These past two weeks have witnessed the resignation of one pope and the election of another.  The former event is notable because of its rarity and the second because it is a first – the first pope to be elected from the Americas.

And one cannot surf the web or watch the news without hearing someone say of Rome that it is “Christ’s church built upon Peter”, or some such thing.  And as predictably as the sun rises in the east, Roman Catholics will point to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16 verse 18, for justification of their papal claims:  “For you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.”  (Matthew 16:18 is surely the most badly abused of all biblical proof texts!)

Leaving aside the fact that this interpretation creates disharmony in the Godhead by ignoring the Old Testament and that it is precluded to Catholics by the Council of Trent and the Creed of Pope St. Pius IV, the more interesting question at the moment is, “What if Matthew was not writing about Rome at all?”  That is the question that seems to undergird an examination by the late Roman Catholic scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown.

Matthew 16:18-19 has given rise to an endless flood of literature because of its use in later church doctrine and polemics.  At the same time, biblical scholars have often focused on the question of pre-Matthean tradition.  All too often the problematic of the evangelist in his own time and place…is overlooked.  Matthew, writing to meet the problems of a church in Syrian Antioch around A.D. 85, is certainly not concerned with the problem of whether a single-bishop in Rome is the successor of Simon Peter especially since both Rome and Antioch around 85 do not seem to have known the single-bishop structure.[i](Emphasis added.)

Matthew was writing with the church at Antioch in mind; not the church at Rome.  And neither apostolic church had a single bishop!  If Peter wasn’t the bishop, what was he?  Brown continues:

Matthew is presenting Peter as the chief of Rabbi of the universal church, with power to make “halakic” decisions (i.e. decisions on conduct) in the light of the teaching of Jesus.  As Bornkamm points out…the main thrust of 16:18-19 is Peter’s teaching authority, his power to declare acts licit or illicit according to Jesus’ teaching.  Furthermore, this power extends to the whole of “my church,” the whole church Jesus will build on Peter, not just some local assembly.[ii] (Emphasis added.)

So with all of the “pope talk” that will be with us for the foreseeable future, when you hear someone cite Matthew’s Gospel in support of the new man in the Vatican, you might ask him why St. Matthew had no idea why he should be head of Christ’s church?  Or what a Gospel, written under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit to the church at Antioch has to do at all with Rome?  Or why the successor of Peter, who may have been given the rabbinical duties of teaching, claims to have a “primacy of jurisdiction” over the church?

Soli Deo Gloria.

[i] Brown, Raymond E., and John P. Meier. Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity.  New York, NY.  Paulist Press,  2004.  P. 66

[ii] Ibid. p. 67.