Binding and Loosing

“Binding and Loosing”

Some Considerations on Apostolic Succession, Authority in the Church, and the Interpretation of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18

© 2002 Beau Branson


The following text is taken from some posts of mine to an Orthodox e-mail list in January 1998.  For reasons of space, the latter part of what is presented below was sent as two separate posts, but here I’ve combined them, deleted some irrelevant portions, edited for spelling mistakes and made other minor correction, but otherwise the content is presented here just as I posted it.  For this reason, it needs a few introductory remarks to put it in context, which I present below.  It’s also in need of an apology for not being the most scholarly piece of writing ever produced, or achieving anything like the level of clarity and argumentative coherence one would expect of, say, a publishable paper.  Nonetheless, I have at various times found it useful to refer to the information in these postings, so I thought it would be good to just put them on my web page, rather than having to go back and search through the list archives from time to time when I needed to find them.  Perhaps some day I will take the time to put all of the information together in a better form, but for now this will have to do.

In a thread dealing with Martin Luther’s comment on the Epistle of St. James as being “an epistle of straw,” a Lutheran who had joined the list stated that Luther’s opinions on the varying levels of worth of different New Testament books did bother him, but then seemed to defend Luther, saying “Nevertheless, he did allow that St James’s Epistle did (just) make the canonic cut!”  Among other issues, I raised the question of Luther’s authority.  Essentially, my point was that what Luther might have thought about a given book should be (is) entirely irrelevant for Christians as such; he simply was in no position to determine what books do or do not belong in the canon; he had no authority.  I based my argument on the fact that in Old Testament times authority in the Old Testament community of Israel was passed down in a discernable line of succession from Moses and the seventy elders by the laying on of hands, and that in the New Testament community of the Church this practice was continued, but in this case the line begins with Christ and the apostles.  In other words, apostolic succession is a necessary condition (whether or not a sufficient condition) for authority in the New Testament Church.

I mentioned that I had some interesting references about the matter, and someone else on the list asked me to provide them.  That led to the second (two) posting(s) (combined here into one) comparing the rabbinic authority to establish halakhah in Old Testament times with the episcopal authority to establish canon law in New Testament times.

In what follows, I mark my words with “[BB]” and the Lutheran’s (I’ve forgotten his name) words with “[L].”  Note that in the text itself I had already inserted some comments in brackets and identified myself as “Symeon.”  (“Symeon” is my Christian name, which I had been using on the list.)



> > who descended on Martin Luther in tongues of fire on the feast of

> > Pentecost and made him the Church anyway?


> What? Was the canon established so soon?


It was established over a span of several centuries with the consent of the whole Church.  The Holy Spirit gave no authority to Martin Luther or the church that he invented.  He gave it to the Church which Christ died to established.  Tell me that that church is the Roman church or a monophysite church or the Judaizers or someone with some sort of legitimate historical claim to being the same church on which the Holy Spirit descended, but don’t tell me that it’s a church that didn’t even exist for the first one and a half millenia of Christian history.

I mean this:  When God revealed the Law to Moses on Pentecost, the Jews heard God speak in “70 languages,” according to the tradition of the Jews.  They saw fire and other visible manifestations of the presence of God.  They preserved an unbroken chain of ordination from Moses to the 70 elders to the Judges to the Prophets to the “Men of the Great Assembly” to the rabbis of the time of Christ.  Likewise with the priesthood.  When the Spirit descended on the apostles similar events were observed.  The apostles were speaking in different languages by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Tongues of fire descended on them.  Then they began a similar succession of ordination, also using the “semikhah” or “Laying on of Hands,” which has continued to the present day.  Christ said to the apostles that “wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them.”  He said that whatever they bind on earth would be bound in Heaven, and likewise what they loosed.  All of these expressions come from the contemporary rabbinic terminology and indicate that he was giving authority to church councils to establish canon law (if anyone is interested, I can cite some very interesting sources).  Thus, the “canon” of scripture can only be established by a council of legitimately ordained bishops.  Not a lone-ranger heretic. And since this authority is, and has always been, handed down from person to person by the laying on of hands, it would be necessary for a person to demonstrate, if the Church has “pooped out” so to speak, how one could restore it aside from another direct descent of the Holy Spirit.  Since I am unaware of such an occurrence happening to Martin Luther, his comments about the canon of scripture (and everything else) seem to be entirely irrelevant to my Christian walk.

