Is the Papacy Found in the Old Testament?

In one of their most interesting arguments, Catholic apologists say that Eliakim (steward of the house of David) in the Old Testament prefigures the Papacy in the New Testament. They argue that, if Eliakim held a Pope-like role, and Jesus referenced him when defining Peter’s role, then it would seem that Jesus was giving Peter a Pope-like role. In this post, I’ll quote from and respond to this article’s claims on the subject.

Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (NASB).

. . . He didn’t come up with these words out of nowhere; rather, Jesus is drawing from Isaiah 22.

“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; 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” (vv. 20-22).

Suan Sonna says that, in Matthew 16, Jesus “didn’t come up with these words out of nowhere”; he was alluding to Isaiah 22. When Sonna speaks of “these words,” I assume he means that the wording of the two passages is similar, in such a way that would show Isaiah 22 to be the source of Matthew 16. Are the passages that similar? Let’s see whether Sonna’s quotations from Scripture bear out his claim.

Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (NASB). . . . Jesus is drawing from Isaiah 22.

“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; 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” (vv. 20-22).

There are indeed some similar words used here. As we continue, we’ll see whether Sonna can demonstrate that the wording is similar enough to make Matthew 16 an allusion. For now, let’s note that God says that Eliakim will be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” and that Eliakim will have “the key of the house of David.”

The chief steward in the Old Testament had remarkable authority. Archeologist Roland de Vaux and Old Testament scholar Tryggve N.D. Mettinger liken the office to Joseph’s position under Pharaoh. Recall that all of Pharaoh’s possessions, including his own house or palace, were placed under Joseph’s care (Gen. 39:5; Ps. 105:21). Eliakim is similarly described as “over the [king’s] house” as its master or chief steward (2 Kings 19:2; Isa. 36:22). His jurisdiction as “father” extends not only over the house of David, but “to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isa. 22:21).

Here, Sonna tries to show what Eliakim’s leadership actually looked like. But where does he find the word “jurisdiction”? It’s not in the passage.

I would agree with Sonna that if Eliakim has the key to a house, then it would seem likely that he has jurisdiction over that house. But it might be better to say that Eliakim has the care of or responsibility for the house. “Jurisdiction,” of course, is a handy word to bring in, since it’s a word that Catholics tend to use of the Pope’s power over the Roman Catholic Church.

But what about Eliakim’s supposed “jurisdiction as ‘father'”? When we think of a father’s role, the first synonym we think of is probably not “ruler,” but something more like “role model,” “provider,” “teacher,” “mentor,” or even “leader.” Few of these concepts suggest the idea “jurisdiction” like the word “ruler” would. Yet God didn’t say Eliakim would be a ruler, judge, master, lord, or any one of dozens of other words that actually indicate jurisdiction. If God intended this passage to mean that Eliakim had jurisdiction, why did he call Eliakim a father?

(It’s worth noting here that after King Solomon’s reign ended, Israel split in half, into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and southern kingdom, called Judah. During the stewardship of Eliakim under King Hezekiah, the northern kingdom was under Assyrian occupation. Thus, by process of elimination, all that remained of Israel was under Eliakim’s jurisdiction. It is still appropriate to say that he possessed universal jurisdiction over the kingdom.)

Now Sonna takes the concept of “jurisdiction” and extends it even farther than merely over the house of David, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the house of Judah. According to Sonna, Eliakim has “universal jurisdiction over the kingdom.” Could Sonna explain how being in charge of a house or palace is the same as being in charge of a kingdom? Could Sonna explain how having jurisdiction of some sort is the same as having universal jurisdiction? Maybe he has justification for these claims elsewhere, and just doesn’t have space in the article to go into the details. But I think we would be interested in hearing his justifications—his conclusions aren’t immediately obvious.

Let’s talk about the connection between Eliakim and Peter. First, note the common structure: someone with key(s) of a kingdom (David/heaven) exercises definitive use of them (open-shut/bind-loose). “Opening and shutting” probably refers to the chief steward’s ability to decide who may see the king based on the steward opening or shutting the doors of the palace or any other royal estate. “Binding and loosing” is a common Jewish phrase for the authority to interpret Scripture and thereby decide who may enter or be excommunicated from God’s community.

Now Sonna starts bringing out the parallels between Eliakim and Peter. First, Eliakim has the key of the house of David, and Peter has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This sounds similar, but obviously isn’t the same. How do we know Eliakim’s key (singular) is the same thing as Peter’s keys (plural)?

