What if Matthew 16 had not a thing to do with Rome?

These past two weeks have witnessed the resignation of one pope and the election of another.  The former event is notable because of its rarity and the second because it is a first – the first pope to be elected from the Americas.

And one cannot surf the web or watch the news without hearing someone say of Rome that it is “Christ’s church built upon Peter”, or some such thing.  And as predictably as the sun rises in the east, Roman Catholics will point to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16 verse 18, for justification of their papal claims:  “For you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.”  (Matthew 16:18 is surely the most badly abused of all biblical proof texts!)

Leaving aside the fact that this interpretation creates disharmony in the Godhead by ignoring the Old Testament and that it is precluded to Catholics by the Council of Trent and the Creed of Pope St. Pius IV, the more interesting question at the moment is, “What if Matthew was not writing about Rome at all?”  That is the question that seems to undergird an examination by the late Roman Catholic scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown.

Matthew 16:18-19 has given rise to an endless flood of literature because of its use in later church doctrine and polemics.  At the same time, biblical scholars have often focused on the question of pre-Matthean tradition.  All too often the problematic of the evangelist in his own time and place…is overlooked.  Matthew, writing to meet the problems of a church in Syrian Antioch around A.D. 85, is certainly not concerned with the problem of whether a single-bishop in Rome is the successor of Simon Peter especially since both Rome and Antioch around 85 do not seem to have known the single-bishop structure.[i](Emphasis added.)

Matthew was writing with the church at Antioch in mind; not the church at Rome.  And neither apostolic church had a single bishop!  If Peter wasn’t the bishop, what was he?  Brown continues:

Matthew is presenting Peter as the chief of Rabbi of the universal church, with power to make “halakic” decisions (i.e. decisions on conduct) in the light of the teaching of Jesus.  As Bornkamm points out…the main thrust of 16:18-19 is Peter’s teaching authority, his power to declare acts licit or illicit according to Jesus’ teaching.  Furthermore, this power extends to the whole of “my church,” the whole church Jesus will build on Peter, not just some local assembly.[ii] (Emphasis added.)

So with all of the “pope talk” that will be with us for the foreseeable future, when you hear someone cite Matthew’s Gospel in support of the new man in the Vatican, you might ask him why St. Matthew had no idea why he should be head of Christ’s church?  Or what a Gospel, written under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit to the church at Antioch has to do at all with Rome?  Or why the successor of Peter, who may have been given the rabbinical duties of teaching, claims to have a “primacy of jurisdiction” over the church?

Soli Deo Gloria.

[i] Brown, Raymond E., and John P. Meier. Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity.  New York, NY.  Paulist Press,  2004.  P. 66

[ii] Ibid. p. 67.

Published by Paul Bassett

I'm old enough to remember land-line phones and young enough to have 3 twitter accounts and two blogs. I'm Reformed in my theology, post-millennial in eschatology and therefore optimistic about the future. I'm grateful to be here...and that you are, too!

6 replies on “What if Matthew 16 had not a thing to do with Rome?”

  1. What do you think of James White’s interpretation, which I think (if I am remembering this correctly) is that the “rock” is faith in Christ or simply Christ Himself. Though this may not be White’s view, so maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned his name–I still think it is more plausible than somehow thinking it was referring to Peter as the bishop of Rome. What are your thoughts?


    1. Hi J.W.,

      The history of the interpretation of Matthew 16 is certainly varied – and very interesting. I must confess that I gave James White’s book away to a friend so I can’t speak with certainty about his view. I do remember that he quoted an 18th century Roman Catholic who had found something like 8(?) differing interpretations in the ECF’s.

      That comports well with what Archbishop Peter Kenrick wrote at the first Vatican Council. I believe Kenrick noted five differing interpretations. (Which is why he protested that Matthew 16 could not be used to justify the papacy; all to no avail.)

      If we are to take the Scriptures as a whole, it seems to me that we have to recognize Christ as the “Rock”. The Old Testament is replete with citations of the Rock (and thanks to modern technology, a word search at Biblegateway.com takes only a second!) and each of those refers to God. Because Christ Himself affirmed every “jot and tittle” of the OT, it seems incongruous to me to come to another conclusion. That having been said, the NT is certainly the fulfillment and not merely a copy of the OT but that seems to me to make the case for the person of Christ as the Rock – since He is the fulfillment of the Law.

      I realize that puts me at odds with real scholars like Oscar Cullmann who believed that the “Rock” was Peter, but only Peter during his lifetime.

      That’s probably more than you asked for! Thanks for your patience and for adding your comments.

      Blessings to you and yours,


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