dianoigo blog

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Early Christian Interpretation of the "Us" of Genesis 1:26

1. Introduction
2. Christological Interpretations
 2.1. First Century
  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles
  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews
  2.1.3. 1 Clement
 2.2. Second Century
  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas
  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum
  2.2.3. Justin Martyr
  2.2.4. Tatian
  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis
  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria
 2.3. Third Century
  2.3.1. Tertullian
  2.3.2. Origen
  2.3.3. Novatian
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata
3. Non-Christological Interpretations
 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)
 3.3. An alternative interpretation mentioned by Origen
4. Summary and Conclusion

1. Introduction

One of the most striking statements in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 occurs in verses 26-27:
26 Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. 27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27 NABRE)
The problem of what it means for humans to be made in imago Dei has occupied exegetes and theologians from antiquity up to the present. Another problem that has vexed interpreters is the significance of the plural jussive verb and pronominal suffix here: whom is God addressing as "us" and "our" as he prepares to create humans?

One encounters two main lines of interpretation in contemporary scholarly literature on Genesis. The first option has God addressing other celestial beings. These could be other gods, in which case the author of Genesis may be editing polytheistic source material and has not eliminated all vestiges of polytheistic language. Or God could be addressing the heavenly council, understood in a more monotheistic direction as consisting of "sons of God" or angels, that is, beings subordinate to God (cf. Job 1:6; 38:7). The second option has God addressing himself. This could entail a plural of majesty (akin to the "royal we"), a plural of deliberation (roughly comparable to a person who says to himself, "Let's see then..." when pondering a course of action) or a plural of fullness (implying some kind of complexity within God, perhaps involving God and his Spirit mentioned in v. 2).1

For many Christian readers, when they see plural terms applied to God they immediately think of the Trinity and suppose that the "us" is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Since the doctrine of the Trinity did not yet exist at the time Genesis was written, biblical scholars are quick to point out that this interpretation is anachronistic: it cannot be what the author of Genesis had in mind. On the other hand, Collins avers that "if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior ('fuller sense'), this is it.2 Sensus plenior refers to a fuller, theological meaning of a text that the Holy Spirit intends but that even the human author of the text may not have grasped. For Christians the notion of sensus plenior in biblical interpretation is inescapable, since the New Testament writers frequently offer interpretations of Old Testament passages that are clearly not the grammatical-historical meaning. Examples include the interpretation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 (where Hosea clearly intends "my son" to be Israel, but Matthew reads it as a Messianic prophecy), or the interpretation of Ps. 102:25 in Heb. 1:10 (where the psalmist addresses God but the writer of Hebrews understands these words as addressed by God to Christ), or the interpretation of Deut. 25:4 in 1 Cor. 9:9-10 (where the law clearly pertains to treatment of literal oxen, but Paul asserts that it was written "for our sake" to make a point about the rights of Christian ministers).

Thus, when Christian readers see a veiled reference to the Trinity in Genesis 1:26, their interpretation is problematic at the grammatical-historical level but reasonable in terms of the kind of theological interpretation found in the New Testament. Indeed, while no New Testament writer comments on the meaning of the plural in Gen. 1:26a, there is a rich tradition in early Christian literature of reading this text Christologically. The purpose of this article is to survey that tradition up to the end of the third century A.D.

2. Christological Interpretations

 2.1. First Century

  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles

As mentioned, no New Testament writer explicitly comments on the meaning of "us/our" in Gen. 1:26. The imago Dei concept features prominently in the Pauline epistles, and Paul undoubtedly had an opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, we cannot reconstruct his view with certainty, but there are some clues suggesting that he understood Christ as the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

In 1 Cor. 15:46-49, in an eschatological context (discussing the resurrection body), Paul contrasts the first man, Adam, who was from the earth, with the second man, the last Adam (Christ), who was "from heaven." He goes on to say, "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one." The notion of humans bearing the image of Adam comes from Gen. 5:3, which describes Seth as "a son in [Adam's] likeness, after his image". The phrase "after his image," in Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint, is identical to that of Gen. 1:26 apart from the difference in person and number. This suggests a link between the two passages. Is Paul saying only that we will bear the image of the heavenly man, Christ, because he is a new Adam (thus drawing entirely on Gen. 5:3)? Or is he also saying that we will bear the image of the heavenly man because this was God's will from the beginning, as expressed by God to the Son in Gen. 1:26? The language of Gen. 5:3 itself depends on Gen. 1:26, so it is difficult to imagine that Paul does not have Gen. 1:26 in mind. The rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah would have prompted him to read Gen. 1:26 and 5:3 together.

In 2 Cor. 3:18, Paul somewhat enigmatically speaks of believers as "being transformed into the same image from glory to glory," an idea linked to his statement that "the Lord is the Spirit." Shortly thereafter, Paul avers that Christ "is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). Indeed, "the glory of the Lord," a common OT expression (e.g., Num. 14:21) is here implicitly identified as the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-5). Christ is not merely made according to God's image; he is God's image, definitively. If we ask from what biblical text Paul drew the idea that Christ is the definitive image of God, a Christological reading of the "our image" of Gen. 1:26 seems the most plausible source.

In Rom. 8:29, Paul writes, "For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." Again, if we were to ask Paul for biblical evidence that God predestined people to be conformed to the image of his Son, he might well point us to Gen. 1:26, interpreted eschatologically (i.e. not only with reference to the original creation of humanity but to the new creation). Moreover, the language of being transformed into and conformed to the image of the Son calls to mind Phil. 2:6, which describes Christ as "in the form of God" already prior to his resurrection, and arguably prior to his birth!

Paul never explicitly gives us his interpretation of the plural language in Gen. 1:26, and a case can be made that Adam Christology accounts for his language about Christ as the prototypical image of God in the above texts. However, while Adam Christology is undoubtedly present (most clearly in 1 Cor. 15), it seems unable to fully account for the imago Dei language of 2 Cor. 3-4 and Rom. 8:29.

Paul unambiguously describes the Lord Jesus Christ as God's agent in creation in 1 Cor. 8:6 and in Col. 1:16, using the preposition dia with a genitive noun, which denotes direct agency or instrumentality, not indirect agency or purpose. Thus, these texts say of the Lord Jesus Christ, "through whom are all things" and "all things were created through him," not merely "on account of whom." What is striking about Col. 1:16 is that the verse before describes Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (v. 15). The hymn in Col. 1:15-20 as a whole is both protological (referring to primeval events) and eschatological: Christ is the one through whom and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created (v. 16),3 and is also "the head of the body, the church...the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" (v. 18). If one asks after Paul's biblical source for the notion that Christ, as the definitive image of God, was the agent and goal of creation, "Let us make humankind in our image" is the most likely choice.

  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews

The author of Hebrews uses an expression for Christ that sounds like an elaboration of the imago Dei concept: "who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being" (Heb. 1:3 NABRE). This calls to mind a passage in Wisdom of Solomon that calls Wisdom "a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty...the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness" (Wis. 7:25-26 NABRE). An allusion to this passage in Heb. 1:3 is likely, given that these are the only instances in the LXX and NT where the word apaugasma occurs. As Paul does in Colossians, the author of Hebrews describes the Son as God's image in the immediate context of giving him an active role in the creation of heaven and earth (Heb. 1:2, 10-12). It therefore seems likely that the writer is drawing on a tradition that identified Wisdom as the addressee of Gen. 1:26, but is modifying that tradition to replace Wisdom with Christ, who is Wisdom personified.4 This hermeneutical strategy is also likely employed in Colossians, where Paul says that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3).

  2.1.3. 1 Clement

The letter from the Roman church to the Corinthian church known as 1 Clement, dating from the late first century, is the earliest Christian text to quote Gen. 1:26. In 1 Clem. 33, exhorting the Corinthians not to lose their zeal, the writer reminds them of the greatness of God and his creation. In vv. 4-5 he states,
And with his holy and perfect hands he formed the one who was preeminent and superior in intelligence to all, the human, stamped with his own image. For as God says, 'Let us make a human according to our own image and likeness. And God made the human; male and female he made them.'5
Although this writer quotes Gen. 1:26, he does not provide his interpretation of the "us." His focus in this passage is entirely on God's creative acts and the privileged status of humans within creation, and not on Christology. However, when he next introduces Christology, in chapter 36, he says of Jesus Christ that "through this one we see the reflection of his perfect and superior countenance... He is the radiance of his magnificence" (1 Clem. 36.3-4). The writer uses the same rare word apaugasma used in Heb. 1:3 and Wis. 7:26, and in the immediate context he quotes three of the Old Testament passages quoted in the catena of Heb. 1:5-13 (Ps. 104:4; Ps. 2:7-8; Ps. 110:1). It is highly likely, then, that there is either literary dependence between 1 Clement and Hebrews or use of a shared exegetical tradition. The connections between 1 Clem. 33 and 36 and between 1 Clement and Hebrews make it likely that this tradition saw Gen. 1:26 as affirming both that Christ shares definitively in God's image and that Christ was God's agent in creation.

 2.2. Second Century

  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas

The next Christian text to cite Gen. 1:26 is the Letter of Barnabas, probably written in the 130s. This text is the first to explicitly offer a Christological interpretation of the "us":
Consider this, my brothers: if the Lord allowed himself to suffer for our sake, even though he was the Lord of the entire world, the one to whom God said at the foundation of the world, 'Let us make a human according to our image and likeness,' how then did he allow himself to suffer by the hand of humans? (Barn. 5.5)6
Since, then, he renewed us through the forgiveness of our sins, he made us into a different type of person, that we might have the soul of children, as if he were indeed forming us all over again. For the Scripture speaks about us when he says to the Son, 'Let us make humans according to our image and likeness, and let them rule over the wild beasts of the land and the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea.' Once the Lord saw our beautiful form, he said 'Increase and multiply and fill the earth.' He said these things to the Son. (Barn. 6.11-12)7
This writer presupposes without argument, as though uncontroversial, that the words of Gen. 1:26 were spoken by God to the Son at the foundation of the world. Pre-existence Christology is not the writer's main concern throughout this passage; he seems able to presuppose that his readers shared this belief. Moreover, as we saw in Colossians, there is an interplay between the protological and the eschatological, since the writer also sees Gen. 1:26 as "speaking about us," i.e. foretelling the creation of the eschatological community.

  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum

Written also c. 150 A.D., the Epistula Apostolorum ("Epistle of the Apostles") is an apocryphal letter purported to be written by the twelve apostles. Its intention is clearly to combat Gnosticism. The text alludes to Gen. 1:26-27 in the midst of a long Christological statement:

We know this: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (is) God, Son of God who was sent from God, the ruler of the entire world, the maker and creator of what is named with every name, who is over all authority (as) Lord of lords and King of kings, the ruler of the rulers, the heavenly one who is over the Cherubim and Seraphim and sits at the right hand of the throne of the Father, who by his word commanded the heavens and built the earth and all that is in it… who has created man according to his image and likeness... (Ep. Ap. 3)8
This passage does not explicitly interpret the "us" of Gen. 1:26. However, by attributing to the Son the activity of creating man according to his image and likeness, the text implicitly includes him within the scope of the verse, and may therefore rely on a Christological interpretation of the "us."

  2.2.3. Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho probably in the 150s. Persuading a Jewish interlocutor of Christian claims about Christ is a major focus of this massive work. At one point, Justin declares, "So, my friends... I shall now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of himself a certain rational power as a beginning before all creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word." (Dial. 61.1).9 One of his proof texts for this claim is Gen. 1:26:
'My friends,' I continued, 'the Word of God, through Moses, stated exactly the same thing, when it revealed to us that at the creation of man God spoke of him (who was pointed out by Moses) in the same sense. Here is the text [quotes Gen. 1:26-28]... Lest you distort the meaning of these words by repeating what your teachers say—either that God said to himself, Let us make, just as we, when on the verge of doing something, say to ourselves, Let us make; or that God said Let us make to the elements, that is, to the earth or other similar substances of which we think man was composed—I wish again to quote Moses to prove beyond all doubt that he spoke with one endowed with reason and numerically distinct from himself. These are the words: And God said: Behold Adam has become as one of Us, knowing good and evil. Now the words as one of Us clearly show that there were a number of persons together, numbering at least two. I do not consider true that teaching which is asserted by what you call a heretical sect of your religion, nor can the proponents of that heresy prove that he spoke those words to angels, or that the human body was the result of the angel's work. But this offspring, who was really begotten of the Father, was with the Father and the Father talked with him before all creation... (Dial. 62.1-4)10 
Justin shows an awareness of several contemporaneous Jewish interpretations of the "us" in Gen. 1:26, but rejects these and insists that God was addressing the Son.

