The Two “Rocks” of Matthew 16:18 in the Syriac Peshitta

Aug 4th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In the thread entitled “How John Calvin Made me a Catholic,” Jason asserted that the “Greek grammar” of Matthew 16:18 does not allow for the interpretation that Peter is the rock upon which the Church was built. I challenged Jason to make his case from the Greek text, but he has yet to respond. Some readers, assuming that Jason was referring to the discrepancy between the (masculine) gender of the name Jesus gave to Peter (as it is recorded in the Greek), πέτρος, and the (feminine) of gender of the “this rock,” πέτρα, upon which Jesus said He would build the Church (as it is recorded in the Greek), responded that this is a necessary nuance of Greek grammar: Peter, being a man, couldn’t be given the feminine name Petra. And besides, we know that Jesus and Peter were speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and Jesus would have used the same word in both instances.

This is a common Catholic response to the Protestant charge regarding the disparity of gender, and I think it’s a fine response. I also know that it’s not new to many Protestants, and many Protestants (obviously) don’t find it convincing. I’ve heard it said that the texts are in Greek, not in Aramaic, so we should stick with what we know from the text rather than speculating and basing our interpretation on what we think was said in the original discussion. It is not my purpose to go over these arguments again here.

This summer I’ve been learning Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic that originated in Edessa. It was the vehicle of the diffusion of Christianity in the provinces east of Cappadocia (though Greek was also spoken by many in places like Antioch), and it is still the liturgical language of many particular churches (in the Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox “families”). As I alluded to above, many individuals who are interested in this issue assume that the argument is moot because the biblical manuscripts aren’t in Aramaic. This isn’t exactly true. Some of the oldest biblical manuscripts we have are in this Edessene dialect of Aramaic: Syriac. The standard Syriac version of the bible is known as the “Peshitta,” with the Old Testament having been translated in the 2nd century and the New Testament by the 4th century. I thought I’d share the passage in question as it appears in the Peshitta version of Matthew, which is the closest textual evidence we have to what the conversation would have looked like in Aramaic.

ܐܴܦ݂ ܐܷܢܳܐ ܐܴܡܰܪ ܐ̱ܢܳܐ ܠܴܟ݂ ܂ ܕܱ݁ܐܢ̄ܬ݁ ܗ̄ܽܘ ܟܻ݁ܐܦ݂ܳܐ ܂ ܘܥܰܠ ܗܳܕ݂ܶܐ ܟܻ݁ܐܦ݂ܳܐ ܐܷܒ݂ܢܶܝܗ ܠܥܺܕ̱݁ܬ݁ܝ܂ ܘܬ݂ܱܪ̈ܥܶܐ ܕܱ݁ܫܝܽܘܠ ܠܴܐ ܢܶܚܣܢܽܘܢܳܗ܂

“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.”

In both places we see the same word, ܟܺܐܦܳܐ (Kepha or Kepho depending on pronunciation), which is just what we were expecting based on the arguments we’ve seen made about what Jesus would have actually said in Aramaic. I think this fact corroborates the argument, already made by others, that the disparity in gender between Peter’s name and the “this rock” upon which Jesus promised to build His Church is based on the demands of Greek noun inflection. It may also explain the frequency of references to Peter as Cephas in Paul’s letters. The Greek transliteration of the Aramaic/Syriac word ܟܺܐܦܳܐ is κῆφα. Our word “Cephas” is the Latin transliteration of the Greek word. It wasn’t mentioned in either of the responses in the thread on John Calvin, but Paul refers to Peter by name ten times (from my count) in his letters. Of those 10 times, he calls him Cephas eight times, but πέτρος only twice. This may indicate that Peter was commonly addressed by the Aramaic term in that time and place, which further corroborates the hypothesis that it is the name originally given to him by Jesus, and whose gender would not have conflicted in the two instances in Matthew 16. Why else would Paul, who obviously knew Greek just fine, consistently refer to Peter as Cephas in letters written to congregations in the Greek-speaking areas of Corinth (Greece) and Galatia (Asia Minor, northwest of Cappadocia)? Even further still, we have in John 1 another account of Jesus telling Peter that he will be called Rock. In this instance, even in the Greek we find Jesus telling Peter that he will be called Kepha (using the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic), which John then translates for us:

ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν. ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ Σίμων ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωάννου, σὺ κληφήσῃ Κηφᾶς, ὅ ἑρμηνεύεται Πέτρος.

He [Andrew] led him [Peter] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You shall be called Cephas,” which is translated as Peter.

This seems to indicate that any appellation of Cephas as Petros is derived not from theological nuance but from the interest of translating the word for Greek-speakers, and thus the word would naturally be translated with a masculine ending (for reasons alluded to above).

I think there are several good arguments for taking Peter as the referent of “this rock” in Matthew 16:18 and that several of the really interesting ones often get overlooked because of arguments over the genders of these two “rocks.” In my opinion, the great forest of the passage’s narrative force is often missed for the trees of arguments like this. Perhaps I’ll be able to write more about that another time. For now I submit these thoughts because I think they give credence to the arguments made in defense of the Catholic interpetation of “rock” that draw on the relationship between the Greek manuscript tradition and the Aramaic language.

This post was written by David Pell.

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  1. I’ll be so glad when they finally give up the “little pebble” theory. Articles like this one get us closer.

