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Petros the Rock and the Rock of the Church
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A correspondent wrote to ask my opinion on a question he had heard debated.

I have heard a Catholic and a Lutheran debating over the relevance of Jesus saying to Simon/Peter, "you are Peter (petros) and on this Rock (Petra) I will build my Church."

Here is the passage he refers to:

Matthew 16:18-20

18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
  - New International Version (NIV)
    Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

It seems to me this verse is insufficient for the position of either side.  Let me make a few comments on the passage itself, then address the particular arguments.

Aramaic Name
Simon's Aramaic name, either a nickname or another given name, was Kepha (the Greek form of this word used in the New Testament writings was Cephas).  This is apparently the equivalent word in Aramaic behind the two Greek words petros or petra.  I do not know if there is another Aramaic name that was commonly used as a name in the Aramaic communities.

If the exchange written here in the Greek Gospel is meant to represent the actual words of Jesus, we have to keep in mind that their conversation was most likely in Aramaic, though it seems quite likely that both Peter and Jesus would have been highly fluent in the common Greek of the region.  You may have seen my other articles on the languages of the era.

With that in mind, we realize there is a lot more to the discussion than we are privy to, seeing only the expression of the matter in the Greek writing of the gospel writer.

Argument in Question

The Lutheran theologian said that 'Petros' doesn't mean rock as it is used in the second part of that sentence (Petra).  He said that 'petros' means little stones or pebbles and 'petra' means large rock.

What Jesus Meant?
What you find here is an argument from a viewpoint of church order and administration, focusing on authority structures, not a real discussion of what Jesus might have meant.  That is, the limits on the possibilities for each point of view are not determined by what we find in this passage!  They are determined by the prior commitments to church order, structure and authority, and the implications for this that one might draw.  So this is basically a proof-texting exercise, in which the effort is made to show how this wording of this text can support one position or another.

Also, in mitigation of the exactness of this meaning distinction, see the source at the end, giving a couple of New Testament passages where the form petra is used for the stones in the soil, such as those turned up in plowing.  This certainly contradicts the clear distinction some like to make between large and small in the usages of the two words. You just can't be that definitive.

In general, the basic definitions given here by the Lutheran commentator seem a valid interpretation of the general uses of the two words, as far as it goes  But once said, that does not really tell us anything.  The real discussion actually only starts here.

Because the references and application are not present in the text.  So anything further is interpretation.  This is where we can get tripped up by prior commitments brought to the text.  We might assume that this text agrees with the basic premise we started with in our theology.  Protestants tend to use a kind of reverse logic:  I believe what the scriptures teach, so this passage must teach what I believe!

Greek Grammatical Gender
Virtually all commentators -- at least those arguing for some serious ecclesiological principle -- ignore the possibility that the Greek in this passage is just as ambiguous as the English translation!.  You can't make the Greek words any more definitive than the English.

For one thing, the form petros could not be anything else as Peter's name.  Whatever the base form of any word in Greek, and any other gender-grammar language, has to be petros, because that is the masculine form of that word root.  And to be the name of a man, it had to be a masculine form!

That seems to take the wind out of an argument that the gender of the word makes the difference.

It is true that there were two separate forms of the root petr- in Greek.  But the two separate designations of kinds of rocks are not in focus here.  It is the person (or perhaps the statement that person has just made) that is contrasted with the general concept of a rock.  And the common reference form was petra, which is feminine.

What is the Focus?
Some commentators seem to have rightly stated that the focus here is not on Peter, or even the Church, but on Jesus.  But it is not sated in the text.  We might assume that perspective based on the general tone of the New Testament as a whole.

Such modern arguments assume this passage, or any biblical statement, will apply directly to our current situations and questions.  But those writers were not addressing our era or our problmes or our conflicts.  What those writers wrote addressed their situation in terms of that worldview and time and the issues pertinent to them.  Otherwise it would not have made sense.  They are under no obligation to answer our questions from a different era and worldview.

I would say the caution is that it is not necessary for this verse to answer the question particular theologian, ecclesiologists or denominations might like it to be addressing.  A better approach might be to learn beter questions to ask for the answers already in the Bible.  Here is a bit of historical perspective.

The Logical Gap
It was centuries in church history before this verse was used in this regard as a support for papal authority, in the seat of Peter.  This verse was gradually co-opted by the Roman Bishop into the growing perspective of his authority, based on other considerations.  Note also that this is a discussion relevant only in the western (European) domains.

The eastern churches (Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox in Asia) never had any view like this.  There was no universal bishop.  Peter was used figuratively by Cyprian and some other North African bishops in the first few centuries as a general reference to the collective body of pastor-bishops across the Christian communion.

A good book, presenting this perspective from within the Roman Catholic communion, is:
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz.  Why We Need the Pope:  The Necessity and Limitations of Papal Primacy.  St. Meinrad, Indiana.  Abbey Press, 1975.  152p.

This book is still available on Amazon.Com, though in limited supply.

