St Peter's journey to Rome led to the spread of Christianity in the West and the foundation of Roman Catholicism, so the Church has always taught.
But a new documentary will challenge the link as nothing more than a "conspiracy of faith". In it, prominent academics accuse the Vatican of misleading the world over the fate of the man regarded as Jesus Christ's closest disciple. In allegations likely to spark controversy, they accuse the Church of fabricating a connection with the apostle to validate giving ultimate power to the papacy.
Catholicism has taught for centuries that Peter was martyred and buried in Rome and that all popes succeed him, but the documentary will challenge this by asserting that he never reached the Italian city. Instead, it will accuse the Church of ignoring the discovery of a tomb in Jerusalem that archaeologists believe contains the bones of Peter.
Leading theologians said that these views were an "attempt to smear Catholicism" and criticised Channel 4 for allowing such "outlandish" claims to be broadcast.
They expressed concern that they would appeal to people who are easily persuaded by conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, as proposed in Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code.
Dr Robert Beckford, a theology lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, who presents the documentary, denied that this was an attempt to attack the Catholic Church. "This is about looking at what the pillars of power are founded on and examining the scholarship that most Catholics take for granted," he said.
"We found that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that Peter was buried in Rome, but yet the rival theory has not got out because it challenges the Church.
"If you undermine its basis for power you undermine the Church. It's tragic that the faith gets reduced to manipulating the facts and to one Church trying to make itself superior to others."
As Christianity spread following the crucifixion of Jesus, it became important for the new churches to claim a link with the disciples and led the Catholic Church to establish a connection with St Peter.
Catholics believe the proof that Christ constituted St Peter head of His Church is found in the two Petrine texts, Matthew 16:17-19, and John 21:15-17. In Matthew, the office is solemnly promised to the apostle as Jesus addresses him: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."
Roman Catholicism holds that the Pope, also known as the Bishop of Rome, is the sole successor to the "supremacy" or primacy of Peter and is thus the "Vicar of Christ" for the world.
It is traditionally believed that he was crucified in Rome and buried where the Basilica of St Peter was later built, beneath the high altar.
In 1939, the Vatican announced that the bones of Peter had been found in Rome during an archaeological dig. But the documentary casts doubt on this, questioning why the dig was carried out "in total secrecy", and led by a "personal friend" of the Pope.
"The Pope's authority over the world's one billion Roman Catholics derives from the belief that Peter died and was buried here almost 2,000 years ago," said Dr Beckford.
The documentary, The Secrets of the Twelve Disciples (Channel 4 today at 5.45pm), suggests it that is much more likely that St Peter was buried in an ossuary found in Jerusalem with the inscription Shimon Bar Jonah - Simon son of Jonah - the Hebrew name for Peter.
However, Gerald O'Collins, professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, said that the documentary contradicted the "great weight" of tradition that accepted Peter had been martyred and buried in Rome. "This is awful stuff, total nonsense," he said. "This kind of outlandish garbage drives me nuts."
John Medlin, the general manager of the Latin Mass Society, said of the "intellectually-challenged" arguments: "They are on a par with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and are unsubstantiated. It shows undisguised disdain for the Catholic Church."