  2. Very tiring when people bring it up and harp on it…Oscar Cullman and other Protestant scholars have debunked it…

  3. From what I’ve read, the popular claim by many Protestants that “Petros” means a “small stone” while “Petra” means “large rock” (or “bedrock”) is losing it’s popularity and force among Protestant scholars. This “distinction” is made in some (biased?) Protestant lexicons, but they get this “distinction” not from Scripture but from one (of many) periods of classical Greek literature. The “distinction” itself is not substantiated by the Bible, since from my study Scripture never uses “Petros” to as the word for “small stone” or “pebble” (nor would that be fitting for Jesus to call someone “pebble”).

  4. It should be important to point out that there is a sizable group of top-knotch Protestant commentators who admit that the “rock” can only refer in context to the person of Peter. Davies & Allison in the excellent ICC series is but one example. For those interested in the fine points of contention here in the pericope I refer to the paper on this subject over at Paradoseis Journal on-line.
    RE Aguirre
    Paradoseis Journal Blog

  5. The Pebble Peter?

  6. I am glad to see this response to Jason as an article in its own right. There is a wealth of valuable information in the comment boxes at CTC, and it is not easy to remember where it is all located. As of today, this article will show up in the CTC Index of Articles. The next time this Protestant argument is raised at CTC (and it is only a matter of time) it will be easy refer to this as a counter-argument.

    This is the first time I have seen an exegesis Rock/Kepha in Matt 16:18 based on the Aramaic translation, and not on the Greek translation. I am definitely book-marking this for my own future use.

    Nice job, David.

  7. Here is a quick Wikki quote on the page about the Peshitta.

    Almost all Syriac scholars agree that the Peshitta gospels are translations of the Greek originals. A minority viewpoint (see Aramaic primacy) is that the Peshitta represent the original New Testament and the Greek is a translation of it.

  8. The context provides also a key. That Jesus adresses his speech to Peter is seen by the fact that all personal pronouns (7 in all) refer to Peter.

  9. Tucker,

    Thanks for the comment and for contributing to the discussion. I’m wondering if the Wikipedia quote might obfuscate the argument David is making, though. First, even granting the point, what is taken away from David’s argument if the Peshitta is indeed a translation of the Gospels in Greek into an Aramaic dialect? Jesus and the Apostles spoke Aramaic and, as David has shown, there would be no way to morphologically distinguish between the two “rocks” of Mt. 16:18 in Aramaic. He’s arguing that the Peshitta, written in the dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac, shows us what words Jesus would have used to communicate the sentence in question. If he’s right, there is no reason for supposing that the difference between “petra” and “petros” in Greek is exegetically significant. Perhaps what someone could try to do in order to refute David is challenge the premise that the Peshitta gives us an idea of what Jesus said in Aramaic. Or perhaps argue that Jesus switched to Koine Greek while teaching the disciples at precisely this juncture.

    Second, and more of a trivial point, Wikipedia is not always a helpful source. For example, it is inaccurate to say that a minority of scholars think that the Peshitta represents the original NT. No scholars of whom I’m aware think St. Paul wrote his letters in anything other than Greek, e.g. If anything, the Aramaic to Greek hypothesis might apply to the sources for, say, St. Luke. I do know that there is a minority of scholars who think that the Gospel of Matthew itself was originally composed in Aramaic given some lines found in early Christian sources as well as internal evidence. Perhaps this is what the (anonymous) author of the Wiki article meant to convey.


  10. Barrett,
    Thanks for your response. I should have phrased my Wiki in the form of a question instead of an argument, I did not think that the quote carried much weight. I did think it was an interesting element to the discussion given that David is using the Peshitta as an argument to support an Aramaic view of the text.

  11. Many of us the the Syriac Orthodox community this the words “this rock” are self referencial. Jesus is referring to himself. This is quite common in Syriac/Aramaic and it occurs in many forms throughout the Gospels. For example Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in Mark. Joachim Jeremias points out other examples in his book on the Parables of Jesus. I think Jesus is doing the same thing here when talking to Peter.
    Father Dale A. Johnson
    Syriac Orthodox priest

  12. (I think this comment I made at the Calvin thread might also belong just here.)

    Once it is clear that what Jesus said was:

    “And so I say to you, you are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church”. (Mt 16:18)

    where both instances of “rock” were “kepha” in the original Aramaic, the issue of who was the rock meant by Jesus in “upon this rock” becomes a matter of implicit body language. I will make it explicit between () to render the two interpretations of Mt 16:18:

    “And so I say to you (pointing to Simon), you are Rock, and (still pointing to Simon) upon this rock I will build my church”. (Roman Catholic interpretation, RC)

    “And so I say to you (pointing to Simon), you are Rock, and (now pointing to Himself) upon this rock I will build my church”. (Eastern Orthodox & Protestant interpretation, EO&P)

    To note, the EO&P interpretation is conceptually in line with 1 Peter 2:4-5, which uses “lithos” = “stone” instead of “petra” = “rock”:

    “Come to Him (Jesus), a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones (the faithful), let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5)

    Thus, in the EO&P interpretation Jesus is the rock / cornerstone upon which the Church is built, and Simon is just another living rock / stone in the Church’s building, just like any other faithful is.