  2.2.4. Tatian

Tatian, a pupil of Justin's, wrote his Address to the Greeks c. 165 A.D.
For the heavenly Logos, a spirit emanating from the Father and a Logos from the Logos-power, in imitation of the Father who begat Him made man an image of immortality, so that, as incorruption is with God, in like manner, man, sharing in a part of God, might have the immortal principle also. (Address to the Greeks 7)11
Although Tatian never explicitly identifies the Logos as the Son—indeed, his Address never explicitly refers to Christ—it seems plain enough that, like his teacher Justin, he would have made this identification. Tatian does not directly cite or interpret Gen. 1:26, but his description of the Logos as having made man an image of immortality in imitation of the Father calls to mind the "us" language of Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis

Melito, bishop of Sardis, wrote his Passover homily in the second half of the second century A.D. Melito describes the creation of humanity thus:

In the beginning God made heaven and earth and everything in them. He formed man from the earth by his word and communicated the breath of life to this form. (On the Pascha 47)12
After narrating the Fall, Melito sums up its consequences:
What had come from dust to dust returned, and the creation of God was imprisoned in Hades. There was a sundering of what had been fairly joined, for man was dissolved into his parts by Death. A new disaster and terrible captivity enchained him. He was then taken captive by the shadows of Death. The image of the Father lay alone and abandoned. (On the Pascha 55-56)13
Melito thus regards humanity as the image of the Father, whom God created "by his word." Is there any reason to think that Melito read "his word" Christologically? There is: further along, emphasising the magnitude of Israel's unbelief in Christ, he writes:
you have failed, Israel, to recognise that this is the first-born of God who was begotten before the morning star, who made the light to rise, and the day resplendent; who separated the darkness, who set up the first limits, who fixed the earth in its place, and dried up the abyss, and spread out the firmament, and set in order the universe; who disposed the stars in the sky, who made the lights to shine, who created the heavenly angels, who placed there the thrones, who fashioned man for himself on earth. (On the Pascha 82-83)14
Melito never quotes Gen. 1:26, but he understands the Son of God to have created mankind, and thus implicitly to have been "the word" through whom the Father created man in his image. It is thus highly likely that Melito understood the Son to have been the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch

The late second-century bishop Theophilus of Antioch, in his apologetic work written to one Autocylus, comments thus on Gen. 1:26:
But as to what relates to the creation of man, his own creation cannot be explained by man, though it is a succinct account of it which holy Scripture gives. For when God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, He first intimates the dignity of man. For God having made all things by His Word, and having reckoned them all mere bye-works, reckons the creation of man to be the only work worthy of His own hands. Moreover, God is found, as if needing help, to say, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. But to no one else than to His own Word and wisdom did He say, Let Us make. And when He had made and blessed him, that he might increase and replenish the earth, He put all things under his dominion, and at his service; and He appointed from the first that he should find nutriment from the fruits of the earth, and from seeds, and herbs, and acorns, having at the same time appointed that the animals be of habits similar to man's, that they also might eat of the seeds of the earth. (Ad Autolycus 2.18)
Theophilus clearly understands God to have spoken to his Word and Wisdom. But what or whom is this Word and Wisdom according to Theophilus? He clarifies later when discussing Gen. 3:8 (about God walking in the garden):
You will say, then, to me: You said that God ought not to be contained in a place, and how do you now say that He walked in Paradise? Hear what I say. The God and Father, indeed, of all cannot be contained, and is not found in a place, for there is no place of His rest; but His Word, through whom He made all things, being His power and His wisdom, assuming the person of the Father and Lord of all, went to the garden in the person of God, and conversed with Adam. For the divine writing itself teaches us that Adam said that he had heard the voice. But what else is this voice but the Word of God, who is also His Son? (Ad Autolycus 2.22)
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 A.D., explicitly interprets the Son as the addressee in Gen. 1:26 in a comment on Isa. 9:6:
He calls Him Wonderful Counsellor, meaning of the Father: whereby it is declared that the Father works all things together with Him; as is contained in the first book of Moses which is entitled Genesis: And God said, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." For there is seen in this place the Father speaking to the Son, the Wonderful Counsellor of the Father. (Demonstration 55)
Irenaeus had earlier commented,
For He made man the image of God; and the image of God is the Son, after whose image man was made: and for this cause He appeared in the end of the times that He might show the image (to be) like unto Himself. (Demonstration 22)
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria

Clement has a lot to say in his writings about the imago Dei. He never directly states that God the Father was addressing the Word or the Son in the words of Gen. 1:26, but the following excerpts show that this was almost certainly his understanding of the verse:
as the Son sees the goodness of the Father, God the Saviour works, being called the first principle of all things, which was imaged forth from the invisible God first, and before the ages, and which fashioned all things which came into being after itself (Stromata 5.6)
Wherefore also man is said to have been made in [God's] image and likeness. For the image of God is the divine and royal Word, the impassible man; and the image of the image is the human mind. (Stromata 5.14)
Now, it is incumbent on us to return His love, who lovingly guides us to that life which is best; and to live in accordance with the injunctions of His will, not only fulfilling what is commanded, or guarding against what is forbidden, but turning away from some examples, and imitating others as much as we can, and thus to perform the works of the Master according to His similitude, and so fulfil what Scripture says as to our being made in His image and likeness. (Paedagogus 1.2-3) 
The view I take is, that [Christ] Himself formed man of the dust, and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfil to the utmost that divine utterance, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness." And, in truth, Christ became the perfect realization of what God spoke; and the rest of humanity is conceived as being created merely in His image. (Paedagogus 1.12)
 2.3. Third Century

  2.3.1. Tertullian

In one place, Tertullian follows the usual Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26:
Imagine God wholly employed and absorbed in it— in His hand, His eye, His labour, His purpose, His wisdom, His providence, and above all, in His love, which was dictating the lineaments (of this creature). For, whatever was the form and expression which was then given to the clay (by the Creator) Christ was in His thoughts as one day to become man, because the Word, too, was to be both clay and flesh, even as the earth was then. For so did the Father previously say to the Son: "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness." And God made man, that is to say, the creature which He moulded and fashioned; after the image of God (in other words, of Christ) did He make him. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 6.4)
Elsewhere, however, Tertullian extends the interpretation to include the Spirit as a co-addressee alongside the Son, thus becoming the earliest extant Christian writer to adopt a Trinitarian reading of Gen. 1:26-27:
If the number of the Trinity also offends you, as if it were not connected in the simple Unity, I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely One and Singular, to speak in plural phrase, saying, "Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness"; whereas He ought to have said, "Let me make man in my own image, and after my own likeness," as being a unique and singular Being? In the following passage, however, "Behold the man has become as one of us," He is either deceiving or amusing us in speaking plurally, if He is One only and singular. Or was it to the angels that He spoke, as the Jews interpret the passage, because these also acknowledge not the Son? Or was it because He was at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, that He spoke to Himself in plural terms, making Himself plural on that very account? Nay, it was because He had already His Son close at His side, as a second Person, His own Word, and a third Person also, the Spirit in the Word, that He purposely adopted the plural phrase, "Let us make"; and, "in our image"; and, "become as one of us." For with whom did He make man? And to whom did He make him like? (The answer must be), the Son on the one hand, who was one day to put on human nature; and the Spirit on the other, who was to sanctify man. With these did He then speak, in the Unity of the Trinity, as with His ministers and witnesses. In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him." Why say image of God? Why not "His own image" merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ's image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay— the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man. (Against Praxeas 12)
  2.3.2. Origen

Origen, too, insists that the Son was the addressee of the words of Gen. 1:26:
But to bring back a soul which had gone out, so that it came out of the grave when already stinking and passing the fourth day, was the work of no other than Him who heard the word of the Father, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." But also to command the winds and to make the violence of the sea cease at a word, was the work of no other than Him through whom all things, both the sea itself and the winds, have come into being. (Commentary on Matthew 12.2)
We therefore charge the Jews with not acknowledging Him to be God, to whom testimony was borne in many passages by the prophets, to the effect that He was a mighty power, and a God next to the God and Father of all things. For we assert that it was to Him the Father gave the command, when in the Mosaic account of the creation He uttered the words, Let there be light, and Let there be a firmament, and gave the injunctions with regard to those other creative acts which were performed; and that to Him also were addressed the words, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness"; and that the Logos, when commanded, obeyed all the Father's will. (Contra Celsum 2.9; see also 5.37)
On one occasion, Origen mentions a non-Christological interpretation that he does not endorse but is not willing to dismiss either (see below).

  2.3.3. Novatian

In his work On the Trinity, Novatian cited Gen. 1:26 against a modalistic Christology that identified Christ as God the Father, using it to prove that the Son and the Father are distinct persons:
But from this occasion of Christ being proved from the sacred authority of the divine writings not man only, but God also, other heretics, breaking forth, contrive to impair the religious position in Christ; by this very fact wishing to show that Christ is God the Father, in that He is asserted to be not man only, but also is declared to be God. For thus say they, If it is asserted that God is one, and Christ is God, then say they, If the Father and Christ be one God, Christ will be called the Father. Wherein they are proved to be in error, not knowing Christ, but following the sound of a name; for they are not willing that He should be the second person after the Father, but the Father Himself. And since these things are easily answered, few words shall be said. For who does not acknowledge that the person of the Son is second after the Father, when he reads that it was said by the Father, consequently to the Son, "Let us make man in our image and our likeness"; and that after this it was related, "And God made man, in the image of God made He him?" (de Trinitate 26)
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata

In 268-69 A.D., a synod deposed Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, partly due to his denial of Christ's Incarnation.15

A letter survives addressed to Paul by six other bishops, of whom Hymenaeus of Jerusalem is named first. This letter is known as the Letter of the Six Bishops or the Letter of Hymenaeus.16 An English translation is hard to track down, so my own translation of the relevant Greek passage follows:
And all the divinely inspired writings declare the Son of God to be God; these we now undertake to cite at length. We believe him, who was always with the Father, to have fulfilled the paternal purpose by the creation of all things. For "he spoke and they were made; he commanded and they were created." Now one who commands something, commands someone; which "someone," we are convinced, is none other than God the only begotten Son of God, to whom he said, "Let us make man according to our image and likeness."17
3. Non-Christological Interpretations

We have already cited the non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 that Justin Martyr attributed to the Jews of his day. One would not, of course, expect non-Christian Jews to read the Jewish Scriptures with a Christological hermeneutic. There is also evidence of non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 among professing Christians, though the earliest such evidence I found is in literature from the third century A.D.

 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies

The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies date from the late third century but are thought to preserve older Jewish Christian traditions. The Homilies depict Christ as pre-existent but as an archangel rather than as God.18 The author appears at one point to refute a Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26 in favour of a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation. The context is a dialogue between Simon the Magician (representing, in the author's view, a heretical perspective) and Peter (representing, in the author's view, the true perspective):
And Simon said: Since I see that you frequently speak of the God who created you, learn from me how you are impious even to him. For there are evidently two who created, as the Scripture says: 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' Now 'let us make,' implies two or more; certainly not one only. 
And Peter answered: One is He who said to His Wisdom, 'Let us make a man.' But His Wisdom was that with which He Himself always rejoiced as with His own spirit. It is united as soul to God, but it is extended by Him, as hand, fashioning the universe. On this account, also, one man was made, and from him went forth also the female. And being a unity generically, it is yet a duality, for by expansion and contraction the unity is thought to be a duality. So that I act rightly in offering up all the honour to one God as to parents. (Homilies 16.11-12)19
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)

In his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus refers to a heretic named Saturnilus who understood the words of Gen. 1:26a to be a conversation among angels:
But one Saturnilus, who flourished about the same period with Basilides, but spent his time in Antioch, (a city) of Syria, propounded opinions akin to whatever (tenets) Menander (advanced). He asserts that there is one Father, unknown to all— He who had made angels, archangels, principalities, (and) powers; and that by certain angels, seven (in number), the world was made, and all things that are in it. And (Saturnilus affirms) that man was a work of angels. There had appeared above from (the Being of) absolute sway, a brilliant image; and when (the angels) were not able to detain this, on account of its immediately, he says, returning with rapidity upwards, they exhorted one another, saying, "Let us make man in our likeness and image." (Refutation 7.16) 

In his Commentary on John, Origen suggests the possibility that God has committed to angels the task of forming each new human soul in the womb. He then goes on to suggest that, rather than referring only to the original creation of the first human pair, the words of Gen. 1:26 pertain also to the creation of each new human in the womb, and that therefore God addresses the words of Gen. 1:26 to the angels who have been appointed to sow souls in bodies. Nevertheless, Origen is unwilling to commit himself to this interpretation:
This explanation will take the command, 'Let us make man according to our image and our likeness,' in a more ingenious manner. God says this of all men and initiates the work which is later [performed] by others to whom the command comes in relation to the appointed portion. It is to these that God says, 'Let us make man.' It is to these also that he says in the confounding of the dialects, 'Come and let us go down and confound there their tongue.' Now we do not offer this as our opinion, for matters of such magnitude need to be thoroughly examined to see if they are so or not. On the other hand, such an interpretation must not be dismissed contemptuously. (Commentary on John 13.331-32)20

In the first through third centuries A.D., Christian writers consistently interpreted the plural terms in "Let us make man in our image" (Gen. 1:26) as the Father addressing the Son. This Christological interpretation is explicitly followed by the author of the Letter of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Novatian and the six bishops who wrote to Paul of Samosata. The same interpretation is arguably also presupposed by Paul, the authors of Hebrews, 1 Clement and the Epistula Apostolorum, Tatian and Melito of Sardis. Alternative, non-Christological interpretations of the passage are found in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the heretic Saturnilus (as reported by Hippolytus) and a suggestion made (but not endorsed) by Origen.

