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The Scriptural Seeds of the Papacy

January 14, AD2018 7 Comments

jesus, 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.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master’s degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America’s doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn’t where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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  • captcrisis

    P.S. I wanted to say thanks for your reply, but after 2 days it’s still waiting for moderation, despite you being the actual poster.

  • captcrisis

    I wonder how you’d respond to several frequently made points:

    1. Mark and Luke contain this conversation between Jesus and Peter but omit Jesus’s words declaring that Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will found his church. Why the omission? Since Matthew used Mark as a source, the natural conclusion is that these words were added later.

    2. How come at the Council of Jerusalem it is not Peter, but James, who concludes the council by saying “it is MY judgment that . . .” If these were Peter’s words, it would be the strongest evidence of Peter actually acting like a Pope. But the words are James’s.

    3. Paul’s letters show that almost immediately the Church split into factions and doctrinal disputes. Why is Peter never called in to put his foot down? In fact Paul talks of Christians as being “with Peter”, “with Apollos”, etc., without saying that Peter should be primary. It doesn’t seem like anyone considered Peter to be a Pope nor did he act like one.

    • JP Nunez

      Thanks for the questions!

      1) I’m not sure exactly what you mean. When you say “added later,” do you mean that they were added into the text of Matthew’s Gospel after it was written? In other words, are you saying that they’re a later interpolation? Or do you mean that Matthew added them to the story when he wrote his version, which was after Mark?

      In general, though, I would say a few things. For one, I’m not convinced that Matthew used Mark as a source. That’s the dominant theory in New Testament scholarship today, but it’s not without its critics. And for good reason. The theory does have its problems, so even though I think it is more likely than other theories, I’m not confident enough in it to make anything of value rest on it. Moreover, even if Matthew did use Mark as a source, the fact that he adds more detail than Mark doesn’t mean that those extra details didn’t happen. For one, it’s still Scripture, so for Christians, it’s still the Word of God. Secondly, Matthew has a lot of material that isn’t in Mark or Luke, so these few extra verses aren’t a special case that requires a hypothesis of inauthenticity. Thirdly, this argument seems to assume that Matthew only did 2 things: either he copied material from Mark or he just made it up. Otherwise, I’m not sure how the fact that these verses aren’t in Mark could mean that they were added later. However, there’s no reason to think that Matthew was so limited. There’s an obvious third alternative: he had other sources as well (whether those sources are other documents, other people, or his own memories of events). So you can’t jump from “this isn’t in Mark” to “this was just made up.”

      2) The council of Jerusalem is an interesting case because it’s been used both to support and argue against Peter’s primacy. Like you said, it looks like James was the one who made the final decision, but there’s another way of looking at it. Initially, there’s debate about whether the Gentiles need to be circumcised (Acts 15:6-7), and then Peter speaks up and supports the anti-circumcision party (Acts 15:7-11). And here’s where it gets interesting. After Peter speaks, we don’t read about any more debate. The text says that after him, everybody was silent as they listened to Paul and Barnabas, and then James spoke (Acts 15:12-21). So it seems like Peter’s words actually settled the question. There was no debate after he spoke; nobody disagreed with him. Yes, James had the last word, but we can take that as simply one more person adding testimony that simply backed up Peter’s authoritative judgment. When James says “it is my judgment,” the Greek wording there doesn’t imply an authoritative judgment. Rather, it simply means that he’s giving his opinion on the subject (the verb he uses is used that way in other texts, such as Luke 7:43, 12:57). So at worst, the Council of Jerusalem is inconclusive on this issue.

      3) For the same reason why Catholics today don’t appeal to the pope immediately whenever a controversy arises. The Church has other authoritative figures who can deal with issues, and we really only need to appeal to Rome when things become too big for those other figures to deal with. And I think the first Christians did the same thing. They had the Apostles with them, so there was no need to call in Peter to settle every debate or controversy. Paul’s authority was sufficient to deal with the issues in the churches he had founded, so he didn’t need Peter to come in.

