key and kingdom and things that aren’t there

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” — Matthew 16.17-19 [ESV]

Lots of Christians have made lots of claims, sane and otherwise, regarding this passage. ‘Binding’ and ‘loosing’ were popular activities amongst Pentecostal and Charismatic circles in the 1990s, while Roman Catholics consider this the moment Jesus commissions Peter as the first pope.

One aspect that seems to be missed, though, is that Christ offers Peter ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’. My uncle, who has been doing home improvement work at stately Chateau Sirvio periodically through the past month, mentioned this phrase and passage after dinner one night, and asked me, knowing that I have been known to exegete from my BlackBerry, to quickly look up the Greek words through my phone. What I found was yet another example of the English translation short-changing the source material.

τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας

The word for ‘key’ is kleis, the word ‘kingdom’, basileia.  The keys of the kingdom are not keys at all. Nor is it a kingdom.

The word we have for ‘key’, like the word we have for ‘church’, does not link directly to the original biblical text. These are words with Germanic, medieval origins. As such, they stand underneath a shadow, as Carlos Gomez to Mickey Mantle: yes, they both played baseball, yes they both played center field, but one is Mickey freaking Mantle. The other, well, isn’t.

‘Key’ and ‘kingdom’ are masculine words with masculine connotations; indeed, the text is loaded with male gaze and, as discussed around these parts before, the hermeneutical work is more concerned with reinforcing doctrinal leaning than necessarily being bothered with faithful interpretation of sacred text. So, when ‘key’ and ‘kingdom’ are used to describe Christ’s commissioning of Peter, and kleis and basileia are the feminine words Christ actually uses, we have a fairly significant point of divergence.

That’s right, the phallic key and the mighty kingdom are images conveyed by the minds of the English translators, not the word-pictures used by the author or the participants in the passage itself.

That having been said, what if Matthew isn’t who we think he is? (No, not like that.) The author of Matthew is popularly characterized as the vanguard of a Jewish Christianity, that the Christ he portrays is the completed Tanakh puzzle, every piece a perfect fit for an apologia for Jewish Christians of the time. What if we’ve got it wrong? What if Matthew’s Jesus is a little more like Luke’s–the gospel at the margins, the gadfly–than we tend to recognize? In looking at Matthew’s Jesus, perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but Jesus’ statements in Matthew are at times very provocative and outright revolutionary. His miracles and follow-up teachings are designed as a one-two double deuce against the established social order.

Jesus’ proclamation over Peter isn’t that he has keys to a kingdom, the people of God are a doorway to power, able to demonstrate or not at their discretion (‘binding’ and ‘loosing’). And make no mistake, as any man in a wedded relationship with a woman knows, the power lies with the wife.

The wife, the bride of Christ, is the conduit through which the power of God is to be demonstrated in the world. Jesus isn’t giving Peter a crown and scepter, he’s giving him a lunchpail and a shovel and telling him (and by extension, his followers) to get to work. Peter, then, becomes the great and human example of what it means to succeed and fail as a Christian. (And oh, does he ever!)

Not that you’d ever notice this in a plain reading of an English Bible. Or, presumably, in the translations Evangelicals have been developing for ‘unreached people groups’ in their efforts to bring about the Rapture.

Whither, literalism?


EDIT: By way of a postscript, this piece would not have been possible without resources. I am indebted to the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University, the Online Etymology Dictionary and BPBible, powered by open source SWORD Project modules.


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