Opinion Columns & Blogs

Who’s the boss? Peter or James?

Doyle Kelly wrote me last week, asking for an explanation for this mystery. This is the best that I can do: If I read Matthew’s gospel, Jesus made it very clear that Peter would be the boss of his church:

“You are Peter (rock) and upon this rock I will build my church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18).

Catholics have always looked to this text to prove that Jesus established his church securely on the shoulders of the first pope of Rome and his successors, giving them infallible power to make laws and abolish restrictions. That’s what a boss does.

But when I read Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, it seems to me that James has the final word — not Peter. At the end of the Council at Jerusalem, at which both Peter and Paul both spoke, James got up and said:

“Brothers, listen to me … in my judgment, etc.…” (Acts 15:19)

And then James goes on to decide for the whole church. Sounds like a pope to me. Both texts are sacred scripture; tell me, who’s the boss? If you’re a Catholic, you better say Peter; you can make up all sorts of reasons why Luke paints a papal picture for James. If you’re a Protestant, you better say James; you can explain Matthew’s text by going back to an Aramaic reading of the words.

Wait a minute. This could be a scriptural contradiction. Matthew’s Jesus is making a prediction, and how could Jesus be wrong? But Luke’s account is saying very clearly that historically, it never happened that way. Let’s look at this.

Matthew is writing his gospel at least a decade after James was martyred and his whole Jerusalem church was destroyed. James simply doesn’t exist for Matthew’s Christians. Why should Matthew say that Jesus left his church to James (even if he did) when Matthew knows it no longer exists? It was well known, on the other hand, that Peter had gone to Rome and that his Roman church was still alive and well. OK then, let’s say that Peter was chosen.

But Luke knows better. Paul had made it clear to him during their travels together (Acts 21) that James had been the head of the Jerusalem Church and Luke has no reason (like Matthew did) to change it. Even Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian who was not a Christian, points out that it was James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the Christians, who was martyred by the Romans in Jerusalem. (Antiq. 20.9.1).

This gets very confusing. On the one hand, I don’t want to say that Matthew “made up” this story for his own political reasons, (can Evangelists do that?) but on the other hand, how can I deny the historical evidence I know Luke is quoting? What’s going on?

Well, “Scripture” is going on. The history of the Christian church is not as smooth as many Christians want to believe because the New Testament is not a historical document. When we read Matthew and Luke we can’t pretend we’re reading today’s newspaper. Both Evangelists are writing about events that took place 50 years ago; neither one had TV footage, and each one has a different spin for a different group of Jewish-Christians.

Practically speaking, this argument has relatively no importance. Thirty years before Matthew and Luke wrote their stories, Paul had already established his Christian religion among the Greeks and Romans. Paul was acknowledged as the head guy. Once the Jewish church of James was reduced to ashes and both Peter and Paul went to Rome, everyone forgot all about James.

But back to that knotty issue: Did Matthew make up this story about papal infallibility? I’m reminded of my New Testament professor in Rome, Cardinal Gus Bea. Back in 1960, Gus had been our president at the Pope’s University for scripture scholars and was now the Pope’s confidant. Gus told us the story of Pope John’s reaction when he told him about Matthew’s “deception.”

The Pope was sitting on his Papal Throne in his study, and when Gus hit the punch line, John jumped up laughing and shouting: “Damn! Do you want to take my throne, too?” If Saint John XXIII could laugh about it, I guess we can, too.