    Actually, the EO&P interpretation is correct in a certain sense: at the personal, spiritual, existential level Jesus is the rock upon which we the faithful are built like living stones (the same rock referred to many times in the Psalms, which is logical since Jesus is “I Am”, YHWH), and this truth applies to Simon, his successors the bishops of Rome, and any other faithful. The problem is that it is not logical to interpret Jesus’ words in Mt 16:18 in that sense, for several reasons:

    1. Why would Jesus rename Simon as Rock only to say immediately that He Himself was the rock?

    2. More importantly, why would Jesus rename Simon as Rock if He was meaning that Simon was just another living rock in the Church’s building?

    3. Even more importantly, the only way to interpret adequately Mt 16:18 is by reading it within the whole statement by Jesus. Let’s see what the Protestant interpretation looks like:

    17: Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. (In this verse Simon is definitely special.)

    18: And so I say to you, you are Rock, and upon this rock (Myself) I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (In this verse Simon is just like any other faithful, even though he is renamed for some strange reason.)

    19: 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. (In this verse Simon is again special. And thanks to the fact that in Greek personal pronouns have differerent forms for singular and plural, it cannot be argued that there was yet another change in Jesus’ body language and now He is pointing to the circle around Him so that “you” refers now to the 12 Apostles.)

    We must use reason to interpret the Scripture. An interpretation of Mt 16:18 where “upon this rock” does not refer to Simon defies all logic.

  13. What is beautiful about the Catholic understanding of Scripture is that no one meaning exhausts the depth of the text. For example, there is a sense in which the Rock has an allusion to Christ, that it has an allusion to the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and to Simon, “You are Peter and upon this Rock.” It seems that the last is definitely in view at the very least. Since coming back home to the Church I have found that the Church’s hermeneutical approach has opened up the Sacred Text and not, as some think, closed the Sacred Text off from a continual deepening of its meaning.

  14. Tucker,

    Thanks for taking the time to look into this and reply. I’m not sure I’m following the thrust of your posts, though. Could you maybe restate the question?

    Dear Fr. Dale,

    You said:

    Many of us the the Syriac Orthodox community this the words “this rock” are self referencial. Jesus is referring to himself. This is quite common in Syriac/Aramaic and it occurs in many forms throughout the Gospels. For example Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in Mark. Joachim Jeremias points out other examples in his book on the Parables of Jesus. I think Jesus is doing the same thing here when talking to Peter.

    The Oriental Orthodox Churches entered into a state of schism 500 years before the Eastern Orthodox, so it would not surprise me if they did not view Peter as the rock here. The main purpose of my article was to deflect particular arguments, normally offered by Protestants, which say that such an interpretation is impossible based on the grammar in the Greek text. There are other reasons why we could read Peter as the rock, such as the popularity of referring to him as Cephas among Greek-speakers recorded in the Pauline epistles (as I mentioned in the article), or the position of the demonstrative pronoun (this) in the text, especially the Syriac text. A pronoun needs an antecedent, and it would be most natural for the demonstrative pronoun that expresses close proximity to refer to the closest logical antecedent, and the name that Jesus gives to Peter is the only possible candidate for this antecedent.

    I should also point out again, as I noted in the article, that the Syrian Orthodox Church is not the only particular church to use Syriac as its liturgical language. The Maronite Catholics, Syro-Malabar Catholics, Melkite Catholics, and Syriac Catholics all use it.

    Furthermore, the Syriac patristic tradition upholds the Catholic interpretation of this passage. If you’d like to look into this more, I’d suggest you start with this brief article, written by a Syriac priest and former assistant Metropolitan. The article is itself an excerpt of a paper that Dr. Mor Athanasius gave at a conference on Syriac Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue. I’ll copy and paste the excerpt here that has to do with the Syriac fathers:


    The Fathers of the Syrian Church tried to give a theological interpretation to the person of Peter. They were fully convinced of the unique office of Peter in the primitive Christian community. Ephrem, Afrahat and Marutha who were supposed to be the best exponents of the early Syrian tradition unequivocally acknowledge the office of Peter. They understood that Peter participated in the person as well as the office of Christ in a special way. The Syrian Fathers following the rabbinic tradition call Jesus “Kepha” for they see “rock” in the Old Testament as a messianic Symbol. When Christ gave his own name “Kepha” to Simon he was giving him participation in the person and office of Christ. Christ who is the Kepha and shepherd made Simon the chief shepherd in his place and gave him the very name Kepha and said that on Kepha he would build the Church. Afrahat shared the common Syriac tradition. For him Kepha is infact another name of Jesus, and Simon was given the right to share the name. The person who receives somebody else’s name also obtains the rights of the person who bestows the name. Afrahat makes the stone taken from Jordan a type of Peter. He says Jesus son of Nun set up the stones for a witness in Israel; Jesus our Saviour called Simon Kepha Sarirto and set him as the faithful witness among nations.

    Again he says in his commentary on Deutronomy that Moses brought forth water from “rock” (Kepha) for the people and Jesus sent Simon Kepha to carry his teachings among nations. Our Lord accepted him and made him the foundation of the Church and called him Kepha. When he speaks about transfiguration of Christ he calls him Simon Peter, the foundation of the Church.