Overall, then, we can say that the Christological reading was the dominant and consistent early Christian interpretation of the plural syntax of Gen. 1:26—at least in those writings that have been preserved. Following the lead of their Lord (Luke 24:27) and his apostles, the early church read the Jewish Scriptures through Christ-coloured lenses. In so doing they found a confirmation in early Genesis of Christ's pre-existence, deity and participation in the Father's creative work.


  • 1 See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 132-34; C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 59-61.
  • 2 In context, Collins argues that Gen. 1:26 most likely depicts God as "deliberating with himself". He then adds, "Does this lead us to the Trinity? No, not of itself. But if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior (‘fuller sense’), this is it. The kind of sensus plenior that I can accept occurs when a later passage amplifies an earlier one in a way consistent with the intent of the earlier one. If the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is true, then the referent was present in Genesis 1. This is not the same as claiming that the author or a pious Israelite reader must have been able to see it, only that the narration allows it. As mentioned, the Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2 is closely associated with God himself in the Old Testament. The Christian doctrine allows us to make good sense of all the elements in the text, as well as of the elements of other texts (those which speak of Christ as the one through whom the world was made)" (Collins, Genesis 1-4, 61). Hamilton similarly comments, "It is one thing to say that the author of Gen. 1 was not schooled in the intricacies of Christian dogma. It is another to say he was theologically too primitive or naïve to handle such ideas as plurality within unity. What we often so blithely dismiss as ‘foreign to the thought of the OT’ may be nothing of the sort. True, the concept may not be etched on every page of Scripture, but hints and clues and dropped enticingly here and there, and such hints await their full understanding ‘at the correct time’ (Gal. 4:4)" (Book of Genesis, 134).
  • 3 These "all things" are specifically qualified to include even the highest angelic orders ("thrones or dominions or principalities or powers"), perhaps to clearly elevate Christ above the angels, given that "worship of angels" was an issue at Colosse (Col. 2:18).
  • 4 See below on the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, which seem to follow a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation of Gen. 1:26.
  • 5 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:93-95.
  • 6 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:27
  • 7 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:33.
  • 8 Trans. in John K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 558-59.
  • 9 Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 93-94.
  • 10 Halton, St. Justin Martyr, 95-96.
  • 11 Where a translation or text is not explicitly cited, I am following the public domain translation linked to, which is usually that hosted at newadvent.org. These translations are old and not based on the latest critical texts.
  • 12 Trans. Thomas Halton, "Paschal Homily: Melito of Sardis," The Furrow 19 (1968): 215.
  • 13 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 216.
  • 14 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 219.
  • 15 "Paul rejects the idea that the Logos should be composed (σύνθετος) with a human body, for this would be equivalent to a kind of mingling which is contrary to his dignity or rank as the Son of God… Malchion insists that Jesus Christ is one, composed out of two simple elements, the God-Logos and the human body, which is from the seed of David. The charge laid on Paul is that his rejection of such a model of ‘composition’ implies a denial of the substantial union of the Son of God with the human body. It is insinuated that he conceives of the union in Christ as a participation, presumably of the man Jesus, in the divine Wisdom, who is said to dwell in the former. According to Malchion, Paul’s doctrine of the inhabitation of divine Wisdom is motivated by the intention to protect the Son of God from the humiliating consequences of his kenosis, i.e. from suffering the cost or loss (dispendium) of his being united with a human body." (U. M. Lang, "The Christological Controversy at the Synod of Antioch in 268/9," Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000): 66-67.
  • 16 Lang states that de Riedmatten has argued convincingly in favour of its authenticity ("Christological Controversy," 71).
  • 17 Greek text in Martin Josephus Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 5 vols. (Oxford: Typographeo academico, 1846-48), 3:292.
  • 18 Charles A. Gieschen,Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 209-213.
  • 19 Cf. Recognitions 2.39-40, where Simon offers a more elaborate argument; Peter does not there specifically address the meaning of Gen. 1:26.
  • 20 Trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John Books 13-32 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 139.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation and the Tridentine Reformation

Five hundred years ago next week, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, Father Martin Luther, wrote to his bishop declaring his intention to enter into academic debate on some propositions that are known to history as the Ninety-Five Theses. This event is widely regarded as the starting gun to the Protestant Reformation, and its 500th anniversary is therefore being widely celebrated and commemorated, depending on one's perspective. Playmobil has not missed out on the occasion, producing a commercially successful Martin Luther figurine.

The anniversary has special significance for me, coming in a year when I changed from Protestant to Catholic, so I want to offer some brief thoughts on it, while admitting I am no expert on the sixteenth century. There is no doubt that Father Martin was, at first, a reformer, i.e. one who agitates for positive change from within a community or institution. If the Ninety-Five Theses are provocative, they are certainly not a negation of the Catholic Church or its doctrine. Even on the main topic discussed in the Theses, namely indulgences, Father Martin declares, "If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved" (Thesis 91). Luther's initial complaints contained many valid concerns. Had they been been given a proper hearing rather than met with hostility by the Catholic establishment, and had Luther been more willing to conciliate, things might have played out differently. As Bishop Robert Barron points out in the video below, we might today have in the Catholic Church a Lutheran Order just as we have a Dominican Order, a Franciscan Order and a Jesuit Order.

The great tragedy of the sixteenth century is that this did not happen; instead the Body of Christ was torn asunder by the greatest schism since, well, the Great Schism. Luther was excommunicated and parted company with the Catholic Church and with some of her historic doctrines. Yet, at the very Council of Trent that anathematized Protestant doctrinal errors, the Catholic Church also enacted sweeping disciplinary and administrative reforms. One might therefore argue that Father Martin indirectly left a positive legacy in the Catholic Church: his Ninety-Five Theses were seminal in bringing about the "Tridentine Reformation." This was the true and legitimate reformation of the Church that took place in the sixteenth century.

By contrast, the Protestant Reformation, as it became known, was not genuinely reformative: it did not seek merely to reform the Church from within but to reinvent it from without. The Protestants fundamentally redefined both what the Church is and the epistemology of Christian doctrine. If one thinks of the Church as a house, a reformative movement could be likened to a thorough housecleaning, or even to renovation and refurbishment. These actions maintain the integrity of the pre-existing structure. What the Protestants did was more like moving out of the house and building another, albeit using the plans for the original house and thus replicating its architecture in important ways. Of course, the Protestant movement did not finally result in just one other house but in many other houses, as Protestants disagreed among themselves about how to build the ideal house.

Five hundred years after the Ninety-Five Theses, Western Christianity resembles a strange, sprawling suburb with houses of various size, age and design. The original house still stands, however. And there is more good news. The Catholic Church has been influenced for the better by some Protestant-driven developments, e.g. in biblical scholarship. Even more importantly, the last fifty years have seen more ecumenical progress than the previous 450 combined. It is unlikely that many of the inhabitants of the various houses in the strange suburb are going to move back into the original house, but at least the suburb has begun to look more like a neighbourhood, a community.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Rob Bell on Binding and Loosing

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A stopover along my journey of faith
Bell's take on binding and loosing
What Bell gets right
Where Bell's model falls short
The Jerusalem council as a case study in binding and loosing

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A stopover along my journey of faith

A decade ago, I thought of myself as a free-thinking, theologically progressive Christian. I was a Christadelphian but, like many of the Christadelphians I was now interacting with, I saw myself as a Christian who happened to be a Christadelphian. Being Christadelphian was no longer central to my Christian identity. I was not committed to the Christadelphian belief system as dogma, and harboured serious doubts about aspects of it. A Christadelphian friend in Durban, South Africa, where I was visiting from Canada, loaned me a book by Rob Bell entitled Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). I hadn't heard of Bell before encountering this book, but he was already known in progressive Evangelical circles as a wildly popular American megachurch pastor. In the years to follow he would achieve celebrity status, with multiple bestselling books, Oprah appearances, a place among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people, etc. He would also raise the ire of conservative Evangelicals by challenging traditional Christian teaching on hell and expressing his support for same-sex marriage. It was his bestselling books, beginning with Velvet Elvis and followed by Love Wins, that would make Bell famous.

Velvet Elvis created something of a sensation among the progressive Christadelphians who had welcomed me as a volunteer in their outreach efforts in South Africa. The book came with strong recommendations, as a life-changing "must read." It did not disappoint. While I was not quite as enthused about the book as some of my Christadelphian friends, it was engaging, thought-provoking, edgy and creative. Bell seemed to have captured the progressive, outside-the-box approach to Christianity that I was also seeking.

I don't know whether Velvet Elvis had a significant impact on my thinking, but a decade later, two major ideas from the book still stick with me. One was the notion that "All truth is God's truth," and therefore, "Jesus takes us into the truth and not away from it. He frees us to embrace whatever is true and good and beautiful wherever we find it" (p. 82). This concept lends itself to a more appreciative, less adversarial approach to other world religions (albeit without abandoning the uniqueness of the truth revealed in Jesus or forgetting that other world religions might contain profound untruths). One can celebrate this idea.

The other idea from Velvet Elvis that made a lasting impression on me came out of Bell's extended discussion on "binding and loosing," a biblical concept that I discussed in my previous article on Matthew 16:17-19. In this article I would like to take a second look at Bell's teaching on binding and loosing, which I view very differently as a Catholic in 2017 than I did as a Christadelphian in 2007. Perhaps I am late to the party in reviewing material from a twelve-year-old book, but Bell's subsequent celebrity shows that his vision for "repainting the Christian faith" has resonated with many.

Bell's take on binding and loosing

Bell begins his discussion of "binding and loosing" with a question about the Bible: "With God being so massive and awe-inspiring and full of truth, why is his book capable of so much confusion?" (p. 45). As a case in point, he considers the commandment to "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark 12:31; Lev. 19:18). This, he says, raises questions about what is and isn't love, and when people disagree about what is and isn't love, who decides who is right and who is wrong? He uses this illustration to show that the Bible requires interpretation before it can be put into action: "It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people" (p. 46).

Bell defines "binding and loosing" (following the rabbinic use of these terms) as "forbidding and permitting and making interpretations" (p. 49). Turning to Jesus's sayings about binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18) with this definition in hand, he explains:
What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, ‘Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.’ And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved. (p. 50)
Bell adds examples of "binding and loosing" decisions from church history, ancient and modern, that move beyond straightforward inferences from the text of Scripture. These include the decision about circumcision in Acts 15, the shift of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, abandonment of the requirement of head coverings for women, and setting the very boundaries of the biblical canon.

Bell proposes that we today take up the task of binding and loosing anew: "Now let's move things into our world. If we take Jesus seriously and actually see it as our responsibility to bind and loose, the implications are endless, serious, and exhilarating" (p. 51).

