There are many disagreements outside the Catholic Church on the correct interpretation of Matthew 16,13-20. I will try to analyze the arguments presented by Saint Matthew as he approaches this central moment in Jesus’ ministry when he finally reveals himself as the Messiah. I would like to list the signs used by the evangelist to point to the reality of the Church from the beginning of his Gospel. But before doing that we must reflect upon the rich tapestry of meaning contained in those brief verses of Matthew 16, 13-20.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said, ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter [Aramaic: Kepha] and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to say to anyone that he was the Christ. (16, 13-20)
It would take considerable time and space to consider the numerous non-catholic interpretations of this passage. However catholic commentary and exegesis has always interpreted these verses the same way: this was the key moment when Israel was transformed into a Church with a universal (catholic) mission. The day announced in ages past had arrived. It was time for the Messiah to begin the conquest of the world.
Implicit in Matthew 16,13-20 we find the divine origin, death and resurrection of Christ, His messianic identity, the divine revelation of truth to the apostolic body, the supernatural authority received by Peter to act in the name of Christ and the universal destiny of Israel. However, most protestant sources oppose this understanding with a variety of arguments. Reflecting on the controversy surrounding this passage, it occurred to me that such an important theme could not be exposed by Matthew in such a light manner. In reading his Gospel, I have noticed that the author builds a crescendo that leads us to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, the institution of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice at Calvary.
Matthew makes a point of providing us with useful details to argue in favor of the Christian faith in the context of the Jewish belief. For example, he introduces the genealogy of Jesus and makes a point of mentioning several women: Tamar (1,3) Rahab (1,5) Ruth and Bathsheeba (who is obliquely referred to as the wife of Uriah (1,6) in spite of being the first queen of Israel). This method is unusual since the Hebrews rarely took into account the role of women in the genealogy of an important historical figure.
A keen observer with some knowledge of sacred history will notice what these women have in common: a scandalous past. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to have sexual relations with her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38,1-30). Rahab was a Canaanite harlot (Joshua 2,1-3). Ruth offers herself to Boaz in a rather unconventional manner (Ruth 3, 6-9). Bathsheeba is involved in an adulterous relation with king David who orders the killing of her first husband, Uriah (2 Samuel 11,1-27).
The reason for including these names is obvious. Many Jews had heard of the mysterious origin of Jesus of Nazareth and we can be sure that most of them assumed that Jesus was the result of a premarital relation. That is what the enemies of Jesus seem to imply when they say “we are not born of fornication” (John 8, 39-42). Matthew emphasizes those cases to show that human imperfection is not an obstacle for God’s purpose. Matthew’s aim is to show that the Christ is hidden behind a humble and even scandalous origin. Finally when Matthew refers to Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, he does not call him simply by name but he adds “Mary’s husband” (1,16). Here we see that Mary in contrast with Bathsheeba is named as if she was more important than her husband Joseph. He does that by making the husband the object in a possessive expression and not the other (more traditional) way around. This is something very unusual, almost shocking, in the context of the Jewish culture of the first century.
This reminds me of the time when President Kennedy introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris” upon returning from a good will trip to Europe. However, in presenting the mother of Jesus in this way, Matthew was not merely trying to call attention to Mary’s popularity, he was underlining her importance.
I present this analysis of the first verses of the Gospel to show some of the characteristics of Matthew’s style. We can see that he always assumes that the reader has a good knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions. He also makes deft use of the counterpoint. For example, he does not name Bathsheeba in spite of her being the first queen of Israel. In contrast he goes out of his way to include Mary, a humble woman. For more emphasis, he reverts the conventional order and presents Joseph as belonging to Mary (1,16).
We will see how Matthew uses counterpoint to draw attention to the person of Jesus and also to the idea of the Church in the parables of Jesus. Of the four evangelists, Matthew is the one who makes the most Jewish presentation of the Gospel. That is very useful when we want to deepen our understanding of the mystery of the Church presented by Christ in those parables. The realization of Israel in the Church universal goes hand in hand with the fact that the Christ comes not only to save Israel but to save the whole world through Israel (John 4,22).
Matthew builds up momentum in his narrative before that moment in which Jesus reveals himself to the twelve as the Messiah. To understand where the evangelist is leading us we must examine briefly that moment in Caesarea Philippi when the Messiah reveals his true identity.
It is important to try to observe with Jewish eyes the circumstances surrounding this moment. So, looking at the image depicted by Matthew we observe the twelve apostles around Jesus Christ. That brings to mind the twelve sons of Jacob, the patriarchs o the tribes of Israel.
