Who was Alexander of Rome? Was he a pope? Was he the sixth bishop of Rome? Was he even a bishop?
The generally touted Catholic position is that Alexander was the sixth pope (from allegedly 105-115 A.D.) and that all subsequent leaders of the true church passed through him (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 2). Is that correct?
This article (along with Appendix A) will refer to historical records and Roman Catholic sources to attempt to properly answer those questions.
Alexander may have been different than the earlier leaders due to his age and how he may have been granted his position--if he actually had any position.
While visiting the Vatican in 2004, I purchased a book in its basilica museum bookstore titled The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997). The book states that it is sponsored by the "Pontifical Administration, which has tutelage over the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Peter".
It makes many claims about the early "bishops" of Rome including this about Alexander:
6. ALEXANDER I, ST. (105-115) Born in Rome...Apparently he was only 20 years old when he was elected pope. On this occasion the election system was used and not the hereditary designation of master to disciple...He modified and enlarged the mass, instituted the use of holy water in sacred places and houses, and he prescribed that the host be made of unleavened dough...(Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 2).
The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches this about Alexander:
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the latter quarter of the second century, reckons him as the fifth pope in succession from the Apostles, though he says nothing of his martyrdom. His pontificate is variously dated by critics, e. g. 106-115 (Duchesne) or 109-116 (Lightfoot)
...According to a tradition extant in the Roman Church at the end of the fifth century, and recorded in the Liber Pontificalis he suffered a martyr's death by decapitation on the Via Nomentana in Rome, 3 May. The same tradition declares him to have been a Roman by birth and to have ruled the Church in the reign of Trajan (98-117). It likewise attributes to him, but scarcely with accuracy, the insertion in the canon of the Qui Pridie, or words commemorative of the institution of the Eucharist, such being certainly primitive and original in the Mass. He is also said to have introduced the use of blessing water mixed with salt for the purification of Christian homes from evil influences (constituit aquam sparsionis cum sale benedici in habitaculis hominum). Duchesne (Lib. Pont., I, 127) calls attention to the persistence of this early Roman custom by way of a blessing in the Gelasian Sacramentary that recalls very forcibly the actual Asperges prayer at the beginning of Mass. In 1855, a semi-subterranean cemetery of the holy martyrs Sts. Alexander, Eventulus, and Theodulus was discovered near Rome, at the spot where the above mentioned tradition declares the Pope to have been martyred. According to some archaeologists, this Alexander is identical with the Pope, and this ancient and important tomb marks the actual site of the Pope's martyrdom. Duchesne, however (op. cit., I, xci-ii) denies the identity of the martyr and the pope...His so-called " Acts " are not genuine, and were compiled at a much later date (Tillemont, Mem. II, 590 sqq; Dufourcq, op. cit., 210-211) (Shahan T. Transcribed by Gerard Haffner. Pope St. Alexander I. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Knight. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
The use of holy water in the earliest days of the Christian Era is attested by documents of only comparatively late date. The "Apostolic Constitutions", the redaction of which goes back to about the year 400, attribute to the Apostle St. Matthew the precept of using holy water. The letter written under the name of Pope Alexander I, who lived in the second century, is apocryphal and of more recent times; hence the first historical testimony does not go back beyond the fifth century. ((1910). Holy Water. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 4, 2015 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07432a.htm)
Thus, he was not the one to come up with the idea of holy water or other such things. Those type of sacramental/non-biblically sanctioned items simply were not part of the early church. And there are no contemporaneous records of anything that he did or did not do.
Thus, it is possible that Alexander was an actual Christian leader, and not someone who added pagan practices into Christianity.
It should be noted that the following is probably the only thing that Irenaeus wrote about Alexander:
Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses (Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 3). Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
And the above was written about 60 years after Alexander's death, thus this lack of detail is the closest record we have about anything that involved Alexander of Rome.
We know almost nothing about Alexander of Rome. He apparently lived in Rome and possibly had influence there when he was quite young. He probably was an actual Christian leader, but even this is unclear. But it is clear that there is no contemporaneous evidence that he actually was a bishop, and he certainly was not a pope (see Appendix A below).
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As scholars have pretty much come to the same conclusions about the lack of information on most of the early alleged bishops of Rome, this section is placed at the end so that the reader (who may have read the articles on Linus of Rome or What Does Rome Actually Teach About Early Church History) will not have to read redundant information). But it is also here so readers will understand that there is absolutely no early historical justification to consider that Alexander was a pope or even an actual bishop--and that the early historical records support the concept that the early Christian church should be traced through Asia Minor and not Rome.
Dates of Their "Reign"
There does not exist any actual evidence of the precise dates of any "reign" of those considered to have been early Roman Catholic leaders.
