Sunday, August 16, 2020

Peter 'Fesses Up

Below is a rough exegesis and some initial comments regarding Matthew 16:13-20, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. I really want to challenge the notion that, when Jesus asks, “And who do you say that I am?” he is issuing a pop quiz for the disciples to answer on the spot. My feeling is that he is asking them to give an account for what they have been saying about him, not to cough up what they think. I’d be quite interested in knowing if others see it that way or not.

13  Ἐλθὼν δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὰ μέρη Καισαρείας τῆς Φιλίππου ἠρώτα τοὺς 
μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ λέγων, Τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ 
Then Jesus having come into the region of Caesarea of the Philippi was questioning his disciples saying, “Who are the people saying the son of man to be?”
Ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ἠρώτα: IAI 3s, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶναι: PAInf, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The verb “was questioning” is in the imperfect tense, not the aorist or simple past tense. That implies that it was an ongoing questioning, not a simple one time question.
2. The verb λέγουσιν is present tense. In a question, it could be “who do people say” or “who are people saying.” Either way, it has an ongoing and not an over-and-done aspect.
3. The verb structure of Jesus’ question is present active indicative followed by the infinitive. That will show up again in v.15.

14 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Οἱ μὲν Ἰωάννην τὸν βαπτιστήν, ἄλλοι δὲ Ἠλίαν, ἕτεροι δὲ Ἰερεμίαν  ἕνα τῶν προφητῶν. 
Then they said, “These John the Baptist, yet some Elias, yet others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
1. The words “these, some, and others” are not necessarily the best choices for “Οἱ , ἄλλοι, and ἕτεροι” in every case, but I am trying to reflect the varying groups given in the responses to Jesus’ question.  There are no verbs in the responses, so they read more like cataloguing than prose.
2. I see some obvious Elijah overtones to both Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s stories, but the Jeremiah reference is curious. I wonder what brings that possibility into play. Jesus – being critiqued occasionally for eating and drinking – certainly does not fit the bill of a ‘’weeping prophet” or harbinger of gloom and doom, as some call Jeremiah. Perhaps they saw in him the promise of the New Covenant from Jer. 31. That certainly has been a connection that the church has made over the years.

15 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι; 
He says to them, “But who are you saying me to be?”
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγετε: PAI 2p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶναι: PAInf, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. We typically read this question as a pop quiz, where the disciples are being put on the spot and having to think up their answer right then and there. But, the question to the disciples has the same form and tense of the question about the people from v.13:  A present active indicative form of “to say” (λέγω) and the infinitive form of “to be” (εἰμί). The present tense of λέγω – as a question – could be “who do you say?” (when in a question) or “who are you saying?” By phrasing it my way, and by honoring that v.13 uses the imperfect to say that Jesus “was asking them” not the simple past tense aorist (one time “asked”), I am suggesting that this is not a pop quiz. It is Jesus asking the disciples what they are saying, what they are contributing to the buzz about him. If they are aware of what others are saying, they are obviously in the mix of the conversation. So, “who are they saying him to be” in that conversation? In that sense, Jesus is asking for an account of what they’ve said, not an instant answer to a pop quiz.

16 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ Σίμων Πέτρος εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ  Χριστὸς  υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ 
Then answering, Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. This verse is often described as Peter’s great confession. It is followed by Jesus speaking very powerful words over Peter and his place in the church that Jesus is building. It is also followed by Peter’s great embarrassment, when Jesus castigates him (See v.18 note 1 below). If Peter is giving an account of what he has been contributing to the ongoing conversation about Jesus, I think this is even a better answer than if Peter is answering extemporaneously. It would represent what Peter has been saying about Jesus behind his back, not just what Peter says to his face.
2. The question was to all of the disciples (the “you” in v.15 is plural). In v.20 below Jesus will order all of them not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. Because of that, Simon Peter may be answering on behalf of the whole group. Yet, the comments that follow in vv.17-19 suggest that “the Christ” is Simon Peter’s answer specifically (e.g. the “you”s in vv.17-19 are singular).

17 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Μακάριος εἶ, Σίμων Βαριωνᾶ, ὅτι σὰρξ 
καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι ἀλλ'  πατήρ μου  ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. 
Then answering, Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal to you but my father in the heaven.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἀπεκάλυψέν: AAI 3s, ἀποκαλύπτω, 1) to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up
1. Perhaps it is just a familiar 1st century way of writing dialogue, but the repetition of the first 3 verbs from this verse and the 3 verbs from verse 16 seems significant. Peter answers, saying this is what I have been saying you to be – the Christ. Jesus answers, saying this is what I say you are - blessed.
2. The revelatory contrast here between ‘flesh and blood’ and the ‘father in heaven’ seems to parallel the contrast in v.23 of ‘the things of God’ and ‘the things of humans.’ More on that below.