However, Bell emphasizes that binding and loosing is not an individual activity to be undertaken through private, personal Bible study:
The Bible is a communal book... For most of church history, people heard the Bible read aloud in a room full of people. You heard it, discussed it, studied it, argued about it, and made decisions about it as a group... You saw yourself and those around you as taking part in a huge discussion that has gone on for thousands of years. (pp. 51-52)
Thus he insists that binding and loosing "must be done in community" (p. 52). It is a messy process involving "wrestling and searching and engaging the Bible as a group of people hungry to know God in order to follow God" (p. 53). Binding and loosing makes us participants in the story told by the Bible, a story that is still being told since God is still at work (p. 66). What "we" should be doing with the Bible is "binding and loosing and wrestling and limping. Because God has spoken." (p. 69).
Bell offers some important insights in this chapter. First, he acknowledges that before the Bible can be put into action, it requires interpretation, which is far more complex than "what the Bible says about x." This is partly, as Bell points out, because there are direct statements like "Do x" and "Don't do y" in the Bible, including the New Testament, that most Christians today feel free to ignore.

It is also because there are many ideas and ethical issues that arose only after the Bible was written and/or that the Bible therefore does not directly address. To list but a few: the possibility of a Christian temporal government, just war theory, freedom of speech, democracy, separation of church and state, labour unions, contraception, masturbation, transgenderism, the relationship between natural science and religion, human-induced climate change, plagiarism, computer hacking, playing the lottery, becoming a Freemason, capital punishment, medical use of marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, treatment of patients in a persistent vegetative state, and cremation. To describe or prescribe God's will on any one of these topics clearly involves more than a "Thus says the Lord."

In light of these realities, Bell is correct that the task of "binding and loosing," a mandate given by Jesus to the church, continues today; otherwise the church is impotent to respond to new issues and challenges. The "binding and loosing" authorizations in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 cannot be confined to the apostolic period; they are as enduring as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Bell's interpretation of what binding and loosing is ("forbidding and permitting and making interpretations," p. 49) roughly coincides with the view of contemporary biblical scholarship, with certain caveats to be discussed below.

Bell is also correct that "binding and loosing" is not an individualistic exercise. It cannot be that I decide "my truth" and you decide "your truth" through personal, private Bible study. There is one truth that must be debated and wrestled with communally.

So Bell gets important three points right in his discussion of binding and loosing. (1) Working out God's will for us today from ancient revelations requires a difficult, complicated interpretative work; it is not reducible to a facile "what the Bible says." (2) Jesus gave the church a mandate to engage in this interpretative work and promised to support it, and this mandate and support remain in place. (3) the mandate to interpret ("bind and loose") is not given to the private individual but to the church, the community.

Where Bell's model falls short

Despite the three positives listed above, there are three major shortcomings with Bell's vision for "binding and loosing" today. One concerns what binding and loosing actually is, a second concerns who is authorized to bind and loose, and a third concerns whether the church's binding and loosing decisions are provisional and possibly misguided or definitive and necessarily correct.

Bell believes that the "binding and loosing" authorizations gave Jesus's followers "the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible," particularly to decide on the dos and do nots of Christian living. He sees this as a communal process involving much conversation, argument, engagement and group decision-making. However, he seems to miss that "binding and loosing" refers to halakhic rulings (rulings about religious and moral conduct) that are legally, well, binding.1 It would be better to say that the binding and loosing authorizations gave Jesus's followers the authority to legislate religious and moral conduct based on their interpretations of the Bible, and to enforce these rulings judicially by means of ecclesiastical discipline, which is clearly the context of the authorization in Matt. 18:18. There is a formal, legal connotation to "binding and loosing" that makes it very different from interpretative opinions expressed in a Bible study group or a sermon, which is the image Bell's language conjures up.

This leads directly to the "who" question. Legislative and judicial decisions are made by formally constituted assemblies, authorities, tribunals, etc. The "binding and loosing" authorization in Matt. 16:19 is bestowed on an individual, Simon Peter, who was installed in an office akin to chief steward of the kingdom of heaven, as I discussed in great detail in my previous article. The decision to excommunicate an unrepentant sinner is said in Matt. 18:17 is taken by "the church," and while the procedure is not spelled out it is obviously formal. Perhaps the case is brought to an ecclesiastical court modeled after the Jewish Sanhedrin.2 Thus the passages where the "binding and loosing" authorizations are found imply that this prerogative of the church is specially vested in an official with unique authority, and also that "binding and loosing" decisions are undertaken in a formal, ecclesiastical setting. Binding and loosing is not simply "our responsibility" as Christians, to be undertaken in whatever setting by whatever group, without distinctions as to roles and structures, as Bell appears to assume.

Finally, Bell thinks that binding and loosing decisions are always provisional and might be wrong. They are part of an unending Christian "discussion" that never reaches unimpeachable verdicts. However, Bell misses the significance of the promise, "whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Bell takes this to mean that when Christians "debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved" (p. 50). However, the promise is far stronger than "somehow God in heaven will be involved." The promise asserts that the binding and loosing decisions taken by the church will be those taken by God in heaven—in other words, the church's decisions correspond to God's will! It may be instructive here to reflect on the church's decision on which books to include in the biblical canon. Bell rightly gives this decision as an example of binding and loosing. However, if we merely think that "somehow God in heaven was involved" in the church's reflections on the biblical canon, and that the church might nevertheless have gotten it wrong, then the biblical canon itself—never mind interpretations of the Bible—can never be more than a provisional, fluid notion that remains perpetually under discussion.

Thus, in several important respects, Bell's binding and loosing model falls short. (1) He sees binding and loosing as referring to relatively informal, provisional interpretative decisions, whereas it properly refers to formal legislative and judicial rulings. (2) He sees binding and loosing as the prerogative of "us"—apparently everyone equally in every group of Christians (however the group is defined), whereas binding and loosing rulings were delegated by Jesus to a particular office in the church (that held by Simon Peter) and to the church as formally assembled for legislative or judicial purposes. (3) Bell thinks God is "somehow involved" with binding and loosing but that the decisions might nonetheless get it wrong, whereas Jesus promises that binding and loosing decisions will have the backing of heaven and are therefore definitive.

The Jerusalem council as a case study in binding and loosing

Bell looks to the Jerusalem council, as recorded in Acts 15, as a case study in binding and loosing. Here, "these first Christians find themselves having to make a huge decision about what it means to be a Christian," and "After hearing all sides of the issue, they decide to forbid (or shall we say bind?) several things" (pp. 50-51). We might add that they also "loosed" something by not requiring circumcision of male converts. Bell goes on to comment on the phrase "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" in Acts 15:28:
They are making a monumental decision in the history of Christianity, and the best they can say is that it seems like it is the best decision? It seems good to them and the Holy Spirit? They don’t claim to have an absolute word from God on the matter; they at best claim guidance from the Spirit of God, but they even hold that loosely... With their ‘seems’, they leave room to admit they may not have nailed it perfectly the first time. (pp. 57-58)
He proposes this tentative approach, which holds in tension our action and God's action, as a template for us today: "What if we were to say about what we do, ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’?" (Bell 57-58)

Bell's commentary here exemplifies the shortcomings in his understanding of binding and loosing. First, the Jerusalem council was not just some "we" saying "about what 'we' do." It was not merely a conversation open to any Christian who had an opinion. It was a formal assembly of the church's leadership: "The apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter" (Acts 15:6). Second, Bell misinterprets the phrase, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us" in Acts 15:28. This is obvious even from a superficial reading: they are asserting that their decision has the backing of the Holy Spirit. Do decisions merely "seem good" to the Holy Spirit that might actually be bad?

The correct meaning of the phrase is explained by Ferguson, who analyzed dokeō ("seems") formulas in 32 ancient Greek inscriptions:
It is used with the technical meaning in referring to official acts… intended to denote an act of authority which for governmental purposes has the force of law. It expresses an opinion which is public and official and not private or personal. Such authoritative declarations are made by some body, or individual, having the right, by virtue of his office, to issue such decrees.3
With respect to the use of this formula for the church's decision in Acts 15, Ferguson adds:
That an expression of so technical and legal a character should be used in the Acts passage is of interest in indicating the attitude of authority which the leaders of the church at Jerusalem assumed, or which the author of the Acts supposed them to take.4
Ferguson's scholarship is over a century old, but is backed up by recent commentators on Acts.5 An idiomatic translation of the dokeō formula in Acts 15:28 might be, "It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us" (NABRE).

So, far from watering down the authority and finality of their decision, the words in Acts 15:28 express it as a formal, legally binding decree that is being issued not only by "us" (the apostles and elders) but also by the Holy Spirit. The decision they have reached is God's decision—the idea is the same as Jesus's promise about binding and loosing being backed by heaven. The apostles and elders could hardly have conveyed the authority behind their ruling more definitively. And, historically speaking, the ruling settled the matter for once and for all, with massive implications for the growth and demographics of the church. If any group had refused to accept the council's ruling and had instead continue to require Gentile converts to be circumcised, they would not merely have been having their say in the binding and loosing "conversation"; they would have been defying God.

Working from this precedent in Acts, the church has held numerous other councils down through history, most importantly the ecumenical councils. At these councils, the church's elders, the successors of the apostles, have continued to exercise the "binding and loosing" authority that Jesus bestowed on the church, and so have continued to make decrees that are binding on the Christian faithful and in which the Christian faithful can have confidence.

Rob Bell is absolutely correct that Jesus's "binding and loosing" authorizations remain in force for the church today. Unfortunately, despite his concern to avoid individualism he has left far behind the church's historic model for binding and loosing and invented his own model—a model incapable of delivering clear, unambiguous teaching to the Christian faithful about what the Bible forbids, permits and requires them to do.


  • 1 See the discussion of scholarly interpretations of "binding and loosing" in the previous article.
  • 2 Note Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 5:4, where he directs the Corinthian church to formally expel a certain member from the community "When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus". In 1 Cor. 6:1-8, Paul implicitly argues in favour of having ecclesiastical tribunals to settle disputes between Christians: "does he dare to go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? ... if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? ... So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? ... Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers...?" Concerning the context of Matthew 18, Donald A. Hagner suggests that the promise in v. 19 ("Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven") pertains to the deliberations of an ecclesiastical court: "That Jesus continues to address this issue [church discipline] is indicated both by the initial πάλιν, ‘again,’ as well as by the use of παντὸς πράγματος, ‘every matter’ (the only occurrence of this word in Matthew; see 1 Cor 6:1; cf. πᾶν ῥῆμα, ‘every matter’ [v 16]). In instances of discipline, the community leaders will ‘ask’ (αἰτήσωνται) for guidance; where two (δύο; cf. v 16) are agreed (συμφωνήσωσιν; the verb occurs again in Matthew only in 20:2, 13), they can be assured of God’s guidance in their decisions. Quite possibly in view is the agreement of two members of a three-member court representing the community (cf. m. Sanh. 1:1; cf. too b. Sanh. 7a; b. Ber. 6a, where the Shekinah abides with the court that judges justly)" (Matthew, 2 vols. [Dallas: Word Books, 1995], 2:533).
  • 3 William Duncan Ferguson, The Legal Terms Common to the Macedonian Inscriptions and the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1913), 52-53.
  • 4 Ferguson, op. cit., 53.
  • 5 "V. 28 indicates that the decree ultimately comes from God (here the Holy Spirit) as well as the Jerusalem authorities. The language here is that of a formal decree—‘it seemed good to us…’—and should not be taken as the expression of a mere opinion. Indeed, the invoking of the Holy Spirit means that the words have divine sanction and so should be readily obeyed." (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 469); "Lit., ‘For it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us’… or ‘for it was decided by the Holy Spirit and us.’ Boring, Berger, and Colpe (323-24) adduce an inscription (IG 12.3, 178) from Astypalaia (end of third-second c. BCE) in which a decision by a council is described as being agreed upon by both humans and deities: ‘The following [decision] appears right to the priest Ophelion from Enation and the [local] president Syros from Viettos, along with the goddess Atargatis and the Council of the Association of the Ancestral Gods’" (Carl R. Holladay, Acts: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016], 305).

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Simon Peter, Chief Steward of the King's Household: An Exposition of Matthew 16:17-19

Note: this article is not as long as it looks. Most of the space is taken up by footnotes!