Simon (Peter) is the one who is elected by God to declare for the first time the messianic role of Jesus. There are some details that surely would not go unnoticed for a Jewish observer: Jesus is the son of a man named Joseph and that Joseph is the son of a man named Jacob (as presented in the genealogy of Matthew). Here we have a coincidence pointing to the patriachal names: Jacob father of Joseph the savior of the original Israel. God speaks to both of these Josephs in dreams and both of them are exiled in Egypt (2,13; 2,19).
We find another coincidence in the original name of Peter: Simon Bar Jonah. Simon is also the name of the older brother of Levi and one of the four sons of Leah, the first wife of Jacob. Levi is the ancestral father of the priests of Israel and Simon is his older brother, the one Joseph chose to hold captive in Egypt in Genesis 42, 24.
Simon Peter is also the son of a Jonah and that connects us to the resurrection as one of the foundations of the Church. This resurrection is one of the signs promised by Jesus who compared his returning from death to the return of the prophet Jonah from the belly of a big fish. Adding to that, Simon Peter is also a fisherman (Matthew 16,4; Jonah 2,1-11)
Considering the names involved, this scene is highly suggestive. The picture evokes the patriarchal beginnings of Israel with much force. At the same time there are two references to salvation when we are reminded of the Old Testament stories of Joseph and Jonah. It brings to mind the image of the sons of Israel surrounding Joseph, the Great Vizier of Egypt (their lost brother whom they cannot recognize).
Both Joseph the Vizier and Jesus have a secret identity that they must reveal; Joseph to the twelve patriarchs of Israel and Jesus to his twelve apostles. Furthermore, just as Joseph’s brothers must go to Egypt in search of bread, so the apostles are to receive from Jesus the bread from Heaven in the Eucharist of the Church to come.
Jesus uses the image of Isaiah 22 to name Simon as the steward of the new royal house of Israel (Isaiah 22, 15-25). In this manner he indicates that he is the King of Israel forever (Matthew 16, 37) and Peter is the royal steward or vizier of the royal house that is restored to Israel from that moment onward.
I admit that all of these parallels are sometimes overwhelming and that a certain dexterity in the handling of sacred history is needed to make sense of them all. Our minds fail to grasp the ultimate sense of this puzzle, trained as we are in the discipline of western thought. In contrast, this abundance of meaningful coincidences is the very reason why the oriental mind feels attracted to contemplate these words. For them the mystical complexity of the passage is also a sign of its transcendental importance.
The enigma is one that at the same time conceals and reveals. It attracts the reader and begs to be deciphered! The divine mystery presented here is the destiny of Israel that must be transformed into a universal Kingdom-Church by means of Jesus its new King-Priest.
There are many other interesting counterpoints that we can examine. One of them is not readily apparent to those not familiar with the Aramaic language used by Jesus and his disciples. Please pay attention to the name that Jesus gives to Simon Peter: Kepha (meaning a rock, large stone, or a rocky elevation, or promontory). Besides being a very original name, Kepha is also very suggestive. Only God Himself and Abraham (Isaiah 51:1) are compared to a rock in the Old Testament. Moreover, the name chosen for Peter by Jesus seems to contrast with the name of Kaiaphas, the High Priest of that year (John 11, 51).
Kaiaphas was not a High Priest selected according to the Levitical tradition. He had been appointed by the Romans to replace the real High Priest (his father-in-law Annas). This political appointment of the High Priest was forced upon the Jews by the Romans. The Romans and the Hasmonean kings did not like a permanent High Priest appointed for life (it could work against their political interests). The Romans picked a male from the family of Annas to serve as High Priest for a year at a time. At the time of Jesus’ death it was Kaiaphas’ turn to serve as High Priest.
While the Romans in control of Jerusalem had appointed Kaiaphas as High Priest, Jesus in Caesarea Philippi appoints Kepha as High Priest of the nascent Church.
Is this a coincidence that Jesus chose to invest Peter with the High Priesthood in the area named after the Roman Caesars?
Later the Romans destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, but the Church that Christ sends into the world remains in Rome while the Roman Empire of Caesar disappears from history. The contrast is very obvious.
We can also add that the names are symmetrically opposed: Kepha means a rock or rocky promontory. Kaiaphas means a valley, dell or a depression of the ground. The two names sound very similar to each other yet have perfectly opposite meanings. The imagery seems to intimate that the Church lead by Kepha will rise and be firmly established in contrast with that of Kaiaphas which will be lessened in importance (compare to the replacement of the unfaithful steward in Isaiah 22, 15-25).
The new priesthood will take the good news of the kingdom to the nations of the world and most significantly it will preside over that expansion from the very city of Caesar: Rome.
It is impossible to ignore the power and symmetry of this image. It is also impossible to reconcile it with the Protestant image of the restoration of the Church by Luther. It is also incompatible with the notion of an ‘invisible church’ whose true members are known only to God.