Historical Cultural Context
Today’s familiar story takes on a very different orientation when placed respectfully in its Mediterranean cultural context.
Americans are recognized as the most individualistic people who ever lived on the face of this planet. Each one strives to be distinct. In the United States, everyone has a personal social security number and many other distinctive and singular identities.
Mediterranean people are exactly the opposite. Experts describe them as dyadic personalities. The word dyad means “pair.” Such people are other oriented to such an extent that they have no sense of their individuality but depend rather on the opinions of others to help them know who they are.
Jesus’ question, therefore, is not a “theology quiz” for his disciples. It reflects a normal, Mediterranean curiosity by Jesus, a dyadic personality, about what other people think. Like everyone else in this culture, Jesus needs such feedback because he does not know who he is, and he is trying to learn this from significant others in his life.
In Jesus’ case, the question is particularly interesting because the normal stereotyping of that culture was not working. Jesus’ enemies feel satisfied in knowing him as “Jesus of Nazareth.” To know a person’s home village is to know everything about that person. All people in Nazareth were presumed to be alike. Nathanael’s rhetorical question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46) simply echoes the commonly held, stereotypical image of that village’s inhabitants: worthless or no good.
Another stereotypical identification of Jesus is “the stone worker’s or wood worker’s son” (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3). The ancient wisdom observed, “like father, like son.”
To know a family was to know everything about every member of that family. “‘Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ And they took offense at Jesus” (Mt 13:55-57).
True to Mediterranean form, Jesus’ disciples tell him what others are saying about him, and how others are perceiving him: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, another of the prophets. All of these are honorable if mistaken perceptions. But Jesus presses for Simon’s opinion, and he says, “the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Jesus now has a rather large assortment of opinions to ponder. In gratitude to Simon for this information, Jesus bestows on him a nickname, Rocky or Peter. New names were regularly given at significant moments in a group’s life, especially to the more prominent members.
In addition, Jesus promises that Peter will become like him, a broker who can provide access to God the patron. This is the significance of giving him the “keys of the kingdom.” Keys open doors, which is another way to describe a broker’s specialty.
Over and beyond that, Peter is given a distinctive power to declare authoritative judgments (“binding and loosing”), something which appears to have been given to all the disciples in Mt 18:18.
If American believers read Jesus’ question here from the intense psychological perspective that dominates modern American convictions about self-knowledge and knowledge of others, they will assume Jesus knows who he is and is testing his friends to see if they know.
If they use the Mediterranean scenario painted above, they will have to assume Jesus does not know and looks to significant others in order to find out. How will you read the passage?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University