Peter as the Rock

Here’s the way that debates over the meaning of “Rock” within Matthew 16:17-19 frequently go between Catholics and Protestants.

  • Catholic: Christ founded His Church upon Peter! In verse 18-19, He says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter [“Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He renames Peter Rock, and then says He’ll build the Church upon Peter, the Rock.
  • Protestant: On the contrary! Jesus names Peter “Petros,” which means “small rock,” and says He’ll build His Church upon “this Petra” or large rock. Peter’s the pebble, and Jesus is the mountain — Peter says as much himself in 1 Peter 2:4-5!
  • Catholic: I’m afraid not! The distinction between “Petra” and “Petros” is only found in the Greek, and Jesus almost certainly uttered these words in Aramaic. In Aramaic, He would have said, “you are Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build My Church.” No difference, same rock, it’s Peter. The only reason that the Greek version of Matthew’s Gospel distinguishes between Petra and Petros is that Petra, the normal word for Rock, is a feminine noun, and Matthew (or a translator) didn’t want to give Peter a girl’s name.
  • Protestant: You can speculate all you want about what Jesus originally said, and in what tongue, but when push comes to shove, I’ll take the inspired, God-breathed texts, which are in Greek.

As you can see, this debate is something of a standstill. The Greek seems ambiguous, in that the two sides differ on what Petra and Petros mean; the Aramaic seems beyond the scope of the debate, since it isn’t in the text. Well, David Pell, in a recent post at Called to Communion, spices things up, by pointing out some rarely-used Biblical tidbits, which are helpful for Catholics in winning this debate. To wit:

  • We know that Jesus named Peter Kepha, and not Petros, because other places in the Bible tell us as much. The most obvious is John 1:42, in which Jesus prophesies to Simon, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas.” John then notes: “which, when translated, is Peter.” This verse is a good one for Catholics to know, since it prophesies the changing of Peter’s name. It’s not just a nickname Jesus gives Peter, like “Sons of Thunder,” but a covenantal change of name prophesied by Our Lord. But more important for the direct topic at hand, John’s making it blatantly clear that Jesus named Peter Kepha, and that they then translated it.
  • Further proof of this is found in Paul’s writings. Paul’s writings are in Greek. If Peter was given by Jesus the Greek name Petros, Paul would surely have used this. But he generally doesn’t. 8 of the ten times he refers to Peter, he calls him Cephas instead. Cephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha.
  • The Syriac Peshitta is an early version of the Bible in Syriac, a close relative to Aramaic. The passage from Matthew reads, “Again I say to you that you are the Rock (Kepha), and upon this Rock (Kepha) I will build my Church, and the gates of Sheol will not subdue it.” There’s no indication in the text that Jesus has suddenly switched to speaking about Himself.

Obviously, since Peter was named Kepha, Jesus’ statement is pretty clear: “you are Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build My Church” means that the Church is built upon Peter. This eliminates virtually all reasonable debate. Suggesting (as some do) that by the second Kepha, Jesus switched to speaking to Himself is a silly interpretation. Look at the context of the passage itself: Jesus (1) singles out Simon by name and lineage, (2) renames him Kepha, (3) says He’ll build His Church upon “this Kepha,” (4) promises Peter the keys of the Kingdom; and (5) promises Peter the power to bind and loosen sins. To suggest that 1, 2, 4, and 5 refer to Peter, but that Jesus randomly started referring to Himself in the third-person by the most confusing name possible is just absurd. It wouldn’t just disrupt the flow, it would stop and then restart a blessing. For comparison, look to the name-changing / covenant creation in Genesis 17:4-8, in which God says to Abram:

“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

If someone were to try and argue that all of this blessing refers to Abraham except the part where God says “I will make you very fruitful,” and that this “you” refers to somebody else (maybe Lot, maybe a passing nomad), you’d rightly laugh. It’s just not a serious argument. Likewise, the argument that Jesus names Peter Kepha, and then refers to Himself (instead of Peter) by the name He just bestowed on Peter suggests Jesus is doing something completely irrational. There’s literally nothing within the passage to suggest He’s doing this; only a fear some Protestants have of conceding the obvious.

This does, however, leave one crucial question: why does Matthew choose to distinguish between the two in Greek? Simple. As noted above, Petra would have been a girl’s name. And since Matthew is writing in Koine Greek, it didn’t matter — the “big rock” / “small rock” distinguish wasn’t around at this point (as noted here and here). Petros and Petra meant the exact same thing, so Matthew went with the masculine form for Peter’s name. But the second time, he went with Petra — because that’s the normal Greek word for Rock. The only time Petros is used in the Bible is to refer to Peter; Petra is the word used the rest of the time. Oh, any by the way, the word for a small rock or a stone in Koine Greek is lithos, and is used 60 times in the Bible. And it’s a masculine noun, so if Matthew was really concerned with showing the Peter was a tiny stone and not the rock on which Jesus built His Church, he could have.

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