Papacy in Scripture I: Joseph in Egypt

Young Shepherd JosephOne of the many charges leveled against Catholic teaching on the papacy has been that it runs contrary to Scripture. What I hope to do over the next several posts is show how the papacy’s roots lie deep within Scripture, and are in fact fundamental to the very concept of church in the Gospels. In this first post, I will discuss the roots of this ecclesiastical office in the Old Testament narratives about the patriarch Joseph.

The first thing to note is that when we encounter Joseph in Genesis 37, we find him shepherding his brothers’ flock. This is interesting since later in the Bible we discover that King David too was a shepherd, and in the NT, Jesus instructs Peter to shepherd His flock (John 21:15-17, where Peter is commanded to feed and tend Jesus’ flock). As we read further, we see that his father Jacob/Israel gives Joseph a special cloak which probably implied some sort of high family status, since Israel loved Joseph more than his brothers (37:3), which made his brothers jealous. Soon Joseph has dreams where he appears to be exalted above his brothers (37:6-11).

Joseph and Potiphar's wife 1610 Galleria Borghese RomeNow, we all know the story. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, and he eventually lands in the service of Potiphar in Egypt. This is where the biblical narrative becomes important for our present discussion. Potiphar was an officer in Pharaoh’s kingdom (Gen. 39:1). The Lord granted Joseph favor in Potiphar’s eyes, so Potiphar made Joseph the overseer (RSVCE) in his house (39:4). In Hebrew it reads, al-bayto (over his house). This idea of asher al-habayit (one who is over the house), is a term used for a steward (usually of a king), who rules the house (often a kingdom) weilding the full authority of the lord of the house (again, usually a  king, or pharaoh). In this case, Joseph weild’s Potiphar’s authority within Potiphar’s house: “he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge” (39:6, RSVCE). Joseph falls out of favor with Potiphar and is thrown in prison. He gets restored, however, to a similar position within the prison itself. The chief in charge of the prison put Joseph in charge of all of the prisoners (39:22).

Pharaoh eventually restores Joseph, because while he was in prison Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh’s butler and baker. The butler eventually remembers Joseph when the Pharaoh has dreams he is unable to understand. Joseph correctly interprets the Pharaoh’s dream, and what’s amazing is that the Pharaoh recognized this:

Joseph made second highest ruler in egypt“‘Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house [al-baytiy], and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.’ And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck” (41:38-42, RSVCE).

Near the end of the narratives, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, he explains how God providentially transformed their evil actions into good, and how God made Joseph “a father to Pharaoh, and lord of Egypt” (45:8). That Hebrew word for “father” (av) became an official term for the royal steward, the individual whose office was second only to the king. This indeed was Joseph’s position. He was the royal steward to the Egyptian king, who was believed to be the divine son of the Egyptian sun god Re.

In light of the forthcoming posts on this topic, we’ll see how Israel eventually patterned their kingdom on the basic structure of other ancient Near Eastern monarchies, which, like the Egyptians, had royal officers and a single royal steward, who was given a symbol of his authority (in Joseph’s case, Pharaoh’s ring, but in the case of later Israel the royal key [Isaiah 22:22]). Furthermore, we’ll see how the Israelite royal steward was likewise called an av (a father) to the kingdom (Isaiah 22:21). When we get to the NT, we will see how Jesus’ church is the fulfilled kingdom of David, incorporating (and transforming) basic structural components in the new kingdom of Israel, the church.

And like the Pope (which means “Father”—pope in Latin is papa), Joseph was given a special charism. The papacy, representing the Church which is infallible in her role as guardian of divine revelation, shares in this charism of infallibility by God’s grace alone. Joseph was likewise able to correctly interpret dreams, by a special charism from God. And Peter, as we shall see, was given the divine revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, which God the Father chose to reveal to Peter alone in response to Jesus’ question at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:15-17). However, an important difference remains. Joseph was the royal steward to the false son of god in a national Gentile kingdom, whereas Peter was the royal steward to the true Son of God in an international cosmic kingdom which includes both Jews and Gentiles.

Most importantly, however, is the mission of Joseph. Joseph was appointed to control the Pharaoh’s grain stores, out of which bread was made. Joseph saved the people of God, the Israelites (literally, the sons of Israel, Jacob his father and his entire family), by feeding them with Egyptian grain/bread. Likewise, Peter and his successors the popes, are called to feed Jesus’ sheep (John 21:17), the people of God. At one level this is accomplished through feeding the poor, the hungry. At a much deeper level, however, this occurs in the Eucharist, the bread from heaven.



Butler, Scott, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess. Jesus, Peter & the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy. Santa Barbara: Queenship, 1996.


Morrow, Jeffrey L. “Matthew 16:17-19 in its Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Context: Implications for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Dialogue on the Papacy.” M.A. Thesis, University of Dayton, 2003.

Willis, John T. “‘Ab as an Official Term.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 10, no. 1 (1996): 115-136.

194 thoughts on “Papacy in Scripture I: Joseph in Egypt”

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  10. In the midrash , the selling of Joseph was part of God’s divine plan for him to save his tribes. The favoritism Israel showed Joseph and the plot against him by his brothers were divine means of getting him into Egypt.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment. Yes, it was certainly providential. The point in this piece was the way in which his position in Egypt mirrored other similar administrative structures in the broader ancient Near East. Those structures, moreover, were what the Kingdom of David was patterned on, at least to some degree. When Israel asked for a king like the other nations, it should not surprise us that they had a kingdom which shared aspects in common with the other nations. The eventual point in this series, is that the New Testament depicts Jesus transforming that kingdom into the church. Thus, the papacy is, in some sense, a fulfillment/transformation of the royal steward of the Davidic Kingdom–and ancient Near Eastern kingdoms had similar positions, as the case of Joseph shows.

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