    Ephrem also shared the same view. In a Hymn on Peter he writes:

    “Blessed are you Simon Kepha
    Who holds the keys which the Spirit forges
    Great is the word and ineffable
    That could stand bind and loose above and below
    Blessed are thou who wert as the head
    And as the tounge of the body of brotheren
    Through Simon was heard the Revelation from the Father
    Through the Rock unshakable”
    (De Virginitate15.6,7)

    In Armenian version of De Virginitate records Peter the Rock shunned honour Who was the head of the Apostles,

    In a MEMRA of Efrem found in Holy Week Liturgy points to the importance of Peter:

    “The Simon, my disciple, have I set as foundation of the Holy Church,
    I called thee Kepha that thou mightest bear all buildings
    Thou art the overseer (baharo) of those who build for me the Church on earth

    If they build anything hateful the foundation restrains them
    Thou art the foundation-head of my disciples
    By thee I will give drink to all nations thou hast the sweetness of life which I will give
    I have given thee keys of my kingdom
    Behold. Thou rulest over all my possession.”

    Both Afrahat and Ephrem represent the authentic tradition of the Syrian Church. The different orders of liturgies used for sanctification of Church building, marriage, ordination etc. reveal that the primacy of Peter is a part of living faith of the Church…
    It has been conclusively made clear that the modern Biblical scholarship supports the authentic Syriac tradition concerning the role of Peter.

    I’ll finish by reiterating Tom’s point, which I find very helpful. The Catholic Church does not believe that Peter’s position exists independently from Christ’s delegation of that authority. Peter participates in Jesus’ authority in a special way, as the excerpt above explains. At the end of the day, it’s not really a question of either/or, but of both/and. Our Protestant detractors, as they do in other contexts, use arguments like the one which was the impetus for this post as frameworks to force the both/and into an either/or, and the main purpose of my post was to show one reason (of several) why this particular grammatical argument falls short of accomplishing that.

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. I’m very happy to see my first post generating some reflection and discussion.

  15. Fr. Dale A. Johnson (re: 8)

    In John 1:42 we read “And he brought him to Jesus. And Jesus looking upon him, said: Thou art Simon the son of John: thou shalt be called Kepha, which is interpreted Peter. ”

    Is this Kepha referring to Christ or to Simon(Peter)?

    @Johannes (re: 9)
    There is no one EO interpretation. Generally speaking, how close to the Catholic understanding, one EO person interprets this passage, is directly proportional to how “ecumenical” said EO person is.

    Lost in all the equivocation by some with regards something as plain as this text, is the fact that. Peter is not even Peter’s given name. His given name is Simon. The biblical narrative, reflects Peter, or Simon Peter or Simon called Peter, because the force of Christs word after his ascension had become manifest. You get a picture of Peter most likely being referred to as Simon by Christ and the rest of the Apostles until after the ascension. Even Christ still referred to him as “Simon son of John” before the ascencion.( John 21:15-17)

  16. After reading over the article again I realize that I missed the thrust of your argument. I thought you were putting the Peshitta forward as the manuscript asked for by protestants when we say we should stick to the Greek because that is what we have. I see now that you are saying that this Syriac text adds evidence to what Jesus may have actually said at the time in Aramaic.

  17. Tucker,


    I should have indicated in the article that the Peshitta version of the New Testament is not the oldest Syriac translation of the New Testament. There was a Syriac version of the Diatessaron and an “Old Syriac” version, the former of which may have been the most popular version until the advent of the Peshitta version. If I had access to the texts of either of those two older versions, I would have used them in the article. Unfortunately, the Syriac version of the Diatessaron is no longer extant. The Old Syriac gospels are attested in only two early manuscripts and I don’t know if digital images or transcriptions are available online.

  18. I found it interesting to find this in the commentary from the Geneva Study Bible

    16:18 5 And I say also unto thee, That thou art l Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the m gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    (5) That is true faith, which confesses Christ, the virtue of which is invincible.
    (l) Christ spoke in the Syrian tongue, and therefore did not use this discourse to distinguish between Petros, which signifies Peter, and Petra, which signifies a rock, but in both places used the word Cephas: but his meaning is what is written in Greek, in which the different word endings distinguish between Peter, who is a piece of the building, and Christ the Petra, that is, the rock and foundation: or else he named him Peter because of the confession of his faith, which is the Church’s as well as his, as the old fathers witness, for so says Theophylact. That confession which you have made, shall be the foundation of the believers.

  19. Tucker (#15)

    The folks who wrote the commentary on the Geneva Study Bible are attempting to sever the human agent from his Intellect and will. We cannot seperate Peter from his faith or his confession, else you lose the trinitarian message in Matt 16.Now In John 1:42 he did not say, Simon’s confessions or Simon’s faith shall be called peter, but Simon —which is all of him.

  20. Tucker,

    What do you find interesting about that quotation?

    I’m not trying to be obtuse. It’s just that both of your posts have focused on you quoting something from somewhere and saying that you find the quote “interesting.” I’m glad you find it interesting, but it’s hard to tell whether you’re trying to spark discussion, and if so, in what direction you’re trying to take the discussion.

  21. David,
    If you are saying in this article that the word for Petra/Petros are the same in Aramaic, and your evidence is based on the Peshitta text. And you are making this argument because protestants have been arguing that the two words used in this instance are different based on the Greek manuscripts. Then I found it interesting that the reformers in 1560 agreed that in both places the word Cephas was used. They agreed with you on this point.

