Thursday, August 22, 2019

Uprooting "the Jewish roots of the papacy"

I'm going to comment on Brant Pitre's presentation on the "Jewish roots of the papacy":

This is the final time I plan to write about Pitre, although I reserve the right to change my mind. As with my other posts on Pitre, I'm going to make some methodological observations about his hermeneutical grid. In this presentation he labors to document the "Jewish roots" of Mt 16:18-19 by ransacking Josephus, the Mishna, Babylonian Talmud, and Targums. Based on his putative background material, he draws "connections". For instance: 

There was a central stone, pillar, or rock around which the temple was built. What the rabbis tell us is that not only was this true of the pagan temple that we have at Philippi, it was also true of the Jerusalem temple as well. In the holy of holiness, upon which rested the ark of the covenant. Rabbis had interesting traditions about this rock upon which the temple was built. It was the same stone on which Abraham offered Isaac. The rabbis had tradition that the whole world stemmed from this one stone. Jerusalem center of the earth, first thing God made.

They kept the keys of the temple in a rock–a slab of marble with a ring and chain which the keys hung from. Notice the connection? Keeper of the keys, the prefect of the priests. Sound familiar? The prefect? Captain of the temple. When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, the priests took the keys of the kingdom and threw them up into heaven.

It was the priests who had the temple keys. There were actual keys to the temple and they were kept by Jewish priests, so when Jesus gives Peter the keys, Peter is going to be offering the sacrificial offering of the eucharist. If Peter is the foundation stone in the holy of holies, do you already begin to see the priestly context of who was able to go into the holy of holies and put the blood on the foundation stone. The high priest and the high priest alone. So there's a connection between the foundation stone of the temple and not just any priest but the high priest. Peter is a warrior who plunders Hades. Jesus is building a new temple on Peter–the new temple of new covenant. 

So what are we to make of this?

1. I'm struck by Pitre's ultramontane view of the papacy. He's the reincarnation of Ignatius Loyola. The presentation was given when Benedict XVI was pope. I wonder if Pitre is that enthusiastic about the pontificate of Francis. 

He compares Mt 16 to Mt 23. He takes for granted a particular interpretation of Mt 23. He never mentions competing interpretations. Some commentators think what Jesus says about submitting to the Pharisees is sarcastic. 

He really thinks Jesus is telling us that the Pharisees had binding authority to interpret Scripture. Yet many Pharisees were outspoken opponents of Jesus. They challenged his teaching. He challenged their teaching. So Jesus can hardly be issuing them a blank check. By Pitre's logic, when they say Jesus is a blasphemer, sorcerer, demoniac, and false prophet, the rank and file are obligated to accept their verdict. So Jesus would be giving his arch-enemies veto power over his messianic claims. The reason Pitre backs himself into this indefensible interpretation is that he wants to create a parallel between the binding authority of the Pharisees and the binding authority of the papacy. 

2. Then there's the gullible way in which he appeals to Rabbinic legends. Not to mention the danger of anachronistic sources (e.g. Babylonian Talmud). 

3. In the Gospels there are two basic sources for Christ's imagery:

i) The OT

ii) The natural world and social world. 

Jesus was a keen observer. Consider all the agrarian imagery in his teaching. Or references to fishing, sheep and shepherds, slaves and masters, banquets, children at play, women in labor, women kneading bread, and so on. The primary background for his imagery isn't to be found in rabbinic writings but in the OT and daily life in Palestine. 

4. Pitre does a bait-n-switch when he compares the legendary stone on which the ark of the covenant rested in the Solomon's temple with the stone key box in the Second Temple. But even if we credit both tales, these are different "rocks/stones" with different functions and different symbolic values. So the comparison is equivocal.

5. Also, the business about the "prefect" only works in Latin. That's reading a Latin title back into the rabbinic sources. 

6. Pitre thinks the parallels between Mt 16:18-19 and his rabbinic sources are nothing short of "unbelievable". It's comical how oblivious he is to the fallacy of sample selection bias. The parallels you "uncover" depend on the sources you consult. If you assume that rabbinic sources supply the background material for the imagery of Jesus, it's no great surprise that the same metaphors in rabbinic sources frequently derive from the cultus: temple, priesthood, sacrifice. That reflects the interests of the rabbis. It never dawns on Pitre that the "incredible" parallels that he uncovers are the result of his circular methodology. 

If I read a book about football or poker or horse-racing, the vocabulary will have connotations that mirror the subject-matter. What a coincidence! 

7. Pitre recontextualizes Mt 16:13-20 by shifting attention from the original setting around Caesarea Philippi to the temple of Jerusalem. But if Jesus wanted to his imagery to evoke the cultus in Jerusalem, why did he take his disciples on an excursion into the boonies of gentile Palestine rather than bringing them to Jerusalem and asking his leading question within the temple precincts? 