Matthew 16:18-19 has been called one of the most controversial passages in all of Scripture.1 Certainly this has been true since the Reformation, with Catholics touting this dominical saying as a proof text for the papacy and Protestants denying that it is anything of the kind. Over the past few decades, however, biblical scholars have managed to clear away much of the polemical haze that previously clouded interpretation of this passage. There is now a broad consensus among both Protestant and Catholic scholars on certain aspects of the saying's meaning. The purpose of this article is to explore this fascinating saying in light of recent biblical research and then to reflect briefly on its ecclesiological implications.

Although I find "hostile witness" arguments in theological discourse to be objectionable,2 I do note that most of the scholars I will be citing in this article are Protestant, only to emphasise that I am not merely presenting a Catholic-biased perspective on this passage.

1. The saying in context
2. The immediate context
3. You are Peter, and upon this rock I will construct my Community
4. The gates of Hades will not be able to defeat it
5. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven
6. Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven
7. The priestly aspect of Peter's role
8. The polemical dimension to the saying
9. Summary of exegetical findings
10. Ecclesiological implications: papacy or no papacy?

1. The saying in context

What follows is my translation of Matt. 16:13-20, following the NA28 Greek critical text:
13 And Jesus, having come into the region of Caesarea Philippi, put a question to his disciples, saying, "Whom do men claim the Son of Man to be?" 14 And they said, "Some say it is John the Baptizer, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "And you (plural)? Who do you claim me to be? 16 And Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I, for my part, tell you that you are Peter (Greek: petros), and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will construct my Community (or, Church), and the gates of Hades will not be able to defeat it. 19 And I will give to you (singular) the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you (singular) bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you (singular) loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.
If you don't want to rely on my translation skills (and you probably shouldn't), feel free to mouse over the following links to read the passage in the NRSV or NABRE.

2. The immediate context

The conversation between Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi runs thus. First, Jesus puts a question to his disciples collectively, which they answer collectively. Second, Jesus puts another question to his disciples collectively, which Simon Peter answers individually with a direct assertion about Jesus: "You are the Messiah..." Third, Jesus pronounces a blessing upon Simon Peter individually. The blessing begins with a declaration that Simon's statement was a revelation from God in heaven, and continues by reciprocating with a direct assertion about Simon: "You are Peter, and..."3 The meaning of this latter assertion in verses 18-19 is our primary concern here.

Simon Peter plays a prominent role in the wider Matthean narrative.4 He is given much more attention than than any other disciple of Jesus. He is the first disciple Jesus calls (4:18), and he is explicitly "first" in the list of the twelve apostles (10:2). However, things are not all rosy for Simon Peter. His faith falters when he walks on water (14:25-31). Immediately after Jesus's blessing of Peter in Caesarea Philippi, we find the account of Jesus's stern rebuke of Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" when he fails to understand Jesus's saying about the cross (16:21-23). When Jesus finds his disciples asleep in Gethsemane, he directs the collective rebuke "to Peter" (26:40), as though he were responsible for the collective failure. Most famously of all, Matthew records Peter's threefold denial of Jesus in painstaking detail (26:33-35, 58, 69-75). Thus the Matthean Peter is a vitally important but deeply flawed character. (Space will not allow us to discuss the portrayal of Peter in Acts and other parts of the NT.)5

In saying, "You are Peter," Jesus is giving Simon Barjona a new name of great significance. Davies and Allison correctly observe that this moment stands in the grand tradition of important biblical figures receiving new names from God at pivotal moments (e.g., Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, Jacob becoming Israel).6 In this sense, Peter is being likened to an eschatological patriarch.

The sharpest Protestant-Catholic debate over this passage has concerned the referent of "this rock." It is unfortunate that in many sermons and popular-level discussions this debate continues, because it is largely resolved at the scholarly level. The rock is Peter. This is clear in the Greek from wordplay that is unfortunately lost in translation. The wordplay survives in French: "Et moi, je te le déclare, tu es Pierre et sur cette pierre je construirai mon église..."7 A rough English translation that preserves it might be, "You are Rocky, and on this rock..." The Greek reads, su ei Petros, kai epi tautē tē petra... The Greek word petra means "rock," while petros has a slightly different nuance, closer to "stone." If wordplay is intended, why is it not exact? Why is Simon named Petros and not Petra? The answer is simple: petra is a feminine word, so it has been modified in the nickname into a (relatively rare) masculine word, petros, of similar meaning. Actually, though, it is Matthew or his source who has encountered and resolved this little Greek linguistic problem. The saying was probably originally transmitted in Aramaic,8 where the word for "rock" (כפא, kephaʾ) is masculine, so no gender modification was required. Hence, in Aramaic terms Jesus would have said, "You are kephaʾ, and on this kephaʾ..." Originally, then, the wordplay was exact.9 For this reason, nearly all scholars today agree that Peter himself is "this rock [on which] I will construct my Community".10 Commentators also have some sharp words for those who, driven by theological bias, continue to propagate speculative interpretations of the rock, such as that it is Peter's faith, or Peter's confession in v. 16, or that it is Jesus.11

Most translations render this clause along the lines of, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." I have translated, "construct my Community." "Construct" because Jesus is using a building construction metaphor here. Rock or stone is suitable as a building foundation (cf. Matt. 7:24-25; 21:42), and every other occurrence of the verb oikodomeō in Matthew refers to physical construction (7:24-26; 21:33; 21:42; 23:29; 26:61; 27:40). As most scholars agree, Jesus is likening his Community to a building, more specifically the Temple (an ecclesiological metaphor used elsewhere in the NT; cf. 1 Cor. 3:9-17; Eph. 2:19-21; 1 Pet. 2:5-8; Rev. 3:12).12 Matt. 16:18 is one of only two places in the Gospels where the word ekklēsia (usually translated "church") occurs (the other being Matt. 18:17). Jesus was foretelling that he would found the eschatological community that we today know as the Church. Perhaps Matthew's readers would have already understood ekklēsia as a technical term like "church," but in the original saying it would have come across as "my (Messianic) Community."13

To summarise, in this clause Jesus promises to make Simon Peter personally the foundation of his eschatological Community, which we know as the Church. Verse 19 elaborates on Simon Peter's role, but first we must touch on the last part of v. 18.

There is considerable debate about the meaning of "the gates of Hades," but this need not detain us much here. In the cosmology of the context, heaven is the realm of God, earth is the realm of humankind, and Hades is the realm of darkness and death. Its depiction as having "gates" heightens the cosmological image. Syntactically speaking, the feminine pronoun "it" (autēs) could refer to the petra (rock) or the ekklēsia (Community); the latter seems more likely. The promise, then, is that as the eschatological Community extends the reign of God on earth (which has arrived in the ministry of Jesus; cf. Matt. 4:17; 12:28), the powers of evil, darkness and death will be unable to stop it.14 As this promise is sandwiched between assertions about Simon Peter, it appears that his role is instrumental to the success and survival of the eschatological Community.

5. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven

"You" here is singular in Greek (soi), so Jesus is still addressing Peter individually in v. 19. Before going further, we need to excise the popular picture of St. Peter standing at the pearly gates admitting souls into heaven.15 The second part of the verse makes it clear that Jesus is talking about Peter's activity "on earth." The "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew is not about sending people from earth to heaven, but releasing heaven on earth. The kingdom of heaven entails God's will being done "on earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). This occurs provisionally through the mission of Jesus and his eschatological Community (Matt. 28:18-20), and consummately at "the end of the age" when the Son of Man comes and removes all evil "out of his kingdom," so that "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:40-43).

The keys are universally recognized by scholars to denote authority.16 However, a more specific understanding of this metaphor is possible once we recognize, as numerous scholars have, that Matt. 16:19 alludes to Isa. 22:15-25.17 There, Isaiah speaks an oracle on behalf of Yahweh to "that official, Shebna, master of the palace" (v. 15). After condemning Shebna as a disgrace, Yahweh declares,
19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, gird him with your sash, confer on him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. 23 I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house; 24 On him shall hang all the glory of his ancestral house: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs. (Isa. 22:19-24 NABRE)
Here, then, we have an account of an "office" that comes with "authority," including being the bearer of "the key of the House of David." The imagery of opening and shutting irrevocably strikingly parallels that of binding and loosing with the backing of heaven in Matt. 16:19 (language that is discussed further below). Also corroborating the parallel is the reference to the "house of David," since in Matthew 16 Peter has just confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, which in Matthean parlance means the eschatological Davidic king (cf. Matt. 1:1 etc.).

One person (Shebna) is deposed from this office and another (Eliakim) is appointed in his place. Drawing extensively on biblical and archaeological research, Willis describes for us the status of "high government official under consideration here":18
סכן in Isa. 22.15 means 'substitute' (for the king), 'prefect', 'governor', 'steward', or 'deputy', that is, the person responsible for the care of the royal palace and of the people, thus the highest official in the land under the king... occurrences of the title אשר על הבית, '(he) who (is) over the house(hold)'... suggest that... it referred to a high governmental official who was in charge of the royal palace and its inhabitants, and later to one who held the highest post in the nation under the king and was over the entire royal estate. Accordingly, he held a governmental position similar to that of the 'chief steward' in Egypt and a high official in Canaanite city states. The contexts in which the Hebrew word אב 'father' (or its equivalent) appears as a term for a high governmental official in... indicate this individual was 'second in command' under the king, with very widespread administrative responsibilities. 'The key of the house of David' which which Yahweh says he will place on Eliakim’s shoulder (which, apparently, had been on Shebna’s shoulder) evidently refers to an actual large wooden key which the royal ‘steward’ carried on his shoulder to lock and unlock doors to various public buildings and offices, whose locks were large (cf. Judg. 3.25; 1 Chron. 9.27). Thus is signified his extensive authority in the Judean governmental administration. He was in charge of the governmental offices and royal chambers, and permitted or refused people to go in to the king. From the central governmental complex in the royal capital, he exercised supreme authority over the entire country.19
To summarise, we have in Isaiah 22 a description of a high office, the chief steward of the royal household, who is called a "father" to the house of Judah and is second-in-command in the kingdom, effectively a substitute for the king himself. Within the oracular narrative, one person (Shebna) is to be deposed from this office and another (Eliakim) appointed.20

Before discussing what all this might mean for our interpretation of Matt. 16:19, it is crucial to note that this is not the only NT passage to draw on Isa. 22:15-25. In Jesus's letter to the church in Philadelphia in Revelation, he describes himself as "The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open" (Rev. 3:7 NABRE). This is an almost word-for-word quotation of Isa. 22:22. However, here Jesus places himself in the office of chief steward of the king's household, the holder of the keys (cf. also Rev. 1:18). Implicitly, God is the king here and Jesus is his second-in-command.21 That Jesus could construe himself as the occupant of the office described in Isa. 22:15-25 shows just how lofty and important this office was. It also shows that this oracle was being interpreted eschatologically in the early church.

Back then to Matt. 16:19 with this information in hand. Here, Jesus is cast in the role of king (16:16) and appoints Peter as his second-in-command, his chief steward over the royal household. Alternatively, one might argue that God is the ultimate king, that he will delegate absolute authority to his Messiah, and that the Messiah will in turn delegate this authority (symbolized by the keys) to Peter. The risen Jesus declares, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). However, because he will not physically exercise this authority "on earth" after ascending to heaven, he delegates it to his eschatological Community, his royal household—and ultimately, to Peter, the chief steward over the royal household.

In light of this Isaianic background to Matt. 16:19, commentators have variously described Peter as "the major domo of [Jesus's] kingdom,"22 "the chief steward, the major domus, in the Kingdom,"23 "the steward (the chief administrative officer) in the kingdom of heaven,"24 having "the same authority as that vested in the vizier, the master of the house, the chamberlain, of the royal household in ancient Israel,"25 "a sort of supreme rabbi or prime minister of the kingdom,"26 "the primary custodian and guarantor of the tradition of the teaching of Jesus."27

6. Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven

Jesus's appointment of Peter as his chief steward who will oversee his royal household is backed up with an additional promise. The second-person verbs are singular in Greek, so the addressee is still Peter individually. The "binding and loosing" metaphor is a subject of extensive debate that actually merits a separate article. At least two other verses come into play here: Matt. 18:18, where a similar promise is made to the Community collectively (with plural verbs) and John 20:23, where the risen Jesus tells the disciples (i.e. apostles), "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." Via a linguistic argument that we cannot reproduce here, some scholars have concluded that these are all modified versions of an original Aramaic saying that followed Isa. 22:22, along these lines: "whatever you open is opened (by God); whatever you shut is shut (by God)."28 John 20:23 interprets/applies the saying specifically to the matter of forgiveness of sins. Matt. 18:18 applies it to the matter of disciplining (and ultimately excommunicating) a sinning member.29 In Matt. 16:19, most scholars agree that the scope of binding and loosing is broader and more general, comprising halakhic authority (authority over religious law, i.e. determining dos and don'ts for community members) and/or doctrinal authority.30 This is, of course, closely related to forgiveness of sins and community discipline, because before a sinner can be forgiven or disciplined it is necessary to determine what is and is not sin.31

Therefore, this saying most likely assumes that Peter has the authority to make rulings on what is permitted and what is forbidden in the community. What is more, Jesus asserts that when Peter makes rulings on earth, these rulings "will have been" made in heaven. Most scholars believe that the rare verb tense (future perfect passive) used here should be taken seriously.32 Hence, Jesus is not saying that heaven will ratify Peter's rulings, but that whatever rulings Peter makes will already have been ratified in heaven. This does not, as Turner claims, diminish the weight of delegated earthly authority;33 rather, it properly relates it to divine authority. Peter's rulings still carry divine authority, but he cannot preempt God. Rather, God makes a ruling and then communicates it to the Community through Peter.