Well, that very question is why it’s helpful that, earlier, Sonna characterized Eliakim as having universal jurisdiction over the kingdom of Israel, even though the passage says his key is for David’s house. So he feels that we can pass over the fact that the key was for a house, and not for a kingdom.1Note that, even if Eliakim did have universal jurisdiction over the kingdom (which is a stretch), that jurisdiction is not tied to the key, as it would be in Matthew 16 (if that also spoke of universal jurisdiction. He also feels that we can just pass over the difference between a singular key and plural keys, by saying that “key(s)” appear in both passages. And once we have thus altered the wording of this Old Testament text, we do start seeing some wording that parallels Matthew 16. But . . . wasn’t the whole point that “these words” in Matthew 16 came from Isaiah 22?

Maybe I’m being too literal about what Sonna means by “these words.” As we continue, maybe there will be some more direct parallels. Next, Sonna points out (as quoted above) that Eliakim and David each “exercises definitive use” of their key(s). Great parallel. But why does he say “exercises definitive use” instead of showing direct parallels between words found in each passage? Well, “opening and shutting” is not the same as “binding and loosing,” so the two concepts aren’t an obvious parallel. The closest parallel between the two phrases is that both are examples of exercising definitive use of something.

But . . . when God gives someone a key, wouldn’t he expect that person to exercise definitive use of the key, even if it weren’t the same as the keys that he gave someone else? I mean, if I give my daughter the key to her new car and my son the answer keys to his homeschool lessons, I would expect both children to exercise definitive use of the keys I give them. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving each of them the same thing. So not only does the wording of the two passages differ; the concept that both passages share is merely a concept that any passage containing a key would share. That is to say, this parallel says nothing interesting about the connections between these passages in particular.

There are other uncanny similarities between Peter and Eliakim that bolster the papacy. Both are compared to an object—Peter to a rock (Matt. 16:18) and Eliakim to a peg (Isa. 22:23). Their names always appear first on the list of their kings’ servants (2 Kings 18:18; Matt. 10:2). They both represent a transition from corruption to purity:

So Peter and Eliakim are each compared to a different object. But . . . consider a parallel that’s even more exact than a parallel between objects. Suppose Max calls his friend Bill a “chicken” and then he calls his other friend Joe a “pig.” Does he mean the same thing about both of them? No, he means that Bill is a coward and that Joe is a glutton. The fact is, different animals signify different characteristics in English language and culture. The same is true of different objects. Do a rock and a peg happen to signify the same characteristics in Scripture? I doubt it.

Sonna also points out that both men “appear first on the list of their kings’ servants.” Not surprising, given that each was the most prominent servant of his king. That hardly shows that they have the same role.

Finally, Sonna says that each man is “a transition from corruption to purity.” How?

Eliakim replaces the corrupt Shebna (Isa. 22:15-22), and Peter (as the rock of Christ’s Church) triumphs over the pagan rock of Caesarea Philippi. The rock had been a worship site for the deity Pan, and the city itself was named in honor of Caesar Augustus by Philip the Tetrarch, Herod the Great’s son. Jesus’ bold proclamation about Peter and the Church occurs in a location entrenched in paganism.

Sonna believes that Jesus was referring to a famous rock that was near the location where he said these words (Caesarea Philippi, Matt 16:13). However, that’s just speculation, and is not suggested by any other elements in the text itself—unless “this rock” actually meant that particular rock, in which case it’s hard to also claim that it refers to Peter (I think it refers to Peter). If Sonna can point me to where Jesus mentioned “the pagan rock of Caesarea Philippi,” I’d be gratified. What does Jesus actually contrast the rock of his church with? He says that the gates of hell will not overcome his church. A rock of pagans and the gates of hell are not exactly the same thing.

So I’m not really seeing the parallels between these passages. In some places, Sonna needs to change the Old Testament text to make it parallel, and in other places, he draws connections between general concepts rather than words or immediate concepts.

But Sonna said that Jesus “didn’t come up with these words out of nowhere; rather, Jesus is drawing from Isaiah 22.” Is that so? In the next paragraph, I’ll make bold all the words that the passages have in common, and leave the rest of the words in regular font.