If Luther’s comments were meant to be authoritative or otherwise meaningful, then he was clearly out of line.  If they were intended to be read as the relatively unimportant opinions of a particular heretic, then I don’t really have anything against them, except that he can’t count.

[This last remark refers to Martin Luther’s reasons for preferring certain New Testament books over others.  Allegedly, he preferred, for example, the gospel of John over any of the synoptic gospels because there were more of Christ’s words in John than in the synoptic gospels.  But in fact, the gospel of Matthew, for example, contains about twice as much of Christ’s preaching as the gospel of John.  If I recall correctly, I believe that I had earlier said that this suggests Luther’s real motivations were that John better fit Luther’s theology and that the Lutheran I was writing to had insisted that Luther said it was because John contained more preaching, and we should take him at his word.  It was (and is) my feeling that, if indeed we take Luther at his word in this case, we can only reasonably conclude that Luther was very, very bad at counting.] [BB.  This is taken from a subsequent post.]

I mentioned the thing in Matthew about binding and loosing a few days ago, and somebody (I forgot who) took me up on the offer to quote some sources so here goes.

For those who didn’t see my other post, my argument is that the statement in Matthew 18:18-20 should be understood within the context of first-century Judaism, not only because Christ and the Apostles were Jewish, and this was the context out of which the Scriptures were written (which are grounds enough) but also because Matthew was written specifically to a Jewish audience and was originally in either Hebrew or Aramaic.  Thus the conversation should be understood as a bestowal of authority upon the disciples when acting in a conciliar manner, which could be passed on to future generations through the ceremony of S’mikhah, the Laying on of Hands, not only because that would be the sense in which Christ would have probably meant it, and the sense in which the apostles would have understood it, but because Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who would certainly have understood it in just that way.  Bear in mind that only in this gospel is mention made of this power of “binding and loosing.”  It appears to be the case that it was used specifically in this gospel to emphasize to the Jews that the apostles had now taken the place of the rabbis, with a “s’mikhah” from the Messiah which is greater than that of Moses.

First of all, it will be useful to define terminology, then show the sources where necessary, and then make comparisons and discuss the implications for Christianity:



“A term used to convey the sense of ‘legal decision,’ ‘rule of conduct,’ ‘guidance,’ ‘practice,’ or ‘law.'”

– The New Jewish Encyclopedia

“A term that refers to the legal, as opposed to the non-legal or aggadic,… aspect of Judaism.  It is also used to indicate a definitive ruling in any particular area of Jewish law.  The Hebrew root of halakhah means ‘to go,’ and the Bible refers to the fulfillment of the Torah as the way in which the people ‘are to go’ (Ex. 18:20)…”

-The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion

“The branch of rabbinic literature which deals with the religious obligations of members of the Jewish faith, both in their interpersonal relationships (“between man and his neighbor”) and in their ritual performances (“between man and his Maker”), all equally binding.  It encompasses practically all aspects of human behavior:  birth and marriage, joy and grief, agriculture and commerce, ethics and theology. “The term halakhah is derived from the Hebrew halakh, ‘to walk,’ for it is the legal system which points out the way of life for the Jewish people, following the statement, “Enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go [in Hebrew, by the way, that’s the same word as “to walk” i.e. halakh – Symeon] and the practices they are to follow” (Ex. 18:20)…”


