The Biblical, Primitive Papacy: St. Peter & the "Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven": Scholarly Opinion (Mostly Protestant)

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Matthew 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . (RSV) 

Isaiah 22:20-22 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, . . . and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. 

Revelation 3:7 [Christ describing Himself]:. . . the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens. 

The power of the "keys," in the Hebrew mind, had to do with administrative authority and ecclesiastical discipline, and, in a broad sense, might be thought to encompass the use of excommunication, penitential decrees, a barring from the sacraments and lesser censures, and legislative and executive functions. Like the name Rock, this privilege was bestowed only upon St. Peter and no other disciple or Apostle. He was to become God's "vice-regent," so to speak. In the Old Testament, a steward was a man over a house (Genesis 43:19, 44:4, 1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, 18:3, 2 Kings 10:5 15:5 18:18, Isaiah 22:15). The steward was also called a "governor" in the Old Testament and has been described by commentators as a type of "prime minister." 

In the New Testament, the two words often translated as "steward" are oikonomos (Luke 16:2-3, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 4:10), and epitropos (Matthew 20:8, Galatians 4:2). Several Protestant commentaries and dictionaries take the position that Christ is clearly hearkening back to Isaiah 22:15-22 when He makes this pronouncement, and that it has something to do with delegated authority in the Church He is establishing (in the same context). He applies the same language to Himself in Revelation 3:7 (cf. Job 12:14), so that his commission to Peter may be interpreted as an assignment of powers to the recipient in His stead, as a sort of authoritative representative or ambassador. 

The "opening" and "shutting" (in Isaiah 22:2) appear to refer to a jurisdictional power which no one but the king (in the ancient kingdom of Judah) could override. Literally, it refers to the prime minister's prerogative to deny or allow entry to the palace, and access to the king. In Isaiah's time, this office was over three hundred years old, and is thought to have been derived by Solomon from the Egyptian model of palace functionary, or the Pharaoh's "vizier," who was second in command after the Pharaoh. This was exactly the office granted to Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41:40-44, 45:8). 

One can confidently conclude, therefore, that when Old Testament usage and the culture of the hearers is closely examined, the phrase keys of the kingdom of heaven must have great significance (for Peter and for the papacy) indeed, all the more so since Christ granted this honor only to St. Peter. The following commentary is all from Protestant scholars, with the exception of the final two selections: 


[The steward is] the king's friend, or principal officer of the court (1 Kings 4:5; 18:3; 1 Chronicles 27:33, the king's counsellor) . . . 

Keys are carried sometimes in the East hanging from the kerchief on the shoulder. But the phrase is rather figurative for sustaining the government on one's shoulders. Eliakim, as his name implies, is here plainly a type of the God-man Christ, the son of "David," of whom Isaiah (ch. 9:6) uses the same language as the former clause of this verse [and the government will be upon his shoulder]. 

(Jamieson, Robert, Andrew R. Fausset & David Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961 [orig. 1864; Fausset and Brown were Anglicans, Brown Presbyterian], 536 -- on Isaiah 22:15,22) 

In the . . . exercise of the power of the keys, in ecclesiastical discipline, the thought is of administrative authority (Is 22:22) with regard to the requirements of the household of faith. The use of censures, excommunication, and absolution is committed to the Church in every age, to be used under the guidance of the Spirit . . . 

So Peter, in T.W. Manson's words, is to be 'God's vicegerent . . . The authority of Peter is an authority to declare what is right and wrong for the Christian community. His decisions will be confirmed by God' (The Sayings of Jesus, 1954, p.205). 

(New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, 1018) 

In accordance with Matthew's understanding of the kingdom of heaven (i.e., of God) as anywhere God reigns, the keys here represent authority in the Church. 

(Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, ed. Allen C. Myers, Grabd Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1975, 622) 

The phrase is almost certainly based on Is 22:22 where Shebna the steward is displaced by Eliakim and his authority is transferred to him. 'And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.' (This is applied directly to Jesus in Rev 3:7). 

(New Bible Commentary, Guthrie, D. & J.A. Motyer, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary], 837) 

In the Old Testament a steward is a man who is 'over a house' (Gen 43:19, 44:4; Is 22:15, etc). In the New Testament there are two words translated steward: 'epitropos' (Mt 20:8; Gal 4:2), i.e. one to whose care or honour one has been entrusted, a curator, a guardian; and 'oikonomos' (Lk 16:2-3; 1 Cor 4:1-2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet 4:10), i.e. a manager, a superintendent -- from 'oikos' ('house') and 'nemo' ('to dispense' or 'to manage'). The word is used to describe the function of delegated responsibility. 

(New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, 1216) 

For further references to the office of the steward in Old Testament times, see 1 Kings 4:6; 16:9; 18:3; 2 Kings 10:5; 15:5; 18:18, where the phrases used are "over the house," "steward," or "governor." In Isaiah 22:15, in the same passage to which our Lord apparently refers in Matt 16:19, Shebna, the soon-to-be deposed steward, is described in various translations as: 

1) "Master of the palace" {Jerusalem Bible / New American Bible} 
2) "In charge of the palace" {New International Version} 
3) "Master of the household" {New Revised Standard Version} 
4) "In charge of the royal household" {New American Standard Bible} 
5) "Comptroller of the household" {Revised English Bible} 
6) "Governor of the palace" {Moffatt}

As the robe and the baldric, mentioned in the preceding verse, were the ensigns of power and authority, so likewise was the key the mark of office, either sacred or civil. This mark of office was likewise among the Greeks, as here in Isaiah, borne on the shoulder. In allusion to the image of the key as the ensign of power, the unlimited extent of that power is expressed with great clearness as well as force by the sole and exclusive authority to open and shut. Our Saviour, therefore, has upon a similar occasion made use of a like manner of expression, Matt 16:19; and in Rev 3:7 has applied to himself the very words of the prophet. 

