How Do Other Christians View the Keys Given to St. Peter?

How Do Other Christians View the Keys Given to St. Peter?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on December 1, 2023, which can be found here.

Q. How do other Christians interpret Matthew 16, when Jesus calls Peter ‘Rock’ and says He will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (16:18-19)?

A. Non-Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 tends to focus on grammatical issues regarding the word ‘rock,’ and seems less concerned with what is going on with the ‘keys.’ But I’m glad you asked about them (the keys), because what Jesus has in mind regarding the keys is directly relevant to the way we interpret what he is saying about the rock. So let’s take them both in turn.

‘Rock’: In Greek, nouns have “gender”; they’re classified grammatically either as masculine, feminine, or neuter/neutral. We have the same arrangement for English pronouns (‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘it’).

The proper noun ‘Peter’ comes from the Greek Petros, which is grammatically masculine and has the basic meaning of ‘stone.’ But when Jesus says, “. . . upon this rock I will build my church,” he uses the noun petra, which is grammatically feminine. So, many Christians understand this discrepancy to indicate that the ‘rock’ (petra – feminine) upon which Christ will build his ‘church’ (ekklesia – also feminine) does not refer to Peter himself (Petros – masculine), but to something else—Peter’s confession, maybe—even though his confession is never mentioned as a noun or pronoun in the text (you have to add that in, which is what non-Catholic interpreters often criticize Catholic interpreters for doing, but I digress).

The real problem for this interpretation is that if Jesus intended to pit the ‘rock’ (petra) on which he would build his Church against ‘Peter’ (Petros), we would expect him to use a disjunctive word like ‘but’ (Greek alla – as in the phrase “Not this but that”). This is the word he uses one verse earlier: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but (alla) my Father in heaven.”

But (!) he doesn’t do this. Instead, he uses the conjunctive ‘and’ (Greek kai): “you are Peter (Petros), and (kai) on this rock (petra) I will build my church (ekklesia).” Jesus creates a wordplay such that we’ll connect Peter with the Church, not pit them against each other. Petros is who he is (his name); petra is what he is (his role as the support of the Church).

It is sometimes argued that Petros means ‘small stone’ and petra means ‘firm bedrock’, in order to emphasize a separation between the two. But this is conjecture. There is no differentiation of size based on the gender of a noun. More naturally, Jesus intends to emphasize that Simon is petra, but has to “masculinize” the noun in order for it to work grammatically, since Simon is a man. So Petros it is.

St. Paul doesn’t even bother smoothing over the grammatical issue in 1 Corinthians 10:4:

[O]ur fathers . . . drank from the spiritual Rock [petra – feminine; same form as in Matthew 16:18] that followed them, and the Rock [petrawas Christ [Greek Christos – masculine].

(We could make the case that Jesus’ linkage of Peter with ‘rock’ and St. Paul’s linkage of Christ with ‘rock’ creates the theological space to understand Peter—and the popes that follow him—as “in the person of Christ.” But again, I digress.) 

Now, what about those keys? In Greek, all pronouns and verbs have number, whereas in English, all pronouns except the second person indicate their number: ‘I’ is singular while ‘we’ is plural, but ‘you’ can be either singular or plural in English. ‘You drove’ may refer to one person driving or to all the drivers in a caravan. But Greek neatly distinguishes singular from plural even in second person pronouns and verbs.

In connection with this singular//plural issue in Matthew 16:19, I once read a Lutheran minister explain, “We think that Jesus is not talking just to Peter but all the disciples gathered there. This is pretty obvious in the Greek.” In fact the matter is pretty obvious in the Greek; pretty obviously the opposite from what this minister reckoned. After changing only Peter’s name in verse 18, Jesus continues with three more statements to him specifically in the second singular mode of address in verse 19, though of course he knows his words will be overheard by the other disciples present:

I will give you [Greek singular; ] the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you [singular] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you [singular] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

When in Matthew 18:18, Jesus returns to this language of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing,’ and extends the responsibility to the other disciples, what is conspicuously absent is any corresponding extension of the key-holding responsibility. Yes, they share in the same authority to bind and loose initially granted to Peter, but only he holds the keys. So their authority to bind and loose is rightly understood as an extension of his; it’s legitimate in connection with the one who holds the keys.