“The assumption is that every later group of scholars is inferior to an earlier one and is therefore bound by the decrees of its predecessors. Nevertheless, the rule is that where the earlier authorities differ, the halakhah (the accepted ruling) is according to the later authority. The latter has no doubt examined the opinions of the former, and “like a dwarf upon the shoulders of a giant” sees further and reasons more correctly…”

-The Encyclopedia of Judaism


Hopefully you have already noticed the similarity between “halakhah” and what we call “canon law.”  The canons of the Church, then, are in a sense the halakhic ordinances of Christendom.  Hopefully you will all be familiar enough with the Orthodox understanding of the canons to immediately see the resemblance to halakhah, so I will have no need of quoting Orthodox sources to back up my point.



Hopefully nobody needs this term explained.



“A court of Jewish law. From the very earliest times, we are told, Moses judged the people “from the morning to the evening” (Ex. 18:13) until advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, to decentralize the system. Judges were then appointed “over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens,” with the proviso that any case too difficult for the judges to handle would be referred upward, eventually to Moses.  The Torah, too, cautioned (Deut. 17:8), “if there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment… then you shall arise, and get you up into the place which the Lord you God shall choose…”


“The Talmud indicates that in the Second Temple times there were various courts, consisting of three, 23, or 71 judges…”

-The Encyclopedia of Judaism


“(Heb. ‘House of Judgment’ …):  Rabbinic court of Law with jurisdiction in civil, criminal, and religious matters.  In the Temple Period, the Sanhedrin, made up of 70 or 71 members, was the Bet Din Gadol, the “High Court,” which exercised final authority on questions of religious law… There were also lower courts of 23 members to adjudicate criminal cases, and local courts of at least 3 members for civil cases.”

-The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia


“A court of law guided by the principles of recognized halakhah in dealing with matters of civil, criminal, or religious law.  The command to appoint judges and establish courts of law is mentioned in Deuteronomy 16:18.”

-The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion


“Rabbinical term for court-house or court… The bet din is not only a civil, but also a religious authority.”

-The Jewish Encyclopedia


Well, although I can’t seem to find a reference right now amidst all my disorganized books, photocopies, etc. I want to add that a Bet Din has to be made up of at least three or more rabbis who have received the appropriate S’mikhah (ordination), which I’ll talk about later.  A Bet Din rules on matters of halakhah, and establishes new halakhah in essentially the same manner as a local Orthodox Christian synod rules on matters and passes canons or issues rulings in other ways.  If anyone is dying for me to further back up the fact that a Bet Din has to have at least three rabbis, I can track the sources down for that later.




“(1) Laying of hands on animal immediately before sacrifice.  (2) Ordination of rabbis…”

-Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica


“Originally, the laying of hands on sacrifices prior to their being slaughtered…  The term was also used to denote the passing on of permission to rule on questions of Jewish law, which was originally performed by a laying on of hands (see ORDINATION).”

-The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion


(Under the heading “ORDINATION”):

“In rabbinical law, the formal transmission of judicial rabbinic authority.Ê It is traditionally believed that the original rabbinic authority was granted by God to Moses.  Before his death, Moses asked God to appoint a successor, and Joshua was selected with the words “Take you Joshua the son of Nun… and lay your hand (*semikhah) upon him” (Nm. 27:18).  Nowhere else in the Bible is there mention of this manner of the transmission of authority [except in the New Testament – Symeon], but Jewish tradition accepts that the ordination conferred upon Joshua was in turn transferred by him to his successor, and so on, in an unbroken chain throughout the centuries up to the period of the Second Temple.  [Sounds a little bit like Apostolic Succession, huh? – Symeon]  The Mishnaic statement concerning the transmission of the tradition, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets handed it to the Men of the Great Assembly” (Avot 1:1), was interpreted as referring to the succession of authority.  Only a duly ordained person was empowered in turn to ordain others.  [Sounds a little bit like Apostolic Succession again, huh? – Symeon]… Only ordained rabbis could determine the calendar [WOOPS! – I forgot this isn’t the calendar thread – Symeon]”