(Adam Clarke, [Methodist], Commentary on the Bible, abridged ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967 [orig. 1832], 581) 

Eliakim stands in strong contrast to Shebna . . . Godward he is called 'my servant' (v.20; cf. 'this steward', v.15); manward, he will be 'a father' to his community (v.21) . . . 

The opening words of v.22, with their echo of 9:6, emphasize the God-given responsibility that went with it [possession of the keys], to be used in the king's interests. The 'shutting' and 'opening' mean the power to make decisions which no one under the king could override. This is the background of the commission to Peter (cf. Mt 16:19) and to the church (cf. Mt 18:18). 

(New Bible Commentary, Guthrie, D. & J.A. Motyer, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary], 603) 

Not only is Peter to have a leading role, but this role involves a daunting degree of authority (though not an authority which he alone carries, as may be seen from the repetition of the latter part of the verse in 18:18 with reference to the disciple group as a whole). The image of 'keys' (plural) perhaps suggests not so much the porter, who controls admission to the house, as the steward, who regulates its administration (cf. Is 22:22, in conjunction with 22:15). The issue then is not that of admission to the church . . . , but an authority derived from a 'delegation' of God's sovereignty. 

(R.T. France; in Morris, Leon, Gen. ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, 256) 

Just as in Isaiah 22:22 the Lord puts the keys of the house of David on the shoulders of his servant Eliakim, so does Jesus hand over to Peter the keys of the house of the kingdom of heaven and by the same stroke establishes him as his superintendent. There is a connection between the house of the Church, the construction of which has just been mentioned and of which Peter is the foundation, and the celestial house of which he receives the keys. The connection between these two images is the notion of God's people. 

(Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, Neuchatel: Delachaux & Niestle, 1952 French ed., 183-184) 

The prime minister, more literally 'major-domo,' was the man called in Hebrew 'the one who is over the house,' a term borrowed from the Egyptian designation of the chief palace functionary . . . 

The power of the key of the Davidic kingdom is the power to open and to shut, i.e., the prime minister's power to allow or refuse entrance to the palace, which involves access to the king . . . Peter might be portrayed as a type of prime minister in the kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim . . . What else might this broader power of the keys include? It might include one or more of the following: baptismal discipline; post-baptismal or penitential discipline; excommunication; exclusion from the eucharist; the communication or refusal of knowledge; legislative powers; and the power of governing. 

(Peter in the New Testament, Brown, Raymond E., Karl P. Donfried and John Reumann, editors, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House/New York: Paulist Press, 1973, 96-97. Common statement by a panel of eleven Catholic and Lutheran scholars) 

In biblical and Judaic usage handing over the keys does not mean appointment as a porter but carries the thought of full authorization (cf. Mt. 13:52; Rev. 3:7) . . . The implication is that Jesus takes away this authority from the scribes and grants it to Peter. 

(J. Jeremias, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, abridgement of Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 440) 

All these New Testament pictures and usages go back to a picture in Isaiah (Is 22:22) . . . Now the duty of Eliakim was to be the faithful steward of the house . . . So then what Jesus is saying to Peter is that in the days to come, he will be the steward of the Kingdom. 

(William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, vol. 2, 144-145) 

Isa 22:15 ff. undoubtedly lies behind this saying . . . The keys are the symbol of authority . . . the same authority as that vested in the vizier, the master of the house, the chamberlain, of the royal household in ancient Israel. Eliakim is described as having the same authority in Isaiah. 

(William F. Albright and C.S. Mann, Anchor Bible: Matthew, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, 196) 

And what about the "keys of the kingdom"? . . . About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim . . . (Isa. 22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward. 

(F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983, 143-144) 

The symbol of the keys, in the East, always implied power and authority, and the giving of the keys the transfer of that authority. Even in our day when we wish to honor a visitor of prominence we give him the keys of the city . . . 

'The gift of the keys,' writes Lagrange, 'is, therefore, an investiture of power over all the house. The owner still keeps the sovereign power, but delegates its exercise to a major-domo . . . Christ has the keys of David (Rev 3:7); He gives St. Peter the keys. St. Peter's authority, therefore, is the authority of Jesus, which He ratifies in heaven' (Evangile selon S. Matthieu, 328). 

(Bertrand Conway, The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929, 146) 

By the time of Isaiah the office of the master of the palace was three centuries old and the highest of the royal administration which Solomon organized in full . . . 

Solomon set up the office in imitation of the office of the Pharaoh's vizier. Unlike in Assyria and Babylon, where the master of the palace was a mere administrator of the king's household affairs, in Egypt as well as in Judah and Israel the master of the palace was the second in command after the king. In Egypt he reported every morning to the Pharaoh, received his instructions, and by ceremoniously opening the gates to the palace he let the official day begin for the Pharaoh's highest administrative offices. He was privy to all the major transactions of the Pharaoh's kingdom, all important documents had to have his seal, all other officials were subordinate to him, and he governed the whole land in the Pharaoh's absence. It was precisely this function which was exercised by Joseph whom the Pharaoh put in charge of his house (Gen 41:40), made the keeper of the royal seal and the ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Similarly, the master of the palace of the king of Israel headed the list of royal officials (2 Ki 18:18) and he alone appears with the king (1 Ki 18:3). The importance of the title is particularly apparent when Yotham [or, Jotham] assumes it in his capacity of regent of the kingdom during the final illness of his father King Ozias [or, Uzziah, or Azariah] (2 Ki 15:5).