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Introduction to an Exegetical and Patristic Examination of Matthew 16:18

Of the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew appears to be the most concerned with Jesus’ relationship to Judaism and his role as the Savior of Israel. Israel’s prophets had long promised that a final king and/or dynasty would descend from David (Isa 9:7; Jer 23:5), and this messianic theme would continue throughout early Judaism (Pss. Sol. 17:21).1 Because the king was called an “anointed one,” Jews often called this final, great king “the anointed one” or “Messiah,” which the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible calls “Christ.”2 In Matthew, the reader sees that the long-awaited Messiah has arrived.3 The gospel painstakingly shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of those Old Testament Messianic prophecies (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4 27:9).4 Although Jesus is Messiah, he is not the king of popular Jewish expectation.5 His ultimate mission is spiritual rather than political. Jesus is not a revolutionary set on freeing Israel from Roman oppression. His reign is not that of a king-Messiah over a Jewish world empire; instead, he comes to save his people through suffering and death.6 As the promised one, Jesus has been sent to bring the Jewish people back to God, just as the earlier prophets tried to do.7 He heals the sick, teaches the true meaning of the Torah, calls for righteous living, and inaugurates the kingdom of God.8

However, the Gospel of Matthew does not only portray Jesus as the Christ; it also affirms that he is the Son of God (2:15; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27: 40, 43). Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ special union with the Father gives him a unique type of authority (7:29; 9:1-6; 21:23-27; 28:18). Matthew emphasizes the sonship of Jesus by having him refer to God as his Father twenty-three times.9 The confession of Jesus’ sonship is made only by believers (except when it is blasphemy) and only by divine revelation (11:27; 16:17)10. Therefore, it can be said that Matthew essentially presents a messianic understanding of Jesus, who as Son of God, reveals God’s will and bears divine authority.11 No chapter in the Gospel reveals Jesus’ identity as divine Son-Christ more than chapter 16.

Setting the Stage: A Brief Overview of Matt 16:1-17

The chapter begins with a test by the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (16:1-4). Aware of Jesus’ status as a miracle worker (6:13; 15:1-20), the leaders ask Jesus to give them a sign from heaven. Rather than giving them a sign, though, Jesus criticizes them for their lack of spiritual insight. Jesus’ questioners could predict many celestial phenomena without any supernatural aid at all12: they knew that a red sky signals fair weather in the evening but foretells rain in the morning. However, Jesus is not interested in predicting events in the sky, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees were overlooking an explicit sign that was nearer at hand.13 As adept as they are at understanding the physical world, they are not wise enough to discern the spiritual realities that Jesus brings, what he calls “the signs of the times.”14 According to Jesus, the sinfulness of the present generation is in itself a sign, for many Jewish people believed that a sinful generation would precede the coming kingdom of the Lord (2 Bar 16:12; m. Sota 9:15; b. San. 97a).15 The only sign that would be given to this “evil and adulterous generation” is the sign of Jonah, which recalls Matt 12:38-39. Jesus’ rebuke shows that rather than seeking a supernatural sign from heaven, the Pharisees and Sadducees should have recognized that the kingdom of heaven was already upon them.

The inability to discern spiritual truth is also the theme of the next pericope (16:5-12). Given his latest encounter with the religious leaders of the day, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:6). By that, he meant the leaders’ teaching and influence. In a complete misunderstanding, the apostles believe that Jesus is talking about literal bread; because they forgot to bring any, they think that Jesus must be warning them against buying bread from these groups of leaders.16 Even they do not recognize the spiritual principle behind their teacher’s words. The extraordinary dullness of the Twelve almost seems to have surprised Jesus Himself (“Do you not yet understand … How is it that you do not yet understand?”).17 Despite all that they had seen and heard, the disciples lacked the basic faith required to understand a simple spiritual warning; however, the disciples are on the verge of a new level of revelation, and it is one that is pivotal in the development of Matthew’s narrative.18

Later, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi (16:13), a place known for its pagan activity, including the famous grotto where people worshipped the Greek god Pan.19 Here, Jesus takes the initiative and directly asks the question that has been in the minds of the disciples from the beginning of his ministry: What are people saying about him?20 More importantly, who do the disciples think that Jesus is? (16:13). The disciples have seen Jesus heal and heard him teach, so how do they classify him?21 Despite his previous failure to understand spiritual truth, the apostle Simon now makes one of the great confessions of faith: he unequivocally states that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (16:16). In response, Jesus reveals that it is not man (“flesh and blood”) that has revealed this truth to the apostle, but God in heaven (16:17). Then, Jesus makes a statement that will be debated for the next two millennia of the church: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

