Who was Telesphorus of Rome? Was he a pope?
The generally touted Catholic position is that Telesphorus was the eighth pope 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. 3). Is that correct?
This article will refer to historical records and Roman Catholic sources to attempt to properly answer those questions.
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 Telesphorus:
8. TELESPHORUS, ST. (125-136) Born in Calabria of a Greek family...He prescribed fasting and penance in the seven weeks before Easter, thus initiating a practice that is still alive in the Christian world. He established that on Christmas eve priests could say three masses and he introduced the Gloria in excelsis Deo, which he himself may have composed, at the beginning of the mass (Lopes A. The Popes: The lives of the pontiffs through 2000 years of history. Futura Edizoni, Roma, 1997, p. 3).
Did Telesphorus possibly come up with Christmas eve mass and the related songs?
No, that is not possible.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes this about Christmas:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.
Alexandria. The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus (Martindale C. Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika. Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Copyright © 1908 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
More information on this subject can be found in the article What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days?
And what about the other claims of what Telesphorus allegedly did?
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes this about him:
Telesphorus is mentioned as one of the Roman bishops who always celebrated Easter on Sunday, without, however, abandoning church fellowship with those communities that did not follow this custom. None of the statements in the "Liber pontificalis" and other authorities of a later date as to liturgical and other decisions of this pope are genuine. (Kirsch J.P. Transcribed by Christine J. Murray.The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
This, of course, means that he may not have prescribed "fasting and penance in the seven weeks before Easter" either. But he may have implemented a Sunday observance (see Easter Sunday later in this article).
For additional proof that Telephorus did not come up with this "lenten-type fast", notice that it did not exist even as late as 190 A.D. according to The Catholic Encyclopedia:
Some of the Fathers as early as the fifth century supported the view that this forty days' fast was of Apostolic institution...But the best modern scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting this view...We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus about the year 190 knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days...And there is the same silence observable in all the pre-Nicene Fathers, though many had occasion to mention such an Apostolic institution if it had existed. We may note for example that there is no mention of Lent in St. Dionysius of Alexandria (ed. Feltoe, 94 sqq.) or in the "Didascalia", which Funk attributes to about the year 250 (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).
More information can be found in the article Is Lent a Christian Holiday?.
Although most who profess Christianity now celebrate it, Easter-Sunday was not observed by the second century Christians in Asia Minor. They observed Passover.
However, beginning with possibly Telesphorus or possibly Sixtus (there are no contemporaneous records, only an unclear report 5-6 decades later written by Irenaeus), what is now called Easter began to be observed in Rome. First, it was apparently a change in date of Passover from the 14th of Nisan to a Sunday. This is believed to have happened because there was a rebellion by Jews and that any distancing between Jews and Christians seemed physically advantageous (at least to some in Rome and the Greeks in Jerusalem). It was due to cowardice and antisemitism that the Sunday date was chosen (the fact that cowards often were killed anyway, does not prove they were not cowards).
Samuele Bacchiocchi noted that the change to Easter-Sunday and to a weekly Sunday was due to persecution (the new Gentile hierarchy he is referring to are Greek bishops in Jerusalem, which took over after the rebellion was crushed):
The actual introduction of Easter-Sunday appears to have occurred earlier in Palestine after Emperor Hadrian ruthlessly crushed the Barkokeba revolt (A.D. 132-135)...
The fact that the Passover controversy arose when Emperor Hadrian adopted new repressive measures against Jewish religious practices suggests that such measures influenced the new Gentile hierarchy to change the date of Passover from Nisan 14 to the following Sunday (Easter-Sunday) in order to show separation and differentiation from the Jews and the Jewish Christians...
A whole body of Against the Jews literature was produced by leading Fathers who defamed the Jews as a people and emptied their religious beliefs and practices of any historical value. Two major causalities of the anti-Jewish campaign were Sabbath and Passover. The Sabbath was changed to Sunday and Passover was transferred to Easter-Sunday.
