Quo Vadis: Mythical vs. Historical


Thirty years after the crucifixion, legend tells that Peter encountered Christ again. The story is an epic one.

Peter had been ministering in Rome under the Emperor Nero, when he finds himself in the cross-hairs of the Prefect Agrippa, with the threat of execution a grave possibility, according to the apocryphal Acts of Peter. His disciples urge him to escape Rome. After all, there was precedent for escaping persecution. Peter himself was imprisoned in Jerusalem when an angel freed him (Acts 12:4-11). Paul was threatened by Jews in Damascus when fellow Christians lowered him in a basket outside the city walls (Acts 9:24). And so, Peter sets out in disguise, setting up one of the most legendary events among the stories of the apostles.

The story is familiar to some Christians but unfamiliar to others. For all Christians, the question of historicity awaits us at the conclusion of the story.

When Peter went out of the gate of Rome along the Appian Way, he saw the Lord coming into Rome. If Peter had not seen Jesus since the Ascension thirty years prior, it would have been a rewarding sight indeed. Yet, Peter seemed perplexed when he asked Jesus, Quo vadis, Domine? “Where are you going, Lord?” Solemnly, Jesus answered: Venio Roman iterum crucifigi: “I come to Rome to be crucified again.” The text evidences Peter’s confusion then his clarity: “‘Lord, are you being crucified again?’ Then Peter came to himself. He returned to Rome, rejoicing and praising the Lord because he had said, ‘I am being crucified,’ because this was to happen to Peter.”

A long legacy of ministry, miracles, and preaching success was now to end with crucifixion. In Paul’s language, Peter had fought the good fight, he had finished the course, and he had kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). This same Acts of Peter and church tradition combine to relate that he was soon after crucified upside down on the Vatican Hill for the spectacle of Nero.

What are Christians to make of this story? Is it true or is it mythical? We are left with a dilemma of historicity: dismiss it as legend or accept it as fact. Of course, many Christians choose a third way of ignoring the question, letting the dilemma remain generation after generation. And the skeptics laugh.

Reasons for its authenticity include its uniqueness, as we have few other accounts of disciples encountering Jesus after the New Testament. It has the criterion of humility, as it makes Peter look embarrassed for his decision to escape. It has the quality of sustainability, as the Church of Quo Vadis stands today along the Appian Way. Finally, it finds historical congruence with the historical evidence of Peter’s crucifixion in Rome the same year.

Reasons for its inauthenticity deserve note. It is fabulous, with Jesus appearing thirty years after the ascension to an apostle, along with other apocryphal episodes that may not be true. It is theologically questionable, as Peter’s unwillingness to be killed equates to the re-crucifixion of Jesus. It has an element of shallowness when the Church of Quo Vadis has two size 14 footprints in a concrete slab on the floor of the church, functioning not as historical but as representative of history for the faithful.

Making historical judgments matters for Christians, as our faith is not merely faith but it has an historical anchor. The veracity of miracles finds support when other miracles prove historically tenable. The challenge for us is that the grid of authenticity provided above maybe convincing, but in the end we lack the sustainable proof required for the scientific mind. Yet, the historical elements that combine with the possibility of such a miracle, when accompanied by faith, allow us to say, “Well, maybe.” And that may be as close as we can get.

Yet, a parallel lesson is the necessity of asking these historical questions about the church’s history. For those Christians who choose to accept all biblical history but reject all extra-biblical history aimlessly, at times they prevent the church from articulating its direction. The philosopher Cicero remarked, “History provides guidance in daily life,” and our short-sightedness of the past can cloud our direction for the future. When we lack a course for our faith, the question is then turned on us: Quo vadis? The dilemma Peter’s story can prompt us to understand and articulate better the important faith legacy that is church history.

Church of Quo Vadis outside Rome.

Church of Quo Vadis outside Rome.

Learn more about the apostles after the New Testament in Brian’s Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacies (Baker, 2018)