From History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium, by James Hitchcock (2012), p. 41:
As a young priest, Irenaeus came to Rome to consult the bishop. He also thought it appropriate to record the names of all the bishops of Rome to his own day, the first three of whom—St. Linus (67-76), Cletus (76-91), and Clement (91-100)—are still commemorated in the Roman liturgy immediately following the Apostles themselves.[Note: I link to this blog page from my Amazon.com "customer review" of Hitchcock's book.]
Compare Hitchcock's terse mention of Irenaeus's list with what follows below. Hitchcock's book is, admittedly, a broad survey covering two millennia, with scant room for extensive treatment of any single topic. Further, his target audience is Catholic believers, which seems to diminish his need for historical objectivity. The unfortunate result is a book that, in addition to ostensibly being history, is also advocacy and apologetics—delivered to an audience that's sure to be oblivious to the missing nuance, caveats, and deeper explanations. And so that single-sentence mention of Irenaeus's list strikes me as egregiously misleading, serving inevitably to reinforce the casual reader's belief in an unbroken line of popes (holding the office of bishop of Rome) extending back to Peter: a belief at odds with the preponderance of evidence and with scholarly consensus. If such a thing is to be believed at all, it must be believed on faith, and not as a demonstrable historical fact.
From The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis, by Garry Wills (2015), pp. 102-103:
Originally, succession was not only uncertain in method but sketchily recorded. The Roman church, not having a bishop until the second century, could not have recorded a line of bishops before that. The list was confected in retrospect, as Eamon Duffy says, "based on scraps of half-remembered information, or simply invented." The aim was not history but symbol: [quote from Duffy here, followed by endnote: Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, third edition, (Yale University Press, 2006), 26] In short, where records were lacking, they were simply made up.
From The Catholic Church: A Short History, by Hans Küng (2001), pp. 23-24:
It cannot be verified that the bishops are successors of the apostles in the direct and exclusive sense. It is historically impossible to find in the initial phase of Christianity an unbroken chain of laying on of hands from the apostles to the present-day bishops. Historically, rather, it can be demonstrated that in the first postapostolic phase, local presbyter-bishops became established alongside prophets, teachers, and other ministers as the sole leaders of the Christian communities (and also at the celebration of the Eucharist); thus a division between "clergy" and "laity" took place at an early stage. In a further phase the monarchical episcopate, of an individual bishop, increasingly displaced a plurality of presbyter-bishops in a city and later throughout the region of a church. In Antioch around 110, with Bishop Ignatius there came into being the order of three offices which later became customary all over the empire: bishop, presbyter, and deacon. The Eucharist could no longer be celebrated without a bishop. The division between the clergy and the people was now a fact.
But it is striking that Ignatius, this defender and ideologue of the monarchical episcopate, did not address a bishop in his letter to the Roman community, any more than Paul did. And there was no mention of a bishop in Rome in any other of the earliest sources, like the Letter of Clement (around 90).
However, the earliest list of bishops, in Irenaeus of Lyons, according to which Peter and Paul transferred the ministry of episkopos to a certain Linus, is a second-century forgery. A monarchical episcopate can be demonstrated for Rome only from around the middle of the second century (Bishop Anicetus).
From Keepers of the Keys of Heaven, by Roger Collins (2009), p. 10:
Admittedly, there is still a gap of a century to a century and a half between the presumed period in which Peter and Paul were in Rome and the time at which Irenaeus and others were writing [endnote: Jean-Pierre Martin, 'Sixte Ier', in Levillain, 1588]. Ultimately, however, the testimony of these writers was in error, for the office of bishop, as Irenaeus and Tertullian understood it, simply did not exist in the time of Peter and Paul.p. 14:
The late-second century authors were probably reporting on a tradition that had grown up in Rome in which leading figures amongst the elders of their day were retrospectively turned into bishops, to produce a continuous list of holders of the office stretching back to Peter. Why this happened can be explained, but it would be helpful to ask which of the people named by Irenaeus and Tertullian should be regarded as the first real bishop of the city. Most scholars now agree that the answer would be Anicetus, who comes in tenth on both lists, and whose episcopate likely covered the years 155 to 166. [endnote: Lampe, Peter, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, (English tr. Minneapolis, 2003), 397-408]p. 15:
This may explain why Irenaeus and Tertullian's apparent rewriting of the history of Christianity in Rome provoked no evident disagreement. Why they were so keen to present the Roman church as one ruled by an unbroken succession of bishops since the time of the Apostles is another matter. What is significant is that both authors produced their lists of bishops in writings that were explicitly controversial and intended to combat theological opponents. Neither was interested in the history of the Church in Rome for its own sake. The existence of the line of bishops they described was a central plank in their arguments. Both were appealing to it as a source of authority to be preferred to that claimed by their adversaries, the Gnostics.