The Problem of Matt 16:18

Few verses in Scripture have generated more controversy or divisiveness than Matt 16:18, and the interpretation of this verse will be explored in this thesis. The problem of Matt 16:18 must be considered on two levels: the exegetical and the theological.22 First, the exegetical dilemma is founded upon this question: Who/What is this so-called “rock”? For Roman Catholics, the word-play between Simon’s surname, Peter (Pevtro", Lat. Petrus), and the “rock” (pevtra, Lat. petram) is not coincidental. This pun clearly points to the “rock” being none other than the apostle himself. Protestant scholars, however, have largely fallen into three camps regarding the interpretation of the verse: 1) the rock is Jesus; 2) the rock is the confession of faith; 3) the rock is Peter. Chapter Two of this work is devoted entirely to an exegesis of the verse. At the heart of the exegesis will be the interpretation of pevtra.

The theological implications of such an exegesis cannot be overstated. At the heart of the theological problem is this: If Peter is considered to be the “rock” of Matt 16:18, is his authority limited only to him or is it passed on to those who succeed him? In other words, does Jesus give Peter’s authority to a succeeding line of bishops? For Catholics, this verse, along with the testimony of Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17, not only affirms the preeminence of Peter as the Prince of the apostles, but it also lays the groundwork for the establishment of a permanent Roman see with full Petrine authority. In fact, this text is so important that “Tu est Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean” is pained in gilt letters inside the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a church that may have literally been built upon the remains of Peter, as Pope Paul VI asserted.23 From the third century on, many of the Roman pontiffs, including Damasus I, Innocent I, and Leo the Great, began claiming that the bishop of Rome was not only the rightful heir of Peter, but also the living voice of Peter. In other words, the same authority and power that Christ gave to Peter as “rock” of the Church was spiritually transmitted to them as the apostle’s successors. Therefore, when Leo I spoke, the church should understand the Apostle Peter to be speaking. This type of authority found its roots in the idea of apostolic succession.

Throughout the second and third centuries, the church fathers often found themselves debating against various heresies, including Gnosticism and Marcionism. Certainly the use of Scripture was an important means of battling false teaching; however, heretics were also using the Bible to substantiate their own claims. Of course, the difficulty was that heretics were liable to interpret the Scripture differently than the Church.24 The debate finally came to the authority of the Church itself; this was important because the very nature of orthodox teaching was at stake.25 For instance, the Gnostics claimed that they possessed secret access to the original message of Jesus through a succession of secret, spiritual teachers; similarly, Marcion declared that he had access to the true message of the Gospel through the abbreviated writings of Paul and Luke.26 At the same time, the church maintained that she had the true gospel. Who was correct? Early church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian maintained that had Jesus had some secret knowledge to communicate to his disciples (which he did not), he would have entrusted that teaching to the same apostles to whom he had entrusted the Church.27 Ireneaus maintained that unlike the secret teaching of the Gnostics, the true tradition of the Church was public and open, and was handed down by Jesus to the apostles, who in turn taught their successors, who in turn taught their disciples.28 This idea of apostolic succession guaranteed that oral tradition could be traced back from an unbroken succession of bishops in the sees to the apostles themselves; moreover, the Holy Spirit protected this succession, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit.29 This is not to say that the church fathers affirmed the idea that tradition trumped Scripture. The fathers would readily admit that the Scripture had absolute authority, and whatever it teaches is necessarily true30, but since heretics were also using the Scripture, the fathers maintained that the right interpretation of the Scripture could be found only where true Christian faith and discipline have been maintained, namely the Church.31

In order to make the argument for apostolic succession, it was necessary to show that bishops of the time were indeed successors to the apostles; in fact, many of the ancient churches (such as Rome, Antioch, and Ephesus) had lists linking their bishops to an apostle.32 While the importance of all the apostles was unquestioned, in the minds of many of the church fathers, Peter was given the place of preeminence because he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. The authority of Rome became increasingly important in the early church not only because the city lay at the heart of the Roman Empire, but also because it was said to be the traditional place of the martyrdom of both Peter and Paul.33 By the middle of the fifth century, the primacy of the bishop of Rome over other bishops was clear, and many church fathers did view the bishop of Rome as the legitimate successor of Peter.34

