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Today's Study

Matthew 16:18-19: Peter the Rock?

Why should this be reckoned a hard saying? It does, to be sure, contain some figures of speech which require to be explained--"the gates of Hades" (which RSV has interpreted for us as "the powers of death"), "the keys of the kingdom," "binding" and "loosing." But it is not because of these figures of speech that the saying is widely reckoned to be hard--so hard, indeed, that some interpreters have tried not only to explain it but to explain it away.

One reason for regarding it as a hard saying is that Peter in the Gospels is too unstable a character to serve as the foundation for any enterprise or to be given such authority as is conveyed in these words. But the main reason for finding a difficulty in the text is strictly irrelevant to its straightforward reading and interpretation. Few Protestants, asked to name their favorite text, would think of quoting this one. It has been invoked to support the supremacy of the Roman Church over other churches--more precisely, to support the supremacy of the bishop of Rome over other bishops--and those who do not acknowledge this use of it as valid have sometimes reacted by trying to make it mean something much less positive than it appears to mean. Some have suggested, with no manuscript evidence to justify the suggestion, that the text has been corrupted from an original "you have said" (instead of "you are Peter"); others have argued that the Greek wording is not an accurate translation of the Aramaic form in which the saying was cast by Jesus--that what he said was, "I tell you, Peter, that on this rock I will build my church." But this too is conjecture. If we can get rid of the idea that the text has any reference to the Roman Church or to the papacy, we shall lose interest in such attempts to remove what has been felt to be its awkwardness.

Certainly there is nothing in the context to suggest Rome or the papacy. But the context of the saying presents us with a problem of a different kind. All three Synoptic Evangelists record the incident in the neighborhood of Caesarea. All of them tell how Jesus, after asking his disciples what account people were giving of him, next asked them what account they themselves gave: "Who do you say that I am?" To this question Peter, acting as their spokesman, replied, "You are the Christ" (that is the form of his answer in Mk 8:29; the other Gospels have variations in wording). All three Evangelists add that Jesus strictly forbade them to repeat this to anyone. But Matthew inserts, between Peter's answer and Jesus' charge to the disciples not to repeat it, a personal response by Jesus to Peter.

How are we to account for the fact that this response, with its introductory benediction, does not appear in Mark's or Luke's record of the occasion? If Matthew were the source on which Mark and Luke depended, then we could say that they abridged his record for purposes of their own, and we should try to determine what those purposes were. If, however, we are right in thinking that Mark was one of the sources on which Matthew drew, then we have to say that Matthew has amplified Mark's record by incorporating material derived from elsewhere. This is not the only place where Matthew expands Mark's record by the inclusion of material about Peter not found in the other Gospels. We may think, for example, of the episode of Peter's getting out of the boat and beginning to sink when he tried to walk to Jesus on the water (Mt 14:28-31).

It has been argued that the passage we are considering belongs to a later period in Christian history rather than that to which Matthew assigns it. Some have seen in it the report of words spoken by Jesus to Peter when he appeared to him in resurrection--words which Matthew transferred to the Caesarea Philippi context because of the aptness of the subject matter. Others would date them later still. Is it likely, they ask, that the historical Jesus would speak of his "church"? Certainly it is not likely that he used the word in the sense which it usually bears for us, but it is not unlikely that he used an Aramaic word which was represented in Greek by ekklesia, the term regularly rendered "church" in the New Testament. And if he did, what did he mean by it? He meant the new community which he aimed to bring into being, the new Israel in which the twelve apostles were to be the leaders, leading by service and not by dictation.

A helpful analogy to Jesus' words to Peter is provided by an allegory found in rabbinical tradition setting forth God's dealings with humanity from the beginning to the time of Abraham. The written documents in which this allegory is found are later than our Gospels, but behind the written form lies a period of oral transmission. In Isaiah 51:1 Abraham is called "the rock from which you were cut," and the allegory undertakes to explain why Abraham should be called a "rock." It tells how a certain king wished to build a palace and set his servants to dig to find a foundation. They dug for a long time and took soundings twice, but they found nothing but morass. (The soundings were taken first in the generation of Enosh, Adam's grandson, and then in the generation of Noah.) After further digging they took soundings again, and this time they struck rock (petra). "Now," said the king, "at last I can begin to build."

In the allegory the king, of course, is God; the palace which he planned to build is the nation of Israel, and he knew that he could make a beginning with the project when he found Abraham, a man ready to respond to his call with implicit faith and obedience. It would be precarious to envisage any direct relation between this allegory and Jesus' words to Peter as recorded by Matthew, but there is a notable resemblance.