      As for the different factions in 1 Corinthians, just to be clear, the Greek doesn’t say that these factions were “with” anybody. Rather, it literally says that they claimed t be “of Paul,” “of Apollo,” etc. So they were saying that they somehow belonged to these people or followed them as leaders, not that they were physically present with them (and the fact that there was a group that claimed to be “of Christ” makes that very clear). Now, why doesn’t Paul say that Peter should be primary among those different leaders? For the same reason he doesn’t say that Jesus is in fact the greatest of the people that the Corinthians wanted their factions to belong to. He didn’t endorse this factionalism; instead, as the next few verses make clear, it was a problem that he chastised them for. So in that kind of context, why would he go out of his way to mention Peter’s primacy? It would be weird for him to say something like, “You shouldn’t divide yourselves into factions, but as an aside, of all the people your factions claim loyalty to, Peter has primacy.” That would be entirely out of place, so there was no reason for Paul to mention Peter’s standing among the other Apostles.

    • Guy McClung

      The work goes on in biblical scholarship; and some date Matthew’s gospel first; see, e.g. the information re; the “Magdalen fragment” or “Magdalen papyrus” of his gospel, and its possible dating – though disputed by some – of late 30s to before 70 AD [or “CE” if you prefer Christ Era].

      “But in late 1994, considerable publicity surrounded Carsten Peter Thiede’s redating of the Magdalen papyrus to the middle of the 1st century (37 to 70 A.D.), optimistically interpreted by journalists. His official article appeared in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik the following year. The text for the layman was cowritten with Matthew d’Ancona and presented as The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1996. (also published as: Eyewitness to Jesus, 1996, New York: Doubleday).”

      Putting aside Holy Scirpture, I think we are left with the papacy as infernal, evil human invention, or the unfolding will of God.

      Guy McClung, Texas

    • captcrisis

      Markian priority is still the majority scholarly view among Catholics. See As the bishops point out, Matthew (the author of the gospel) can’t be Matthew (the apostle) because the gospel uses Mark as a source, and an actual apostle would not depend on a second-hand account.

      (The standard joke is: well, the important stuff in the gospel happened around tax time, and Matthew was a tax collector, so he was busy, and had to get the details from Mark later.)

      “I think we are left with the papacy as infernal, evil human invention, or the unfolding will of God.” Those aren’t the only two choices. If it is the unfolding will of God, though, God’s hand is not always clear. For centuries the Papacy was a kind of Maltese Falcon, pursued by competing corrupt interests, and the most righteous faction often did not get the prize.

  • Dhaniele

    To all of this, it would be useful to see how many times in the Old Testament the word “rock” is applied to God. Jesus is attributing a quality that traditionally was associated with God by the Jews because Peter, like Moses in the Old Testament, would be the leader appointed by God in the New Testament. Like Moses, Peter also had successors (like Joshua of Moses) who continued his mission that goes to the end of time and the ends of the earth. It is worth remembering also that the name Jesus gave to Peter was “Kephas” (rock), and in St. John’s Gospel when Jesus meets Peter, this new name is translated into Greek — it is the most solid type of rock that is specified by St. John.

  • Guy McClung

    Thanks for all the work that went into this enlightening article. There are many many protestants you will not convince, and I expect future comments to present all the centuries old arguments against a papacy. They will never change their minds; or – like Henry VIII – they will make themselves into The Authority about this, end of story.

    There is one thing, however, they cannot deny: the Holy Spirit is and always will be with the Church, Jesus’s one true Church. This being so, the protesters cannot explain how the Spirit would allow the Church to be, in their view, in error with a false top guy for centuries. If the early Church had it right-according to them-and had no Pope, then, despite the apparently limited power of the Holy Spirit, at some point in history evil men elevated one of their own to assume illicit, invalid power for hundreds and hundreds of years, and the papacy is a fraudulent power grab.

    Guy McClung, texas