Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Binding and Loosing by Ed Nelson For New Testament (Brit Chadashah) readers, in Matthew 16:13-19 we encounter an ancient Hebraic concept called “binding and loosing.” The story unfolds this way: Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah. And still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my assembly. And the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” This biblical Hebrew phrase, “to bind and loose,” is a commonly misunderstood concept today by New Testament readers. With the passing of time and the loss of original and proper contexts of terms and phrases in the Bible, new interpretations emerged with a different force than intended when the Bible was written. Traditional Catholicism attaches the concept to the spiritual power of the papacy to issue edicts. This is quite close to the original meaning, though it limits its use to one person. In many evangelical and Pentecostal churches is the common tendency to misapply the phrase to “binding evil spirits,” or even Satan. As we shall see, clearly this is not the biblical understanding and expression intended in the ancient Hebraic terms “bind and loose.” In the “Addenda” to this article, the subject of Satan being bound is treated as a separate conversation. Our purpose is to come to terms with the Bible regarding this phrase, “to bind and loose,” so we may understand and use it in the proper biblical intention. Original meaning of “binding and loosing.” In ancient Jewish life, the phrase “to bind and to loose” was understood as a legal designation. It is a rabbinical term for “forbidding and permitting.” Before and during the days of Yeshua (Jesus), these antonyms—bind and loose—were used to describe the authority of religious leaders to make decisions beyond the Torah for daily life in special circumstances, often involving controversy. The Hebrew expression asar (to bind by a spoken bond) parar (to annul a spoken bond) was established by Moses in Numbers 30 for a vow (neder) which prohibits doing or using something. The binding remains permanent unless it is annulled by the responsible, overseeing authority. Later, the Aramaic words asar and shera, which mean “bind” and “loose,” are often found in combination as a Jewish formula for excommunication and reinstatement, among other authoritative uses for order and discipline by Jewish leaders, usually Pharisees. The concept of asar implies binding an object by a powerful, divinely authorized act in order to prevent its use (see Targum to Psalm 58:6). It goes beyond interpreting the Torah in a given situation, but may include it. The corresponding Aramaic shera and Hebrew hattarah (for loosing the prohibition; permitting) have no parallel in the Tanakh. However, in the New Testament we find such an occasion at the immersion of Jesus (Yeshua) where John the Immerser was reluctant to immerse Him at his request. Jesus (Yeshua) said to him: “Permit it at this time. For in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”(Matthew 3:15). So John baptized Jesus (Yeshua), not for repentance but for righteousness. What prohibited John from immersing Jesus (Yeshua) was loosed for this occasion. Again, we see an occasion when small children came to Jesus in Mark 10:14. But when Jesus saw this [the prohibition of children], He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to me. Do not prohibit them. For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Pharisees functioned with this legal concept. Pharisees always claimed the power to bind and loose. Under Queen Alexandra of the Grecian Empire the Pharisees ruled, asserting their claim to divine authority “to bind and loose”: And now the Pharisees joined themselves to her, to assist her in the government. These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others, and seem to interpret the laws more accurately… they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed [men] at their pleasure; and, to say all at once, they had the enjoyment of the royal authority, while the expenses and the difficulties of it belonged to Alexandra… She governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her. (Josephus, The War of the Jews, Book 1, Chapter 5) As the learned men of the queen, they acted beyond the Torah on deciding what was forbidden or allowed. In most cases, what was forbidden or permitted was self-evident by virtue of the Torah’s 613 commandments. But the Pharisees went further. What they claimed to possess was the divine right of Yahweh to exercise power to tie or untie anything. This was a right granted by kingdom authority, they taught, but not to abolish the Torah. Some matters required decision where the Torah was not clear enough under given situations. The Pharisees were ready and prepared to act in these cases by binding and loosing. As Josephus shows, they had legal power from the queen to pronounce an anathema upon any person. In the same vested power, they could “bind and loose” people, to tie them or untie them in any matter of their choosing. Or they may ban or bind the use of an object. Carried further, they exercised the power over certain days by declaring them fast-days (Megilloth Ta’anith 22.; Ta’anith 12a; Yerushalayim Nedarim 1:36c, d). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age, was best exemplified in the Sanhedrin. This august body acted within the ideal that it received its sanction and mandate from the celestial court of justice (Makkoth 23b). The Catholic Church preserved these divine rights. With this definition in mind, we can readily see why the traditional view of Christianity represented in the Catholic Church reserved the phrase to explain the right of papacy to issue edicts, to speak ex cathedra, and to excommunicate. During the second to fourth centuries some church fathers interpreted the meaning of “binding and loosing” with slight variations, but always in the context of spiritual authorities making powerful decisions under special circumstances. Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen viewed binding and loosing as the authority of church authorities to excommunicate persons who violated church law and the authority to reinstate them back into fellowship. Such an understanding is based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-18 where church discipline by leaders is imposed on those who sin. They may be forgiven or, in the case of not being forgiven, they may be excommunicated as “a Gentile or tax collector.” This understanding reflects the meaning of “binding and loosing” in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages used by many Jewish scholars before and during the first century.