  22. Tucker,

    At the beginning of my post I said I was writing because of a comment made by Jason in another thread here on Called to Communion, where he stated that the “Greek grammar” does not allow for the Catholic interpretation of this passage. It appeared to me that all the responses that were offered to Jason on the other thread assumed he was disregarding the fact that the Greek text is a translation of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. Regardless of what the authors of the Geneva Bible said, the charge that Jason makes is commonly brought against Catholics when we come to Matthew 16, and the evidence regarding the nature of the translation from Aramaic into Greek is often overlooked. So I’m glad that the Geneva bible admits that Jesus did not originally say Petros and Petra, but not everyone is aware of that fact or the weight we think that fact gives our arguments about Matthew 16.

    If you would like an example of the premise I outlined in the article regarding common Protestant objections to our interpretation of this passage, please see this page. It was the first Protestant website I came across when I did a search for “is Peter the rock.” It makes all of the arguments I alluded to above. It is the response to a Catholic reader’s objections to their earlier article. Note that the response to the Catholic objector is dealing for the first time with the evidence regarding the Aramaic. This indicates that the Protestant website, in its original argument that the Catholic reading of Matthew 16:18 is wrong, did not even take into account the Aramaic evidence. The author of the website goes on to say that historical speculations regarding the language Jesus probably would have been speaking are irrelevant, as the original Gospel text was in Greek. This is exactly what I say in the second paragraph of my post (“I’ve heard it said that the texts are in Greek, not in Aramaic, so we should stick with what we know from the text rather than speculating and basing our interpretation on what we think was said in the original discussion.”). So I thank you for pointing out what the authors of the Geneva Bible had to say about this, but I so not think that commentary represents the familiarity of the average interlocutor with the linguistic complexities of the Mediterranean world in the first century, and the linguistic diversity that is to be found in the transmission of the bible in the earliest Christian centuries.

    Even though, as you point out, the authors of the Geneva Bible admit that both Greek words are translations of one Aramaic word, they do go on to say that “his meaning is what is written in the Greek.” The assumption here is that the Greek can have a different meaning than the Aramaic, almost as if Jesus himself meant something different when he said these words to Peter than what Matthew meant when he wrote his gospel. That’s what it looks like, at least. If they mean the actual meaning of the Aramaic is not evinced by the grammar of the Aramaic, but it elucidated by the Greek, then that sounds like special pleading to me, i.e. they’ve merely assumed that the gender disparity in Greek is more than just the necessary result of the translation.

  23. David,

    You may be correct that in translating from Aramaic into Greek the only option is Petra/Petros.
    I am in no position to say whether the gender disparity in Greek is necessary or not. I have read arguments from both sides and have found both convincing. I am not sure but I would think that the Protestant view is that the Greek text is inspired and therefore is our source of authority even if Jesus spoke Aramaic. This is why I found the Geneva Commentary interesting, (and why I posted it) because it showed that the reformers believed that the distinction in Greek was not significant. This is not what most Protestants are taught in my experience.

    Personally I tend to agree with Tom Riello, I believe that Scripture is economical with words, and that the meaning of the text is multifaceted.

  24. @tucker – and, of course, @David Pell –

    It has always seemed to me that the ‘petros/petra’ business was not terribly relevant. In fact, I am inclined to agree that the Greek text takes priority. We Catholics make this same argument against Jews, and others, who point out that Hebrew `almah does not mean ‘virgin’ as opposed to non-virgin, although virginity may be presumed in a ‘maiden’ (which is more or less what it does mean). The Septuagint, however, translates it as parthenos, and the New Testament takes it from there. God, we may presume, providentially intended that.

    However, I don’t see that the ‘petros/petra’ business has anything to do with it. The use of ‘petros’ to mean a stone, rather than a rock, is something found only in classical poetry. It is never used elsewhere in the New Testament. Nevertheless, supposing that the writer of the Greek Matthew (with its presumed underlying ‘Hebrew’ – whether Hebrew or Aramaic – text) intended a reference to that meaning distinction, it does not seem to me to imply some fundamental opposition. Calling Peter ‘Rocky’ (which is what it amounts to) does indeed make reference to the Rock, which is Christ. The Protestant problem here, it seems to me, is too much exclusive-or thinking. “If Peter is a stone – a chip of the old Block, so to speak – then Jesus must not mean He is going to build his Church on Peter.”


    It seems obvious to me that the only reason for calling Peter by that name is precisely to say that the Church will be built on him – and on the Christ Who is the Rock that Peter is, after all, only the ‘vicar’ of.

    The ‘papist’ passages (Matthew 16; Luke 22; John 21) appear to me to read exactly like Old Testament prophecies – necessarily vague until their fulfilment becomes apparent. As one sees the providence of God worked out in the early Church through the development of the papacy, one has the ‘ah-hah!’ moment.

    This is beautifully described in Newman’s wonderful book “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” All should read it.

    By the way, St Augustine somewhere comments on the Matthew 16 passage making the passage refer to all three meanings of the ‘rock’: Peter, Christ, and the Confession.


  25. With respect, I’m not sure how helpful it is to parse the meaning of “rock” when we overlook other important words, like “gates,” in the passage.

    Christ said the gates of hell shall not prove stronger than the Church (I don’t think “subdue” is correct). Gates, of course, are found in walls. They have a defensive rather than offensive connotation. If we read further in Matthew 16, we see Christ is preparing his Apostles for his Death and Resurrection. That was, of course, the despoiling of death itself, when the gates of hell proved impotent.

