The Roman Pontifex Maximus

The Roman Pontifex Maximus

Part six: How his prerogatives were transferred.

By Robert Leo Odom, Editor, The Watchman Magazine, Nashville

In Revelation 13 the prophet foretells the rise of a new politico-religious power in the world—represented by the symbol of the ten-horned beast—and points out that "the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and gfeat authority." Verse 2. Here is plainly indicated a transfer of prerogatives from the one power to his successor.

About the middle of the second century A. D. the bishops of Rome were teaching Christians to observe Sunday, especially insisting that the solemnities of the paschal (Easter) season should terminate on that day of the week. This was such a serious thing that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, made a trip to the great city to discuss the matter with the Roman bishop, Anicetus. Polycarp did not favor the Roman view, and they failed to come to an agreement on the question.' Although they parted with­out enmity between them, the disagreement finally resulted in a great controversy among the churches.

Near 196 A. D. the haughty Roman bishop, Victor I, presumed to cut off the churches of Asia from Christian fellowship because they refused to adopt the Roman practice of Sunday observance in the Easter celebration.' Not long afterward Tertullian, whose writings at first upheld the authority assumed by the Roman bishops, saw it grow presumptuous to a degree that he could stand it no more. After the break, Tertullian scoffed at the bishop of Rome with words like these:

'I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus—that is the bishop of bishops—issues an edict: 'I re­mit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornica­tion.'" 2

This is the first time that the title Pontifex Maximus was used to designate the Roman bishop, but even Roman Catholics note that it was used in irony:

"As regards the title Pontifex Maximus, especially in its application to the pope, there was a further reminiscence of the dignity attached to that title in pagan Rome. Tertullian, as has already been said, uses the phrase of Pope Calixtus. Though his words are ironical, they probably indicate that Catholics already applied it to the pope." 3

Accustomed as they had been, when they were heathen, to regard the pagan Pontifex Maximus with great awe, many of the Christians of the church at Rome may have held its haughty bishop in similar superstitious esteem. A well-known Roman Catholic authority says:

"It was apparently in the fourth century that it began to become a distinctive title of the Roman [Catholic] pontiff. Pope Siricius (d. 398) seems to so use it (Ep. vi in P. L. xiii, 1164), and Ennodius of Pavia (d. 521) employs it still more clearly in the same sense in a letter to Pope Symmachus (P. L. lxiii, 69). . . . Gregory VII finally prescribed that it should be confined to the successors of Peter." 3

Now let us see what happened prior to the official use of the title by Siricius, the Roman bishop just mentioned. Constantine I (306-337 A. D.) was the first of the Roman emperor-pontiffs to make a profession of Christianity. A prominent Roman Catholic historian notes that "as emperor he was the head (Pontifex Maximus) of the official religion." 4 That reli­gion was that of the Invincible Sun, whose cult was then that of the Roman state.

Hence the vision of the cross and the sun really did represent what was effected in the person of Constantine, that is, a reconciliation of the interests of paganism and apostate Chris­tianity. While his pagan subjects regarded him as their sovereign pontiff, Constantine's Chris­tian subjects often spoke of him as "the most blessed prince" and "the servant of God." He must have had this combination in mind when he said to the clergy : "While you are bishops of those within the church ; also I, having been appointed by God, might be bishop of those outside the church." 5

In Constantine we have the curious case of the Pontifex Maximus of the official and pagan religion of the Roman state—the high priest of the Invincible Sun—professing to be a Chris­tian at the same time! He used his power and authority to force upon the world the Roman bishops' views regarding Sunday observance, especially in regard to Easter observance. And he finally made Christianity the dominant reli­gion of the empire, conferring many favors upon, and giving much aid to, the ecclesiastical party of his choice. With the exception of Julian the Apostate, his successors followed his example. Gibbon observes:

"The title, the insignia, the prerogatives of Sov­ereign Pontiff, which had been instituted by Numa, and assumed by Augustus, were accepted, without hesitation, by seven Christian emperors; who were invested with a more absolute authority over the re­ligion which they had deserted than over that which they professed." 6

More and more the position of the bishop of Rome became enhanced, as dictator of Christen­dom, by the aid and support of the imperial Pontifex Maximus of Roman paganism. This strange collaboration continued until the reign of Gratian (375-383 A. D.).