Update 2015-05-11 - The first dozen pages of Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (first ed.) is available online. It's an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.
Update 2018-11-26 - Eamon Duffy (see previous) is one of the more prominent Catholic historians of recent decades. He served as a member of the Pontifical Historical Commission. From Saints and Sinners (4th ed.), p. 2:
Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop of Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve.Duffy's book is invaluable not least for its 28-page "Bibliographical Essay." In it Duffy writes (p. 469):
But all modern discussion of the issues must now start from the exhaustive and persuasive analysis by Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, London, 2003. This is a difficult read for the non-specialist, but it conveys as no other work does the extraordinary ferment of early Roman Christianity.
Chapter 41 of Lampe's book, "Fractionation, Monarchical Episcopacy, and Presbyterial Governance," is central to the question of the early papacy. Lampe's thesis is that, (p. 397):
The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterial system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city.
Lampe proceeds to describe that development, but first lays out the decentralized organization of the early Roman Church. In his Letter to the Romans, for example, Paul (who at that point had never been to Rome) supposes a Roman Church that's comprised of house communities without central organization, and asks that his greetings be conveyed around the city. Lampe explains how those dispersed communities presented a unified face to the outside world for purposes of communication. p. 398:
That means that people writing from outside of Rome could address the Roman Christians as a unity. Not only Paul but also Ignatius and Dionysius of Corinth did this. Conversely, the Roman Christians as an entirety could send letters to those outside: 1 Clement and a further letter to Corinth around 170 C.EClement was not bishop, much less pope, rather a presbyter with special responsibilities; what Lampe calls a "minister of external affairs" whose job was to manage communications with the outside world. p. 399:
Correspondingly, we find in Paul's and Ignatius's letters to the Romans nothing of a Roman monarchical leader, even though Ignatius knew of a monarchical bishop's office from his experience in the east. In the year 144 Marcion, at the Roman synod meeting that he initiated, also saw himself facing "presbyters and teachers" and not a monarchical bishop.There was no central governing figure in Rome. "The letters that were sent outside [1 Clement, for example -mb] were composed always in the name of the Romans and not in the name of an individual." (p. 400)
Lampe observes that in the transition to central governance, the presbyter tasked with outside communication later assumed the role of bishop. p. 402:
The first presbyters whom we can address as harbingers of and transitional figures toward a monarchical episcopacy in the second half of the second century appear in the few contemporary notes that are extant concerning them always in this role of "minister of external affairs."p. 403:
A presbyterial governance still prevails in the first half of the second century.But:
From the middle of the second century this presbyter entrusted with external affairs gains ever more "prominence," until at the latest with Victor (c. 189-99) a powerful monarchos has developed.
The four prominent Roman presbyters in this transition to central governance were Anicetus (c. 155-66), Soter (c. 166-75), Eleutherus (c. 175-89) and finally Victor. Victor unambiguously ruled the city, and finally Rome was under central authority.