    I don’t think, from an Orthodox perspective, there’s anything wrong with St. Peter also being the rock. He frequently stands in for the Apostles, and can even be seen as standing in for Christians generally (as St. John provides a type for all Christians when he stands at the foot of the Cross and is named the son of the Virgin).

    I’d just suggest we keep in mind what the rock is doing.

  26. Hi Steven CC,

    Thanks for dropping by and reading my post.

    You said that you don’t think there’s anything wrong, “from an Orthodox perspective,” with Peter also being the rock. I wrote this post primarily to contribute to a discussion about the role of Peter in Christian ecclesiology that often takes place between Catholics and Reformed Protestants, the latter of which often argue that the text of Matthew 16:18 does not allow us to understand Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built. If Orthodox Christians do not have a problem with Peter being called the rock, then I can only rejoice! I would also hope that this recognition would increase in Orthodox Christians a desire to be in communion with the successor of Peter, but that is not the subject of this thread.

    As for the first part of your post, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Your statements about gates, walls, and the rest of Matthew 16 are interesting, and may shed light on some other question, but I do not see what relationship they have to the particular discussion to which my article is meant to be a contribution. We could talk about those things, or about the Greek word κατισχύω, its translation in the Syriac Peshitta, and whether your disagreement with my translation of the Syriac word as “subdue” is mere semantics (do you know Greek and Syriac?), but that would take us off of the topic of my post. If there’s something I’m missing, please forgive me and point it out so that we may continue the discussion.

    Yours in Christ,

  27. Mr. Pell,

    Forgive me if my post was a non-sequitor.

    Because of references to various “Eastern” glosses on the passage, I thought to add a reading from a Greek Orthodox perspective. I don’t think the reading I offered places the heirs of St. Peter in any special place, but as you said, that’s another conversation.

    As for my discussion of “gates,” the subtext of Catholic/Protestant dialogues about the meaning of “rock” and St. Peter’s place in the passage center on the infallibility and primacy of the heirs of St. Peter. I was trying to note that, if the “rock” in the passage is assuming an offensive rather than defensive posture (against the stationary gates of hell rather than defending against the advances of evil) and that, even more specifically, this is in the context of the despoiling of Hades in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, that suggests it might not be appropriate to use the passage as a proof of papal primacy or supremacy or infallibility, or anything even specifically papal at all. Rather, this reading views the passage as describing the Church’s ultimate victory over death, and so semantic debates about the rock must change their emphasis.

    I am a student of Greek, so my comment was based on the Greek rather than Syriac texts. Forgive me as I wasn’t clear.


  28. Steve,

    Please, brother, call me David!

    I think you are right to point out that it is one thing to discuss whether or not the grammar of the passage allows us to understand Peter as the antecedent of the “this rock,” and another thing to ask what the implications are of Peter being the rock. Some Protestants, in order to escape the conclusions drawn by Catholics, argue that Peter is altogether not the rock. As you’ve pointed out, at least some Orthodox Christians accept that Peter had a special place among the apostles but do not think that passages like this one support uniquely Catholic claims about the Petrine office and the question of its role throughout history (if it’s even meant to persist throughout history).

    I also agree that uniquely Catholic doctrines re: the papacy are not spelled out in that passage, which is why I did not say anything about the papal dogmas in my article. Personally, I think that this passage teaches certain things which indirectly lend support to Catholic papal dogmas, but, as we’ve both made clear, that’s neither here nor there as it relates to this article.

    Your points about the offensive posture of the rock are interesting. They remind me of the prophecy in Daniel of the rock that destroys the statue and fills the whole earth. While it’s true that this passage exists in a certain proximity to other statements Jesus makes in preparation for his death and resurrection, your points conflate (or at least seem to me to conflate) Jesus himself with the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, but it is not we who harrowed death and despoiled hell. Thus although I can see how you might construe the offensive posture of the rock, you seem to be saying in one sentenence that Jesus is talking about the Church, then in the next that Jesus is talking about himself. If we’re going to do biblical theology rather than strict grammatical exegesis of this passage, I would prefer to see the rock as being the fulfillment of the aforementioned prophecy in Daniel. The rock breaks the statue, whose individual segments represent the individual kingdoms of the world that ruled in the area of the eastern Mediterranean before the coming of Christ, and then spreads throughout the whole world. As St. John writes in Revelation 11:15, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.” I’d be interested to know what you think about this reading, since the prophecy in Daniel specifically gives us a picture of a rock with a decidedly “offensive” posture.

    Yours in Christ,

  29. Though I appreciate your point about not conflating Christ and the Church, on the other hand, as you said, the Church is Christ’s Body. “Those who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.” There is a very real sense in which we are called to be Christ, and in which Christ is all. Some have suggested that, if we are serious about our Faith, we should prostrate ourselves before all who we see as if before Christ Himself. If we truly believe in Liturgy as Eschaton, by participating in the fullness of all things we participate in the life of Christ and are there, even at the harrowing. So the conflation you point to as a problem is something with which I’m quite comfortable.

    An example of this could be St. Athanasios’ “Life” of St. Anthony the Great, where he presents the life of the saint as in a sense recapitulating the life of Christ, because it is no longer the saint who lives but Christ who lives in him.