18 κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅ|δου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. 
Yet likewise I say to you that you are Peter [or, ‘a rock’], and upon this petra [‘rock’] I will construct my church, and gates of hades will not prevail against her.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
οἰκοδομήσω: FAI 1s, οἰκοδομέω, 1) to build a house, erect a building  1a) to build (up from the foundation) 
κατισχύσουσιν: FAI 3p, κατισχύω, 1) to be strong to another's detriment, to prevail against 
1. The parallels between vv.17-18 and v.23 (not in the lection, but certainly a part of this pericope for Matthew) are stark. Simon, son of Jonas, is renamed as “Peter” (v.18); then “Satan” (v.23). Simon professes Jesus as the Christ (v.16); then rebukes Jesus for speaking of his forthcoming death (v.22). Simon’s profession of the Christ is not revealed by flesh and blood but by Jesus’ father in heaven (v.17); then Peter’s mind is not set on things of God but on things of humans (v.23). Peter is “blessed” (v.17); then told to “get behind me” (v.23), an echo of Matthew 4:10, the words spoken to Satan in the temptation story. Simon is the “rock” on which the church will be built (v.18); then a “stumbling block” (literally “scandal”) in v.23. Within a short span Simon rises and falls. I do not know how we can invest in vv.17-18 without accompanying it with v.23 as a complete description of the rock/stumbling block on which the church is built.
2. This is the first mention of the term “church” in Matthew and the only mention of it – along with the parallel statement in Matthew 18:17 – in the gospels at all.  

19 δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ  ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ 
τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ  ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. 
I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you may bind on the earth, will be [what] has been bound in the heaven, and whatever you may loose on the earth will be [what] has been loosed in the heaven.”
δώσω:  FAI 1s, δίδωμι,  1) to give, present, with implied notion of giving freely unforced
δήσῃς: AASubj 2s, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
δεδεμένον: PerfPPart nsn, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains 
λύσῃς: AASubj 2s, λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened  1a) bandages of the feet, the shoes,
λελυμένον: PerfPPart nsn, λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened  1a) bandages of the feet, the shoes
1. I am adding the word “what” twice here, to keep intact the side-by-side of the future form of ‘to be’ (ἔσται) and the perfect participial forms of ‘has been bound’ (δεδεμένον) and ‘has been loosed’ (λελυμένον).
2. I don’t know what conclusion to draw yet from the use of the future/perfect tense of heavenly things in conjunction with the use of the aorist subjunctive (where the aorist is more about aspect than temporal tense, according to one informed collaborator) for earthly things. It may be – and I am surely going out on a thin limb here – that heaven takes the first action and one whose mind is informed by Jesus’ father in heaven acts correspondingly. What Peter binds and looses will be what has been bound and loosed in heaven. That interpretation flies contrary to the customary interpretation of this pronouncement, but it is at least allowable – if not suggested – by the text itself.
2. This verse parallels Matthew 18:18
Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητεἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ. 
Truly I say to you, whatever things you may bind upon the earth will be [what] has been bound in the heavens, and whatever things you may loose on the earth will be [what] has been loosed in the heavens.”
3. In a brief article entitled “Binding and Loosing” (Journal of Biblical Literature 102 no. 1 Mar 1983, p 112-117), J. Derrett and M. Duncan say this construction is a periphrastic future perfect: “Periphrastic future perfects were common in the koinè but it is open to question whether what is meant is ‘shall be (already) bound, etc.,’ or simply ‘shall be bound, etc.’”
4. There is an etymological connection between δέω (binding) and the word δει that Jesus uses when disclosing his future death. He will use it in v.21, immediately following our text: “From that time began Jesus to show to his disciples that it is necessary for him to go away to Jerusalem …” Many modern translations simply make δει into “must,” but I think that is a woeful choice. There is binding necessity to Jesus road to the cross. The word δει had some resonance in Greek philosophy as an impersonalized “fate,” but for Jesus it seems to me that it signifies exactly the kind of thing is “bound in heaven.” And, significantly, after Peter is given the charge of v.19, the first thing he does is opposes that which Jesus is bound to do. The gigantic turn of events in Peter going from being a ‘rock’ to being a ‘stumbling block’ is not simply an impetuous person who speaks up too quickly – it is a failure of his charge as the one who holds the keys for binding and loosing.

