Stewards of God’s Keys

Jesus gave his disciple Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and promised that whatever Peter “bound” and “loosed” on earth would be “bound” and “loosed” in heaven. What scriptural allusions lurk beneath these expressions and what are their implications? How does the Jewish literary background of Matthew 16:19 help us better appreciate Jesus’ words?

Pirke Avot, also known as The Sayings of the Fathers, or, simply Avot, is unquestionably one of the most valuable rabbinic texts for comparative study with the synoptic gospels.[1] Spanning time from the emergence of Hellenism in ancient Israel through the first two centuries of the Christian era, Avot is a collection of maxims to which some sixty sages and rabbis have contributed.[2] The deceptively simple sayings of Avot carry potent theological and ethical implications that have been driven firmly and purposely into the consciousness of Judaism.[3] Moreover, the theology and ethic, and the language and imagery through which they are communicated, stem directly from the conceptual world of the biblical text. This has motivated individuals like the Gaon of Vilna, an eighteenth-century A.D. rabbi-scholar, and others, to demonstrate how the sayings of Avot have their origin, or parallel, in Scripture.[4]

Scripture Lurks Beneath

The ubiquitous presence of Scripture lurking beneath the maxims of Avot may be visualized as a massive iceberg bobbing in an Arctic sea, breaking the water’s surface at some points, but with the bulk of its mass remaining just below. The most obvious way Scripture penetrates the surface of the text is when a Bible verse is quoted as a proof. For example, in response to a question concerning what is the evil way from which a man should distance himself, Rabbi Shim’on said:

The one who borrows but does not repay, because the one who borrows from man is like one who borrows from God, which agrees with what is written in Scripture: “The wicked borrows but does not repay, whereas the righteous is compassionate and gives.”[5]

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  • [1] Note that the last chapter of Avot, chapter 6, known as “Acquisition of the Torah,” is a later addition. See Hanoch Albeck’s comments to Order Nezikin in The Mishnah (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, and Tel Aviv: Dvir Co., 1988), 351, 381.
  • [2] The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Joseph H. Hertz, rev. ed. (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1948), 610.
  • [3] Modern western thinking tends to neglect the fact that ancient Judaism relied upon parables, proverbs, maxims, songs, poetry, prayers, stories and legends to transmit its theology. Regarding the last of these, A. Marmorstein wrote, “Legends were more powerful allies of the theologians and teachers, apologists and preachers, than generally thought of” (“The Unity of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual l [1924]: 469). Also compare Murray Salisbury, “Hebrew Proverbs and How to Translate Them,” in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, ed. Robert Bergen (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994), 434. Moreover, in time Avot was incorporated into the Jewish prayer book and became the prescribed text for reading on Sabbath afternoons. The theological influence of the Jewish prayer book on Jewish thinking has been and continues to be far-reaching. Regarding its influence, Jakob Petuchowski wrote, “By the side of its technical theological tractates, Judaism has had its prayer book—next to the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Psalms, practically the only ‘theological’ vade mecum which many Jews, throughout the centuries have had at their immediate disposal” (“Theology and Poetry in the Liturgy of the Synagogue,” in Standing before God: Studies on Prayer in Scriptures and Tradition with Essays, eds. A. Finkel and L. Frizzell [New York: Ktav, 1981], 225). On the parables of Jesus and their theological implications, see Brad H. Young’s two books: Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), and Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
  • [4] The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, ed. Hertz, 610.
  • [5] Avot 2:9 (ms. Kaufmann, 339). For an English translation, see The Mishnah, trans. Herbert Danby (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 449. The proof text is Ps. 37:21.

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