    As for the quote from Revelation, I’m not as well educated on the book as I should be. But, as I know it’s read in the Orthodox tradition as an eschatological and liturgical work (not to be redundant), my own private gloss is that the passage refers to a time when even the demons (the powers and principalities of this world) repent and return to God; though not a matter of dogma, it’s a hope that many Fathers and Saints have shared through the centuries. This also fits with the prophecy in Daniel, where the smashing of the statute can be seen as an end to the idolatry which is the fruit of the demons.

    Forgive me.

  30. […] am responding to Catholic interpretation on Matthew 16.18. Here, here, and […]

  31. I agree with you a hundred percent and this confirms with my study done in 1993 at the age of 28, on the Rock, where peter is being called the rock, “KEPHA” i never accepted the protestant arguments of pebbles/stone/rock, feminine/masculine, petra/petros etc, for they were biased in nature and not an honest interpretation of what our Lord was truly trying to portray. This place is too short for me to elaborate my findings as to why i believe that Our Lord was speaking of himself as THE ROCK (revealing a larger picture) though he truly named peter as Rock, Kepha (there was a play of words by our Lord n confirmed in the Gospel of John ch:2 (The temple). My study proves the Roman catholic have selfishly misinterpreted the verse in matt.16:18 to suit their needs.

  32. I just find to hard to believe that Jesus tells Simon he is the rock and immediately gives him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and unbind and then referring to himself Jesus as the rock in which he will build his church. It’s like saying – Okay Simon, you are the rock, and I am building the church in a rock but you are not that rock, that other rock its me, but I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and unbind but you are not the rock, I am the rock. -Its just comical.

    And then later on, before the ascension, Jesus entrust his disciples, and all of us, to Peter.

  33. Edgar, #31

    One might note that Jesus is a King, and that a King has a Kingdom. That being so, there are things that kings have in common. One of those things is the chamberlain or bearer of the keys.

    Isaiah 22:20-23 describes the bearer of the keys of David’s kingdom. It is a short but interesting read. Of note, one of the verses says that “he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” As an aside, Peter’s successors are known as the holy “father.”

    For a good part of three years, Jesus has been working with and shaping the apostles. He quite obviously knows their strengths and shortcomings, and He decides that Simon will get a new name, namely Rock. The Aramaic word for rock is kepha, or if you happen to favor Paul, Cephas.

    Peter is one of those relatively few persons in scripture who is renamed. That renaming occurs in front of the others, and when the scriptures are written, Simon is barely used while Peter is sec0nd only to our Lord in scriptural references.

    I have heard different reasons for the selection of Peter and frankly I don’t have a clue why Jesus would select him, but He did. I would note that coming out of evangelicalism, with a keen appreciation for scripture, I did not have a problem with Peter. I believed Jesus when He spoke (as in scripture), which is the cause of my conversion.

    Jesus the King will not die again. Peter did and he left a line of successors for the office he was given. A King Who doesn’t die will need successors to fill that office down through time. They work for the King Whose Kingdom is the Church.

    Peter and his successors have other roles which must be handled as well. They are associates to the High Priest Who is also the Passover Sacrifice of the New Covenant. As such, they are responsible for maintaining the Passover Sacrifice throughout the world, working with the bishops, the successors to the apostles. It is Peter to whom Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”

    Jesus has a universal Church which, in good ages and bad, has continued to bring the good news to whomever would receive it. Peter is an important part of that Church established by our Lord Who is its Head, and which is led by the Holy Spirit to all truth. Truth, if my reading of history is right, is addressed when the question has posited itself and must be examined and decided upon.

    It was not a data dump into either 66 or 73 books.

    The Truth continues to be questioned and needs to be answered.

  34. Coming rather late to the party, I realize…but I thought I’d add one more thing to the identification of Peter as “the rock”:

    My understanding is that by the first century, the Davidic Dynasty’s office of the Al Bayith was in some fashion replaced by, or combined with, the office of the sagan or prefect, of the priests. This person was not the High Priest but had various important duties which included (a.) supervising and organizing the priests; (b.) being in charge of the security of the temple precincts, including the locking of the gates at night and their unlocking in the morning; (c.) being ready to stand-in for the High Priest if he accidentally became ritually impure and could not perform a High-Priestly duty; (d.) being on the other end of the rope when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and perhaps even completing the ritual should the High Priest be struck dead while inside (!).

    Now, if Jesus is handing Simon Kepha the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as Hezekiah handed first Shebna and then Eliakim the keys of the House of David, we might expect Simon Kepha to be the Lead Administrator of Jesus’ Kingdom.

    But if Jesus is handing Simon Kepha the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven with the understanding that the Kingdom is the Church and the Church is His Body and His Body is The Temple, then…Jesus is handing Simon Kepha the keys to the Temple (which is the Church, which is the Household of God).

    And as they guy with the keys of the Temple, Simon Kepha is not only an administrator, but the prefect of priests and in charge of the security of the Temple — and is explicitly a priest, fulfilling a second-in-command role to the High Priest (Jesus Himself).

    Or so I have read. I’m no expert in Judaica; perhaps someone else could confirm some of this? (I’m particularly shaky about whether the Al Bayith role was always priestly, or whether it was originally a purely secular ministry under Solomon and his successors, but eventually became combined with the priesthood after the exile. If anyone has information on that, please post it!)