-The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion



“(Heb. semikhah…):  The custom of ordination, whereby teachers selected their best pupils and conferred on them the title “rabbi” and permission to give decisions in matters of ritual and law, is ancient in Jewish life.  The Talmud traces its origin back to Moses who conveyed the leadership to Joshua by placing his hands on Joshua’s head.  [Sounds like what those crazy Orthodox Christians do with their bishops! – Symeon]”

-The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia


(Under HALAKHAH, Ordination):

“The ‘judge of the time’ is the biblical shofet (judge), the rabbinic chakham (sage) or dayyan (judge). [By ‘judge of the time,’ it is referring to Deut. 17:8-12]  The original source of his authority is Moses, who laid the foundation for the vesting of authority to decide questions of Jewish law when he “handed over the Torah to Joshua” by the laying on of hands (semikhah Numb. 27:18).  This ordination also empowered the recipient to transfer authority to another, usually by a teacher to his disciple, thus creating a chain of halakhic tradition that passed on from generation to generation…”

-The Encyclopedia of Judaism



“The ritual transmission of spiritual authority. Traditionally, God gave authority to Moses who passed it on to Joshua. In conformity with the act of Moses (Num. 27:18-23) in investing Joshua as his successor, the laying on of hands is usually part of the ceremony. “The Mishnah (Avot 1:1) records the transmission of authority through Joshua to the Men of the Great Assembly.  In time, ordination became a ceremony performed in the Sanhedrin, with the consent of the Patriarch…”

-The Encyclopedia of Judaism


“Appointment and solemn public dedication to the office of judge and teacher of the Law and to all the functions associated therewith.  The custom of ordination is a very ancient one; Joshua was ordained by Moses, who thereby indicated him as his successor (Num. xxvii. 22-23). The ceremony was as follows:  Moses placed Joshua before the priest Eleazar and the congregation and laid his hands upon him while giving him instructions.  A portion of Moses’ spirit was transferred to Joshua through Moses’ hands (comp. Num. xxvii. 20, and Deut. xxxiv. 9)

[I would like to point out that in the passages in question, just in case anyone has a screwy translation, the Hebrew clearly says that God will cause some of the “spirit,” which in Hebrew is “Ruach,” which is upon Moses to be transferred to Joshua.  Although there are a few different words for spirit, etc. in Hebew, the word used both for the Holy Spirit and the “Spirit of Wisdom” is “Ruach.”  And since the text says, not that a “portion of Moses’ spirit” would be transferred, but a portion of “the spirit WHICH IS UPON Moses,” would go to Joshua, we can infer that this refers to the Holy Spirit, and not Moses’ own spirit. – Symeon]

Moses ordained also the seventy elders who assisted him in governing the people (Num. xi. 16-17, 24-25).  It is not expressly stated that the elders were ordained by laying on of hands; it is merely said that some of Moses’ spirit was imparted to the elders.  This transference of the spirit [or rather “of the Spirit” – Symeon], however, could take place only by laying on of hands, as appears from the passage Deut. xxxiv. 9. Maimonides says that Moses ordained the elders in the same way as he ordained Joshua (“Yad,” Sanhedrin, iv. 1).


“The laying on of hands is mentioned nowhere else in the books of the Old Testament.  According to tradition the elders ordained by Moses ordained their successors, who in turn ordained others, so that there existed an unbroken series of ordainers and ordained from Moses down to the time of the Second Temple (“Yad,” l.c.).”