Ganzel notes that the office described in Isa. 22:15-25 is not only political but has a religious dimension: Eliakim is "garbed in sacerdotal vestments," which implies that "another aspect of his role was to protect the sanctity of the holy places... the preservation of the status of the palace, the Temple, and Jerusalem."34 Barber goes further, noting that in early Jewish tradition there are "several indications that Isaiah 22 was understood as describing Eliakim as a priestly figure."35 Accordingly, several scholars have come to the conclusion that Peter in Matt. 16:17-19 is depicted in a priestly role, perhaps even as high priest in the eschatological Community.36 This finds support in John 20:23 where, as already noted, a similar saying has been explicitly interpreted in terms of the priestly function of forgiving and retaining sins.

Thus, if we give full weight to the Isaianic background of Matt. 16:17-19, it is apparent that Jesus is appointing Peter to a high office with halakhic, doctrinal and priestly scope, second in kingdom authority only to King Jesus himself.

Scholars have observed that by describing Peter as the rock on which his spiritual House (Temple) is built, by making him the chief steward of the royal household and by delegating to him heaven-backed halakhic authority, Jesus is implicitly denying these prerogatives to the existing Jewish religious system.37 "The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses," says Jesus (Matt. 23:2), which is regarded by many scholars as a description of teaching authority (whether arrogated or real).38 The Pharisees "tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them" (Matt. 23:4)—a failure of their "binding and loosing" responsibilities.39 The scribes and Pharisees "lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings" (Matt. 23:13), and so their authority over the kingdom is taken away (Matt. 21:43) and the keys given to Peter instead. The Jerusalem Temple will be destroyed (Matt. 24:2), but "something greater than the temple" has come (Matt. 12:6); Jesus is building a new, spiritual Temple and founding it on Peter the rock.

Within the context of this polemic, one must consider Jesus's words in Matt. 23:8-12. After excoriating the scribes and Pharisees for their self-aggrandizement, Jesus declares,
8 As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (NABRE)
How can we to square this with the notion that Jesus has appointed Peter as something akin to Chief Rabbi, an office that in Isaiah is called "master of the palace" and "father"? The answer is not to water down the saying in Matt. 16:17-19 and conclude that Matthew envisions a democratically egalitarian community without hierarchy.40 Rather, as verses 11-12 emphasize, authority in the kingdom of heaven is subject to the higher principle of service. It is not authority that is the problem, it is how the authority is exercised: whether in a domineering way like the Gentile rulers (Matt. 20:25), a fame-loving way like the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:7), or a serving, sacrificial way like the Son of Man (Matt. 20:28). Moreover, even Peter as chief steward of the royal household is but the first among servants, among disciples—the distance between his rank and that of his fellow disciples is tiny compared to the distance between his rank and those of God and his Messiah.

In response to Simon Barjona's confession of faith in his Messiahship at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gave him a new name, Peter, symbolizing his pivotal position as the rock on which the new Temple, the Messianic Community, will be founded (v. 18). We can sum up our findings on v. 19 thus:
the major opinion of modern exegetes… has it that Peter, as a sort of supreme rabbi or prime minister of the kingdom, is in 16.19 given teaching authority, given that is the power to declare what is permitted...and what is not permitted...Peter can decide by doctrinal decision what Christians must and must not do. This is the traditional Roman Catholic understanding, with the proviso that Peter had successors.41

The above summary identifies the point at which an exegetical argument for the papacy from Matt. 16:17-19 breaks down: no successors to Peter are mentioned.42 I have elsewhere offered historical evidence for apostolic succession; I will close this article by arguing that this saying, interpreted theologically in its wider Matthean context, logically necessitates a papacy. By "a" papacy, I mean a perpetual line of individual successors to Peter who continue his office as holder of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. It cannot be proven from Matthew that the Roman Catholic bishops of Rome are this line of successors, though I know of no rival claim that has any historical credibility.

First, the observation that Matt. 16:17-19 does not mention Peter's successors is an argument from silence. Matthew construes these words as spoken to Peter during Jesus's earthly ministry; their scope is the church's earliest beginnings and not the full sweep of ecclesiastical history. Matthew's Gospel, like most of the New Testament, shows little explicit concern with the problem of post-apostolic church order. Although the writers did not know the day or the hour of the Son of Man's coming (cf. Matt. 24:36), they expected it to come soon (cf. e.g., Phil. 4:5; Jas 5:8; Rev. 22:20) and thus did not anticipate a long post-apostolic era. Nevertheless, since Peter was almost certainly dead by the time Matthew's Gospel was written, the prominence given to Peter suggests that his authority retained ongoing relevance for the Matthean community.43 While Matthew does not spell out in what form Petrine authority might still exist after Peter's death, he also does not mention any cessation of Petrine authority (nor does he even have Jesus foretell Peter's death, as John does [21:18-19]). Furthermore, if Matthew understood Peter's office as analogous to the Jewish priesthood or high priesthood, this would have contributed to the idea that the office was transferable. The argument from silence cuts both ways and is finally inconclusive.

At the close of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He declares that "all authority in heaven and on earth" has been given to him, and on that basis ("Go therefore") he sends the Eleven out on their global mission of baptizing and teaching. This command is accompanied by a promise, "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." In Matthean parlance, "the end of the age" corresponds to the coming of the Son of Man and the final judgment (13:39-43; 13:49; 24:3). So, Jesus's commission to the Eleven, rooted in Jesus's absolute authority over heaven and earth, remains in force and has the full backing of Jesus's authority and presence, until the Second Coming. It therefore remains in force today. However, "the Eleven" (28:16), to whom these words were explicitly spoken, are all long dead. We are therefore bound to concede that, although Matthew is silent on how this delegated authority to baptize and teach might continue after the Eleven died, it did and does continue.

Now, in Matt. 16:17-19 we have a specific and concrete instance of Jesus's delegation of some of his "all authority in heaven and on earth." He founds his Community on an individual, earthly "chief steward," Simon Peter, who receives an earthly commission with heavenly backing. Do the words, "I am with you always, until the end of the age" not apply as much to Peter's individual commission as to the Eleven's collective commission in 28:19? Both flow out of Jesus's absolute, undying authority over heaven and earth. We can as easily argue that the Great Commission died with the Eleven as that the keys died with Peter. Both events would contradict the promise, "I am with you always" as well as the promise, "and the gates of Hades shall not be able to defeat it." As is clear from the Isaianic background, the keys given to Peter symbolize an office (one that has two successive occupants within the background narrative itself). I suggest, then, that if Jesus still has "all authority in heaven and on earth," and is still "with" his Community, the keys of the kingdom of heaven that he gave to Peter must still be held by someone.

A final note concerns the ecclesiological benefits of a unitary, visible head of the Community, a doctrinal and halakhic authority whose rulings are final, backed by heaven. As Cardinal Newman explained in his classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, the full authority of the papacy took centuries to be acknowledged and asserted. Nevertheless, if one considers the collective "binding and loosing" authority of Matt. 18:18 without the individual "binding and loosing" authority of Matt. 16:19, the problem arises, what if members or factions within the Community cannot agree on a doctrinal or halakhic matter? What if two factions mutually excommunicate each other, both declaring their ruling to be backed up by heaven? What is to be done in such cases? Sadly, church history reminds us that these questions are not merely hypothetical. But an individual holder of the keys, a chief steward of the king's household, seated on the chair of St. Peter, offers an unambiguous resolution of such conundrums. If Jesus saw fit to found his Community with an individual chief steward in charge—who happened to be a deeply flawed person, apart from the help of the Holy Spirit—why should an individual chief steward subsequently become a bad idea for the Community?


