Friday, February 3, 2012

Between a Rock and a Heavenly Place

Jesus was confronted by some Pharisees, and possibly some Sadducees, demanding a sign from Heaven. Instead of giving a sign, Jesus chastised them for not already understanding the signs of the times, and soon departed with His disciples to another spot on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Along the way, Jesus warned His disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees, which could have been either their teachings or hypocrisy, but definitely had nothing to do with bread.

Between a Rock and a Heavenly Place
Simon, a.k.a. Peter, has an unnatural prominence throughout the Gospels. Of the Twelve Apostles, he is mentioned the most times by far, and is recorded as acting in the most number of significant episodes, such as walking on water, protesting Jesus' fate, and later three times denying that he was Jesus' disciple. His name comes up 148 times in the Gospels; 46 times as Simon and 102 times as Peter. So "Peter" shows up over twice as often as his real name, Simon. Yet the name Peter was only used three times in spoken dialog in the Gospels; Mark 16:7, Luke 22:34, and the following episode where Simon supposedly gets that name.

Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:18-21 all contain an anecdote where Jesus asks His disciples who other people think that He is. When the question circles around to what Jesus' disciples think about who He is, Simon is the first and only disciple noted to give an answer. Simon claims that Jesus is the "Christ," that is, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for the Messiah or Anointed One. With this truth revealed, each of these accounts ends with Jesus strictly warning His disciples not to share this information with anyone. This cloak of secrecy, shared in several locations throughout the Gospels, is one of the larger mysteries therein, having no good explanation.

(The Gospel of John is not completely devoid of this proclamation. In John 6:67-69, after many other disciples stopped following Jesus due to some unsavory teaching, Jesus asked the Twelve Apostles whether or not they, too, would leave. Simon spoke up, saying how could they leave when they believe that He is the "Holy One of God." Here, Jesus skipped warning them not to share this knowledge.)

Let us dig a little deeper.

Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21, aside from a different locational starting point, are nearly identical in both content and sentence structure. They are so close, that they are unlikely to be two eyewitness accounts, but rather one is a copy of the other. Luke appears to be the copier, adding some small details. (For example, compare Mark 8:28 versus Luke 9:19, where Luke adds the phrase "of long ago has come back to life" describing the prophets who people think Jesus may be.)

The section of Matthew 16:13-16, and the concluding verse Matthew 16:20, combine into an account which matches both Mark's and Luke's accounts very closely, again both in content and sentence structure. This appears to be just another copy, but that is not the whole story. Matthew is very, very different...

As discussed in earlier studies, the author of Matthew appears to be an aggregator, splicing little sayings, teachings, and anecdotes into the Gospel story. (If you are familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, you can understand the type of written and/or oral sources which Matthew was possibly using.) This particular episode is one of the clearest examples of this type of aggregation in the Gospels.

The verses in Matthew which do not match with Mark or Luke contain a venerated blessing of Simon by Jesus. There are precious few spots in the Gospels where Simon actually looks good, so the author of Matthew had limited options to insert these words of blessing, making this event (after Simon's acknowledgment of Jesus as Christ) a prime location to insert this blessing, unless he was willing to completely fabricate a new episode to do so. So Matthew presents Jesus' response in Matthew 16:17-19 as this:
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven." NIV
The impact of these three verses is huge in Christianity. This gives us the colloquial image of Saint Peter standing in front of the pearly gates of Heaven. More significantly, these verses have been used to establish of Peter as the head of the church, serving as the first Bishop and kicking off the supreme line of Apostolic succession which became the papacy of the Catholic Church, and endowed with the power to send people to Heaven or Hell.

Too bad Matthew made several big mistakes by including these verses.

Consider Jesus' claim that only God, the Father, had revealed Jesus' identity to Simon. In John 1:35-41, we find where Jesus was starting to recruit the Twelve Apostles. Andrew, Simon's brother, had been a disciple of John the Baptist. John the Baptist called Jesus the "Lamb of God," which prompted Andrew to ditch John the Baptist and follow Jesus instead. Upon spending a little time with Jesus, Andrew rushed back to his brother Simon and told him "We have found the Messiah."

Then there are also all of those episodes where demons have yelled Jesus' identity out loud; Matthew 8:29, Mark 1:24, Mark 5:7, Luke 4:34, Luke 4:41, and Luke 8:28.

Even more recently relative to this particular anecdote, when Jesus had walked on water, all of the disciples in the boat at that time (including Simon) worshiped Jesus, calling Him the "Son of God" (that part is unique to Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 14:33)! In fact, that earlier proclamation makes Jesus' question of who they thought He was unnecessary, and Jesus' reward to Simon for providing the correct answer unfounded.

So we can clearly see the issues which the author of Matthew created when he spliced these verses into the storyline. This content does not belong here. Given that it is unique to the Gospel of Matthew and the contradictions it creates, it probably does not belong in the Jesus story at all. Try telling that to the Pope.

A Rose by Any Other Name... (Extra Credit)
The renaming of Simon to Peter itself is not without issue either. "Peter" is "Petros" in the Greek language. It is unprecedented in the Bible for God (this time in the form of Jesus) to give someone another name which is not in Hebrew. Not only is "Peter" not Hebrew, but it is not Aramaic, which was the common language of that region of Israel at that time.

Now in Greek, Petros, when not used as a person-name, is thought possibly to have meant a rock, as in a small rock you could throw. As Jesus continued on with that sentence where Simon is called Petros, He said "and on this rock I will build My church," where "rock" is the Greek word "petra," which means a solid mass of rock. So in effect, it appears as though Jesus made an intentional pun: Simon, you are Petros, and on this petra... It is somewhat like saying "My friend Clifford jumped over a cliff."

Interestingly enough, in John 1:42, John records a different timing for the renaming of Simon. In fact, there, right when Jesus first meets Simon, He renames him... "Cephas." Cephas is Aramaic for rock. Aramaic lacks a common, similar sounding person-name like the Petros/petra relationship. (In transliterated Hebrew, rock may have been either "eben" or "tsur," which also lack similar person-names.)

So in which language did Simon receive his new name, and when? The answer is not clear here, or anywhere else in the New Testament.

It appears that some point after Jesus left the picture, Simon started really using his new name. Simon, as a reference to this particular Simon, appears only seven more times in Acts and the Epistles. Compare that to the 76 times the name Peter shows up beyond the Gospels. All except four of those instances are in Acts. Of those four exceptions, two are used in the introductions to the Epistles which were supposedly authored by Peter. So in other words, Peter was calling himself the Greek version of rock. The other two times are found in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians.

Even more strange is the use of Aramaic Cephas. Cephas appears only once in the Gospels; where John has Jesus name Simon Cephas. However, there are eight more times beyond the Gospels when Cephas is used, confined to two Epistles from Paul; 1 Corinthians and Galatians. In 1 Corinthians, Cephas seems to be interchangeable with Peter, as may be best demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 15:5 (cross-reference to Luke 24:33-34). In Galatians, however, Peter and Cephas appear to be different people, as you can see in Galatians 2:7-14, where both the names Peter and Cephas are used.

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