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Peter as the First Pope

In the following email exchange, the emailer's comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

Exchange #1

>Subject: Peter as 1st pope question

Hi Gary,

I have enjoyed reading many of your email conversations. My dad is a staunch traditional Catholic who only attends Latin mass. He reads all the saints books and the Catholic newspapers and so on. He is very strong in his belief. I however and the rest of my family excluding my sister now, are Protestant. My question is, how do you explain that Peter was not the first pope, but just an apostle like the others? They love to throw in the verse "Whatever you unleash on earth will be bound in Heaven" etc. I don't really have a comeback for that one. What do you think those verses mean?

Thank you for your time.

Kevin B

There is nothing in the Bible that indicates Peter somehow had prominence over the other apostles. Matthew 16:18 has been quoted repeatedly over the centuries to try to support this position. But it is just that: one verse. And there are varying interpretations of it. I give one such interpretation in my Bible versions book.

Basically, the interpretation I favor is based on the historical background of the verse. Jesus specifically took the apostles to Caesarea Philippi when He uttered this line (Matt 16:13). At this time, there was a giant boulder in Caesarea Philippi with indents in it. In these indents were idols of gods. When Jesus said He would build His Church on "this rock" He was probably referring to the Church being built on this rock in the sense of crushing the gods of Rome. And, of course, that is what happened. The gods of Rome were crushed and fell out of favor as the Christian faith grew.

Note that in the next line Jesus refers to the "gates of Hades." Gates were defensive, not offensive, weapons. So Jesus is saying that Hades will not withstand the onslaught of the Church. So that is the context of this overused verse.

So what Jesus was doing was using a word play on the name "Peter." It means "a stone" while the word used for "rock" is "petra" which means a large solid rock. A correct translation is important here. So Jesus is saying that Peter himself or any single person is insignificant to this giant solid rock they were standing before, but nevertheless, it would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the whole Church.

Below is my translation of this verse:

Now I also say to you, that you are Peter ["a stone"], and on this solid rock I will build my Assembly [or, Church], and [the] gates of the realm of the dead [Gr., hades] will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18; ALT).

But also let me say that even if the "rock" is referring to Peter himself, it doesn't say "and on your successors." That interpretation is just assumed by the RCC.

That said, it could be said that Peter was the first bishop or patriarch of Rome, and there is an early list of "successors" to Peter to this office recorded in the writings of Eusebius. However, in the early Church there were initially five such patriarchs, in Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch, and one other place that I forget exactly, maybe Ephesus.

But the point is, these five patriarchs were considered to be equals. It was only much later that the Roman patriarch asserted his priority over the others.

Moreover, during the time in which the first two successors to Peter were supposedly in office (still in the first century AD), John and possibly other of the apostles were still alive. And it is hard to believe that a "successor" to an apostle would somehow have priority to a still living apostle.

Given all of this, there simply is no early evidence that Peter is somehow supposed to be the head of the entire Church, let alone his successors.

Exchange #2

>Subject: Re: Peter as 1st pope question

That's a good interpretation. But I'm not quite sure how that answers my original question about Matthew 16:19. Can you please further elaborate on that verse? I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.


Oops. Based on your subject line I thought you were mainly concerned about Matt 16:18 not the next verse.

The important point on this verse is to get a correct translation. Below is how I rendered it:

And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in the heavens; and whatever you loose on the earth will have been loosed in the heavens" (Matthew 16:19; ALT).

The "will have been bound" renderings are due to the verbs being in the perfect tense. They are not future tense as the "will be bound" rendering makes it look like they are. This difference is very important.

The future tense means, of course, that the event will happen in the future. But the Greek perfect tense indicates something that happened in the past but has continuing results in the present (of the time of writing or speaking).

So what Jesus is saying is NOT that Peter's actions will cause someone's sins to be bound or loosed in heaven. What He is saying is that the person's sins have already been either bound or loosed in heaven and then Peter will "pronounce" which is the case. So Peter is NOT causing someone's sins to be forgiven. He simply is to declare to the person that based on their faith or lack thereof that their sins have been forgiven or not forgiven. It is a deceleration of what has already happened.

Note also, that what Jesus says here to Peter He says to all the apostles in John 20:23:

If any of you* forgive their sins, they have been forgiven to them; if any of you* retain [their sins], they have been retained" (ALT).

Note the asterisk after "you." I used this in my translation to indicate the original is plural. And in context, Jesus is speaking to all of the apostles. So again, there is nothing "special" about Peter in comparison to the other apostles.

Moreover, I would say all believers have the ability to pronounce that someone's sins have been forgiven when they believe in Christ. Again, this is a declaration of what God has already done, not somehow a "power" for a human being to actually cause the forgiveness of someone.

So by looking at an exact translation and by comparing Scripture with Scripture it can be seen what is the correct interpretation of Matt 16:19. It in no way "exalts" Peter over the other apostles nor gives him the power to forgiven or not to forgive sins.

Exchange #3

>Subject: Re: Peter as 1st pope question

Thanks. I appreciate the help in better understanding this.

God Bless.

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