As at least one Catholic scholar has noted:
...the available evidence indicates that the church in Rome was led by a college of presbyters, rather than by a single bishop, for at least several decades of the second century (Sullivan F.A. From Apostles to Bishops: the development of the episcopacy in the early church. Newman Press, Mahwah (NJ), 2001, p. 80,221-222).
This means that dates assigned to any particular person are quite arbitrary. Although this is more true in relation to the first century listed Roman rulers--Ireneaus essentially states (circa 180) the list, without any dates, is based upon tradition (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 3, Verses 2,3). Whereas the first list claimed to have been composed by Hegesippus around 155 A.D., and we have no copy of that preserved until Epiphanius claimed to have cited Hegesippus (Epiphanius. Haer., xxvii, 6). But even Hegesippus' list contained no dates.
This is essentially also the case for those in the early second century, such as Alexander. And this has caused a great deal of historical confusion.
The "Apostolic Fathers"
The term "apostolic fathers" is used by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike to describe writings believed to have been written by those who knew personally or nearly personally, one or more of the original apostles. These writings probably begin after John finished with the Book of Revelation, and continued through about 156 A.D. (the last document probably being the letter of The Martyrdom of Polycarp or the Epistle to Diognetus--which could have been much later). These documents essentially were preserved by supporters of the Roman Catholic Church and it is unclear if they are exactly as originally written.Here is what the Roman Church teaches about them:
The Apostolic Fathers Christian writers of the first and second centuries who are known, or are considered, to have had personal relations with some of the Apostles, or to have been so influenced by them that their writings may be held as echoes of genuine Apostolic teaching. Though restricted by some to those who were actually disciples of the Apostles, the term applies by extension to certain writers who were previously believed to have been such, and virtually embraces all the remains of primitive Christian literature antedating the great apologies of the second century, and forming the link of tradition that binds these latter writings to those of the New Testament...The period of time covered by these writings extends from the last two decades of the first century for the Didache (80-100), Clement (c. 97), and probably Pseudo-Barnabas (96-98), through the first half of the second century, the approximate chronology being Ignatius, 110-117; Polycarp, 110-120; Hermas, in its present form, c.150; Papias, c.150. Geographically, Rome is represented by Clement and Hermas; Polycarp wrote from Smyrna, whence also Ignatius sent four of the seven epistles which he wrote on his way from Antioch through Asia Minor; Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia; the Didache was written in Egypt or Syria; the letter of Barnabas in Alexandria (Peterson J.B. Transcribed by Nicolette Ormsbee.The Apostolic Fathers. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
What is most interesting is that although the letter often ascribed to Clement mentions Apollos and Cephas (Peter, Chapter 47--which only says that Paul wrote about Cephas and Apollos), Paul (many times), and some messengers (Chapter 65), he never mentions Linus, Alexander, or anyone who became known as "the bishop of Rome" after him.
Although Ignatius mentions some local bishops in his letters, he also never mentions Linus, Alexander, or anyone who became "the bishop of Rome"--and his most praise is for Polycarp of Smyrna (see Ignatius' Letter to Polycarp).
In Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians, he mentions Ignatius (in a positive light), but also Valens (who was a leader who Polycarp states left the faith, probably in Rome). Polycarp also never mentions Linus, Alexander, or anyone who became the bishop of Rome. The letter titled The Martyrdom of Polycarp is basically all about Polycarp, and it too never mentions Linus, Alexander, or anyone who became the bishop of Rome.
The Didache (otherwise known as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles) mentions that deacons and bishops are to be appointed (15:1), but again it never mentions Linus, Alexander, or anyone who became the "bishop of Rome".
There is simply no direct, nor indirect, reference to Alexander in any of the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers. Alexander, according to his complete omission from the writings of the "Apostolic Fathers" (circa 100-160 A.D.) simply did not have a major leadership role in the Church.
Was Irenaeus' Apostolic Tradition Accurate?
The generally touted Catholic position is that Alexander was the sixth pope, that he was a successor to Linus, and that all other leaders passed through him (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 2).
The fact is that the Bible itself mentions nothing about the Church of Rome in terms of any leadership significance for the true church. Other than Paul’s letter to those in Rome and his imprisonment there, only three other, non-related, times does the New Testament use the word ‘Rome’. The first mentions that Jews from Rome and other areas of the world were in Jerusalem around Pentecost (Acts 2:10); the second that Claudius had the Jews depart from Rome (Acts 18:2); and the third that involves Onesiphorus who visited Paul in Rome and later in Ephesus (2 Timothy 1:16-18). (While some writers believe that Peter was in Rome when he mentioned this in his first epistle--“The Church saluteth you, that is in Babylon, coelect,” 1 Peter 5:13--this was not a clear reference to Rome (as there was a Babylon in the Asia Minor region at the time), but even if it is referring to Rome, this does not prove that Rome was of central significance to the church--it only suggests that Peter may have once been in contact with Christians from Rome.