According to John's account of the call of the first disciples, it was during John the Baptist's ministry in Transjordan that Peter heard his brother Andrew say, with reference to Jesus, "We have found the Messiah" (Jn 1:41). Evidently Peter then believed Andrew's testimony, but that would have been an instance of what Jesus now described as "flesh and blood" (a human being) telling him. There were various ideas abroad in the popular mind at that time regarding the kind of person the Messiah was and the kind of things he would do, but Jesus' character and activity, as his disciples had come to know them, probably corresponded to none of those ideas. If Peter believed Jesus to be the Messiah when he first received his call, and now confessed him to be the Messiah a year or more later, the concept "Messiah" must have begun to change its meaning for him. Not long before, he had seen his Master repel the attempt of a band of eager militants, five thousand strong, to make him their king so that he might lead them against the occupying forces of Rome and their creature, Herod Antipas (Jn 6:15). The Messiah as popularly conceived ought surely to have grasped such an opportunity. Some at least of the disciples were disappointed that he refused to do so.

The fact that Peter, even so, was prepared to confess Jesus as the Messiah was evidence that a change had at least begun to take place in his thinking--that he was now coming to understand the term Messiah in the light of what Jesus actually was and did, rather than to understand Jesus in the light of ideas traditionally associated with the term Messiah. Hence the pleasure with which Jesus greeted his response; hence the blessing which he pronounced on him. For, like the king in the Jewish parable, Jesus said in effect, "Now at last I can begin to build!"

It is well known that "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" involves a play on words. In Greek "Peter" is petros and "rock" is petra (the difference being simply that between the masculine termination -os, necessary in a man's name, and the feminine termination -a). In the Aramaic which Jesus probably spoke, there was not even such a minor grammatical distinction between the two forms: "You arekepha," he said, "and on this kepha I will build my church." The form kepha, as applied to Peter, appears in many New Testament versions as Cephas (for example, in Jn 1:42; 1 Cor 1:12), an alternative form of his name. As a common noun, the Aramaic kepha means "rock"; the Hebrew equivalent kep is used in this sense in Job 30:6 and Jeremiah 4:29. In some modern languages the play on words can be exactly reproduced: thus in most editions of the French New Testament Jesus says to Peter, "Tu es Pierre, et sur cette pierre je batirai mon eglise." But this cannot be done in English; if the play on words is to be brought out, a rendering like that of the NEB has to be adopted: "You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church." Now that someone has been found who is prepared to confess Jesus as what he really is, and not try to fit him into some inherited framework, a start can be made with forming the community of true disciples who will carry on Jesus' mission after his departure.

Peter personally might be thought too unstable to provide such a foundation, but it is not Peter for what he is in himself but Peter the confessor of Jesus who provides it. In that building every other confessor of Jesus finds a place. What matters is not the stature of the confessor but the truth of the confession. Where Jesus is confessed as the Messiah or (as Matthew amplifies the wording) as "the Christ, the Son of the God," there his church exists. It is in the one who is thus confessed, and not in any durable quality of its own, that the church's security and survival rest. While it maintains that confession, the gates of the prison-house of Hades (that is, death) will never close on it.

And what about the "keys of the kingdom"? The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or major domo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him. About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim: "I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open" (Is 22:22). So in the new community that Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward. In the early chapters of Acts Peter is seen exercising this responsibility in the primitive church. He acts as chairman of the group of disciples in Jerusalem even before the coming of the Spirit at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 1:15-26); on the day of Pentecost it is he who preaches the gospel so effectively that three thousand hearers believe the message and are incorporated in the church (Acts 2:41); some time later it is he who first preaches the gospel to a Gentile audience and thus "opens a door of faith" to Gentiles as well as Jews (Acts 10:34-38). Both in Jerusalem at Pentecost and in the house of Cornelius at Caesarea, what Peter does on earth is ratified in heaven by the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on his converts. This divine confirmation was specially important in his approach to Gentiles. As Peter put it himself, "God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9).

"Binding" and "loosing" were idiomatic expressions in rabbinical Judaism to denote the promulgation of rulings either forbidding or authorizing various kinds of activity. The authority to bind or loose given to Peter in the present context is given to the disciples as a body in Matthew 18:18, in a saying of Jesus similarly preserved by this Evangelist only. Again, the record of Acts provides an illustration. Where church discipline is in view, Peter's verbal rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira received drastic ratification from heaven (Acts 5:1-11). And Paul for his part, though he was not one of the disciples present when Jesus pronounced these words of authorization, expects that when judgment is pronounced by the church of Corinth on a man who has brought the Christian name into public disrepute, "and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present," the judgment will be given practical effect by God (1 Cor 5:3-5). Again, when "the apostles and the elders" came together in Jerusalem to consider the conditions on which Gentile believers might be recognized as fellow members of the church, their decision was issued as something which "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). Here, then, Luke may be held to provide a commentary on Matthew's record by showing how, in pursuance of Jesus' words, the keys of the kingdom were used and the power of binding and loosing was exercised in the primitive church in preaching, discipline and legislation.

This may be added. The words in which Peter is singled out for special commendation and authority were probably handed down in a community where Peter's name was specially esteemed. The church of Antioch in Syria was one such community. There are other reasons for envisaging a fairly close association between the church of Antioch and the Gospel of Matthew, and it may well have been from material about Peter preserved at Antioch that Matthew derived these words which he incorporates into his account of what Jesus said at Caesarea Philippi.

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Yalqut Shim'ni (medieval compilation) 1.766.

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