The region of Caesarea Philippi is conspicuously rocky. In addition, it was a heathen worship center. So if we take his chosen locale as an interpretive clue, Jesus is saying he will build the church right over a pagan shrine. He will take the fight to the enemy. The "rock" refers to the rocky terrain. The landscape is the literal background. 

8. But even if we assume something more literary, consider the theological connotations of rocks in biblical usage. God is a rock (Deut 32:4,15,18,31). Water from the rock for the thirsty Exodus generation in the wilderness (Exod 17:6; Num 20:10).

Or, if you're going to focus on foundation stone symbolism, in the very same Gospel Jesus quotes Isa 8:14 (Mt 21:42-44). Then there's his illustration about a sandy foundation compared to a solid foundation (Mt 7:24-25). 

Why not explore that material before reaching for rabbinic sources? Because it doesn't suit Pitre's agenda, that's why. 

9. What about the binding/loosing imagery? There's nothing essentially or presumptively rabbinic about that. Consider standard biblical usage (e.g. Judges 15:14; 16:11; Ps 146:7; 149:8; Mt 22;13; Acts 16:26; 24:26). That, in turn, can be used figuratively (e.g. Lk 13:16).

In the very same Gospel, there's the illustration the strong man (Mt 12:29). So the metaphor can be used without any rabbinic connotations. 

10. Then there's a cluster of interrelated metaphors: locks, keys, gates, doors, and walls. 

i) These are elements of an overall picture. The elements can be mentioned separately or in combination. 

ii) Likewise, they pair off in antonyms: open/shut, locked/unlocked. 

iii) They can be used in reference to the temple, but the imagery itself is generic. In many cases it has its basis in fortified cities with defensive walls and outer gates (e.g. Deut 3:5,9; 9:1; 28:52; Josh 6:1; 1 Sam  17:52; 23:7; 2 Sam 18:24; 2 Kgs 25:4,10; 2 Chron 8:5; 14:7; 26:6; Neh 1:3; 2:8; Ps 87:2; Acts 9:24; 14:13).

It can also be used for prisons (Acts 5;23; Rev 9:1; 20:1,3), private homes (Lk 11:7; Jn 20:19,26), or walled gardens (Num 22:24). It can be figurative (e.g. Ps 24:7,9; Isa 60:11,18; Rev 21:25). In particular, as a metaphor for the grave (Job 17:16; 38:17; Ps 9:13; 107:18).

So the imagery is flexible. Consider the diverse ways Jesus uses the imagery:

7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Mt 7:7-8).

Enter through the narrow gate (Mt 7:13).

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut (Mt 25:10).

1 Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice...7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep (Jn 10:1-2,7).

I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:18).

See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (Rev 3:8).

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me (Rev 3:20). 

Nothing sacerdotal about the imagery. These are metaphors drawn from mundane experience. So they don't requires a special explanation in rabbinic sources. They don't automatically or presumptively connote anything about the temple, priesthood, and sacrifice. 


  1. I understand Pitre is attempting to make a more specific exegetical point, but I think understanding 1st century Judaism undercuts the RCC claims of the papacy. An understanding of Judaism in the city of Rome casts serious doubts upon the papacy. Given that 1) The temple is in Jerusalem, not Rome therefore 2) Jews throughout the Diaspora, and in Rome particularly, meet in synagogues. 3) Given Rome's social and geographic disbursement of immigrant populations (Lampe calls this fractionation), these synagogues were spread throughout the city in sponsor homes with no centralized authority. 4) Roman Christianity comes out of the Roman Jewish synagogues with no centralized authority. 5) This lack of centralized authority makes sense of 1st century socio-historical facts, biblical testimony (Rom 16 in particular), and early church history (Lampe goes into greater detail about the theological diversity in Rome and Allen Brent does a great job of showing hos this fractionation exists into the 3rd century in the Hippolytus/Callistus affair).

  2. --Jesus was a keen observer. Consider all the agrarian imagery in his teaching. Or references to fishing, sheep and shepherds, slaves and masters, banquets, children at play, women in labor, women kneading bread, and so on.--

    As an aside, I lean toward the view that Joseph and Jesus were stoneworkers - the Greek word usually translated 'carpenter' is 'tekton' (note the link to tectonic, and the onomatopoeic link to the sounds a hammer on stone makes). Northern Israel in which Nazareth is located is rather lacking in trees, but has plenty of rocks.

    This would lend some colour to Jesus' likening Himself to capstones and solid foundation rock.