This year, the Revised Common Lectionary is offering us passages each Sunday from the book of origins, the Gospel that we attribute to Matthew. It is a Gospel with some distinctive and interesting elements.
It is only in this Gospel that Jesus commands Peter to offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” (18:22; the parallel version in Luke speaks only of seven times). The special name given to Jesus, “Emmanuel” (God with us), is reported only in Matt 1:23, while the assurance of Jesus’ abiding presence with believers (18:20) and his offer of “rest for your souls” (11:29) are sayings reported only in this Gospel. One of the most often-quoted verses in this Gospel comes right at the end of the gospel, in a text where the supreme missionary charter is set out: “go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
Another distinctive in this book is the text which we find in this coming Sunday’s passage, which has been used to validate the Roman episcopacy as first among equals: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). How intriguing that the same Gospel has been used as the fundamental warrant for the way in which the Church has been structured by Roman Catholics and evangelical missionaries!
The book of origins is unique, amongst the canonical gospels, in indicating the authority which was to be given to Peter, the first leader of this community (16:17–19). Three of the terms used here come from the heritage of Hebrew Scripture. They also function within the contemporary context as sectarian markers, setting apart as distinctive the community in which they author is located—the community for whom the Gospel was written.
First, only in this gospel does Jesus declare to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The phrase evokes the rock which provides the “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16-17). This language is used by the Dead Sea
sectarians to make similar claims about their fidelity to the Law. Peter (a name meaning ‘rock’) becomes the foundation of the church, put in place by Jesus, who has the authority to make this declaration.
Second, the imagery of the “keys” which Jesus gives to Peter (Matt 16:19) also makes claims about his authority. We find this image in Jewish texts which are dated after 70 CE (2 Baruch 10:18; 3 Baruch 11:1–2; 4 Baruch 4:4); here, the loss of the keys represent the failure of various Jewish priests to perform their duties correctly and faithfully, and thus protect the temple.
With the loss of the keys (which in the texts of 2 and 4 Baruch are thrown up towards heaven, to be taken back by God), comes the loss of authority as leaders of the people. Matthew claims the keys (and presumably the authority to interpret the will of God) for his own community (16:19). Jesus, holder of the keys, hands them over to Peter. The scriptural text which underlies this is Isaiah 22:20–22, which speaks of “the key to the house of David” being given to someone worthy of possessing authority over Jerusalem.
A third set of terms describes the authority that Jesus gives to Peter as an authority to “bind and loose” (16:19; it is subsequently granted to the whole community, 18:18). The Greek terms used by Matthew are equivalent to the terms used by Josephus to denote the authority granted the Pharisees under Salome Alexandra (Jewish War 1.110–111). Once again, Jesus holds this authority, and passes it on to Peter.
These terms are thus considered to be equivalent to the Hebrew terms for “forbid and permit” which are to be found in rabbinic writings, as a way for the rabbis to of claim their authority in leadership. The terms “binding and loosing” clearly referred to the political and legal powers of those in authority.
By reporting that Jesus gives these powers to Peter, and then to the whole community, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a rival to the authority of the Pharisees, and that the teachers in Matthew’s community possess the authority to challenge the teachings offered in the synagogues.
The Matthean Jesus uses a number of symbols and terms that were used by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Matthew includes them to strengthen his claims about Jesus and to enhance the authority of his community. They are used to demonstrate the validity of the way that the people of this community, followers of The Way, disciples of the Messiah, Jesus, adherents to the details of the Law, over against the teaching about the Law provided by the Pharisees and other teachers of the time.
The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.
The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.
Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.
Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.
The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.
As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus stands in competition with the Pharisees, and draws on a range of scriptural terms and ideas to underscore the “richness” of the teachings of Jesus.
This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)