Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Oral Character of Early Christian Writings Undermines Yet Another Key Contention of Roman Claims for the Papacy

Scott Hahn makes a big deal of it. Noting that R.T. France is “one of the top evangelical New Testament scholars in the world,” Hahn makes the assertion that
"Jesus' … blessing is given to Peter alone. The other disciples may have shared his insight but Peter, characteristically expressed it. Matthew often illustrates Peter's place at the head of the disciples' group. He was the spokesman, the pioneer, the natural leader." He goes on to talk about how Peter is referenced to the Rock. France says, "It describes not so much Peter's character, that is the Rock. He did not prove to be rock-like in terms of stability or reliability but rather the name Rock or Peter points to his function as the foundation stone of Jesus' Church."

This is a non-Catholic. This is an Evangelical Protestant who has absolutely no interest in supporting the Church's claims but he says, "The term Peter, Rock, points to Simon and not his character because he could be very unstable, but rather his official function as the foundation stone of Jesus' Church. The word-play is unmistakable." He says, "It is only Protestant over-reaction to the Roman Catholic claim, of course, which has no foundation in the text, that what is here said of Peter applies also to the later Bishops of Rome." In other words France is saying, "We can't apply this to the Popes, the later Bishops of Rome." … France is very candid in saying, "Look, it's only because we Protestants have over-reacted to the Catholic Church that we are not frank and sincere in admitting the fact that Peter is the Rock. He is the foundation stone upon which Jesus is going to build the Church."
Here is one of France’s justifications for his conclusion:
A second escape route, beloved especially by those who wish to refute the claims of the Roman Catholic Church based on the primacy of Peter as the first pope, is to assert that the foundation rock is not Peter himself, but the faith in Jesus as Messiah which he has just declared. If that was what Jesus intended, he has chosen his words badly, as the wordplay points decisively toward Peter, who whom personally he has just given the name, as the rock, and there is nothing in his statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words “this rock” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” R.T. France, Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2007, pg622).
Now, sometimes even “top evangelical New Testament scholars” need a whack on the back of the head. There is no question that Peter was important. But many notable patristic interpretations of this verse hold that “this rock” was not Peter, but rather, Peter’s confession. Among others, Augustine said “Upon this rock, said the Lord, I will build my Church. Upon this confession, upon this that you said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer her” (John Rotelle, Ed., The Works of Saint Augustine (New Rochelle: New City, 1993) Sermons, Volume III/7, Sermon 236A.3, p. 48, from here). And following this interpretation, it’s a standard Protestant understanding that “this rock” did not refer to Peter, but rather to Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the son of the Living God”.

But look again at the rationale that Dr. France uses to dismiss the idea that “this Rock” is not Peter. “Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words ‘this rock.’”

That’s a dramatic gesture, and while it may or may not have made sense for Jesus to have made those hand gestures, if one understands that first century Palestine was an “oral culture,” and that oral delivery and rhetoric had much more importance in that day than our day, then the hand gestures take on an important new meaning.

The Oral Presentation of Early Writings
France’s notion that it is “bizarre” that Jesus “pointed to himself” (pg 622) is seriously challenged by a deeper understanding of the oral nature of documents written in the first century world. It is highly likely that these documents were intended not for reading in a book – there were not many books in those days – but rather, they were intended for oral presentation.

Texts were written in such a way that they could be presented orally. And so, in Matthew’s Gospel, the image is not “Jesus pointing to himself,” but rather, the hand gestures of the individual who would be delivering the Gospel message, orally, to an assembled group of people (in this case, “the church”).

Such a focus on orality sheds light on the odd grammatical structure of the sentence (Matthew 16:18) which shifts from the second person (“you are Peter”) to the third person (“and on this rock”).

Carolyn Osiek, in her study “The Oral World of Early Christianity in Rome: The Case of Hermas” (from Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson, eds, “Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome” Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company ©1998), notes that
”Studies of the implications of orality and literacy in the ancient world continue to multiply, but few have been applied to Christian literature except in the study of the development of oral tradition, and then primarily to certain canonical texts, notably the Gospel of Mark. Moreover, the corresponding characteristics of oral and literate thinking continue to be the object of study by social scientists, and these studies are becoming more and more nuanced. The ongoing interest in literacy and orality in the ancient world has been reflected in biblical studies largely in the form of interest in the transmission of oral tradition. It is now clear, for instance, that in the case of an oral teacher such as Jesus there was no ‘original form’ of his sayings, even during his lifetime, for oral teaching is necessarily contextual, adapted in each situation to a different audience.” The concern here is not about the transmission of oral tradition, but about oral thought processes, oral performance, and the social implications of orality and literacy (155-56).
While this study of the rhetorical characteristics of early Christian documents is new, it sheds light on the contentions over the genuine meaning of “this rock” in Matthew 16:18.

