Chrysostom on Matthew 16

I seem to recall N.T. Wright once commenting in a talk that some Protestants get a little turned around when they read the gospels because they tend to be more naturally conversant in the themes and jargon of Paul’s writing. In a book like Matthew, upon leaving the familiar Christmas story, we encounter the teachings and miracles of Jesus but aren’t entirely sure what to do with those narrative sections as a whole. “Then some of us,” remarked Wright jokingly, “come to Matthew 16 and get very confused and perhaps a little afraid.”

He was of course alluding to the notion of Petrine supremacy, which usually takes Matthew 16 as its scriptural launch point. There we read that Jesus, having been identified correctly by Simon as God’s Son, gives him the name Peter, declaring “on this rock I will build my ekklesia.” Of course, Peter itself means “rock”: Kepha in Aramaic, which I have been told by one scholar is ultimately the same root as the name “Caiaphas,” incidentally. Without rehashing the entire history and different interpretations of this passage, we’ll simply note that this was taken by some in late antiquity and beyond as a justification for the primacy of Rome’s episcopacy (which I have discussed before here and here.)

John Chrysostom also comments on this verse, and he is thought to have composed his homiletic series on Matthew around the year 390, while he was still a presbyter in Antioch. When he comes to the relevant verse (16:18) of the text, he says the following:

“And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I shall construct my ekklesia.

That is, (upon) the faith of the confession. Therefore, he projects many who would then come to believe; he (Christ?) both raises his mind and makes him a shepherd.[1]

If I’m tracking the somewhat compact flow of the passage, I believe the subject of the last clause is Jesus (not Peter himself), who is trying to lift up Peter’s mind to higher things and promote him to the role of shepherd (cf. John 21:15–17). As we find a few verses later (16:25), Peter’s “thinking” does indeed require some improvement.

Either way, the salient point is that Chrysostom takes the “bedrock” of the church not to be Peter himself (much less the bishops of Rome) but the confession of faith Peter has just given, which anticipates the faith of future believers who themselves constitute that ekklesia, or “assembly.” This is not to suggest Chrysostom was snubbing the papacy or that he necessarily had a low view of that institution; I tend to suspect the opposite, in fact.

Instead, Chrysostom illustrates how the papacy didn’t even enter the conversation here—at a comparatively late point in the patristic era, we should note. Maybe doctrinal development can leap that gap, but it seems a bit far. After all, Chrysostom went on to become one of the most prominent clerics in the empire of his day and perhaps the most respected exegete in Greek Christianity of all time. If he could read this clause, which became an indispensable plank to the theory of Petrine supremacy, as having comparatively little to do with Peter per se and apparently nothing to do with Rome, the theory starts to look more like a later innovation.

  1. Καὶ ἐγώ σοι λέγω, σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν Ἐκκλησίαν· τουτέστι, τῇ πίστει τῆς ὁμολογίας. Ἐντεῦθεν δείκνυσι πολλοὺς μέλλοντας ἤδη πιστεύειν, καὶ ἀνίστησιν αὐτοῦ τὸ φρόνημα, καὶ ποιμένα ποιεῖ. Text from Migne, PG 58:534.


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