“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. 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.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
In my last post I spoke to what seems to be a more recent objection to the Catholic view of Matthew 16:18 and Christ’s proclamation he intended to build his Church on the person of St. Peter – the “rock.” This objection is that when Christ says “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” the “rock” on which he intended to build his church is not referring to Peter at all, but rather to Christ himself. In that post I reviewed one of the common arguments used to support that perspective. I now turn to the second common argument used to support this view, which is there is a difference in the Greek text between the words used for “Peter” and “rock.” The text in Matthew 16:18 in Greek says “you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.” “Petros” is then reduced by some to mean a small stone, not a rock. So in essence the view is Christ is belittling Peter by telling him he is but a small stone, but on Christ himself, the “rock,” he will build his Church.
There can be much said about this. Jimmy Akin refers to this text as one of the passages he “put on the shelf” when he was studying to be a Presbyterian minister. When his wife reconverted to the Catholic faith of her youth and thereby derailed his opportunity to be ordained, he took those passages and began to seriously study them. One of the things he noticed about Matthew 16:18-19 is Christ made three different statements to Peter when he professed Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Each statement begins with a blessing, and then has a “continuation” in the text that further explains the blessing:
One of the problems when the claim is made Peter isn’t the “rock” upon which Christ will build his Church is it simply wouldn’t flow with the rest of the text. Why would Christ proclaim Peter is blessed because he’d had a direct revelation from the Father, then belittle him by calling him a small stone, and then turn around and give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the authority to bind and loose?
One response Catholics will sometimes make to this claim is Christ in all likelihood was not speaking in Greek, but would have been speaking in Aramaic. In that exchange, the Aramaic word Cephas (or Keepa) would have been used for both Peter’s name and the word “rock.” And if you look at an Aramaic Bible today (as below) you can see this would be true.
Opponents of that view would point out while it may be likely Christ was speaking in Aramaic and not Greek, the author of the Greek text chose to use those two different words for a reason.
One thing problematic with the view “petra” means “rock” but “Petros” means “little stone” is there is nothing within the Bible that can support this. When the Bible speaks to a stone, the Greek word “lithos” is consistently used. The only time the word “Petros” is used is to identify the person of St. Peter. People speak to the differences between Attic and Koine Greek to try to make their point on both sides of the discussion. For what it’s worth, many prominent Protestant Bible scholars do not take the position “Petros” refers to a little stone. In his book “Upon This Rock,” Steve Ray gives detailed citations of this for those who are interested.
In reality though, we do not have to leave Scripture in order to definitively answer this question. While we may not be able to conclusively say whether Christ was speaking in Greek or Aramaic in Matthew 16:18, we do know with certainty the name Christ gave to Peter was the Aramaic “Cephas,” and “Petros” is the Greek translation of that word. The name “Cephas” is preserved in the original text, and we’re told “Petros” is a translation of “Cephas.” This is recorded in John 1:42, which is when Christ actually changes Peter’s name. It is the moment he first lays eyes on him:
“One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).” John 1:40-42
The text tells us Jesus gave Simon the Aramaic name “Cephas,” and that means “Petros.” Per Scripture itself, “Cephas” and “Petros” are equivalent and have the same meaning. And everyone seems to be in agreement the Aramaic word “Cephas” means “rock.”
This leads to some major inconsistencies with those who try to profess “Petros” means a small stone and not “rock” in Matthew 16:18. For example, in his study Bible John MacArthur says this about Matthew 16:18: “The word for ‘Peter’, Petros, means a small stone (John 1:42).…. So Jesus’ words here are best interpreted as a simple play on words in that boulder-like truth that came from the mouth of one who was called a small stone.”
When MacArthur references “Petros” means a “small stone” based on John 1:42, that is directly related to translations like the KJV that instead of rendering “Petros” in that verse as “Peter,” rather translate as “And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.”