-The Jewish Encyclopedia


The connection between this and the Orthodox Christian practice of laying on of hands, and Apostolic Succession should be entirely obvious.  Obviously, the Jews of the time of Christ understood that the ceremony of laying on of hands represented the formal transmission of authority from ordainer to ordained.  And rabbinic authority was dependant upon the unbroken chain of ordination from Moses to the rabbis of the age.  It is unreasonable to think that the first Christians would have understood things in any other way.  Especially in light of the fact that Clement, in 95 AD stated explicitly that the apostles had appointed the first converts as bishops and that they were to take the place of the apostles, and that they added the provision that if those bishops should die, new ones should be appointed in their place.  I think that in light of the fact that this (essentially a form of apostolic succession) was the practice amongst the Jews, and that we find an explicit statement of this doctrine, in non-Hebraic terminology in the writings of a first-century Christian bishop of Rome, and that it seems to make much more sense out of certain parts of scripture (see below) than does any other interpretation (I’m referring to the idea that Christ in Matt. 18:18 was giving the disciples authority to create New Testament halakhah, i.e. Canon Law), it is only reasonable to conclude that these ideas were in Christianity from the very beginning, and in fact stem from Christ Himself.  (I mean the ideas of Canon Law, Apostolic Succession, Conciliar Authority, etc.)


“In Mt 16:19 and 18:18 Christ bestows the power of binding and loosing upon St. Peter and all the Apostles respectively, with the promise that what they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  For a right understanding of the nature of the power involved in this gift, it is necessary to consider what must have been the meaning conveyed to the minds of the Apostles, typical Jews of their time, by these words of Jesus…  They [the terms “bind” and “loose” – Symeon] are used, in doctrinal and judicial matters, of things allowed or not allowed in the Law; in particular there is the recurrent formula, ‘The House of Shammai binds… The House of Hillel looses.’  Interpreting the former passage in Mt. by the normal usage of the time, we shall conclude that our Lord declared St. Peter to be a competent Rabbi, whose decisions in the matter of conduct (halakhah) would be ratified by the Heavenly Tribunal.  In the exercise of his authority, he would forbid (bind) certain things, and permit (loose) others…”

-Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. II


“(Hebrew asar ve-hittir)…Rabbinical term for ‘forbidding and permitting.’…


“The various schools had the power ‘to bind and to loose’; that is, to forbid and to permit (Talmud: Chagigah 3b)… This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of Justice.

(Sifra, Emor, ix; Talmud: Makkot 23b).

“In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used the familiar formula (Matt 16:19, 18:18).  By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who ‘bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers’; that is, ‘loose them,’ as the have the power to do (Matt 23:2-4).  In the same sense in the second epistle of Clement to James II (‘Clementine Homilies,’ Introduction), Peter is represented as having appointed Clement as his successor, saying:  ‘I communicate to him the power of binding and loosing so that, with respect to everything which he shall ordain in the earth, it shall be decreed in the heavens; for he shall bind what ought to be bound and loose what ought to be loosed as knowing the rule of the church.”

-Jewish Encyclopedia (as quoted by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament Commentary)


“Contrary to most Christian interpreters, I take the p’shat (“plain sense”) of this passage to be dealing with making legal judgments and halakhah, not prayer.


“The words rendered “prohibit” and “permit” (v.18) are, literally, “bind” and “loose.”  These terms were used in first century Judaism to mean “prohibit” and “permit”…


“The usual Christian view of vv. 19-20 is that it defines a “Messianic minyan” not as the quorum of ten established by halakhah (Talmud, Sanhedrin 2b) for public synagogue prayers, but as two or three assembled in Yeshua’s name, plus Yeshua Himself, who is there with them (v.20).  The problem with this is that the passage is not about prayer… Rather, Yeshua, speaking to those who have authority to regulate Messianic communal life (vv. 15-17), commissions them to establish New Covenant halakhah, that is, to make authoritative decisions where there is a question about how Messianic life ought to be lived.  [In other words, canon law – Symeon] In v. 19 Yeshua is teaching that when an issue is brought formally to a panel of two or three Messianic Community leaders [in other words, a synod of Christian bishops – Symeon], and they render a halakhic decision here on earth [in other words, they issue canons], they can be assured that the authority of God in heaven stands behind them…