20τότε διεστείλατο τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἵνα μηδενὶ εἴπωσιν ὅτι αὐτός ἐστιν  
Then he admonished the disciples in order that they would tell no one that he is the Christ.
διεστείλατο: AMI 3s, διαστέλλομαι, 1) to draw asunder, divide, distinguish, dispose, order  2) to open one's self i.e. one's mind, to set forth distinctly  3) to admonish, order, charge
εἴπωσιν: AASubj 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
1. This is a curious turn of events. If we read Peter’s confession as Peter’s own on-the-spot answer to a pop quiz, then this verse dangles like another mysterious “messianic secret” admonition that Jesus suddenly puts on all of the disciples. (The messianic secret motif is more characteristic of Mark and I think it largely misunderstood – but that’s an axe to grind on another day.)
2. If, however, we read Peter’s answer as accounting for what the disciples (plural) have been saying in the conversations about Jesus, then this is a command to all of them to stop adding to that conversation that Jesus is the Christ. The reason why Jesus wants them not to say that he is the Christ remains a mystery. The profession is not wrong, since God had revealed it to Peter. But, since Jesus’ disclosure of his impending death follows, we might assume that Jesus command here has to do with the fact that the disciples do not yet realize the full extent of what they are saying. Peter’s emphatic refusal to accept Jesus’ impending death in v.22 demonstrates that his thinking – however heavenly revealed – is humanly bound.
3. Unlike some of the commands for silence (such as 17:9), Jesus does not put a time stamp on the silence.

What do we make of a divinely revealed profession of faith which is, in the end, silenced? 
What do we make of a church built on a rock, which quickly becomes a stumbling block?
What do we make of a church built on revelation which quickly becomes human invention?


  1. Thanks for this Mark. I really appreciate your exegesis. Your exegesis makes sense of some of the curious twists and turns in this passage. I love the shift of tense on the "Who do you say that I am?" question. It is an oft cited question in UCA circles as the definitive question we should be asking ourselves. Much more pertinent is the question, "Who are you saying I am?"

  2. Thanks, Phil. By the way, I enjoyed reading your response to Spong's book review of The Grande Design.

  3. This interpretation of the "binding" in Heaven is a great relief to me! I've always felt a little odd that the Church (as fallible as I know it to be) can proscribe people from Heaven. A lot of the people condemned by the Church over the millennia were actually acting in accordance with truth, as was later borne out, and I can't believe that they don't get to go to Heaven because the Church said so. Having the Church, OTOH, express on earth what is already true in Heaven puts it in a different light - misguided pronouncements by the Church are just mis-reporting, rather than absolute proscription.

    I also appreciate the interpretation of Peter (and, by extension in this case, the Church) as both rock and stumbling-block. The Church has certainly embodied both of those characterizations, and it's interesting to think that Jesus realized from the outset some of the problems that would be caused, as well as those that would be helped, by it.

    Your commentaries have helped me many times, but I think this is the best yet. Thank you.

  4. Great to hear from you again, Caryn. I agree that the shift from the church acting in a way that heaven complies to heaven acting so that we can comply feels so much more meaningful to me - and seems to capture the whole meaning of the prayer, "Your will be done on earth as in heaven."
    Thanks for your note. It's always nice to hear from you.

  5. I appreciate your exegesis. I read Matthew Henry's Commentary, also posted on Text This Week. He had some insightful exegesis including some good explanations for the questions/curiosities that you mention. Thank you, Carol Ruthven+

  6. If you take "son of man" as not equalling Jesus, it seems he's asking "what are these people expecting?" This tack allows for a better understanding of the inclusion of Jeremiah. And although Matthew then shifts into Jesus posing a similar question to his disciples, I wonder if Jesus would have truly have asked this. A fully realized person such as Jesus would have no care about what people thought of him. To me, this is clearly Matthew's own hand at play in his gospel.

    1. Like Scott, I wonder whether 'Son of man' and 'I' are the same person/figure. The 'de' needn't then mean 'but'.

      I also wonder whether the 'blessed are you' is not simply because Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Anointed One, but as the One anointed son of G -d'. That is, he is not a 'son of David' messiah but a 'son of G-d' one. The former would make jesus a political rebel; the latter, a blasphemous one. Matt 26:63-4 is relevant here; and the son of man/son of G-d connection appears there too.
      Can't help noticing the connect between Peter's confession and that of Martha in 11:29.

    2. So, what I'm hearing from you both - Scott and Rick - is that if we consider "the Son of Man" to be a genuine 3rd person entity different from Jesus, the turn in v.15 is not so much "Who are YOU saying me to be?" as much as "Who are you saying ME to be?" And that difference between Son of Man and Jesus would not have to be absolute - it could be that Jesus is a subset of the general figure of a Son of Man or something. Hmm... I have seen a few essays along the way arguing that Jesus' references to Son of Man in the 3rd person voice is not like the old Bob Dole speeches where he would refer to himself that way, but a more genuine use of the 3rd person - which would not preclude Jesus from fulfilling that role. Hmm... Just Hmm...

  7. Coming at this three years later....

    On the matter of Jesus' admonition to "not tell anyone", I wonder if this might hearken back to verse 17, where the knowledge that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is provided by God and "not by man". Perhaps He is saying that the true confession on which the church is based is one that is come to on the basis on one's own reflections, and not on someone else's testimony. I dunno. Just thinking out loud.

  8. In the heart of a Roman city Jesus disciples are saying he - not Caesar- is son of God. But Jesus' understanding of that name is different from that of his disciples - he is not the messiah come to overthrow the Romans. No wonder he asks them to desist!


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