often and to strive to master ancient Greek. I am no Greek scholar, but as the years tick by I am becoming more and more familiar with the language in which God chose to inscribe His Holy Word of the New Testament.
Something of the hidden richness of the Greek text struck me recently as I was teaching my parishioners in Bible study. (We are preparing for the arrival of the Pope in Washington by studying the Office of Simon Peter, as laid out in Scripture.)
Why do I speak of the richness of the Greek text as “hidden”? Surely a good translation shows forth the meaning of the text, right? Well, no; not fully. There are too many subtleties and complex constructions that English just cannot accurately convey. Much is lost in the translation; much is hidden.
Consider, then, a well-known section in Matthew 16. The Lord has just declared Simon to be “Peter” (rock) and then goes on to give him the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Lord says to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mat 16:19). The only problem is that this is not exactly what the Lord says. The Greek is much richer and more emphatic. It not only affirms Peter’s authority, but also describes how and why that authority is commendable and infallible.
Here is the Greek text, followed by an English translation that is as literal as possible:
δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.
I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of the heavens, and whatever, if you might bind on the earth, it will have been bound in the heavens; and whatever you might loose on the earth, it will have been loosed in the heavens.
Note that the verbs related to heaven’s binding and loosing are dedemenon and lelumenon. They are perfect (passive) participles in the middle voice. As such, they indicate something that has already been done in Heaven before Peter does it on Earth.
Hence a literal, though awkward, English rendering would be “Whatever you might bind on the earth, having (already) been bound in heaven, and whatever you might loose on the earth, having (already) been loosed in heaven.”
But this is just not the way we talk in English. And thus most English renderings go something like this: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And, while smoother, it loses the inspirational emphasis that the Greek text conveys.
The Greek text makes clear that if Peter binds or looses something on Earth, it is because Heaven has inspired this act; in no way is Heaven engaged in a “rearguard action.” Rather, Peter is inspired to carry out what has already been done in Heaven. Heaven is not forced to comply with Peter’s decision. Rather, Heaven binds or looses, and then inspires Peter and his successors to do likewise. The Greek conveys this important subtlety; the English does not.
This subtle but important description of inspiration also fits well within the context of Matthew 16. Recall that Jesus had said to Peter, who correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven (Matt 16:17).
Thus, Heaven “has Peter’s back,” inspiring what Peter utters. Heaven is not bound by Peter, it inspires him. Our Faith is not in Peter as a man; it is not in any of Peter’s successors as men. Rather, our faith is in God, who protects Peter and his successors from error and inspires what is formally taught and proposed for belief.
Is the English text wrong? No. It is just limited in conveying the subtleties. The Greek text is better at affirming the Catholic belief in the infallibility of the formal papal teaching on Faith and morals. It affirms more clearly that our faith is in God, who inspires. And while we pray that whoever is pope is a smart guy, this is not the source of our confidence. The source of our confidence is God’s capacity to inspire even sinful men who are not brilliant theologians. Our faith is in God, not in men as such. The Greek text invites us to believe that whatever is bound by the pope has already been bound in Heaven.
As another example, consider how Peter was prepared to teach properly at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) by the vision God gave to him in Acts 10. In this vision, Peter was instructed to baptize the first Gentiles and receive them as brethren. Thus, when the time for the Council came, Peter was ready to speak and teach the truth. He loosed on Earth what had already been loosed in Heaven. And while it is true that St. Paul later had to rebuke Peter (Gal 2) for not living the teaching fully (for Peter drew back to consort only with Jewish Christians out of fear and social pressure), it remains true that Peter taught it rightly by inspiration. And this is what is promised: that whatever Peter would formally bind or loose on Earth had already been bound or loosed in Heaven.
And thus the Greek, in all its subtlety, sets forth an important reminder that the mechanism of infallible teaching from the Pope is not in the man, but in God, who inspires and leads Peter and his successors.