Matthew: Jesus as the New Son of David

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— By Luke Heintschel —

Evangelizing Academia

JPCatholic’s goal across departments and programs is to Impact Culture for Christ. For the MA program, that includes impacting Biblical Scholarship for Christ. Despite the field’s focus—i.e. the Bible—there is much work to be done in impacting academic culture for Christ. One of the ways our professors have worked to accomplish this goal is by publishing peer reviewed articles in academic journals. I’d like to synthesize a fascinating article that Dr. Barber wrote for the Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) a couple years ago. It was part of his dissertation research which he re-appropriated for submission to the Journal. This journal is incredibly prestigous and highly respected, so its impressive that Dr. Barber’s submission was published!

The article is called, “Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder and Peter’s Priestly Role in Matthew 16:16–19” and was published in JBL in 2014. In it, Dr. Barber offers a new view of Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew 16. If you’ve ever engaged in apologetics, you are probably familiar with this passage as it relates to the papacy: Jesus gives Simon (Peter) a new name, the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and specific heavenly authority to “bind and loose.” Catholic apologists frequently use this passage to support Peter’s role as the first Pope, and rightfully so! Barber shows in this article, though, that much more can be derived from Jesus teaching in that passage. Here are some highlights from his article.

The Gospel of Matthew

Dr. Barber begins by explaining a recurring theme in Matthew which is helpful for understanding the Gospel of Matthew as a whole: Davidic Christology. Barber explains that throughout the Gospel, Matthew speaks of Jesus in terms of his fulfillment of God’s covenant with King David and his son.

  • Matthew starts by calling Jesus “the son of David” (Matt 1:1).
  • He notes Jesus’ birth in the hometown of David (Matt 2:1, cf. 1 Sam 16:1).
  • Jesus is baptized in a river, and the Spirit comes down upon him, just as David received the Spirit when he was anointed as king (Matt 3:16, 1 Sam 16:13).
  • Both David’s son and Jesus are called the “son of God” (Matt 3:17, 2 Sam 7:14)
  • Matthew clearly sees Jesus’ exorcisms and healings as connected to his Davidic identity (Matt 9:27, 20:31, 1 Sam 16:14-23).
  • Matthew describes Jesus riding on a colt into a Jerusalem as the crowd shouts Davidic praise, resembling the coronation of David’s son (Matt 21:9, 1 Kgs 1:33-38).

Matthew is clearly focused on Jesus’ specifically Davidic identity. This is of huge importance when we turn to Matthew 16.

The Son of David and Temple Building

Since we know to look at the Matthean Jesus as a specifically Davidic messiah, the notion of him “building” his Church on a “rock” (Peter), takes on a new significance. Nathan’s oracle to David connects Davids son with both divine filiation (being a son of God) and with Temple building (2 Sam 7:13-14, 1 Chr 17:7-10). Barber cites the Old Testament, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Jewish literature to show a connection between “stone” or “rock” imagery and the construction of liturgical sites (like the Temple).

Jesus’ words to Peter connect Peter, his authority, and the Church itself to the building of the Temple of the New Covenant. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus connects the Temple to the New Covenant community of believers. The citation of Psalm 118 in Matthew 21:42 is clearly referencing Jesus as the “cornerstone” of the Temple, since the context of Psalm 118 is the Temple (Ps 118:26), and Jesus’s teaching is actually being delivered in the Temple (Matthew 21:23). Barber even cites other ancient Jewish literature to strengthen an already clear Temple allusion.

Peter, his Keys, and the New Covenant Priesthood

Many apologists know to look at Isaiah 22:22 when they’re explaining Matthew 16:16-19; but Barber illuminates a further priestly significance of this clear citation of Isaiah. It goes even deeper than the mere use of “keys” in both passages. Barber shows four other ways the passages relate:

  1. Both texts relate the giving of authority (“binding” and “loosing” in Matt 16; “opening” and “shutting” in Isaiah 22).
  2. Both texts have significant Davidic imagery (“Son of God” and temple building language in Matt 16; “house of David” in Isaiah 22)
  3. “As the church is built upon Peter in Matthew16, the “weight of his father’s house” rests on Eliakim in Isaiah (see Isa 22:24).”¹
  4. The Greek words “binding” and “loosing” (Matt 16) have a linguistic connection to “opening” and “shutting” (Isaiah 22).

All these similarities will help us understand Peter as a priest, because Barber notes:

“What is frequently overlooked, however, is the fact that there are several indications that Isaiah 22 was understood as describing Eliakim as a priestly figure.”²

Ancient Jewish sources indicate that both Eliakim and Shebna (replaced by Eliakim) were in some sense priestly.

Eliakim was given the same garments that priests wear in Exodus 28:4 (a “tunic” and a “sash” in Isaiah 22:21). In verse 24, Eliakim is given charge over the cups and other liturgical vessels in the Temple. In the Septuagint version this passage (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), verse 21 mentions Eliakim being “crowned;” similar to how the High Priest had a crown (Sir 45:12, Zech 6:11, 1 Macc 10:20). And the keys given to him could indicate priestly responsibilities, since the priests were given keys to the sanctuary in 1 Chr 9:27.

It is clear, then, that if Peter is to Jesus’ kingdom what Eliakim was to the Davidic kingdom, that Peter has some priestly and liturgical responsibilities. So what do these responsibilities entail? Barber mentions a few that we can derive from Matthew 16:

  1. Teaching authority: the priests of the Old Covenant were the authoritative teachers of what was bound by the law. This is confirmed by the immediate context of Matthew 16. In verses 5-12, Jesus is giving warnings about the Pharisees’ teachings.
  2. Authority over social boundaries: In Matthew 23:13, Jesus uses similar language (κλείετε, literally “to key shut”) to describe the way the Pharisees shut some people out of the Kingdom. Peter seems to have the ability to excommunicate or to allow people into the Kingdom, the Temple, the Church.
  3. Forgiveness of sin: citing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament, and Modern Scholarship, Barber draws a connection between Peter’s responsibilities given to him by Jesus and the liturgical forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness of sin is intimately tied to the releasing (loosing) of captives, and the Dead Sea Scrolls give this duty to the Old Testament priest, Melchizedek.

Furthermore, Barber notes other places in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus links the priesthood with his disciples, to show that its not unlikely that Peter would have such a role in the Church. What is truly fascinating about this article is that Barber uses sound historical evidence, along with the best contributions of modern scholarship to demonstrate a sound Catholic understanding of Matthew 16. Modern scholarship can often tend to favor protestant and secular understandings of the biblical texts. But here is an example of a Catholic embarking on the call of the New Evangelization not to the masses, but to those who teach the masses. I hope that teachers of the Bible open themselves up to contributions like these. This type of contribution is one of the substantial goals for the generations of students coming out of JPCatholic. For more information, check out Dr. Barber’s article here:

  1. Michael Barber, “Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder and Peter’s Priestly Role 1 in Matthew 16:16–19“ in Journal of Biblical Literature (2014), 944.
  2. ibid.