On this point another Roman Catholic his­torian says : "Gratian (375-383) was the first emperor to sever the official bond linking pagan­ism to the imperial power, by refusing to accept the insignia of Pontifex Maximus (chief priest of paganism). 'Such a garment,' he said, 'is not becoming to a Christian.' "7 Another papal historian observes : "The anomaly of the Cath­olic functioning as the chief priest of paganism was at an end." 8 Dr. Philip Schaff says:

"Under the influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, this emperor went a step further. He laid aside the title and dignity of Pontifex Maximus, confiscated the temple property, abolished most of the privileges of the priests and vestal virgins, and withdrew, at least in part, the appropriation from the public treas­ury for their support (Cod. Theod. xii. r, 75 ; xvi. 10, zo ; Symmach. Ep. x. 6i; Ambrose, Ep. xvii)." 9

It is sometimes said 10 that Gratian refused to accept the insignia of Pontifex Maximus, but those are more correct who affirm that "Gratian resolved to put aside the dress and title of Pontifex Maximus." 11 Foakes-Jackson makes a fitting remark on this point:

"It was owing, doubtless, to the influence of Am­brose that Gratian refused the title of Pontifex Max­imus. When this was done is not quite certain. Ausonius, who had been the tutor of Gratian, was made consul in 379 A. D. and addressed a panegyric to the emperor on the occasion. The religion of this writer is a matter of dispute, but on the whole it seems probable that he was a Christian. Yet he uses language which would hardly be possible had Gratian formally refused to be called Pontifex Maximus at this time. The title is also seen in inscriptions and coins of the period. Zosimus [iv., 36], however, de­clares that Gratian refused the insignia of the office; and he probably did so when he left Treves for Italy." 12

Ausonius wrote thus to Gratian: "One name is on the lips of all—the name of Gratian, Gratian who in virtue of his authority is styled Imperator ; of his courage, the Victorious ; of his sacred person, Augustus ; of his devotion, Pontifex ; of his tenderness, Father ; of his age, Son ; of his natural affection, both one and the other." Likewise about the elections : "You who presided over them, are the Pontifex Maximus and a participator in the designs of God." 13 Gratian went a step further, for J. Gamier records:

"Fearing that religion might become disorganized, he offered the title and office to Damasus, bishop of Rome. . . . This bishop, less scrupulous than the em­peror, accepted the office, and from that time until now the title has been held by the popes of Rome, from whom and through whom the whole hierarchy of Western Christendom have received their ordina­tion. So also the honors and powers attached to the title, the dominion of the civilized world, previously wielded by the pontiff-emperors of pagan Rome, passed to the pontiffs and hierarchy of papal Rome, who for centuries imposed their will upon kings and held the nations in thralldom." 14

Damasus was bishop of Rome from 366 to 384 A. D. There is extant an edict of Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius, in which the Roman bishop is officially designated as "the Pontiff Damasus." It is as follows:

"It is our pleasure that the nations which are gov­erned by our clemency and moderation should stead­fastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which faithful tradition has preserved and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the discipline of the apostles and the doctrine of the gospel, let us believe the sole deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost : under an equal majesty and a pious Trinity.

