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Since January at least I’ve been mulling over Peter’s ecclesial remit in Matthew, where he is given the keys to Heaven. This passage follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as G-d. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, while Peter’s statement is reported by the other Synoptics (Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–21), the foundation for the church is unique to Matthew. In the NRSV it reads,

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 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. 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. 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.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matt 16:13–20)

This verse has a long history in the west as a justification for a particular ecclesiology built on Petrine supremacy. In this reading, Jesus gives to Peter, and the church he founded, sole and unlimited authority over the salvation of souls. As a promise, it authorizes excommunication by the church authorities. I would like to float the suggestion that this interpretation is rather the exact inverse of what Christ intended, or, perhaps better, it is the actualization of the threat contained in the verse.

First, Christ promises the church will endure, and that this will happen on the secure foundations to be laid by the apostles. There is no question of its legitimacy or the continuance. Further, this church is given the very authority of Christ, the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. The question arises as to the result Jesus says will follow from this: having authority means being the gate-keeper. If we recall that Jesus used his authority to welcome sinners and to lay down his power in sacrifice, then this must be how to interpret the intention for the giving of authority. Peter is to use this power to increase the kingdom. However, if Peter and his heirs forget to sacrifice themselves, their actions will have the consequence of causing the damnation of others. In this light, the famous commission of Peter was meant more as a warning than a carte blanche. In other words, Christ was recognizing the effects that the church and its actions would have on non-believers: facilitating both their attraction to and repelling from the Gospel. When the church is focused on Christ, it draws people into heaven; when it is focused on itself, it pushes them away. It is a threat, not a mandate.

Further, the sentence about binding and loosing reappears in Matthew 18. There, instead of spoken to Peter, it is sandwiched between three parables and a saying on forgiveness. Strikingly, even though here it directly follows a command to excommunication, this is then followed by Peter asking how many times he ought to forgive (77!). After promising to do what any two agree on, the unforgiving servant is reprimanded, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” Surely the phrase must be warning about what it means to be the earthly representatives of the kingdom.

When considering this interpretation, I was quite conscious that it might overly reflect a Protestant perspective, questioning the pride of the Magisterium as it does. However, already according to Dahlberg (1975), there are good critical grounds for reading the passage this way.

Dahlberg notes that Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession is the only one to mention Jeremiah, a character not normally associated with eschatological hopes. He further notes that in Jer 1, G-d commissions Jeremiah “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Later in the same chapter G-d promises to make Jeremiah “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall against the whole land…and they shall not prevail against you.” More remarkably, Dahlberg points out that various pseudepigraphical texts (including the Letter of Jeremiah!) mention the surrendering to heaven of the Jerusalem temple’s keys due to the faithlessness of the key-holders. What he suggests, then, is that Matthew is typologically depicting Peter as Jeremiah. What did Jeremiah do? call for Judah to submit to punishment in order to be saved while critiquing the cult. Such a typological usage would give the keys of authority a sharp edge; it simultaneously commissions Peter to save souls by inducing repentance while hinting that if Peter does not do so faithfully, he would end up like the Jerusalem temple’s keepers—replaced. With this background, the passage becomes a double threat rather than an example of apostolic power. Not only does it indicate the dire consequences of Christian unfaithfulness (the loss of unbelievers), it suggests severe punishment for such unfaithfulness. Peter’s response should have been—and should still be—with Isaiah “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues” (66).

 Jason M. Silverman
27 September 2010