Roman Catholics and non-Catholics have debated about whether Peter is buried in Rome, or whether he ever went to Rome. Catholics see proof of such a claim as support for their idea of Peter as the first pope. Non-Catholics believe that the absence of Peter's bones in Rome weaken the Roman Catholic claims. In actuality, there are two different debates. The physical/historical fact of Peter being in Rome, if in fact he was, would not prove the existence of the papacy or that he was the first pope. Whether Peter's bones are in Rome is an archaeological and historical debate. Whether he was the first pope is a biblical and theological debate.
The biblical evidence for Peter being in Rome is scant. Taken overall, if he were there it is not likely he spent much of his time there. Yet historical tradition favors the idea that Peter went to Rome and was martyred under Nero. There is a claim that the tomb (and bones) of Peter have been identified. Much of this is set forth in John Evangelist Walsh's The Bones of St. Peter. On the other hand, a reviewer of this book wrote that it "unintentionally describes the rough treatment of the investigation, its poor planning and commission, the ineptitude of some participants and the shear, disquieting lack of professionalism." Certainly the discovery of Peter's bones in Rome was not without bias! Whether Peter traveled to Rome is attested in history and tradition, but cannot be proven biblically.
1. Paul is silent with respect to Peter being in the city of Rome. Covering quite a period of years, Paul wrote one letter to the church in Rome, and at least five written from Rome (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and II Timothy). In these letters to the church at Rome or writing from Rome to others, Paul never mentions Peter. (Yet both Paul and Peter mention one another in one letters.) In his last days, only Luke was with him (II Timothy 4:10-11).
2. The letter to the disbursed Hebrews was written from Italy (Hebrews 13:24). Peter is not mentioned. (I list this separately because of disagreement whether this epistle was written by Paul.)
3. Paul’s journey to the city of Rome is recorded by Luke in Acts 27 and 28 without any mention of Peter.
4. Peter was an apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:7-8) and Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13). The city of Rome is a Gentile city. (This does not mean Peter could not have gone there, but only questions whether he would have extended his stay there permanently.)
5. The word "Rome" occurs only nine times in the English New Testament -- Acts 2:10; 18:2; 19:21; 23:11; 28:14,16; Romans 1:7,15; 2 Timothy 1:17. Peter is never mentioned in connection with it. But in I Peter 5:13 Peter tells us that he wrote that letter from the city of Babylon. In "Was Peter in Rome", Catholic Answers magazine states that "Babylon is a code-word for Rome" and points out this kind of use in the writings of early Fathers. I agree that "Babylon" does often stand for Rome in the Scriptures (cf. Revelation 17:5)
In 1968 Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) officially declared the tomb of Peter had been conclusively identified. This probably settles the issue for Roman Catholics. But if Peter were not the first pope, Pope Paul VI didn't speak ex cathedra and this remains an open question for non-Catholics.* For those answers we look to the Bible.
While Peter's life and death in Rome (or not) may prove interesting historically, it is not crucial to the issue of whether the papacy was instituted by Christ. This should be settled not by history or tradition, but by God's revelation through His inspired apostles and prophets.
1. Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9:5; Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). Popes take the vow of celibacy.
2. The Roman Catholic Church misinterprets Jesus' promise of Matthew 16:18-19, believing that the church is built on Peter and that he has divine authority above all others. Regardless of one's interpretation of these verses, it must be fairly acknowledged that whatever power is given to Peter in Matthew 16 -- the power of binding and loosing -- is equally distributed to all the apostles in Matthew 18:15-20. This is fact, is given to all the church (v. 19-20).
3. Latecomers may view Jesus distributing exclusive power to Peter, but the apostles did not understand such an occurrence to have transpired. They continued to strive over who should be the greatest (cf. Matthew 20:20-24; Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24). Jesus did not resolve the issue by referring back to any occasion in which He made Peter the greatest. Rather He gave an example of Gentile hierarchy and plainly stated it should not be so among them (cf. Matthew 22:25-28; Luke 22:25-27).
4. The New Testament does not emphasize Peter as a supreme leader. At the council in Jerusalem, Peter does not speak ex cathedra, that is, from the chair for the church** above any of the others (e.g. Paul, Barnabas, James) and final decision is made by the apostles and elders, with the whole church (Read Acts chapter 15). In Acts 11 Peter had to give account to the church at Jerusalem for his preaching to the Gentiles. In a weak moment for Peter in Antioch, Paul withstood him to his face (Galatians 2:11-14). It seems odd, too, if Peter were pope, that the Bible would give a greater historical account of the ministry of Paul, and include a much greater body of his work in its inspired oracles.
5. The Roman Catholic Church sets up a division in the body of Christ based on leaders, contrary to I Corinthians 1. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you...” This was on account of the church divided into following men. “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:10–12). Setting up Peter in authority and following his successors to the exclusion of others amounts to saying, “I [am] of Cephas.” For this the Corinthians were rebuked.
This is very little biblical weight behind the idea of Peter living at and entombed in Rome. "It is only after the emergence and evolution of the state-church on the heels of the legalization of Christianity by Constantine, and the proclamation of Christianity as the official state religion by Theodosius, that the role and influence of the Bishop of Rome as titular head of the Catholic Church began to be consolidated." On the other hand, the grand weight of scriptural evidence denies the possibility of an authoritative Peter who was head of "The Church".
* For opposing versions of this, see Was Peter in Rome and Tracing the original tombs.
** "...its present meaning was formally determined by the Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, c. iv: 'We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.'"