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Binding and Loosing

In the gospel passage appointed for Sunday, 7 September (Matthew 18.15-20), Jesus talks to his disciples about “binding” and “loosing.”  This is language whose meaning is easily lost in translation.

I suspect that Jesus anticipated that his followers would face questions and difficulties in understanding his teaching on how to live, which was not about indiscriminate abandoning of the Torah (instruction based upon the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, including the Law).  We have to recall that Jesus repeatedly is quoted as saying that he did not come to overturn the Law.

So he gave his closest followers some authority, which is captured in “binding and loosing.”

To “bind and loose” was actually a technical term among the rabbis, meaning to “forbid and permit.”  The Jewish Encyclopedia online explains:

The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra, the Pharisees, says Josephus (“B J.” i, 5, § 2), [Wars I 5.2] “became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.” This does not mean that, as the learned men, they merely decided what, according to the Law, was forbidden or allowed, but that they possessed and exercised the power of tying or untying a thing by the spell of their divine authority, just as they could, by the power vested in them, pronounce and revoke an anathema upon a person.

That is to say, the ability to bind and loose was not simply the power to interpret as a pastor or other Bible teacher might interpret, but to make authoritative and binding rulings, the violation of which could be punished by anything up to and including excommunication from the synagogue.

The authority that the Pharisees (as well as the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin) claimed to bind and loose was based on Exodus 18, in which Moshe (Moses) appointed seventy elders over the people of Israel to make rulings in his place, and Deuteronomy 17:8-13, which commands the establishment of local and higher courts to adjudicate in disputes and criminal cases.

The Jewish Encyclopedia continues:

The various schools had the power “to bind and to loose”; that is, to forbid and to permit (Ḥag. 3b); and they could bind any day by declaring it a fast-day (Meg. Ta’an. xxii.; Ta’an. 12a; Yer. Ned. i. 36c, d). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin (see Authority), received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (Sifra, Emor, ix.; Mak. 23b).

In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used a familiar formula (Matthew 16.19, 18.18). Through these words he effectively gave them 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 they have the power to do (Matt. 23.2-4).

What “binding and loosing” grants is the authority to make rulings within the framework of the Torah, either on how to apply the Torah in difficult situations, or to establish local societal norms (traditions) in areas in which the Torah is silent. The rabbis call these rulings halacha (lit. “how to walk”).  Therefore, what Jesus gave his Apostles and their spiritual heirs was the authority to interpret Scripture, including the Torah, and create the church’s halacha apart from the growing body of rabbinical laws, but within the framework of Scripture and the Messiah’s own teachings.

What Jesus was doing was not giving his followers authority to abandon the Law, but rather moving the authority to guide the life of the community from legalistic Pharisees to those who followed his teaching in the context of Jewish scripture and tradition – including the Law – and to do so in the context of relationships of love, caring for one another.

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