Regarding Irenaeus's list, p. 406:
The list of Irenaeus (Haer. 3.3.3) is with highest probability a historical construction from the 180s, when the monarchical episcopacy developed in Rome. Above all, the framework of "apostolic" twelve members (from Linus to Eleutherus) points in the direction of a fictive construction. The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the City of Rome (for example, "Clement" or the brother of Hermas, "Pius"). They had belonged to the presbyters of Roman church history. These persons, however, would never have understood themselves as monarchical leaders — especially Pius at the time of Hermas.Speaking of Linus, at the front of Irenaeus's list, Richard McBrien, in his Pocket Guide to the Popes, writes, pp. 16-17:
Because it was not until the late second or early third century that Catholic tradition came to regard Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, it was Linus, not Peter, who was considered in the earliest succession lists to be the first pope. Very little is known about Linus. Early sources, including Eusebius, claim that Linus held office for about twelve years, but they are not clear about the exact dates or about his exact pastoral role and authority. It should be remembered—contrary to pious Catholic belief—that the monoepiscopal structure of church governance (also known as the monarchical episcopate, in which each diocese was headed by a single bishop) still did not exist in Rome at this time. For almost the entire first Christian millennium the pope was elected by the clergy and people of Rome, since his immediate and primary pastoral office was that of Bishop of Rome.McBrien (d. 2015) was a Catholic priest, theologian, and Chair of the Department of Theology of the University of Notre Dame from 1980 to 1991. His Pocket Guide (free pdf download here) is a condensation of his more exhaustive Lives of the Popes.
Regarding Clement, who in Catholic tradition is the fourth "pope," O'Brien writes, p. 18:
The Roman community at this time was probably divided into a number of small house churches scattered throughout the city and its neighboring districts, each presided over by a presbyter (and possibly more than one). There would have been no united and coordinated leadership within the city’s Christian community as a whole, but it was otherwise the case in the community’s relations with the Christian communities of other cities. One presbyter, like Clement, was charged with corresponding with these other communities and probably also with dispensing aid to those in need.So Clement was, to use Lampe's terminology, a "minister of external affairs," the particular office that Lampe claims transitioned to become a unitary bishop.
As with Duffy's "Bibliographical Essay," another book invaluable for its exhaustive "Annotated Bibliography" (44 pages!) is Thomas Bokenkotter's A Concise History of the Catholic Church (several editions since 1977). Bokenkotter is a Catholic priest and historian. He has taught at Xavier University, a Catholic school.
Bokenkotter briefly describes the development of the monarchical episcopate, saying that "by 150 or 160 this system of authority was established practically everywhere" (p. 33, 2005 edition). Bishops gradually displaced elders and deacons as rulers over individual churches. Around A.D. 185, "Irenaeus used Rome as the pre-eminent example of a church whose fidelity to the original deposit of faith was guaranteed by the fact that its bishops were the direct successors of Peter and Paul; moreover, they spoke in agreement with the bishops of other sees who were also successors of apostles." (p. 34)
"Pre-eminent," perhaps, but not supreme. Bokenkotter does not critique Irenaeus's claim of direct succession, nor situate it in his previous discussion of the development of the monarchical episcopate as an apparent contradiction.
Note too that there is nowhere in Bokenkotter's first couple of centuries any indication of a "pope" as universal ruler over the Church. The monarchical episcopate took time to develop, and the papacy as an institution did not exist. Catholics unfamiliar with their history might be surprised to find a gaping hole in the early centuries where they expect a papacy to be.
In his The Rise of the Papacy (1990), Catholic priest and historian Robert B. Eno does critique Irenaeus, or at least explain him. Eno was professor of church history at the Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.), a "pontifical" university with a charter from Pope Leo XIII, and the only institution of higher education founded by U.S. Catholic bishops. It's "the only U.S. university with an ecclesiastical faculty of canon law (established by the Holy See in 1923) and is one of the few U.S. universities with ecclesiastical faculties of philosophy and sacred theology." Eno's book is based on a lecture series given at John Carroll University, a Catholic school in Ohio. In the book's introduction, John Carroll's Joseph F. Kelly calls Eno a "leading authority on the papacy."
As have other authors in this review, such as Collins (above), Eno notes that Iraneus's list and others like it should not be assumed to be literally historically accurate. "Although such lists arose at a fairly early date, their genesis is not to be traced to an interest in antiquarian detail for its own sake" (p. 32). Rather they were advanced to serve other purposes, such as combating heresy, most notably Gnosticism.
