In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Yeshua speaks of “binding” and “loosing” on earth and in heaven. Many modern Gospel readers do not realize that these terms, especially when they are used alongside each other, are common ancient Jewish idioms for that stand for “forbidding” and “permitting” in a legal context. In Hebrew, אָסַר (asar) means “to tie up,” “bind,” “confine,” “imprison,” and, idiomatically, “to forbid.” The term הִתִּיר (hitir) means “to untie,” “unbind,” “release,” and, idiomatically, “to permit.” In the late first century, Josephus uses the Greek equivalents of this Hebrew terminology; below are several examples of these terms in the later Talmud (c. 600 CE).

These ancient Aramaic and Hebrew texts use the terminology of binding and loosing frequently, and it is very clear what they mean from the broader talmudic context. In this first passage, the rabbis discuss the flexibility of Torah interpretations and rulings derived from them:

“These are Torah scholars who sit in many groups and engage in Torah study. There are often debates among these groups, as some of these Sages render an object or person ritually impure and these render it pure; these prohibit (אוסרין; osrin) an action and these permit it (מתירין; matirin); these deem an item invalid and these deem it valid… So too you, the student, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit (אוסרין; osrin) actions and the statements of those who permit (מתירין; matirin) them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.” (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 3b, Davidson Translation)

There was once a contention between some rabbis from the land of Israel and rabbi Hanina. They deliberately reversed his rulings, justifying their actions that he was acting on his own and Israel is the final authority on matters of importance (Isaiah 2:3). These rulings were described as “binding” and “losing” decisions. This is what the Talmud records:

“Ḥanina would rule an item pure and the Sages from Eretz Yisrael would rule it impure; they ruled stringently. But in a case where he ruled an item impure and they ruled it pure, what are the circumstances? How could they rule pure that which he ruled impure? Was it not taught in a baraita: If a Sage ruled an item impure, his colleague is not permitted to rule it pure; if he prohibited it (אסר; asar), his colleague may not permit it (להתּיר; lehatir)? The Gemara explains: They held that they must do so in this case, so that people would not be drawn after him; due to the exigencies of the time they overturned his rulings.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 63b, Sefaria Translation)

Another passage in the Jerusalem Talmud describes the rabbis arguing about the commandment in Exodus 35:3. The verse prohibits the lighting a fire on the Sabbath, but it is unclear whether it applies to a regular Sabbath only or a festival as well. Some “bound it” i.e., forbade it (others, “loosed” or permitted it):

The House of Shammai prohibits (אוסרין; osrin) and the House of Hillel permits (מתירין; matirin).” R. Nahum. the brother of R. Ila asked about this matter before R. Yohanan. He told him. ‘Do not prohibit it. And do not permit it.’” (Jerusalem Talmud, Beitzah 5:2, Neusner Translation)

Examples of “binding and loosing” decisions are colorful in rabbinic texts. In Tosefta on Avoda Zarah 7a Rabbi Ami quoted this saying, “What one wise man forbade do not ask of another wise man, or he may permit it… (נשאל לחכם ואסר לא ישאל לחכם אחר שמא יתיר)”. Every time these terms are used in a legal context they mean “to forbid” and “to permit”. In studying the gospels we should always be guided by the historical and cultural uses of language and be aware of Jewish ways of life. The context of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 is making rules. I hope that examples of these ancient texts paint a vivid picture of how “binding” and “loosing” were not connected to exercising power over the devil or spiritual warfare, but rather described the process of establishing norms and rules.

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49 COMMENTS

  1. I love your insight & reimphacis to look back at Jewish lifestyles & use of the language. It's kind of like us looking back to days of Shakespeare, where language & lifestyle were different from our present day living & language.Does not binding and loosening decisions from Rabbinic texts also show that human interpretation can be about control & fear, rather than what is pleasing & acceptable to God? Or has God allowed more flexibility than some of us have been taught? I realize that occasionally leaders are not always who they appear to be or should be. Modern day Priests,Pastors,Preachers use the Devil & sin to stir up fear & submission to the point, that we are made to feel like we have to be so perfect that we can never measure up or be pleasing to God. We forget that God knows our hearts & how much we try. Nobody is perfect & we have all been given grace. We also need leaders with wisdom & compassion to help guide us through God's words & commandments ,rather than mislead, discourage or send us into a direction or interpretation that God would not want.There again, our trust should not been in men but God. I pray that I learn the truth & knowledge that God wants me to know.I pray for His guidance in daily living .I would like to think that leaders ,given a major responsibility of making & interpreting rules that forbid or permit do the same. I am always thankful for your insight & others here at IBC.
  2. The presence of Hebraic idioms in the NT is further evidence that the original text of the NT was written in Hebrew, probably Mishnaic Hebrew. ‘A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew’, M.H. Segal states that the Hebrew language never did ‘die out’. Instead, it evolved or developed in 4 stages:
    • Hebrew is a living language. I agree with you that Hebrew never died. Not as some claim it did. But we do not have any ancient fragments of gospels in Hebrew. If they exist and if they are ever discovered then we would have a fact to contend with. For now, this remains a theory. Hebraisms in NT alone do not prove that. Jews were always multilingual people and multilingual people always allow for things to cross over. Which is what we see in the NT.
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Stories of Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis and . Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
  3. 1. Biblical Hebrew: earliest times to 200 BCE
    2. Mishnaic Hebrew: 400 BCE- 400 CE
    3. Medieval Hebrew: 400/500 CE - 1700
    4. Modern Hebrew: 1700 to the present
  4. Thank you for clarifying this. I appreciate your scholarly proofs. This makes it easier for me to believe one interpretation over another.
  5. Thanks Dr. Shir. The ‘scales’ are falling down! I’ll check several NT versions to ascertain which ones use ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ in the Matthew passage, and if not, why not. Inspiration of Scripture really has to do with the original words. What’s your view please?
    • Well you know how I feel about this probably, I urge people to study the languages in which the manuscripts of the Bible exist. Original texts in the original language are where the truth always dwells.
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps and The Stories of Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
  6. I somewhat disagree with the last statements that the Matthew verses are not related to spiritual warfare. In fact, I think what you shared directly relates to what spiritual warfare is. Jesus speaks of this in the context of what’s on earth and what’s in heaven. The kingdom of heaven
    • I thank you for this insight with the meaning of these words. I would like you to consider that spiritual warfare is real, and when we think of the covenant we have in Christ there are legal rights that we must exercise in our faith fight against the adversary.
    • That all depends on what you think spiritual warfare is where such an idea originates. It's perfectly fine to disagree, LOL.
  7. I'm blessed by this teaching about a month ago I was asking myself how do we use this verse in Mathew 16:19;18:18-19.Thanks for clarity.
    JESUS CHRIST AND THE DISCIPLES did not use these verses as some of the modern day followers.Blessings
  8. I have used the binding and loosing in spiritual warfare prayers and in faith through Jesus and He delivered me. Knowing the origin is a blessing, but His Words put in action, bringing life and deliverance puts it into greater height as a testimony of his Truth.
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