Perhaps a most pivotal passage of the Bible which divides Roman Catholic Christians from Protestant and Pentecostal Christians is the scripture where Christ singles out Peter from the rest of the Apostles for special consideration and authority. That Bible passage is in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 16, verse 18.
The Catholic Church teaches that the first principle of hermeneutics, the science of the translation and interpretation of the Bible, is the literal meaning of the text.
The definition of the literal sense: The sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey.
The question to be asked in seeking to grasp the literal meaning of Matthew in conveying what Christ had in his mind in these words to Peter is what was understood by Peter and the other apostles and what was handed on (paradosis) by the Apostolic Church and the constant faith and practice of the Church regarding the meaning of these words of Christ.
Some basic facts about the author, Matthew, are in order to aid the proper search for the meaning of his gospel.
The context for interpreting the meaning of the passage is set in the confession of Peter.
Christ then gives Simon son of Jonah a new name and a commission.
Since the New Testament was written in the Greek language, it is right to begin the consideration of this critical passage in the language in which it was written:
kago de soi lego oti su ei Petros kai
I also And to you say - You are Peter and
epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian;
on this - rock I will build of me the church;
As Greek declined in the Mediterranean world and Latin became the common tongue, the first translations of the Bible were in the Latin language. Hence, it is natural for us to consider also the way in which this critical passage was translated into Latin by Jerome (Rome, 383/384 AD).
et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus et
and I say to you because you are Peter and
super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam
upon this rock I will build church my
Two observation must be made on the Greek and the Latin translations of Matthew 16:18. Note in the Greek that the name of Peter is Petros, and the word for rock is petra. In Latin the name of Peter is Petrus and the word for rock is petra. This follows from the demands of the respective languages. Nouns in these languages, unlike English, have gender: some are masculine (e.g., -os or -us ending to words); some are feminine (e.g., -a or -am ending to words). The word for a rock in both languages is, of its nature, feminine; Peter, being a male, could not take a feminine ending to his name. It would be like calling him "Rockette" instead of "Rocky." Quite a difference! Hence it is only the demands of language that the gender of the words is different.
Jesus renamed Simon bar-Jonah for a purpose. The literalness of the play on words--a linguistic pun--is made clear. A pun is a pun because of the literalness of the play on words. This was precisely what Jesus was saying. "You are Rocky and on this rock I will build my church." His intent becomes clear when we examine the Aramaic in which language Jesus addressed Peter.
'aph 'ena' 'amar-na' lak da'(n)t-(h)uw ke'pha'
and I say - I to thee that-thou-art Kephas
we`'al hade' ke'pha' 'ebneyh le`i(d)tiy
and upon this rock I will build her namely my church
Note that the word for Peter, ke'pha', is the same word for rock. The words are equated: Peter is the rock.
The core of the meaning appears to rest in the two words for a "rock." If Matthew recorded that Christ used the same word both for (1) the proper name of Peter and (2) the foundation on which Christ says he will build the church, then an interpretation follows that the foundation of the church is Peter.
Because the Word of God as recorded in Matthew had to be intelligible in its literalness for all people including the more simple people of the early centuries of the Church, a more involved interpretation demanding extensive hermeneutics and linguistic acumen would be unwarranted. Ultimately, when there are differing interpretations, the principle question then becomes, "by what authority is the truth appealed."
The Roman Catholic Church has infallibly defined the interpretation of Matthew 16.
Christ continues with the conferral of the "keys" which appears to be a clear statement of a position of leadership authority.
This biblical commission echoes one other conferral of keys in the Bible. Eliakim receives the keys of the royal palace.
Apart from this passage, there is no background in biblical language for binding and loosening. In Rabbinical Judaism, the words signify rabbinical decisions; to bind is to give a decision that imposes an obligation, and to loose is to give a decision that removes an obligation.
In Matthew 18:18, the Apostles share in the power to bind and loose that was given to Peter in 16:19; what was given to Peter alone is now shared by the whole Church in the person of the Apostles.
If Peter held a position of primacy, the other Apostles would have to know that and would have reflected that role thrust on Peter by Christ in their relationships to him. In other words, does the Bible reveal a primary place or role for Peter consciously acknowledged by the New Testament writers? Yes, the biblical portrait of Peter presented earlier in this chapter attests to the preeminent role of Peter among the writers of the New Testament.
Among the Apostolic Fathers, the same recognition can be shown.
By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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Last Updated: August 28, 2005