No Roman Popes Prior to the 4th Century, No Roman Bishops Prior to the 2nd Century
By not referring to Alexander as either a pope or a bishop in this paper, I am not being disrespectful to his memory, but historically accurate.
It needs to be understood that the title pope for the bishop of Rome was NOT taken until the late fourth century as nearly all Catholic sources acknowledge. The following are two such sources:
SIRICIUS, ST. (384-399)...was the first to assume the title of pope from the Greek papa meaning father (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 13).
The title pope (papa)...It was apparently in the fourth century that it began to become a distinctive title of the Roman Pontiff. Pope Siricius (d. 398) seems so to use it (Ep. vi in P. L., XIII, 1164) (Joyce G. H. Transcribed by Gerard Haffner. The Pope. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Knight. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Therefore, any person wishing to be accurate would never refer to Alexander as a pope or pontiff.
But what about bishop?
While there were bishops in the first century in Jerusalem, and at the latest, by the early 2nd century in Asia Minor, this was not the case in Rome.
When Ignatius of Antioch wrote eight epistles just prior to his martyrdom, he mentioned bishops in many areas--the bishop of Smyrna (Polycarp) mentioned the most. His style was to address his letters to the leaders of the various areas, and in areas that had bishops, he mentioned them. However, unlike most of his letters, his Epistle to the Romans never mentions a bishop in Rome by either name nor title. Since Ignatius is believed to have written these epistles in the early second century (circa 108 A.D.) while Alexander was alive and allegedly in Rome, this provides strong evidence that there was not a bishop of Rome at that time.
Yet notice that Catholic scholars understand that the New Testament provides no support for the idea that one of the apostles appointed someone to be "bishop of Rome":
Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?"...I have expressed agreement with the consensus of scholars that the available evidence indicates that the church in Rome was led by a college of presbyters, rather than by a single bishop, for at least several decades of the second century (Sullivan F.A. From Apostles to Bishops: the development of the episcopacy in the early church. Newman Press, Mahwah (NJ), 2001, p. 80,221-222).
The consensus of scholars is that there was NOT an apostolic succession of bishops starting from Peter in Rome. And notice that the first clear bishop of Rome was not until the latter half of the second century:
...we have good reason to conclude that by the time of Anicetus (155-66), the church of Rome was being led by a bishop whose role resembled Ignatius or Polycarp (Sullivan F.A. From Apostles to Bishops: the development of the episcopacy in the early church. Newman Press, Mahwah (NJ), 2001, p. 143).
That is an astounding admission. That Roman Catholic scholar (who happens to be a professor emeritus at the Gregorian University in Rome) is essentially admitting that there was no possible succession of bishops beginning with Peter in Rome but that there was such a possibility with Polycarp (for more information, please see the article Apostolic Succession).
Another Catholic scholar, A. Van Hove, wrote this about early bishops:
In other words, Roman Catholic scholars admit that although there were bishops in Jerusalem and Asia Minor in the first and second centuries, there is no mention of a monarchic episcopate (a bishopric) in other places, like Rome, until about the middle of the second century.
Various Catholic writings state that Hegesippus came to Rome in the mid-2nd century and asked about its early leaders. In some of his writings, F.A. Sullivan suggests that those Romans apparently mentioned names of leaders they had heard of (as most would have had no direct contact with any from the first century) as there were no early records with names. Because there was, at the time of Hegesippus' visit, a bishop of Rome and there had long been bishops in Jerusalem and Asia Minor, F.a. Sullivan also suggests that Hegesippus and later writers presumed that the early Roman leaders were also monarchical bishops, even though that is not considered to have been likely.
There were probably a lot of elders in Rome in the first 80 or so years after Paul's death. Since no one was necessarily a bishop that early, it seems that the early succession lists are simply an attempt to put an order of some possible elders that served in the church in Rome.
It is true that beginning sometime in the second century that there were truly individuals that could be described as bishops of Rome. But history is clear that there were no early popes in Rome and the idea of an unbroken list of pontiffs (actually bishops) beginning with Peter simply does not have any historical justification prior to sometime in the second century--over a century after Christ died.
Hence it should be clear to any who are interested in the truth, that Alexander was not a pope nor a bishop.
Was Alexander Peter's Spiritual Successor?
While I believe that the records of early church history show that Polycarp of Smyrna was the true and most influential leader of the Church of God after the last apostle (John) died, most who claim to be Roman Catholic believe that Linus, then eventually Alexander, was the actual successor. There likely was an elder in Rome named Alexander, and while he may have been a true Christian, there is no early evidence to suggest he would have reigned over all of Christendom.
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Thiel B., Ph.D. Alexander of Rome. www.cogwriter.com (c) 2006/2007/2015 0704
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