"We authorize the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians ; and as we judge that all others are extravagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of 'heretics' and declare that their conventicles shall no longer usurp the respectable appellation of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon the

the official title and office of Pontifex Maximus, established by Numa and long held by. his spiritual successors as high priest of Roman paganism, were transferred to the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not, there­fore, to be wondered at that Siricius (384-398 A. D.), the successor of Damasus (366-384 A. D.), should use the appellation of Pontifex Maximus as "a distinctive title" of the pope. The Roman bishop had become the legal and official head of the state religion—Roman Catholicism—and it merely remained for Justinian I (527-565 A. D.) to make secure the papal claims to the office. Like the pagan pontiffs of old, the bishops of Rome have not only assumed the role of regu­lator of holydays in Christendom, but also in­stituted the only calendar reform 16 effected since the days of the Caesars. The Encyclo­pedia Americana makes this observation:

"Pomponius, in his history of the Roman law, written about the middle of the second century A. D , informs us that the custody of the XII Tables, the exclusive knowledge of the forms of procedure, and the right of interpreting the law belonged originally to the College of Pontiffs, a patrician order, at the head of which was an officer known as the Pontifex Maximus, from which office, it may be remarked in passing, indirectly and by a strange and circuitous devolution has come down to our day the office of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church." 17

Thus was fulfilled the prophecy concerning the ten-horned beast, for "the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority."

[End of Series]


1 See Eusebius, "Ecclesiastical History," bk. 5, chs. 23-25 ; Socrates, "Ecclesiastical History,' bk. 5, ch. 22.

2 Tertullian, "On. Modesty," ch. x ("Ante-Nicene Fathers," Vol. IV, P. 74).

3 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII, p. 270, art. "Pope."

4 Dom Charles Poulet, "A History of the Catholic Church for the Use of Colleges, Seminaries, and Universities," Vol. I, p. 120, 2d impression. (Herder Book Co., St. Louis, 1936.)

5 Eusebius, "Life of Constantine," bk. 4, ch. 24 (a literal translation). The Latin translation is more emphatic : "Vos quidem, in quit, in us quae in eccle­slam volt, espiscopi esti. Ego vero in. us quae extra geruntur, episco pus a Deo sum constitutus.'

6 Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," ch. 21 (Vol. II, P. 394, edition by J. B. Bury, London, 1897)

7 S. A. Raemers, "Church History," p. 102. (Herder Book Co., St. Louis, 1936.)

8 Philip Hughes, "A History of the Christian Church,' p. 225. (Sheed and Ward, New York, 1934.)

9 Philip Schaff, "History of the Christian Church," Vol. III, p. 62. (Scribners, New York, 1903.)

10 Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, p. 729, art. "Gratian, Roman Emperor."

11 J. Alzog (R. C.), "Manual of Universal Church History," Vol. I, p. 338. (Gill, Dublin, 1879.) Doctor Schaff also says the same thing.

12 F. J. Foakes-Jackson, "The History of the Chris­tian Church," p. 417. (Richard R. Smith, Inc., New York, 1930.)

13 Ausonius, "Thanksgiving for His Consulship, Ad­dressed to Gratian," chs. 7 and 9. (Putnams, New York, 1921.)

14 J. Gamier, "The True • Christ and the False Christ," Vol. II, pi). 94-96. (George Allen, London, 1909.)

15 "Codex Theodosianus," lib. 16, fit. t, leg. 2 (ed. by Franciscum Fabrum, Lugdtmi, 1593, PP. 474, 475). The translation is from Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," ch. 27.

16 The calendar reform was made by the Roman pontiff, Gregory XIII, in 1582 A. D. It is interesting to note also that he did not reform the calendar to make it conform to what it was in the time of Christ and the apostles, but to what it was in 325 A. D., the date when the Roman bishop, with the help of the Council of Nicaea and the decrees of Constantine, secured the triumph of Sunday observance in the Easter celebration. At that time the spring equinox fell on March 21. "The equinox, which began on March 25 in Julius Caesar's day, fell on March 21 at the time of the Council of Nice, in 325 A. D. By 1582 it had retrograded to March r."—G. G. Spicer, "The Book of Festivals," p. 355. (The Woman's Press, New York, 1937.)

17 Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. VI, p. 732, art. "Civil Law" (sec. 2), ed. 1939. (Americana Cor­poration, New York.)

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By Robert Leo Odom, Editor, The Watchman Magazine, Nashville

June 1943

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