According to Eno, Irenaeus views Rome not as a unique instance of apostolic succession, but rather as an exemplar—the very best example—owing to the Church's founding (according to Irenaeus) by the Apostles Peter and Paul, and also their martyrdom and burial there. The bishops of other churches likewise derive their authority from succession from an apostle, but Irenaeus thought that documenting all such examples would be too tedious. p. 39:
The context of Irenaeus' argument does not claim that the Roman church is literally unique, the one and only in its class; rather, he argues that the Roman church is the outstanding example of its class, the class in question being apostolic sees. While he chose to speak primarily of Rome for brevity's sake, in fact, before finishing, he also referred to Ephesus and Smyrna.But those other churches were in the east. "Rome," writes Eno, "was the only see of its kind where he now lived and preached." Whereas apostolic churches were plentiful in the east, Rome was the only apostolic church in the west.
As do most scholars, Eno maintains that the monarchical episcopate came late to Rome. p. 29:
This evidence (Clement, Hermas, Ignatius) points us in the direction of assuming that in the first century and into the second, there was no bishop of Rome in the usual sense given to that title. The office of the single mon-episkopos was slowly emerging in the local Christian communities around the Mediterranean world. Men like Ignatius were strongly urging this development. But the evidence seems to indicate that in the earliest decades, this evolution had not yet been accomplished in Rome.Eno is sympathetic to Irenaeus even if his list doesn't literally document a succession of bishops going back to Peter. Rather, the list is "a reading back into the first century of the role of the community bishop as found in the mid-second century"— the formulation familiar to Irenaeus. "The collective leadership counted among their number men who stood out from the crowd; people perhaps who frequently exercised a de facto leadership but without being monarchical bishops." (p. 33) "Even in a collective leadership, some officers were known as episkopoi," Eno observes. "Christian communities including Rome had such local officers even if one was not yet really like the strong single episkopos extolled by Ignatius." (p. 34)
Klaus Schatz begins his book Papal Primacy (1990, English translation 1996) by answering certain foundational questions in the negative. Schatz, a Catholic priest, received his doctorate at Rome's Gregorian University in 1974. He subsequently taught Church history at the St. Georgen School of Philosophy and Theology, a Catholic university in Frankfurt, Germany. Schatz's book is both historical and theological.
Scholars agree, writes Schatz, that the question of (pp 1-2)
whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter's lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter's death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably "no."Further, p. 2:
If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter's death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church's rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer.Moreover, p. 3:
If one had asked a Christian in the year 100, 200, or even 300 whether the bishop of Rome was the head of all Christians, or whether there was a supreme bishop over all the other bishops and having the last word in questions affecting the whole Church, he or she would certainly have said no.And the office probably did not even exist. p. 4:
We probably cannot say for certain that there was a bishop of Rome at that time [of Clement, c.95 -mb]. It seems likely that the Roman church was governed by a group of presbyters from whom there very quickly emerged a presider or "first among equals" whose name was remembered and who was subsequently described as "bishop" after the mid-second century.Those names would have appeared on bishop lists such as Ireneaus's, which emerged out of the battle against Gnosticism in the late second century. Gnosticism emphasized, among other things, "secret traditions." By contrast, orthodoxy was based on authority accessible to all, which derived from teaching handed down from the apostles. p. 7:
In their debates with these movements, orthodox authors emphasize a tradition that is open to all, historically accessible, and comprehensible even for ordinary Christians. This accessibility is twofold: in sacred Scripture and in the apostolic succession of the episcopal office. The authentic writings of the New Testament were now gradually assembled to form a canon and distinguish it from "nonauthentic" traditions in the apocrypha. The composition of "lists of bishops" extending back to the apostles was an effective way of saying that this uninterrupted succession guarantees that the public tradition is true.The authority was rooted in the "apostolic" churches—churches founded by apostles, or where their tombs resided. "The apostolic churches included Antioch, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and, of course, Rome." (p. 7) Rome was the only such church in the west. Much of its prestige derived from the martyrdom and tombs of the two most important apostles, Peter and Paul.
But its bishops were a long time coming. And its popes far longer still.