Scholars usually recognize the anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Jewish reckoning of Passover and adoption of Easter-Sunday instead. Joachim Jeremias attributes such a development to "the inclination to break away from Judaism." In a similar vein, J.B. Lightfoot explains that Rome and Alexandria adopted Easter-Sunday to avoid "even the semblance of Judaism" (Bacchiocchi S. God's Festival in Scripture and History. Biblical Perspectives. Befriend Springs (MI), 1995, pp. 101,102,103).
It is likely that if Telesphorus made this change at the time to attempt to distance himself from the Jews in Rome. If he was the one who did it (or possibly continued a practice that may have started with Sixtus), and if he thought that this would spare his life, he was wrong as he was later possibly killed by the Roman authorities (circa 136 A.D.). On the other hand, it is possible that Hyginus, who was also Greek decided to introduce the Passover Sunday tradition, perhaps to decrease the wrath of the anti-Jewish Roman authorities.
Since Anicetus' account claimed that this practice was began by presbyters who preceded him (see Easter), it would need to have been no later than the Greeks Telesphorus or Hyginus, as they were followed by Pius who was then followed by Anicetus (it probably did not originate with Sixtus as he preceded Telesphorus, he was not Greek, and he was dead circa 125 A.D.).
Was He A Pope?
Technically, Telesphorus was not a pope. The Catholic leaders in Rome did not take that title until after Siricius of the late fourth century (see Appendix A).
While there probably was a person who professed Christ in Rome named Telesphorus and he may have been a presbyter of some type, we really have no factual information about him. Although he did not initiate anything directly to do with Christmas, he may well have been the one to decide that Passover should be observed on a Sunday instead of on the 14th of Nisan. If he did this compromise to save his own life, it was cowardly and ineffective.
Since there were faithful Christians in Rome in the first through third centuries, it is possible that Telesporus was one, since the commonly reported information about him is not reliable. Of course, if he was one who actually observed Passover on a Sunday, then he deviated from the faith of Jesus, the apostles, and faithful who did not make that change.
Back to early Christianity page Previous is Sixtus Next is Hyginus
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 Telesphorus 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. And this has caused a great deal of historical confusion.
One such controversy would be who was in involved in such matters as Passover switching to Sunday. Irenaeus simply states:
And the presbyters preceding Sorer in the government of the Church which thou dost now rule--I mean, Anicetus and Pius, Hyginus and Telesphorus, and Sixtus--did neither themselves observe it [after that fashion], nor permit those with them to do so (Irenaeus. FRAGMENTS FROM THE LOST WRITINGS OF IRENAEUS. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from Volume I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc).
And this statement from Irenaeus, combined with another about Telesphorus being killed, seems to be the primary contemporaneous basis for guessing the "reigns" of those presbyters. But if Catholic scholars like F.A. Sullivan are correct, then it is likely that there were a few elders who together managed a church in Rome, then it may not be possible to precisely know who did what or when.
Yet, most seem to accept the dates of these "reigns" as completely factual, even though they appear to mainly be based upon conjecture after the fact.
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, Telesphorus, 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, Telesphorus, 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, Telesphorus, 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, Telesphorus, 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, Telesphorus, or anyone who became the "bishop of Rome".
There is simply no direct, nor indirect, reference to Telesphorus in any of the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers. Telesphorus, 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.
No Roman Popes Prior to the 4th Century, No Roman Bishops Prior to the 2nd Century
By not referring to Telesphorus 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 Telesphorus 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 Telesphorus was probably alive and allegedly in Rome, this provides strong evidence that there was not a bishop of Rome at that time.
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", as the shown in the following quote:
We must conclude that the New Testament provides no basis for the notion that before the apostles died, they ordained one man for each of the churches they founded..."Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?"...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 above admission by the above scholar (who happens to be a professor emeritus at the Gregorian University in Rome) demonstrates the historical accuracy of my position.
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 Telesphorus was not a pope nor a bishop.
Was Telesphorus 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 Telesphorus, was the actual successor. Another article of related interest may be Apostolic Succession.
Back to early Christianity page Previous is Sixtus Next is Hyginus
Thiel B., Ph.D. Telesphorus of Rome. www.cogwriter.com (c) 2006/2007/2011/2012 0915
Back to COGwriter home page