In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said to his disciple Peter, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19). A couple of chapters later he said very similar words to his other disciples (Mat 18:18).
The most common explanation and teachings about these “binding and loosing” verses that people hear today is that they have something to do with spiritual warfare and binding the devil. Indeed, the surrounding context is about disciple’s authority, only the devil is not involved anywhere in these verses, not even remotely related to the context here.
In reality, “binding and loosing” are known technical legal expressions in the ancient Jewish world. The terminology of “binding and loosing” is simply older English for “tying up something” and “untying something”. In Greek “to bind” is δέω (deo) and Hebrew equivalent is אָסַר (asar) which means “to tie up”, “to bind”, “to confine”, “to imprison” and idiomatically “to forbid” something. In Greek “to loose” is λύω (luo) and corresponding Hebrew term is הִתִּיר (hitir) which means “to untie”, “to unbind”, “to free”, “to release” and idiomatically “to permit” something.
Here is an example from the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He writes that under queen Alexandra of Jerusalem, the Pharisees “became the administrators of all public affairs, empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind”. (Jewish War 1:111). Josephus said that the Pharisees had the authority “to loose and to bind” and no, not demons or Satan or anything of that sort. They had a legal authority to make rule, to forbid or permit things. And early rabbis used very similar terminology.
“…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; asrin) 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; asurin) 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 (Is. 2:3). These rulings were described as “binding” and “losing” decisions. This is what the Talmud records:
“Granted, 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 Ex 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; asrin) and the House of Hillel permits (מתירין; matirin).” R. Nahum. 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 (אסר) do not ask another wise man or he may permit it (יתיר)” (נשאל לחכם ואסר לא ישאל לחכם אחר שמא יתיר). Every time the terms are used in a legal context they mean “to forbid” and “to permit”.
Examine Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels carefully and you will see he did not speak about prayer or spiritual warfare in those verses. The context is legal and the terms should be interpreted in their first-century Jewish legal milieu. Just like the Pharisees in Josephus’s quote, the disciples were given a right to legislate, a right to make rules and norms, allowing and forbidding things in their own community. Just like rabbis ruled something acceptable or not acceptable so could Yeshua’s disciples make the same determinations. Understanding how terms and phrases were used in antiquity is empowering. It moves us far away from our contemporary interpretations that often fail to reflect the true teachings in the gospels.