Mark 8:27-30 (par Matt 16:13-16ff; Luke 9:18-21)
The scene of Peter’s confession can be found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 16:13-16, 20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21), in a very similar form, certainly derived from a common tradition. In analyzing such instances of the “triple tradition” (a tradition occurring in all three Gospels), the general prevailing critical view is that Matthew and Luke both made use of Mark as a common (written) source. Be that as it may, there remain important differences between the accounts, most notably the expanded narrative in Matthew which includes Jesus’ response to Peter (verses 17-19), a saying (or sayings) found no where else in the Gospels. This portion of Matthew (especially v. 18 and 19a) is most famous (or infamous) in the West due to the role it has played in disputes between Roman Catholics and Protestants—relating to episcopacy, apostolic succession, and the authority of the Papacy. In heat of debate, partisan commentators (on both sides) were in danger of distorting the original meaning and purpose of the text beyond all recognition. While there are still major difficulties for interpreting these particular verses (relating to Peter), the passage as a whole held much different emphasis in the early Church.
The revelatory, Christological nature of the scene was, from the beginning, paramount. It is no coincidence that Peter’s confession occurs almost precisely at the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel, for it clearly is a moment of central importance. In the basic narrative framework of all three Gospels, it occurs in the context of Jesus’ first announcement of his coming suffering and death (Mark 8:31 par.), just before the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-10 par., another revelatory scene), and the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem (see esp. Luke 9:51). Jesus poses the question to his disciples, first (Mark 9:27b):
Ti/na me le/gousin oi( a&nqrwpoi ei@nai;
“Who do the men count [i.e. consider] me to be?”
“Who do men [i.e. people] say that I am?”
(Luke [9:18b] has “Who do the throngs [oi( o&xloi] (of people) count me to be?”; Matthew [16:13b] has “the son of man” instead of “me”, reflecting a common Semitic circumlocution which may [or may not] have a Christological nuance originally in this instance)
And, secondly, the question (Mark 8:29a par., all identical):
(Umei=$ de\ ti/na me le/gete ei@nai;
“And who do you count [i.e. consider] me to be?”
“Who do you say that I am?”
The two-fold question involves Jesus’ identity, with which his disciples are immediately confronted. So significant is the question, that we should examine carefully the three versions of Peter’s answer, as they are found in each Gospel:
Su\ ei@ o( Xristo/$
“You are the Anointed (One)”
To\n Xristo\n tou= qeou=
“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God”
Su\ ei@ o( Xristo\$ o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou= tou= zw=nto$
“You are the Anointed (One) the son of the living God”
From a critical perspective, one may be inclined to see the shorter statement in Mark as more likely original, with Luke and Matthew adding to it (Luke adds “…of God”, Matthew adds “… the son of the living God”). From a traditional-conservative point of view, one would perhaps view the longer statement in Matthew as the original (historical) text, which Mark and Luke each simplified. Either way, the statement as it occurs in Matthew is more developed, reflecting a view of Christ much closer to that of the (orthodox) early Church. And, while critical scholars may wonder if the apostles, during Jesus’ ministry, could have formulated such a statement, it is this (developed) statement that confronts us as we read the Gospels. Its inspired nature would seem to be confirmed by Jesus’ own response (as recorded in Matthew [16:17]):
sa\rc kai\ ai!ma ou)k a)peka/luyen soi a)ll’ o( path/r mou o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$
“…flesh and blood did not uncover (this) to you, but my Father the (One who is) in the heavens”
It is this revelation which is the basis for the subsequent (controversial) declarations to Peter in vv. 18-19. Two separate, but related, titles are involved: (1) the Anointed [Xristo/$, Christ = Messiah], and (2) the Son of God. We tend, at times, to ignore, or take for granted these titles; but, in the early Church believers were forced to grapple with them mightily. It is hard to appreciate just how potent these names and titles were to the mind of ancient believers. On the one hand, there is the ancient royal concept of (God’s) anointed priest or king, stretching from the earliest religion of Israel down to messianic aspirations of Jews in the time of Jesus (on this, cf. the series “Yeshua the Anointed“). On the other hand, an even more ancient religious symbol—the ruler of the people as Divine “son”, chosen by God, and representing Deity on earth. Both of these titles now take on new meaning in the person of Jesus Christ; for, in the ancient way of thinking, names had a “magical” quality—they encapsulate and represent something of the very nature and essence of a person.
It is therefore not surprising that we should find variant readings in this passage, involving the names and titles of Jesus. These are quite common throughout the textual tradition, but take on greater significance in Christological passages. An interesting such variant occurs at the end of the portion in Matthew [verse 20], where it states that “…he charged (lit. sent through) the learners (i.e. disciples) that no one (should) say that he is the Anointed (One)”. In quite a wide range of witnesses (a* B L D Q f1 f13 28 565 700 it syrc, p copsa et al) “Jesus” ( )Ihsou=$) was added either before or after “the Anointed” (o( Xristo/$). At first glance, this appears to be an instance of scribal carelessness or habit; certainly, the tendency was always to expand or add names and titles of Christ. However, it is at least possible that the widespread occurrence of the dual name here is due to its theological significance. Church Fathers of the second and early third centuries were keenly aware of aberrant or heterodox Christological views which treated the divine Christ as a separate entity from the man Jesus—to use the two names together was a way of indicating the incarnate person of Christ (in the orthodox sense). A similar variant also occurs in verse 21: in a* B* copsa mss, bo we find “Jesus (the) Anointed” ( )Ihsou=$ Xristo/$) instead of “Jesus” ( )Ihsou=$).
If the Church Fathers, on occasion, perhaps read too much into the names and titles of Jesus, I suspect that we today tend to find too little in them. Let us study these names and titles carefully, so that they might live anew and fresh in our prayer, praise, and confession (for more on the importance of names and naming, cf. the Christmas series “And you shall call His Name…“).