However, even if it is granted that the early popes were the successors of Peter, a few questions still remain: 1) What does it mean to be a successor? Do the popes serve as shepherds of the truth (since they were from the line of Peter), or did they actually inherit Peter’s apostleship? 2) Did the fathers of the church understand Matt 16:18 to be the basis for a perpetual Roman see with full Petrine authority? The question of the permanence of the Roman See lies at the heart of the discussion. That the bishop of Rome had a place of primacy throughout the patristic age is really undisputed.35 While the patristic writers held the Roman See in high regard, there is little evidence to suggest that they viewed the bishop of Rome as having the same authority as Peter himself. The framers and promoters of this theory were really the popes themselves.36 This is made even more evident by the fact that there was not uniform agreement among the patristic writers that the “rock” in question was even Peter. In fact, the patristic writers have a wide divergence of opinion concerning the “rock” of Matt 16:18. Some, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Basil the Great maintain that the “rock” is Peter; others, such as Augustine, affirm that the “rock” is Jesus; still others, most notably the Eastern fathers (such as Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem), assert that the “rock” is the profession of faith. For some of the fathers, then, it is impossible to conceive of the pope as a “living apostle” according to Matt 16:18 because the rock in question is not the apostle but either Jesus or the profession of faith.

Thesis Trajectory

Within chapters three, four, and five of this thesis, an overview of the history of interpretation from the third to the fifth century will be given. The examination will include statements by the major church fathers from the aforementioned period. The overview will start with the first papal claim to Petrine authority, most likely done by Callistus I, and the survey will end with the last major pope of the early church, Leo the Great, who more than any pope before him, used Matt 16:18 to establish the Petrine authority of the Apostolic See. Chapter Three will examine the writings of the fathers who are members of the Petrine school of interpretation, including the popes. Chapter Four will examine the writings of the fathers who adhere to a Christological interpretation of the verse. Chapter Five will concentrate on the fathers who maintained a pevtra = fide interpretation. The final chapter will discuss the nature of the apostolic office and its usefulness in the church today.


1 Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 61.

2 Ibid.

3 The scholarly consensus is that the original recipients of Matthew’s Gospel were probably Jewish Christians (see Blomberg, Hagner, Keener, Bruner, Beare, Davies-Allison, and Luz). According to Donald Hagner, several factors lend weight to this assumption: the numerous amount of OT quotations (more than sixty) and the stress throughout the gospel on OT fulfillment; the apologetic motifs of the birth narrative (which contradict the early claims of Jesus’ illegitimate birth); the importance of Jesus’ fidelity to the law (e.g., 5:17-19); the lack of explanation of many Jewish customs (which assumes that readers already have a knowledge of Jewish practices); and Matthew’s formulation of several discussions in typical rabbinic patterns (e.g., 19:3-9 on divorce). See Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce Metzger, David Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 33B (Dallas: Word Publishers, 1995), lxiv.

4 Robert Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Books, 2001), 88.

5 J. L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 64.

6 Ibid.

7 Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishers, 2002), 28.

8 Ibid.

9 Hagner, Matthew, lxi.

10 Ibid.

11 Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishers, 2002), 23.

12 Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 421.

13 Ibid.

14 Bock, Jesus according to Scripture, 225.

15 Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 421.

16 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary, eds. David Dockery, L. Russ Bush, and Paige Patterson, vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 249.

17 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: James Family Christian Publishers, 1978), 222.

18 Keener, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 423.

19 Ibid., 424.

20 Hagner, Matthew, 467.

21 Ibid.

22 Oscar Cullman, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 161.

23 Raymond E. Brown et al., Peter in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars (London: G. Chapman, 1974), 83-84.

24 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 1978), 37.

25 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso Publishers, 1984), 64-65.

26 Ibid., 65.

27 Ibid. (See also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1; Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 32.)

28 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 37. (See also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.2.2, 3.3.3, 3.4.1, 3.24.1, and 1 Clement 44.)

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 40.

32 Gonzalez, The Early Church, 66. For early lists, see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.2-3.3.4; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.21-22, 4.22.2.

33 See 1 Clement 5; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25; Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 36.

34 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 417.

35 Ibid., 406.

36 Ibid., 420.

Related Topics: History, Catholicism, Grammar