  • 1 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to St. Matthew (3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-1991), 2:623.
  • 2 A hostile witness argument entails citing scholars from an opposing ecclesiastical camp against their own theological position. The idea is something like, "Even some of your own admit that your theology is wrong! If even your own scholars are not convinced by your arguments, what makes you think I will be?" I have two objections to this line of reasoning. First, as discussed here, when an ecclesiastical tradition is willing to host debate on theological issues and to allow its scholars to air dissenting exegetical viewpoints, this is a sign of intellectual maturity and not weakness. Second, the post-Vatican II climate in biblical scholarship has been strongly ecumenical, and in keeping with this new ethos, some scholars are eager to show themselves more self-critical than polemical. To use this hard-fought openness in exegetical and theological dialogue to score polemical points is, in my view, not in good taste.
  • 3 "The Greek phrasing of this declaration, when compared with that of v. 16, conveys a reciprocity which can be rendered in English only by heavy overtranslation. Simon has declared, ‘You are the Messiah,’ to which Jesus now responds, ‘And I in my turn have a declaration for you: You are Peter.’" (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 620)
  • 4 "Matthew has made it clear in 10:2 that Peter comes ‘first’ among the Twelve. Throughout the gospel he is mentioned far more often than any other disciple, and he regularly takes the lead." (France, Gospel of Matthew, 622)
  • 5 We can just note Bauckham's assessment concerning Acts: "Up to chapter 11, it is unquestionably Peter who is pre-eminent among the leaders of the church, and Luke’s first reference to James (12:17) is designed to suggest that James’ rise to eminence coincided with Peter’s relinquishing of permanent leadership in Jerusalem... in chapter 12 the narrative has reached the point where leadership at the centre in Jerusalem can no longer be combined with personal leadership in the missionary movement out from the centre. Peter, who had combined these roles, steps out of the narrative. James steps in, as the wise and statesmanlike leader at the centre, while Paul assumes the leading role in at least one movement of the gospel further and further out from the centre. However, the issue in chapter 12 is not only the succession to Peter himself. Peter has appeared in the earlier chapters of Acts not simply as an individual leader, but as the leading member of the Twelve." (Richard J. Bauckham, "James and the Jerusalem Church", in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, vol. 4, ed. Richard J. Bauckham [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 432, 436).
  • 6 Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:623-24; cf. France, Gospel of Matthew, 620.
  • 7 Pierre Bonnard, L’Évangile selon Saint Matthieu, 2nd edn (Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1970), 241
  • 8 Two lines of evidence support this conclusion. First, two other NT writers preserve a Greek transliteration of Peter's Aramaic name, Kēphas Kephaʾ (John 1:42; 1 Cor. 1:12; Gal. 1:18; etc.). John 1:42 explicitly tells us that Petros is a translation of Kephaʾ. Secondly, Jesus's saying in Matt. 16:17-19 contains at least two other Semitisms: the name Simon Barjona (the prefix "Bar" being Aramaic for "son of") and the Semitic idiom "flesh and blood," which denotes mere mortals in contrast to God and angels.
  • 9 On the wordplay issue, see Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:627; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew (2 vols.; Dallas: Word Books, 1993, 1995), 2:470; France, Gospel according to Matthew, 621.
  • 10 "A majority of exegetes from all denominations therefore support the view that Peter is the petra: the rock or foundation stone on which Jesus will build his church" (Hans Kvalbein, "The Authorization of Peter in Matthew 16:17-19: A Reconsideration of the Power to Bind and Loose", in The Formation of the Early Church, ed. Jostein Ådna [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005], 153); "Although some Protestants disagree (see esp. Caragounis 1989), Jesus plays on the nickname Peter in speaking of him (as spokesman for the disciples) as the foundation of the nascent church (cf. Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14). This more natural understanding of Jesus’s words is preferable other views that take the rock to be Jesus or Peter’s confession of Jesus" (David L. Turner, Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 404-405).
  • 11 "καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ has been the object of much heated debate and much wasted ingenuity. ‘This rock’ has been identified variously with Peter’s faith or confession, with Peter’s preaching office, with the truth revealed to Peter, with the twelve apostles, with Jesus, with Jesus’ teaching, and even with God himself. All this is special pleading. The most natural interpretation is that of Roman Catholic tradition: the rock is Peter." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:627); "The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny [that it is Peter who is the rock upon which the church is to be built] in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock (e.g., most recently Caragounis) seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy. Not infrequently these attempts reveal the improper influence of passages such as 1 Cor 3:11 and Eph 2:20. But to allow this passage its natural meaning, that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, is by no means either to affirm the papacy or to deny that the church, like the apostles, rests upon Jesus as the bedrock of its existence." (Hagner, Matthew, 2:470); "A second escape route, beloved especially by those who wish to refute the claims of the Roman Catholic Church based on the primacy of Peter as the first pope, is to assert that the foundation rock is not Peter himself, but the faith in Jesus as Messiah which he has just declared. If that was what Jesus intended, he has chosen his words badly, as the wordplay points decisively toward Peter, to whom personally he has just given the name, as the rock, and there is nothing in his statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words ‘this rock.’ This would be consonant would subsequent NT language about Jesus as the foundation stone (see below), but in regard to this passage it is the exegesis of desperation; if such an abrupt change of subject were intended, it would surely require a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and,’ and could hardly be picked up by the reader without some ‘stage direction’ (as in 9:6) to indicate the new reference." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 622)
  • 12 "que cette parole du Christ matthéen est moins isolée qu’on l’a dit puisque, dans son fond, comme l’a remarqué Cullmann, elle correspond à sa déclaration sur la construction ou reconstruction du Temple, parole diversement recueillie par la tradition évangélique (Mc. 14.57 s; Jn. 2.19) et qui doit avoir joué un rôle décisif au procès de Jésus" (Bonnard, L'Évangile selon saint Mathieu, 245); "Lampe (v) seems to assume that it would be awkward to speak of building upon a stone instead of a rock; but the image behind Mt 16.18 is of a temple being constructed, and in Judaism the temple was founded not upon a rock but upon a (foundation) stone" (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:626); "The metaphorical use of ‘build’ (οἰκοδομήσω) is appropriate to a community conceived of as a spiritual ‘house’ or ‘temple’ (cf. ‘house of Israel’ and note the description of the church as ‘God’s building’ in 1 Cor 3:9; cf. Eph 2:19-21)." (Hagner, Matthew, 2:471); "The metaphors of (foundation) rock and of building go together, and the latter will be used frequently in the NT for the development of the church, often linked with the idea of a new temple to replace the old one in Jerusalem (e.g., Mark 14:58; 1 Cor 3:9-17; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5); the metaphor of a new temple has already been introduced by Matthew in the reference to ‘something greater than the temple’ in 12:6, and will underlie much of the language about the destruction of the temple in ch. 24 and the charge that Jesus planned to destroy and rebuild the temple in 26:61; 27:40." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 623); "Jesus' response to Peter that he will "build" the church thus appears connected to the Davidic imagery already evoked by the apostles confession; that is, as the "son of David" he will build the eschatological temple, here identified as the church." (Michael Patrick Barber, "Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder and Peter’s Priestly Role in Matthew 16:16-19," Journal of Biblical Literature 132 [2013]: 941)
  • 13 "When Matthew uses the Greek word ekklēsia for the community to be built by Jesus on the rock of Peter, he is most certainly not putting a later development of Christian self-organisation back into the earlier gospel context. The translation of the word here and in 18:17 as ‘church’ is perhaps slightly unfortunate and at any rate, Peter himself cannot have understood it thus, in the acquired sense of this term. His idea of ekklēsia was the one given in the Old Testament: it was God’s congregation, originally the people of Israel, a usage of the Greek word preserved in the New Testament by Stephen in his speech (Acts 7:38) and by the writer of Hebrews (2:12). For Peter therefore, Jesus did not speak of ‘my church’, but of ‘my congregation’—it was the new community to be established by Jesus, through the new covenant, that was meant, and the stress is quite clearly on the possessive pronoun. If we want to go on using ‘church’ in this passage, we can do so only provided we keep in mind that the meaning of the word as used in that dialogue between Jesus and Peter was quite different from what we have become accustomed to see in it. This does not preclude a measure of development, or the existence of certain structures within this ekklēsia, even in New Testament times: Paul in 1 Cor. 12:38 uses the word in the context of a primitive organisational hierarchy. But wherever we look, in Acts (8:3, 15:41, 20:28) and in Paul’s own letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:17, 14:33, 16:19; and particularly in Rom. 16:5, 16:16), the term refers to the mere body of Christians, the congregation as such. Whatever may have happened to this congregation, and to Peter within it, after the Ascension, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and elsewhere, when Jesus uses the word in Mt. 16:17 it is in a Messianic reinterpretation of the Old Testament concept—a reinterpretation, however, that puts Peter unmistakably in a key position." (Carsten P. Thiede, Simon Peter: From Galilee to Rome [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988], 39-40)
  • 14 "Contrary to the usual interpretation of our passage, the locus of this revelation, the church, will not be a vestibule into the kingdom of heaven conceived as a realm, a domain which human beings enter to escape from the assaults of Hades. The church will rather be the site of the battle between the powers of Hades and the power of heaven. In the age inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection, the gates of the underworld will swing open and the horrors of the pit will erupt onto the earth with a roar, attacking everything on it—including the church—with unbridled fury. In the midst of this peril, however, Peter will be given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates, too, will swing open, and the kingly power of God (basileia tōn ouranōn) will break forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons. Hades will not prevail against the church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power to fulfill those purposes, so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (6:10)." (Joel Marcus, "The Gates of Hades and the Keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16:18-19)", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 [1988]: 455); "It is possible that there is a mythological background to the imagery of the rock. ‘My church’, interpreted in the light of 2 Sam 7 (see p. 603), evokes the idea of a temple, and the conception of the people of God as a temple was well known in both Judaism and early Christianity. This is important because in Jewish tradition the rock at the base of the temple on Zion, the so-called ʾeben setiyya, is at the centre of the world. It links heaven and the underworld, being the gate to the former as well as the portal to Hades, the realm of the dead. Note that in 16.18c mention is made of the ‘gates of Hades’. Perhaps, then, the informed reader should imagine the church at the centre of the cosmos, sitting on top of the powers of evil.” (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:627-28). Davies and Allison take the gates of Hades to refer "not to the realm of the dead but to the ungodly powers of the underworld which will assail the church... The promise is that even the full fury of the underworld’s demonic forces will not overcome the church” (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:632-33). Differently, France: "The ‘gates’ thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church of the living God. The metaphor, when seen against its OT background, does not therefore encourage the suggestion of some interpreters that ‘Hades’ represents not death but the demonic powers of the underworld, which are then pictured as making an eschatological assault on the church. Still less does it support the romantic imagery, sometimes derived from the traditional but incorrect translation ‘gates of hell,’ of the church as a victorious army storming the citadel of the devil. The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed." (Gospel according to Matthew, 624-25)
  • 15 "Peter will act on Christ’s behalf after the Ascension, not in heaven (it is in blatant contradiction to the text if Christian folk myth sees Peter standing at the gates of heaven), but here on earth (Mt. 16:19). He will have to open the doors of the kingdom of heaven to those who have accepted the risen Christ as their Lord, and to shut them to those who have not." (Thiede, Simon Peter, 41); "The traditional portrayal of Peter as porter at the pearly gates depends on misunderstanding ‘the kingdom of heaven’ here as a designation of the afterlife rather than denoting God’s rule among his people on earth." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 625)
  • 16 "The giving of keys manifestly means the bestowing of authority; to have keys means to have power, to be in control (cf. Rev 1.18; 2 En. 40.9-11; b. Sanh. 113a)." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:635)
  • 17 "The first line recalls the words spoken of Eliakim (self-applied to Jesus in Rev. 3:7) in Isa. xxii. 22: 'And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder' (cp. Rev. iii. 7). Here the key symbolizes a particular office which is held by an individual; similarly, Matt. xvi. 19 is addressed to an individual" (J. A. Emerton, "Binding and Loosing—Forgiving and Retaining," Journal of Theological Studies 13 [1962]: 325); "Matthew’s description of Peter’s great confession of Christ and then opposition to his announcement that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified there (Mt. 16.13-23) assumes that his readers knew the Old Testament passage concerning Shebna and Eliakim in Isa. 22.15-25. There are three critical issues in this Matthean pericope, the solution to each of which may be illuminated by recognizing the way this Isaianic text provides a background for it." (John T. Willis, "An Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25 and its Function in the New Testament," in Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel: Investigations and Proposals, ed. Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997], 344); "As many scholars have noted, Jesus bestowal of the "keys of the kingdom" on Peter in Matt 16:19 appears to draw on Isa 22:22, where the "key of the house of David" is given to Eliakim, a figure given the position of "chief steward."" (Barber, "Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder," 944); "the giving of the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to Peter has its closest OT parallel in Isa 22.22… Although this verse does not appear to have received a messianic interpretation in Judaism, ‘the house of David’ did have messianic associations, and the text—which is applied to Jesus in Rev 3.7—is about the activity of a man second only to the king. That it lies behind Mt 18.19 is altogether likely (cf. Emerton (v))." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:603); Hagner acknowledges "the links between v 19 and Isa 22:22," though he does not discuss them in detail (Matthew, 2:472); "Taking up the imagery of Isa 22:20-22, Jesus declares Peter to be the steward (the chief administrative officer) in the kingdom of heaven, who will hold the keys, so that, like Eliakim, the new steward (cf. Isa 22:15) in the kingdom of David, ‘he will open, and no one shall shut; he will shut, and no one shall open.’" (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 625).
  • 18 Willis, "Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25," 337
  • 19 Willis, "Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25," 337-38. Similarly, Ganzel describes the position described in this passage as "one of the highest offices in the land, second only to the king, and comparable to the medieval majordomo. It has even been suggested that Shebna's authority exceeded that of the king" (Tova Ganzel, "Isaiah’s Critique of Sheba’s Trespass: A Reconsideration of Isaiah 22.15-25," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 39 [2015]: 471). Again, "The description of Eliakim’s function ‘as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem’ is not an expansion of his spheres of responsibility, but rather details the expectations of the person who will now carry out the second-most-important office in the land" (Ganzel, "Israel's Critique of Shebna's Trespass," 483)
