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of Apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lord's! where Paul wins his crown in a death like John's! where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! See what fellowship has had with even (our) churches in Africa! One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus (born) of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and Apostles, from which she drinks in her faith. This she seals with the water (of baptism), arrays with the Holy Ghost, feeds with the Eucharist, cheers with martyrdom, and against such a discipline thus (maintained) she admits no gainsayer. [Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, trans. by Peter Holmes (Vol. III, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951; p. 260), I, 36.] Here we have not only the clear inference that Peter was crucified at Rome and that Paul was there beheaded like John the Baptist, but that the Apostle John was miraculously spared from being boiled in oil at the Roman capital before being exiled to Patmos. I have included the rest of the passage to give the distinctive early Catholic flavor of it with reference to the Virgin Mary, the resurrection of the flesh (to unite body and soul as also Augustine later has it), the Eucharist as a sacrament, etc.
While not a Romist, Tertullian was throughout most of his life in clear sympathy with Rome in philosophy and religion. Eusebius tells us he was well acquainted with Roman laws, having his early training as a lawyer. [Eusebius, Church History, trans. by Arthur C. McGiffert (Vol. I, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952; p. 106), II, 2, 4.]
In Scorpiace, Tertullian writes:
And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom. [Tertullian, op. cit. (p. 258), I, 32.] Here for the first time Nero is mentioned as persecuting Christians to the death. But note that Tertullian does not specifically make Nero responsible for Peter's death, which he puts before Paul's, though the Biblical evidence, especially from II Peter, would seem to be the reverse. (Peter seems to be summing up Paul's writings when he makes mention of "all his epistles" in II Peter 3:16.)
A final and most enigmatic passage from Tertullian in Against Heretics gives us the information that Peter ordained Clement, the third bishop of Rome:
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the Apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the Apostles, because they existed in the time of the Apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that (that first bishop of theirs), ed. note bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of Apostolic men — a man, moreover, who continued stedfast with the Apostles. For this is the manner in which the Apostolic Churches transmit their registers: as the Church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the Church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. [Ibid.]
The passage raises more questions than it answers. We know from Irenaeus that Linus and Anacletus preceded Clement in the Roman bishopric. [Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," American ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Vol. I, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950; p. 416), III, 3.] Eusebius tells us that Linus was the bishop of Rome twelve years, [Eusebius, op. cit. (p. 416), III, 3.] and that Anacletus likewise served in that post twelve years before being succeeded by Clement. [Ibid., Chap. 15.] This succession he distinctly states as occurring in the twelfth year of Domitian. [Ibid.] Since Domitian succeeded his brother Titus in 81, that would put Clement's ordination by Peter in 93 A.D.! Granted, the length of reigns and order of the first Roman bishops is a greatly disputed matter and subject to wide interpretation, but despite this fact, there is nothing to indicate that Linus and Anacletus died almost as soon as ordained to necessitate Clement's ordination by Peter before 68 A.D., the year of Nero.
And if Peter and Paul labored side by side at Rome until their deaths "at the same time" as Dionysius and Irenaeus assert, then why is Clement ordained by Peter only? Would not the Apostle of the Gentiles have joined in ordaining the Bishop of Rome?
Clearly, there are grave inconsistencies in the stories we have received from the church fathers, causing us to wonder how much of true facts they really knew as they wrote one to two centuries later. It would be utterly impossible to reconcile all their testimonies. Early Catholic fables seem interwoven with half-truths and contradictions in the continuing evolution of the stories of Rome, and the lives and deaths of the Apostles.
Origen What little we can glean from Origen (185-254 A.D.) has been preserved for us only by Eusebius, who makes the following statement concerning Peter and Paul:
Peter appears to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia to the Jews of the dispersion. And at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head-downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer in this way. What do we need to say concerning Paul, who preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and afterwards suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero? These facts are related by Origen in the third volume of his Commentary on Genesis. [Ibid., (pp. 132-133), III, 1, 2.] Here we find the crucifixion of Peter at Rome repeated with the additional detail that it was head-downwards at his own request. Origen is the first to give this tradition though afterward it became quite common and well accepted. And while Paul is said to have been martyred by Nero, Peter's death is not attributed to him by Origen.
Thus we have yet to see any of the early writers state definitely that Nero was responsible for Peter's death, nor did any of them attempt to date Peter's death up through and into the third century. While the tradition had evolved as to location (Rome) and manner of death (crucifixion), it had not yet been assigned a time element before Eusebius.