“Thus, according to vv.18-20 Yeshua’s other talmidim join Kefa [when he says “Kefa” he means “Peter,” and when he says “Yeshua” he means “Jesus” – Symeon] (Matt. 16:19) in replacing “the Levitical cohanim [he’s trying to say “priest” – Symeon] and the judge who shall be in those days” (Deuteronomy 17:8-12) as the final earthly repository of halakhic authority…


“The unity of subject matter in vv.15-20 is also seen in the fact that “two or three” is found in both v.16 and vv.19-20.  Moreover, it is then evident that v.21 continues the topic begun in v.15 (how communal Messianic life is to be lived), without what otherwise is an irrelevant digression to another subject (reassurance about prayer).


“The following expansion of v.19 further clarifies its meaning:  ‘To repeat (Greek kai, “and, moreover”)(and fortify in other language what I have just said in v.18), I tell you that if two of you (Messianic community leaders) [again, he’s trying to say “bishop”] agree on the answer to any halakhic question or matter of public order that people ask you about, then it (the halakhic decision you make) [in other words, “the canons that you pass” – Symeon] will be for them (the people who asked the question) as if it had come directly from my Father in heaven.”  In v.20 Yeshua strengthens this statement by promising his own presence and authority in such situations.”

-Jewish New Testament Commentary



While I don’t think it would be wise to become overly infatuated with the similarities between the New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (because there are also a great many and very important differences), I do think that it is clear that there exist between the two several striking parallels, among which is this issue.  When interpreting Christ’s words, we must recognize the Judaic context of His speech.  And this is especially so when we know He was speaking to other Jews (He would have spoken to them in the idiom of the day, so that they would understand Him).  And it is even more especially so when not only is it Christ (as opposed to, say Luke) speaking, and speaking to Jews (as opposed to Paul’s speaking to Gentiles), but A Jew (Christ) is speaking to Jews (the disciples) in a book written specifically for a Jewish audience (as is the case in the gospel of Matthew and the epistle to the Hebrews).

Thus, we must see the verses Matt. 16:19 and 18:18-20 and their contexts in this light.  If we do interpret them according to the common usage amongst first century Palestinian Jews, we understand it to mean that Christ was essentially granting the apostles the power to decide halakhah in “the True Israel of God.”  And that authority was passed down from the apostles to their first converts, who they ordained bishops by the laying on of hands.  This ordination was to continue in an unbroken chain, just as it had in Judaism, with the difference that this was a s’mikhah from the Messiah, which is greater than that of the s’mikhah of Moses.  Thus, not only are the halakhic decisions of the apostles binding (for instance, those of the Jerusalem Council), but that authority was understood as something that could be passed down from them to their first and most trusted converts.  Thus, the bishops inherited from the apostles the authority to make Canon Law (the Christian version of halakhah).  Those canons are normatively binding (pardon the pun) for all Christians.  To say otherwise, it seems to me, it to wrench the scriptures out of their context and twist them for ones own purposes and/or prejudices.

That is, in a nutshell, a few of the reasons I find it ridiculous for anyone to discuss the canon of scripture (the particular New Testament halakhah which declares what books are Holy Writ) as though it could possibly be up for grabs amongst the laity or clergy from among the heterodox who do not have legitimate ordination (that is, s’mikhah that traces all the way back to Christ in the same way that rabbinic authority traced back to Moses; and while I’m on that note, remember that Christ said, not to do as the Pharisees do, but to do what they say, since they “sit in the seat of Moses.”)  Luther’s opinion on what books “make the cut” of Scripture and what don’t are therefore entirely irrelevant, since Martin Luther is not a one-man synod of legitimately ordained Christian bishops.  Likewise, it is irrelevant what any Protestant or any layman might think, since by definition neither a Protestant nor an Orthodox layman is a council of legitimately ordained bishops.  I.e. bishops who can trace back to one of the apostles an ordination by the “laying on of hands.”