  • 20 Verse 25 may indicate that Eliakim himself would ultimately also fail in this office and be deposed, although Ganzel regards this verse as recapitulating what was to happen to Shebna, so that "regarding Eliakim, the oracle concludes on an optimistic note" ("Israel's Critique of Shebna's Trespass," 486).
  • 21 "In the context of Isa. 22.15-25, the king is Hezekiah and, first Shebna, then Eliakim is his major domo; and, essentially parallel to this, in Rev. 3.7, God is the king and Christ is his major domo. Under God’s appointment to this position, Christ has complete authority over God’s kingdom; he has the key of David, and he allows or forbids people to enter that kingdom." (Willis, "Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25," 350).
  • 22 Willis, "Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25," 351.
  • 23 Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel according to Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915), 243.
  • 24 France, Gospel according to Matthew, 625.
  • 25 W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 196-97.
  • 26 Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:638.
  • 27 Hagner, Matthew, 2:473.
  • 28 Cf. Emerton, "Binding and Loosing," 328-31; Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:640-41.
  • 29 "the halakhic decisions of the community have the authority of heaven itself. In context the reference is to the church’s verdict on the behaviour of an individual Christian." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:787)
  • 30 "it is probable that the practice to which the Matthean ‘binding and loosing’ refers is the interpretation of the Scriptures and the determination of an appropriate Christian way of life" (Raymond F. Collins, “Binding and Loosing,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. [New York: Doubleday, 1992], 1:743-45.744); "the major opinion of modern exegetes… has it that Peter, as a sort of supreme rabbi or prime minister of the kingdom, is in 16.19 given teaching authority, given that is the power to declare what is permitted (cf. the rabbinic sere/sera’) and what is not permitted (cf. the rabbinic ’asar/’asar). Peter can decide by doctrinal decision what Christians must and must not do...This interpretation of binding and loosing in terms of teaching authority seems to us to be correct" (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:638); "Peter has the authority to ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ by issuing authoritative halakhah" (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:787); "In its primary meaning, the phrase ‘binding and loosing’ refers to the allowing and disallowing of certain conduct, based on an interpretation of the commandments of the Torah, and thus it concerns the issue of whether or not one is in proper relationship to the will of God (contrast the reference to the Pharisees’ misuse of their authority [note implied keys!] in 23:13)… Matthew may have in mind the teaching office of Peter and the apostles (for whom the power of binding and loosing is also assumed in the plural verbs of 18.18 in the discourse on ‘church discipline’)." (Hagner, Matthew, 2:473); "The metaphor of ‘tying up’ and ‘untying’ also speaks of administrative authority. The terms are used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted. When the same commission is given to the whole disciple group in 18:18, it will be specifically in the context of dealing with sin within their community (see comments there). Such authority to declare what is and is not permissible will of course have personal consequences for the person judged to have sinned, but it is the prior judgment in principle which is the focus of the ‘tying’ metaphor, and there, as here, the objects of both verbs will be expressed in the neuter, not the masculine; it is things, issues, which are being untied, not people as such. The historical role of Peter in Acts well illustrates the metaphor, as it was to him that the responsibility fell of declaring that Gentiles might be accepted as members of the new ekklēsia (10:1-11:18), though of course the exercise of his disciplinary authority could also have dire personal consequences for those who stepped over the mark (Acts 5:1-11; cf. 8:20-24)." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 626); "Matthew may have intended his authorization to encompass not only matters of doctrine but also excommunication, and even determination of the ultimate destiny of church members." (Richard H. Hiers, "‘Binding’ and ‘Loosing’: The Matthean Authorizations," Journal of Biblical Literature 104 [1985]: 249); "Therefore, it seems best to side with those exegetes who interpret "binding and loosing" in Matt 16:19 as declaring forbidden or permitted, i.e., promulgation of authoritative halakah. Our passage speaks of the revelation to Peter in the earthly sphere of the interpretation of the law that has been decided in heaven. He is given total power on earth to distinguish valid from invalid prohibitions, "binding" upon human beings the observance of certain of them—even some not explicit in the Mosaic torah—and "loosing" them from the observance of others of them—even some enjoined by Moses" (Marcus, "Gates of Hades," 452).
  • 31 "The three most popular interpretive options relate the imagery of "binding" and "loosing" to (1) teaching authority, (2) authority over social boundaries, and (3) forgiveness of sins. As I shall explain, however, these three options appear to involve conceptual overlap, making it difficult to insist that any one meaning is exclusively in view." (Barber, "Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder," 947)
  • 32 "The Greek expressions ἔσται δεδεμένον (δεδεμένα) and ἔσται λελυμένον (λελυμένα) are future perfect periphrastics. Since this syntactical form is rare in the New Testament, the force of its meaning must be respected here. Hence, the statements in which these periphrastics appear in Mt. 16.19 and 18.18 should be rendered: ‘Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven’ (so also the Vg.). ‘It is the Church on earth carrying out heaven’s decisions, communicated by the Spirit, and not heaven ratifying the Church’s decisions.’" (Willis, "Interpretation of Isaiah 22.15-25," 348-49); "It seems likely, therefore that these repeated future perfects are there for a reason. They change the sequence of actions. With simple futures, Peter would take the initiative and heaven would follow. But with future perfects the impression is that when Peter makes his decision it will be found to have been already made in heaven, making him not the initiator of new directions for the church, but the faithful steward of God’s prior decisions. In this syntactical form the saying becomes a promise not of divine endorsement, but of divine guidance to enable Peter to decide in accordance with God’s already determined purpose." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 627)
  • 33 Cf. Turner, Matthew, 405.
  • 34 Ganzel, "Israel's Critique of Shebna's Trespass," 485.
  • 35 Barber, "Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder," 944.
  • 36 "Jesus is the Davidic messiah, who, like the son of David, will build a temple, understood as the community. Given that the community is described as a temple, it is no wonder that Jesus describes Peter s leadership role over it in terms of priestly authority; as God appointed the priestly Eliakim in Isaiah, Jesus establishes Peter as a priestly figure over the temple community." (Barber, "Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder," 953); "In the material which was used by the final redactor Peter was looked upon as a counterpart to the high priest. He is the highest representative for the people of God, for a church metaphorically said to be built on the temple mount. Thus the frames of reference for this tradition are priestly. This influences our interpretation of the contrasting words "bind" and "loose" in v 19. If this verse is to be interpreted in the light of the priestly frames of reference which we have found in the Enoch-Levi-tradition, it deals with binding in and loosing from sin, i.e. a priestly function given to Peter instead of to the temple priests under the high priest." (Tord Fornberg, "Peter—the High Priest of the new covenant?" East Asia Journal of Theology 4 [1986]: 116)
  • 37 "We have already remarked on our preference for interpretation (x): Peter is the authoritative teacher without peer. This harmonizes with the dominant rabbinic usage and, more importantly, with 23.13: ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of Heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.’ Here, as the context proves, the scribes shut the door to the kingdom by issuing false doctrine. The image is closely related to 16.19, and the inference lies near to hand that just as the kingdom itself is taken from the Jewish leaders and given to the church (21.43), so are the keys of the kingdom taken from the scribes and Pharisees and given to Peter. Supportive of this is the broader context of Peter’s confession. In the immediately preceding 16.5-12 Jesus warns: ‘Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees’. Matthew takes this to be about the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. It would make good sense for the evangelist, in the very next paragraph, to tell a story in which Jesus replaces the Jewish academy with his own ‘chief rabbi’." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:639); “In Matthew we find two scribal "schools" opposing each other, the Matthean one and the Pharisaic one. This situation is mirrored in two pericopes preceeding our text, Matt 15:1-20 and 16:5-12, where v12 explicitly warns the reader for the teaching (didache) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In these two texts Matthew makes Jesus repudiate the Jewish magisterium. This prepares the way for our pericope about the Petrine magisterium.” (Fornberg, "Peter—the High Priest of the new covenant?", 116)
  • 38 "The ‘teaching chair’ is not, as was consistently thought in the church’s interpretation, a pure metaphor; there is archaeological evidence for it from various ancient synagogues—of course, without the designation ‘seat of Moses.’ It was a marble seat near the Torah shrine on which the learned man sat and taught facing the people. Such teaching chairs were probably just coming into use in the first century CE. The ‘teaching chair’ in the synagogue is probably associated with the idea of Moses’ authority that came down to the scribes by way of elders and prophets (m. ʾAbot. 1.1). Thus the archaeological-realistic and the metaphorical meanings of the term belong together. The aorist ‘sat’ (ἐκάθισαν) can definitely be understood literally. The scribes and Pharisees put themselves on the seat of Moses. That is, in the time to which Matthew looks back, they appropriated for themselves the teaching authority in the synagogues." (Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, 3 vols. [trans. James E. Crouch; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001-2007], 3:99); "‘Moses’ seat’ can be taken in four different ways, between which it is impossible to decide. (i) Old synagogues at Chorazin, Delos, Dura Europos and elsewhere contained not only stone benches but isolated stone seats. These have been identified as chairs for synagogue presidents and so connected with our text. The difficulty, however, is that the said synagogues were all built several centuries after Matthew. Further, there is no inscriptional support for the identification. Still, καθέδρα was used by the rabbis (qetidra’), and late texts know the expression, ‘cathedra of Moses’; so we do not have here an originally Christian formulation. (ii) ‘Seat of Moses’ may be a metaphor for teaching authority (cf. ex cathedra and the professor’s ‘chair’): the scribes and Pharisees teach with Moses’ authority (cf. m. ’Abot. 1.1). In other words, they run his ‘school’. Certainly the name ‘Moses’ connotes authority; and the image of Moses sitting on Sinai was well known in ancient Judaism (cf. the Moses typology in Mt 5.1-2). Maybe the contrast between the plural subject, ‘scribes and Pharisees’, and the singular, ‘seat’, favours the non-literal interpretation. Note, however, that interpretation (ii) is contained within (i); for one who sat on a special seat named after Moses would obviously be an authority of some sort (cf. again ex cathedra: churches have literal chairs or thrones for bishops). (iii) Roth (as in n. 13) suggested that ‘Moses’ seat’ be identified with the receptacle of the Torah scroll. (iv) Perhaps ‘Moses’ seat’ had a precise reference which time has lost. Viviano (v), p. 11, discerns ‘a veiled allusion to the early rabbinic session at Jamnia’." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 3:268)
  • 39 One should note however that the tying up metaphor here is not the same as the binding and loosing metaphor. "The verb ‘to bind, to tie’ (δεσμεύω) is intended to make one think of binding sheaves and bundles rather than of ‘binding’ (δέω) in the sense of doctrine or of the legal decisions of the rabbis as in 16:19; 18:18." (Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, 3:102)
  • 40 Contra Luz, who states, "A church without higher and lower members, a church of serving, a church of equals, of sisters and brothers in solidarity—this is what Matthew has in mind. The exclusive fatherhood of God in the church excludes not only other gods; it also excludes human patriarchs. The exclusivity of Christ as master excludes other, human teachers and masters. In Christ’s church there may be no hierarchy, thus no sacred rule, because there may be no archy of any kind, no rule of brothers and sisters over brothers and sisters. There may be only reciprocal service...Thus from Matthew’s perspective a hierarchical church of the Catholic type or an institutional church of the Protestant type are a fundamental denial of the faith" (Matthew: A Commentary, 3:110-11). Luz seems to assume here that reciprocal service is antithetical to hierarchy, but even Jesus, the Master himself, participates in reciprocal service (Matt. 20:28)!
  • 41 Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:638.
  • 42 "cette promesse ou prophétie du Christ matthéen ne s’adresse strictement qu’à Pierre, sans la moindre allusion à des «successeurs» éventuels" (Bonnard, L'Évangile selon saint Mathieu, 245); "All such apologetic rewritings of the passage are in any case beside the point, since there is nothing in this passage about any successors to Peter. It is Simon Peter himself, in his historical role, who is the foundation rock. Any link between the personal role of Peter and the subsequent papacy is a matter of later ecclesiology, not of exegesis of this passage." (France, Gospel according to Matthew, 622); "Peter is not just a representative disciple, as so many Protestant exegetes have been anxious to maintain. Nor is he obviously the first holder of an office others will someday hold, as Roman Catholic tradition has so steadfastly maintained." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:643); "a similar majority from all confessions, including Roman Catholic scholars, do not support the traditional Roman Catholic view that this text introduces the idea of an apostolic succession pointing to the primacy of Peter as the first bishop of Rome" (Kvalbein, "The Authorization of Peter in Matthew 16:17-19," 153).
  • 43 "But is there more to Peter’s pre-eminence than his special status in salvation-history? We consider this likely. One should seriously entertain the notion that Matthew conceived of Peter as an authoritative link, perhaps the authoritative link, between Jesus on the one hand and the Matthean community on the other. If the First Gospel was composed in Antioch it is not implausible that some of the book’s special material (M) was thought of—whether rightly or wrongly—as stemming from Peter. Moreover, if Matthew, like Papias after him, believed that Peter was in some sense a source for the Gospel of Mark, then in view of his adoption of most of that gospel our evangelist could have thought of his own composition as depending in no small way upon the great apostle. There is thus some reason to infer that the office of key-holder (16.19) may have included the passing down of tradition. Also not impossible is the suggestion that Peter was thought of as holding some type of ‘office’ which others held after him. This would certainly go a long way towards explaining Matthew’s interest in one who was, after all, long since dead. Further, shortly after Matthew penned his gospel, Ignatius of Antioch expounded a fairly developed view of the episcopal office. Was Peter perhaps already perceived by Matthew and his readers as having some relationship to that emerging institution? Unfortunately, we cannot address the issue with great conviction. We know far too little about Matthew’s church and its concrete situation to make confident assertions about either possible historical links to Peter or the relationship (if any) between that church’s authorities or ‘offices’ and Jesus’ chief apostle. But of a few things we can be reasonably sure. Peter was not simply a representative disciple for Matthew, and he was not just the first disciple to be called. He was the pre-eminent apostle, which meant he held a significance and authority the other disciples did not hold. His rôle in salvation-history was pivotal, and probably his authority continued to make itself felt in the living tradition of Matthew’s community." (Davies and Allison, Gospel According to St. Matthew, 2:651-52)
  • I 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
  • II 13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.