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 (from Isaiah)

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (from Matthew)

Again, maybe I’m interpreting Sonna too literally. But it does seem to me probably that a passage would share important words with any passages to which it alludes. As you can see, the words that are actually shared are mainly ordinary words that appear in most chapters of Scripture. Jesus borrows no important words from Isaiah 22 in Matthew 16. The one possible exception is “key,” which is singular in Isaiah and plural in Matthew. Is a key the same as keys? I wouldn’t say so.

But maybe Sonna simply meant that the two passages share concepts rather than specific words. The trouble with that is that I’ve shown that the passages don’t share immediate concepts; just general ones.

But maybe I’m being too picky. Maybe, when Jesus alludes to a passage, he doesn’t tend to borrow the important words, but only borrows the general concepts. Since Jesus didn’t ever apply the Isaiah 22 passage to anyone besides Peter, perhaps we should just accept that Matthew 16 is his commentary on that passage.

But wait. Jesus actually did apply the Isaiah passage to someone. Revelation 3:7, in which Jesus is speaking to the church at Philadelphia, is an allusion to Isaiah 22. Let’s compare the two passages in the same way that I compared Isaiah 22 with Matthew 16.

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 (from Isaiah)

He [Jesus] who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this (from Revelation, NASB)

So Jesus is the parallel to Eliakim. In the Isaiah passage, the key is spoken of as a future gift. In the Revelation passage, Jesus says that he now has the key of David, and he now opens and shuts (presumably by means of that key). So Isaiah 22 does not prove the Papacy. It is instead a great example of an Old Testament type of Jesus’ sovereignty.

Did we need to change the wording of Isaiah 22 to make this parallel? Did the specific concepts in the passages differ so far that we needed to search for the underlying general concepts? Did we need to hunt for “uncanny similarities” between Jesus and Eliakim in order to bolster my claim that Jesus quoted from Isaiah?

In this case, it’s clear that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah. We don’t need to interpret the text in a special way. We don’t need to compare concepts rather than words. The most important words are exactly the same, with the exception of “house,” which Jesus simply leaves out of his quotation.

I have always found Suan Sonna’s arguments to be interesting and original. But this kind of sketchy exegesis shouldn’t convince anyone of the Roman Catholic faith.

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    Note that, even if Eliakim did have universal jurisdiction over the kingdom (which is a stretch), that jurisdiction is not tied to the key, as it would be in Matthew 16 (if that also spoke of universal jurisdiction.

2 thoughts on “Is the Papacy Found in the Old Testament?”

  1. Christopher Good

    There’s perhaps more similarity here than you accept. For example, throughout the Bible, the house of David is one of the synecdoches used for the nation of Israel. If Eliakim is given the keys of Israel and Peter is given the keys of the church (which is also a kingdom), there is probably an intended parallel or at least an allusion. This isn’t an argument for the papacy in particular because the king’s steward is chosen by the king, not by a select group of his servants. But it probably does say something about the authority over His kingdom Jesus vests in His servants.

    This may seem like a small distinction, but I think it relates to a different topic: hermeneutics. Anabaptists have generally done well in espousing a literalist hermeneutic metered by common sense. But the early church’s hermeneutical approach, though similar in spirit as far as I can tell, reached some different conclusions because of a deeper engagement with Scriptural symbolism and figuration. In light of the stated goals of your project here, it could be interesting to explore these differences in more depth.

    1. You may be right that I attempted to drive in a wider wedge than was justified, at least in that instance. Further and more solid argumentation on this topic can be found in my in-depth rebuttal to the Papacy. However, I would submit that just as it’s hard to tell whether two people have a family resemblance by the mere description of their features, an imaginative apologist could easily make mistakes when arguing from similar textual elements to a typological connection. What we may need to do is a) find an actual typological connection for Isaiah 22 and see whether this one measures up to its standard (which I’ve tried to do) and b) take a step back and just “look” at the passages, asking our common sense whether the resemblance is merely accidental.

      To get more in-depth, one could also look for benchmarks of what might make the difference between a similarity that is accidental and one that is typological. I think the peg/rock comparison would quickly fall by the wayside if that approach were taken. And I agree that much fruit could be found in looking into the early church’s hermeneutic. I’ve tried to follow a very “cautious” hermeneutic, i.e., using only what the textual elements clearly show. I think Sonna uses a too imaginative hermeneutic. However, one would certainly not need to be as cautious as I have been to still remain within the reasonable implications of the text of Scripture (and the NT and EC writers certainly felt freer than I do).

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