This creates a great problem however, for as I mentioned, all seem to be in agreement the Aramaic word “Cephas” means “rock,” not “stone.” How can Cephas mean “rock,” and “Petros” be its literal translation to Greek, but mean something different than “rock?” So for example in his commentary on John 1:42, MacArthur says this – “Up to this time, Peter had been been known as ‘Simon the son of John.’ The term ‘Cephas’ means ‘rock’ in Aram, which is translated ‘Peter’ in Greek. Jesus’ assignment of the name ‘Cephas’ or ‘Peter’ to Simon occurred at the outset of his ministry. The statement is not only predictive of what Peter would be called but also declarative of how Jesus would transform his character and use him in relationship to the foundation of the church (Matthew 16:18).”
The Evangelical site gotquestions.org has this same conflict. In their article about Matthew 16:18 they rely on the KJV translation and state “At this point, Jesus declares that God had revealed this truth to Peter. The word for ‘Peter,’ Petros, means a small stone (John 1:42).” https://www.gotquestions.org/upon-this-rock.html
But in their article on why God sometimes changes someone’s name they say this – “Jesus changed Simon’s name (meaning ‘one who hears’) to Cephas (‘rock’) in John 1:42.” https://www.gotquestions.org/more-than-one-name.html
And in their article about who was Peter, they say this – “Upon meeting Simon, Jesus gave him a new name: Cephas (Aramaic) or Peter (Greek), which means ‘rock’ (John 1:40-42).” https://www.gotquestions.org/life-Peter.html
There are no mental gymnastics that can get around the reality the Aramaic word “Cephas” means “rock,” and Scripture tells us directly “Petros” is the Greek translation of “Cephas.” The internal conflict is apparent when these groups try to profess “Petros” does not mean “rock,” and the translation bias in the KJV and some other versions is also apparent when they translate “Petros” in John 1:42 as “stone.” For it is clear the name Christ actually gave to Peter is the Aramaic “Cephas,” and this means “rock.”
So back to Matthew 16:18. Why are there two different words used here in Greek – “you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church?” From the Catholic perspective there is a very simple and reliable explanation for this. Greek is a language that identifies nouns by gender. That is not a common thought for those of us who speak English. But if you’ve ever learned a foreign language that does have gendered nouns, you have experienced this. You have to learn not only the name of the noun but its gender so you can use the appropriate article.
“Petra,” meaning “rock” in Greek is a feminine noun. So Peter would not have been named “Petra” since he was a man, but rather a masculine form of the same noun would be used. This would be similar if someone wanted to name their son after his mother named Louise, but would instead use Louis.
To illustrate this, I have a copy of the very popular Strong’s Concordance from 2007, which is a Protestant concordance of the King James Bible. It clearly shows the following:
“Cephas” is an Aramaic word that means “rock.”
“Petros” is a primary word that means “rock” and is larger than G3037 (which is the Greek word “lithos” that is translated as “stone” in the New Testament.)
“Petra” is the feminine form that is the same as “Petros” meaning a mass of “rock.”
For some reason when I look at Strong’s concordance today online, these definitions have been changed to often portray “Petros” as meaning a small stone to support this recent argument against the Catholic interpretation. But that was clearly not as it was once viewed. Fortunately, we can know definitively from Scripture the name Christ gave to Peter was the Aramaic word for “rock” – Cephas, and that is equivalent to the Greek word “Petros.” And newer Protestant translations like the NIV have removed the translation bias found in the KJV, and render John 1:42 as “And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).”
When Christ made the declaration he would build his Church on the “rock” of Peter, he had taken his apostles to Caesarea Philippi, and the backdrop of a massive rock. Below is a picture of this backdrop from my trip to Israel. `
It seems Christ was quite deliberate in choosing this site. He took the disciples out of the Jewish regions and into an area known to be the site of Pan, the pagan god of shepherd and flocks. During the time of Christ, a temple had been built at the highest point by Herod to honor Caesar. Standing before the actual rock that supported this temple, Christ created a clear contrast between the kingdoms of this world and his kingdom, which would be built on the “rock” of an uneducated fisherman he named Peter.