The Keys of the Kingdom

The popular miniseries "The Chosen" gets Matthew 16:18-19 wrong.

"The Chosen" Season Four poster. | Credit: The Chosen

This article contains spoilers for "The Chosen," season 4, episode 2.

I have really been enjoying Dallas Jenkins' mini-series "The Chosen" for the last few years. The series does an excellent and clever job filling in the "gaps" in the biblical narrative with compelling background and character arcs that interweave to heighten the poignancy and impact of key episodes of the Gospels, presenting familiar stories with new depth.

However, in the second episode of season 4, we come to the familiar scene from Matthew 16:18. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” For Catholics, this amounts to the coronation of the first Pope: Jesus is establishing Peter as the foundation of the Church. Protestants, on the other hand, who do not recognize the authority of the Pope (that's one of the main things against which they are Protesting, after all) generally handle this by saying that "rock" refers to Peter's statement of faith in the previous verse: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." This faith is the rock on which the Church is built.

But "Peter" of course means "rock" (think of "petrifying" someone, turning him into stone), so the natural flow of the verse ("Thou art Rock and on this rock") seems to favor the Catholic interpretation. I once heard a Protestant object to this by saying that the original Greek uses different words for "Peter" (Πέτρος) and "rock" (πέτρᾳ). Greek, however, is an inflected language, meaning words have stems with endings that vary depending on case, gender, and number (that’s why you can be an alumnus or an alumna in the alumni association.) The Greek word for “rock” is the feminine “petra” (πέτρᾳ), but of course Jesus can’t call Simon bar-Jonah by a feminine name, so this becomes “Petros” (Πέτρος), with the same stem “petr–” making these essentially the same word. Nevertheless, there is continued Catholic vs. Protestant debate about this, with people’s understanding of Greek grammar generally depending on their theology, rather than vice versa.

The episode acknowledges these varying interpretations, putting them in the mouths of various disciples as they argue with one another over the course of the episode, and I’m fine with that. “The Chosen” is a show intended for a wide audience, and the writers have subtly embraced the ambiguity, working the debate cleverly into the dialogue. So far, I am happy to smirk and roll with it.

The one moment in this episode I couldn’t roll with was the transition from Matthew 16:18 to 16:19. In that verse, Jesus references Isaiah 22:22 ("I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open"), continuing his original statement by adding, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In this episode, however, when Jonathan Roumie (who plays Jesus) delivers the line, he looks up from Peter and casts his gaze over all the disciples, even including those present who are not among the twelve Apostles, as if to address these words to all of them.

This, however, is not an ambiguity in the original text that comes down to one’s interpretation of Greek grammar; this is simply unfaithful to the Scripture. While “you” can be either singular or plural in English, there is no such ambiguity in the original Greek. Matthew 16:19 states “καὶ δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖς τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν” which clearly uses the second person singular. (This is captured in English in the King James Version, “I give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”) Jesus is not speaking to all believers, nor to the disciples as a group, nor even to the twelve Apostles, but to Peter himself, singly, as an individual. To suggest otherwise is to impose Protestant theology onto the text, which implicitly acknowledges that the text itself is inconvenient to the Protestant position: it would mean that Jesus addresses Peter directly, then makes a pun on his name to change the subject and refer to something completely different, and then resumes speaking directly to Peter, without any transition. In an attempt to avoid this awkwardness, the writers use the simple gesture, probably unnoticed by most viewers, of having Jesus looking up at everyone, to placate Protestant views by implying an ambiguity in the text that is not actually there.

Although “The Chosen” is sometimes criticized for the liberties it takes, I have found that it generally supports the biblical text, making the stories and characters more relatable while remaining faithful to the Scriptures. This moment, however, was a clear case of eisegesis, reading one’s theology into the text, rather than exegesis, taking from the text what is there to see. All this being said, bear in mind that I have so far found "The Chosen" to be a wonderful show, smartly written and faithful to the core of the Gospel message, while gracefully sidestepping denominational conflict. Perhaps it's that very fact of how good the show generally is that made this small moment stand out so much.

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