France himself (“Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher” Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, originally © 1989 Paternoster Press) noted that the Gospel of Matthew contains “repeated formulae which may function as structural markers…. Such repetitions sometimes serve to alert the reader to points of comparison between different characters in the story” (128-129). “So much of the material, particularly the teaching material, is grouped in symmetrical structures, often marked out by repeated words or phrases. The effect is to make this gospel a suitable quarry for blocks of material for easy memorization” (130). “In the overall progression of the narrative, and in the selection of material for insertion in this part of the gospel it seems clear to me that Matthew is operating with a clear sense of dramatic progression” (138).

In his 2007 commentary on Matthew, France does not make the connection between the dramatic qualities of the Gospel and the likely oral presentation of it. But in a 2007 Hermenia Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), Robert Jewett goes into much detail of the “rhetorical” structure of Romans and the likely method of its oral delivery:
With the exception of the greetings at the end of Romans, the letter displays a wide range of stylistic features that would have made the hearing very engaging when the letter was declaimed in the early congregations. In the analysis section of each chapter there is an account of such devices. There are far too many for an exhaustive listing here (30).
These include various kinds of parallelisms, anaphora, antistrophes, chiasms, applied to “series of tens”, “series of fives,” “series of sevens,” “series of threes”.
The discovery of the remarkable array of stylistic and organizational devices in Romans calls attention to the crucial importance of the oral delivery to the various congregations in Rome. In view of the fact that ancient letters in Greek were written without spaces between words or punctuation, the discernment of the numerical sequences and other stylistic features would have been very difficult for anyone reading the letter aloud for the first time. Classical rhetoric taught the techniques of preparing texts for public delivery and for the actual delivery itself, including the tone of voice and gestures suitable for different occasions. In the Greco-Roman world, speaking without notes was preferred, and students were taught to memorize their speeches before delivering them (39-40).
With regard to their inherent rhetorical structure, Romans and Matthew have much in common. Considering that the Gospel of Matthew was not only written with a dramatic structure in mind, but was intended to be presented orally, can provide us with a key insight into an odd grammatical structure that has been at the root of contentions that have lasted for centuries.

If Peter is not “this rock” but rather, a smaller rock, then that has serious ramifications Rome’s already shaky authority structure.

And as France himself concludes,
When the image of a foundation stone is used in relation to the Christian church elsewhere in the NT, that stone is Jesus himself, not Peter, as in 1 Cor 3:10-11 (where Christ is the foundation, and Paul’s apostolic work merely the superstructure) and 1 Pet 2:4-8 (which, if written by Peter himself, is particularly telling!). But Eph 2:20 expands the metaphor to a corporate foundation of “the apostles and prophets,” with Christ as the cornerstone, and in Rev 21:14 the names of the twelve apostles are inscribed on the twelve foundations of the heavenly city (622).
Paul himself states clearly in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “the Rock was Christ,” in the Old Testament, in the New Testament. And the oral character of the Gospels and other writings helps to clarify an understanding that Rome, in defense of its supposed authority, has muddied up for centuries.


  1. These people do indeed need a whack on the head. Below is a link to a document containing tons of Patristic quotes regarding Matthew 16:18, and NOT ONE interepret it to refer to Peter (character or role).

  2. Hi Andy -- I did pull my Augustine quote from that Bill Webster site. I know there are a lot more of them, too.

  3. Often overlooked in arguments over this passage is the connection to Isaiah 51:1-2. There Abraham is called "the rock from which you were hewn."

    Edersheim explains that "according to Jewish ideas, the world would not have been created, unless it had rested on some solid foundation of piety... in other words, it required a moral, before it could receive a physical foundation.... It is, so runs the comment [he is citing Rabbinic sources] as if a king were going to build a city. One and another site is tried for a foundation, but in digging they always come upon water. At last they come upon a ROCK (Petra)...

    "So, when God was about to build his world... 'when He beheld that Abraham would arise in the future, He said: Behold I have found a Rock (Petra) to build on it, and to found the world,' whence also Abraham is called a Rock."

    So when Christ called Peter the rock, He did so with a reference that would have been understandable to Jewish ears. It was similar to His appointing 12 Apostles in reference to the 12 tribes of Israel.

    Factoring in the linguistic data, Edersheim paraphrases it this way: "Thou are Peter (Petros), a Stone or Rock; and upon this Petra -- the rock, the Petrine -- will I found my Church.... the Petrine in Peter: the heaven-given faith."

    "Just as Christ's contemporaries may have regarded the world as reared on the rock of faithful Abraham, so Christ promised that He would build His church on the Petrine in Peter -- on His faith and confession."

    And of course, the gospel is clear that, Rock or not, physical descent from Abraham accounts for nothing. (See John.8:39-41, etc.) "It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham." (Gal.3:7). Likewise, it is not descent of office but those of faith who are the sons of Peter.

  4. Louis, that's an exceptional clarification.