The Scriptural Seeds of the Papacy

Although the seeds of the papacy are scriptural, it takes a little digging to expose them.

There is nothing more distinctly Catholic than the papacy. While just about every other Catholic belief can be found in at least some other Christian denominations, our beliefs about the papacy are unique. Nobody else believes that the bishop of Rome has jurisdiction over the entire Church or that he can infallibly define dogmas; only we do. As a result, these doctrines are essentially what make us Catholic rather than Protestant or Orthodox, so they are extremely important for us.

However, despite their importance, these teachings are difficult to find in Scripture. The words “papacy” and “pope” never appear, nor do we find anything about the bishop of Rome. St. Peter, who we believe was the first pope, appears throughout the New Testament, but he is never called the head of Church or explicitly given the unique powers that we believe the pope has. If we didn’t already believe in the papacy, we would almost certainly never come up with it on our own just from reading Scripture. Because of this, defending our beliefs about the pope from the Bible is not easy. Nevertheless, it can be done, and there is one key text that tells us everything we need to know.

The Main Text Containing the Seeds of the Papacy

 Catholics often defend the papacy by appealing to Matthew 16:18-19.. That’s the passage I want to explore in this article. However, I want to expand the text a bit and also look at some of the surrounding context:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-19)

This passage may be short, but it is packed with meaning.  In just a few verses, it tells us everything we need to know about the papacy. We may not see it all at first, but when we delve deeper into Jesus’ words, we’ll see that he was actually giving Peter jurisdiction over the entire Church and the power to teach infallibly. Furthermore, these charisms were not for Peter alone.  Rather, Jesus was giving him an office that would be passed on to successors, and those successors would have the same gifts of universal jurisdiction and infallibility.

Jesus is the Christ

To see how all that is packed into this short passage, let’s begin by looking at Peter’s words, “You are the Christ.” We tend to think of “Christ” as Jesus’ last name, so this phrase may seem odd to us. We do not normally put the word “the” before people’s names, so why do it here? The key is that “Christ” isn’t actually a name. Rather, it is simply a Greek word that means “Messiah,” so Peter was saying that Jesus was the Messiah.

Now, many first-century Jews believed that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, and the Gospel of Matthew endorses this view. It begins by calling Jesus “Christ, the son of David” (Matthew 1:1), and Jesus is hailed as “son of David” again and again throughout his ministry (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15). From all this, it’s clear that when Peter called Jesus “the Christ” in the Gospel of Matthew, he was confessing him as the promised descendant of King David who would restore the kingdom of Israel and rule over it as king. At first, this may not seem all that relevant to the papacy, but keep it in mind. It will become important very soon.

Simon the Rock

 Next, let’s look at what Jesus said about Peter’s name:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona… And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

As the text indicates, his given name was Simon, so Jesus was giving him a new name. He was never known as Peter before this. Now, it is often said that the name “Peter” means “rock,” and in English, that is true. It comes from the Greek word for “rock.” However, in Greek (the language the New Testament was written in), things are a bit different. Jesus didn’t just give Simon a new name that meant “rock.” No, Simon’s new name was petros, a normal Greek word that means “rock.” As a result, a more literal translation of Jesus’ words would be, “And I tell you, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

This is important to understand because it underscores the play on words that Jesus was using. He called Simon “Rock,” and then he promised to build his Church on a rock, making his meaning crystal clear. Peter, as the only rock mentioned in the immediately preceding context, was the rock upon which Jesus was going to build his Church. Now, this clearly means that Peter had an important role in the early Church, but what exactly did that entail? The metaphor by itself doesn’t tell us. Instead, to understand what this means, we need to continue looking at Jesus’ words.

The Gates of Hades

 In the very next clause, Jesus’ meaning starts to become clear: “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” He was saying that the powers of evil (symbolized by “the gates of Hades”) would never defeat the Church, and he connected this with his promise to build the Church on Peter. From that connection, we can conclude that Peter is in fact the reason why evil will never defeat the Church. Otherwise, it is tough to see what relation those two ideas could have.

Once we understand this, we can begin to see that Jesus wasn’t just saying a bunch of nice things about Peter; rather, he was giving him an office in the Church that would be passed down from generation to generation. If the powers of evil can never defeat the Church because it is built on Peter, then he must remain its foundation forever, and he must continue to prevent the victory of evil even today, almost 2,000 years after his death. But how can that be? How can his role two millennia ago defend the Church today? The most likely explanation is that Jesus was in fact giving him an office that would be passed down to others after his death, an office that would remain in the Church for all time. That office, not just Peter himself, is the reason why evil can never defeat the Church.

The Keys of the Kingdom

 In case there is any doubt, Jesus’ next words confirm that he really was giving Peter an office that he would pass on to successors:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This promise calls to mind a text from the Old Testament:

Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him. . .  In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open. (Isaiah 22:15, 20-22)

If we read this passage together with Jesus’ words to Peter, the similarities are pretty easy to spot. The “keys of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew parallel “the key of the house of David” in this passage, and the power to bind and loose in Matthew parallels the power to open and shut here in Isaiah. Many people think that these similarities are intentional. If so, this Old Testament text about Shebna can shed some light on Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew’s Gospel.

More Than a Coincidence

Do we have any reason to think that these parallels are in fact deliberate? Can we show that this is more than just a random coincidence? I believe we can. This is where the real meaning of the word “Christ” becomes important. The passage in Isaiah is about an office in the Israelite kingdom, the one ruled over by David’s descendants. Jesus alluded to this kingdom right after Peter confessed that he was the long-awaited descendant of David who would save the people of Israel and be their new king

Once we realize that, we can see that this isn’t just a random text that Jesus pulled out of thin air. In a Gospel context that hammers home Jesus’ Davidic descent and in a context where Peter confesses that Jesus is the new Davidic king, an allusion to a passage about the Davidic kingdom makes perfect sense. As the just-confessed king, Jesus was alluding to this text and the office about which it speaks, in order to make clear that he was giving Peter that same position in his new, restored kingdom.

And what was that office? It was the office of royal steward, the king’s second in command, which was passed on from generation to generation. In fact, the royal steward was so important that at one point during Israel’s history, he even ruled the kingdom when the king was incapacitated (2 Kings 15:5). As a result, it is clear not only that Jesus was giving Peter an office that would be filled by others after his death, but more specifically, he was installing Peter as his second in command. Furthermore, since Jesus is no longer around to run the Church in person, that job must be done by the pope, the successor of Peter, just as the job was done by the royal stewards in ancient Israel.

Binding and Loosing

Finally, let’s take a closer look at the power to bind and loose. This element may seem strange to us, but for Matthew’s original readers, it would have been perfectly clear. This is rabbinic language. In ancient Judaism, rabbis were said to bind and loose when they made decisions about what kind of behavior was and was not in accord with their Law. In other words, it refers to the ability to interpret God’s revelation, so when that same power is given to Peter, it must mean the same thing. He could authoritatively interpret God’s revelation to us, and those interpretations would be backed by God himself (remember, Jesus said that whatever Peter bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven as well).

Putting It All Together

When we put this all together, we can see that Matthew 16:15-19 contains the seed of all the essentials that Catholics today believe about the papacy. First, it is an office in the Church that was originally filled by Peter and then passed down to successors. Secondly, the holder of this office rules the Church in place of Jesus our king, so the pope must have jurisdiction over everybody else in the Church, including other bishops. Finally, since the holder of this office can make authoritative interpretations of divine revelation that are backed by God himself, he must have the power to define dogma infallibly. As a result, we can confidently say that the papacy does in fact have a solid basis in Scripture, even if we have to dig below the surface to see it.