Monday, June 12, 2017

Matthew 16:18 And Whether Jesus Was The Founder Of A Church

Question: Was Jesus the founder of a church?

AP: I know I answered a similar question on my personal blog back in 2009. I'm not sure if we've carried it over to Across the Atlantic yet, but here is a short answer to the question at hand. Generally speaking, I believe that the response to critical issues issues of the Gospels comes not only from the analysis of a particular passage, but from the perspective of those shared points that define the outline of the person of Jesus, arrived at by virtual consensus among independent research. And between those points is the image––which seems to me to be irrefutable––of a Jesus who died on the cross, in a group crucifixion (as opposed to being crucified alone), condemned by the Romans for sedition against the Roman Empire. I have recently presented this picture of Jesus over a period of 75 days. If you read Spanish, I would encourage you to check it out. If not, I do hope to carry that material over to this blog, which I share with my friend and former doctoral student, Thomas Hudgins. The title of the series was "Jesus and Anti-Roman Resistance," which utilizes the title of an article written by Fernando Bermejo. The idea of a seditious Jesus is supported by thirty-five texts in the Gospels, most of them very clear.

Now, regarding the founding of a church, as we know it to exist today, it simply does not square at all with the image of Jesus––that is, the historical Jesus––that we have based on independent historical research. Let me give you a little excerpt from my book Ciudadano Jesús (, which in English is "Citizen Jesus." If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time that we are discussing this book on AtA. I hope it helps with the question at hand, and if you are interested in learning more, you can find the book here.

This is one of the most discussed passages of the Gospel of Matthew. However, many researchers, all confessional, offer a positive response to the question: Yes, Jesus founded the church more or less as we know it today, minus the defects that we know exist. This response, which has been given for hundreds of years, seems impossible. My argument is as follows. But let's first take a look at the text:
"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' 'But you,' he asked them, 'who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!' And Jesus responded, 'Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.' And he gave the disciples orders to tell no one that he was the Messiah." (Matt. 16:13–20)
There are various positions taken, among the different confessional faiths, on what this text means. The traditional one is held by the Catholic Church. It is argued, especially among Catholic theologians, that the scene transmitted by Matthew is rigorously authentic and fully historical in all its details. They proclaim, therefore, that Jesus was definitely founded a church, which, in substance and in its fundamental organization, is like the one of today. The argument goes as follows:
1. Until proved otherwise, the Gospels are considered entirely historical. That includes the present text and the account it records.
2. The scene transmitted by Matthew has Semitic influence throughout the narrative. This is further support that all its details go back to the Jesus of history.
3. There is a parallel to this account in the Gospel of John, namely Jesus' commission of Peter to care for the flock of faithful (John 21:15–19). It affirms the primacy of Peter.
Bernard-Marie Ferry, in his article on "Church" in one Bible dictionary, published by Herder years ago, expands the argument as follows: "Jesus is not content with just founding the Church, but wants to provide people with a rule of life . . . It is the task of theology, though, to show whether the primacy was conferred on Peter alone or if, as the Catholic Church teaches, such primacy belongs to Peter and all his successors." That church founded by Jesus must include both Jews and pagans so that they are, continues Ferry, "a single flock with one shepherd" (John 10:16). "That is why Jesus, right before his departure from them, commands his apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), to proclaim the good news throughout the world (Mark 16:16) and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).

So here is my question: Are we sure about this traditional exegesis of Matthew 16? It doesn't look like we should be. Here is the line of thought against such an interpretation:
1. All the supporting texts quoted by B.-M. Ferry, which are summarized above to prop up the scene of Matthew, are, in the eyes of a vast majority of prestigious interpreters, including Catholics, highly suspicious and, probably, do not come from the very mouth of Jesus, but are put there by others that followed. They are late additions of a secondary Gospel tradition, not authentic, not attributable to the Jesus of history, but attached to him after the fact. For this reason, the discussion does not focus on these passages.
2. There is no account in Mark, Luke, or John that affirms the institution of the organizational system that would continue the work of Jesus after him. In fact, the word "church" is not even found in them. 
3. The contrast of this scene drawn by Matthew with the parallel of the Gospel of Mark is striking.  According to the vast majority of scholars, Mark is one of the sources of the so-called "first Gospel." (Thomas, by the way, is an advocate for the position that Matthew wrote first, not Mark. That is a very small group that thinks that way. It doesn't mean he is wrong simply because he is among the minority. It's based on the evidence that which we reach such conclusions.) Mark says only this: "Jesus and his disciples went to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way he asked his disciples, 'Who do men say that I am?' They said, 'John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, others one of the prophets.' And he asked them: 'And you, who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Messiah.' And he forbade them from telling anyone about him."
The fact that Mark does not mention the institution of the Church is very strange, since, according to the ecclesiastical tradition, this Gospel collects the preaching and the recollections of Peter. Wouldn't Peter have been very interested in transmitting what took place on that day when he was entrusted with such an important task. He was being named the successor of Jesus. How could that go without mention in that Gospel, which according to the tradition that argues Peter was named the successor? 
4. It is also very strange that in later texts of the New Testament like the letters to Titus, 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Jude, there is no mention to the reality of a church founded by Jesus. And you could argue that those texts were more open, in theory, to point out the divine origin of an institution that was clearly defined by that time!
So, what in the world should we do with Matt. 16:13–20?

We should probably consider it a secondary text, an text added by the author of Matthew to the received tradition of Mark. I do not think it is a pure invention of the author of Matthew, but one of those cases, which we already know, in which a Christian prophet inspired by the spirit of Jesus, so they believed, spoke in the name of the Master.

A very plausible reconstruction of the process may be as follows: The Christian prophet was undoubtedly based on an authentic confession of Peter's Jewish messianism of Jesus, but then extended it with the foundation of a group that would last after his death (that same group of which the prophet was a part). And that prophet, by issuing these words "of Jesus" concerning Jesus' choice of Peter as the foundation of the group that was to continue his doctrines, formed the basis of a tradition of that community. And it is that tradition that becomes the subject of great discussion today in the twenty-first century, and the centuries since before it.

This tradition came about very early and originated on Palestinian soil, which explains how the text of Matt. 16:16 contains expressions that are better explained as an original composition in Aramaic than in Greek. This explains its Semitic flavor, without necessarily proceeding from the mouth of the historical Jesus.

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