    Also, I’ve heard that the dwelling-place of the high priest (during his turn) and the sagan (who had a more long-term appointment) on the Temple Mount was on a crag or outcropping of some kind referred to as simply “the rock.” If that’s true, then perhaps the identification of the sagan with “the rock” was similar to the identification of the High Priest with the Temple itself? I.e., just as the High Priest was “the Temple-Man,” with garments decorated in the same way as the Temple itself, so too the sagan was the “Rock-Man,” with the keys to the Temple? This would further emphasize that Jesus was putting Simon Kepha into this secondary-priestly role.

    Anyone have information to back up, or contradict, any of that?

  35. Jesus isnt the rock neither is peter the rock is the revelation that peter received And thus confessed, “ you are the Christ son of the living God” this is most logical because only those who make the confession (Romans 10:8-9) after receiving the revelation are saved thus becoming a member of the church which is being built up! The word Jesus used for build has an inperfect continual tense meaning Jesus continues to build his church every time someone receives revelation of Jesus and confesses it just like peter!

  36. I came across this Non-Catholic Christian website with their view of this topic. It is a new argument I had not heard and would be interested to hear a Catholic response from anyone here at Called-to-Communion. Thank you!

  37. Allison. #36

    I went to that sight and read the post and the comments. When taking Matthew 16:18 into consideration, it is imperative to look at the entire scene from Matthew 16:13-20 to understand, not only why Jesus changes Simon bar-Jona’s name, but what that name change will eventually mean for the Church Christ called “My Church.”

    15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
    16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
    17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
    18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.
    19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    Martha makes the same profession of faith that Simon bar-Jona does, but Jesus does not change her name.

    John 11:
    21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
    22 And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
    23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
    24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
    25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
    26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
    27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

    In Matthew 16:18-19, not only does Jesus change Simon bar-Jona’s name to Peter, the rock, (petros, petra shua lithoi, Kephas, Kepha, etc), but Jesus promises to give the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Simon bar-Jona, now called Peter.

    Jesus had yoked Himself to Peter in many ways in the gospels (as He does to all of us). Peter is given a mission which he is to fulfill no matter what type of rock the word Peter means.

    In John’s gospel, Jesus, referring Himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10 states this:

    14 I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me,
    15 as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
    16 And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

    Jesus states that HE must bring the other sheep into the sheepfold, so that there shall be ONE flock and ONE Shepherd. He is, of course, speaking of the Gentiles. Jesus never does this while He walked upon the earth. That is left for the one Jesus has entrusted his one flock to tend, to feed and to shepherd His One flock, (John 21:15-17).

    Lets look at one of the ways that Simon bar-Jona, now renamed Peter uses the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Acts 10:13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

    Notice that it is the LORD God who calls “Peter” by the name Jesus gives him in Matthew 16:18. This is the only time I am aware of that God Himself calls someone by their name in the New Testament. God doesn’t call Peter, by his birth name, but by the name that Jesus said: “….. you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church …..”

    7 And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

    There are several things here to keep in mind:

    Jesus is our Rock of rocks and our Foundation of foundations, but He is in heaven awaiting His enemies to be made a footstool.
    Peter accepted the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a metaphor for the Ecclesial Authority given him by Christ Himself, on behalf of His One Church.
    God calls Peter by the very name Jesus gave him, when Peter, in Persona Christi, completes the mission of bringing the Gentiles into the One Flock, the One Church, Christ called My Church. “Upon this rock I will build My Church……” The Gentiles are now brought into the Church by the one Christ renamed Rock.
    Peter (and his successors) is entrusted to Tend, to Feed, and to Shepherd this One Flock.

    Jesus said that “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Peter, whether big rock, little rock, petros, petra etc, will produce an abundant harvest because He acts in and through Christ Jesus.


    R. Zell

  38. Hi Allison (#36),

    The author of the post you linked to, Pastor David Stark, concludes his article with, “The Greek text does not teach that Peter is the rock.” But even if it’s true that petros and petra refer to two different-sized rocks, that doesn’t prove Stark’s conclusion.

    The most important detail in connecting petros with petra is that Christ Himself connects the two. He first draws attention to Peter’s name by saying, “And I tell you, you are petros,” and from that concludes, “And on this petra I will build my Church.” There’s an obvious wordplay going on, and it doesn’t depend on the two words referring to the same thing.

    As an example in English, think of the general manager of a baseball team who signs a star player named Edward. He says to him, “You are Ed, and on this edifice I will build my team.” Unlike petros and petra, the words “Ed” and “edifice” have no similar meaning whatsoever. And yet we know from the way the manager is speaking that Ed is the edifice, since the wordplay is based on similar sounds.

    So, too, the wordplay in Christ’s words is obvious from the similar forms, even if petros refers only to a moveable rock, and petra to an immoveable one. They don’t need to refer to the same thing to be connected through wordplay.

    In fact, the difference that Stark points out fits just fine with Catholic teaching. We could read the text as Christ contrasting the smallness and movability of the man, Peter, with the largeness and immovability of the office, the papacy, on which the Church will be built. Popes will come and go. They might not always be faithful, or wise. They will be men of their times, subject to movement by the world around them. In contrast, the papacy will not come and go. It will not be an institution of any one age, but will endure through them all, an immoveable rock for the stability of the Church upon which it’s built.

    In any case, for Stark to prove that “the Greek text does not teach that Peter is the rock,” he must reckon with the fact that Christ Himself connects the two.


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