Re: A Question on Mathew 18.18

From: Eric Weiss (
Date: Tue Aug 18 1998 - 10:22:15 EDT

Re: D. Anthony Storm's question on Matthew 18:18 -

I sent this in response to this question a few years ago, but I'll send
it again, since it may be hard to find in the archives:

John Lightfoot (1602-1675), in his COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT FROM
THE TALMUD AND HEBRAICA (Hendrickson Publishers edition, Oxford
University Press,
1859, volume 2, pp. 236-241), wrote the following about Matthew 16:19:

"II. It is necessary to suppose that Christ here spake according to the
common people, or he could not be understood without a particular
commentary, which is nowhere to be found.

"III. But now to bind and loose, a very usual phrase in the Jewish
schools, was spoken of things, not of persons; which is here also to be
observed in the articles hO and hOSA, what and whatsoever, chap. xviii
[Matthew 18:18]. [hO and hOSA are, respectively, the singular neuter
relative pronoun and the plural neuter correlative pronoun in Greek.]

"One might produce thousands of examples out of their writings: we will
only offer a double decad; the first, whence the frequent use of this
word may appear; the second, whence the sense may."

Lightfoot then proceeded to quote 30 passages (10 extra for good
measure!) from the Talmud that
discuss "binding" and "loosing," of which I'll give two:

"In Judea they did [servile] works on the Passover-eve (that is, on the
day going before the Passover) until noon, but in Galilee not·. But that
which the school of Shammai binds until the night, the school of Hillel
looseth until the rising of the sun."

"Concerning gathering wood on a feast-day scattered about a field, the
school of Shammai binds it, the school of Hillel looseth it."

Lightfoot continued:

"But from these allegations, the reader sees abundantly enough both the
frequency and the common use of this phrase, and the sense of it also;
namely, first, that it is used in doctrine, and in judgments, concerning
things allowed or not allowed in the law. Secondly, That to bind is the
same with to forbid, or to declare forbidden. To think that Christ, when
he used the common phrase, was not understood by his hearers in the
common and vulgar sense, shall I call it a matter of laughter or of

"To this, therefore, do these words amount: When the time was come,
wherein the Mosaic law, as to some part of it, was to be abolished and
left off; and as to another part of it, was to be continued, and to last
for ever: he granted Peter here, and to the rest of the apostles, chap.
xviii. 18, a power to abolish or confirm what they thought good, and as
they thought good, being taught this and led by the Holy Spirit: as if
he should say, "Whatsoever ye shall bind in the law of Moses, that is,
forbid, it shall be forbidden, the Divine authority confirming it; and
whatsoever ye shall loose, that is, permit, or shall teach, that it is
permitted and lawful, shall be lawful and permitted."

"Hence they bound, that is, forbade, circumcision to the believers;
eating of things offered to idols, of things strangled, and of blood for
a time to the Gentiles; and that which they bound on earth was confirmed
in heaven. They loosed, that is, allowed purification to Paul, and to
four other brethren, for the shunning of scandal, Acts xxi. 24: and in a
word, by these words of Christ it was committed to them, the Holy Spirit
directing that they should make decrees concerning religion, as to the
use or rejection of Mosaic rites and judgments, and that either for a
time or for ever.

"Let the words be applied, by way of paraphrase, to the matter that was
transacted at present with Peter: "I am about to build a Gentile church
(saith Christ); and to thee, O Peter, do I give the keys of the kingdom
of heaven, that thou mayest first open the door of faith to them; but if
thou askest, by what rule that church is to be governed, when the Mosaic
rule may seem so improper for it, thou shalt be so guided by the Holy
Spirit, that whatsoever of the law of Moses thou shalt forbid them shall
be forbidden; whatsoever thou grantest them shall be granted, and that
under a sanction made in heaven.""

(Ktav, 1987, pp. 256-257), concurs with Lightfoot's comments, writing:

"19 bind · loose These are undoubtedly translations of either the Aram.
asar and share or the Heb. asar and hitir. They mean to forbid and/or to
permit some act which is determined by the application of the halakhah."
[halakhah is "the body of Jewish law supplementing the scriptural law
and forming esp. the legal part of the Talmud" (Webster)]

Matthew 18:18 presents a slightly different case using the same formula:

Matthew 18:15-20: "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in
private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does
not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH
listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even
to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly
I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in
heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in
heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about
anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who
is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name,
I am there in their midst."

If verses 19-20 ("Again I say to you·. For where two or three·.") are
regarded as speaking to
the same thing as what proceeds and what follows (i.e., treatment of a
brother who sins), then the
"binding" and "loosing" in this passage have to do with the authority to
forgive sins or excommunicate
unrepentant persons from the community ("the church"). The same idea
seems to be addressed in
John 20:21-23:

"So Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent
Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them and
said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any,
their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they
have been retained.""

Lachs (pp. 270-271) concurs, as did Lightfoot (p. 241), who wrote:

"Those words of our Saviour, John xx. 23, "Whose sins ye remit, they are
remitted to them," for the most part are forced to the same sense with
these before us [i.e., Matthew 16:19 as previously discussed]; when they
carry quite another sense. Here the business is of doctrine only, not of
persons; there of persons, not of doctrine: here of things lawful or
unlawful in religion to be determined by the apostles; there of persons
obstinate or not obstinate, to be punished by them, or not to be

Eric S. Weiss

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