The Catholic theologian stated that in Koine Greek the difference between 'petros' and 'petra' was not distinguishable by the time the New Testament was written down.

This description of usage does seem to recognize the realities of practical reality of word meanings in language.  In reality, the words are used dynamically, as are similar words in any language.  The unstated assumption here is that any word must have one simple meaning, or a narrow range of closely related meanings.  Some words are limited, but in general in any language, words are functional.

Words are used in dynamic ways by the range of speakers expressing themselves in the relevant language, on related topics.  The more common a word, the broader the range of usages, connotations, and poetic or metaphorical uses.  Meaning comes from usage, not from some pre-defined dictatorial fiat of the universe.  Context and emotion always affect, and often determine, the meaning.

He stated that in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct Jesus would not have referred to Simon as 'Petra,' since that is the feminine of the noun.

This appears to be the same or similar to my discussion above about the grammatical gender of the words in Greek usage. He is following the frame of refence set by the Lutheran pastor in his argument.  That frame of reference is skewed, as noted above.  The gender of the word is not related to Peter's gender.  The common word for this general usage is used, and happens to be grammatically feminine. The word is not used as an adjective describing Peter.

And he stated that 'petros' had different meanings in Classical Greek.  That 'petros' meant large rocks that were heaved at enemies in Homer's 'Illiad' and that 'petros' was used to refer to 'invincibillity' in Odepius Rex.

Dynamism is Language

I have not been able to verify this in actual Greek usage or comments from historical grammarians.  It is however, likely, given the dynamism of language.  The use of grammatical geneder in regard to size fits this description.  One problem is that Homer write in the 400s, and we have limited literature, though in various dialects.  There are various cultural and historical factors involved over the centuries of the various dialects of the Greek family of language in pre-history and early history

Native Greeks had been spread from Gibraltar to Iran, and from North Africa up into Central Europe, and into the Ukrainian steppes from ancient centuries, far before we had writing from the Greek cultures.  So you can get an idea how varied their language and culture would have been.  And that is just the native Greeks.  By the Roman Empire, hundreds of additional ethnic groups were using the Greek speech, and had been for centuries in Asia, Africa, Central Europe and Central Asia.

Literacy and Orality

One supplementary point supporting the general perspective of this Catholic commentator is that Koine was very fluid, since it was trans-dialectal.  There were at the same time many local varieties, due to the extreme geographical spread and its adoption by other cultures, both as a mother tongue (modified slightly by their own original tongue) and as a second language.  It appears that all the New Testament writers were mother-tongue speakers and writers of the language.  Literacy at that time, in fact in the whole classical and eastern world, was not what we think of today

Only about 10% of the population of the whole Roman Empire were literate, according to scholars of the Greco-Roman period.  So the abstract analytical textual analysis we are used to is really quite foreign to the style of writing (for oral reading or proclamation) or normal use of language as a dynamic cross-cultural tool of social intercourse.  Not primarily intellectual information like these modern denominational discussions seem to assume.

(See my reading lists of 2005-6 for books in the series Library of Early Christianity, and especially the following:
Cohen, Shaye, J.D.  From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987.  251p.  on Amazon
Grant, Robert M.  Gods and the One God.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986  on Amazon
Meeks, Wayne A.  The Moral World of the First Christians.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  182p.  on Amazon
Stambaugh, John E. and David L. Balch.  The New Testament in Its Social Environment.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  204p.  on Amazon

Also the book on the role of "literature" in the oral cultures of antiquity: Kelber, Werner H.  The Oral Gospel and the Written Gospel.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1997.  254p.  on Amazon

The Catholic theologian stated that if Jesus wished to make the contrast that the Lutheran theologian was refering to Jesus would have called Simon 'Lithos'.

I am not a specialist in the usage of this word or in ancient Greek literature, but this strikes me as odd.  This comment is totally ideological, rather than exegetical.  The perspective from which this is argued is totally out of the range of the discussion in the passage itself.  Here is what I mean.

Word Play is the Point
The word lithos was never an option, because the whole passage is based on word play in the Greek words..  Lithos was never involved.  This also indicates that the meaning of specific words was not the point here, and that the declaration is not primarily an information statement, in the sense that we like to have it to meet our demands from the denominational ideological perspective.

This, incidentally, is also one of the indicators that the written gospel was written in Greek, and not in Aramaic, because this word play is on the Greek words, not the Aramaic behind it.  The focus here is not on what Greek words might have been available for use here, but on the poetic-rhetorical point made by the word-play itself.

As far as the word lithos goes, the usage is for basal rock, monumnets, foundation stones.  We have the general sense in the English geological usage "lithosphere,"  the rock crust over all the earth; or "lithograph," writing on rocks (caves), tablets, monuments in old cultures.  Not all that different from the usages of petra.

In one way the Catholic commentator is right.  But only in the sense that the Lutheran commentator is making the same mistake.  He takes a literal word-to-word approach. He does not seem to actually assume that there is only one definite meaning of the words used, or a narrow range, but he takes a literalist approach.

Additionally, the local context of the specific passage is not given focus, the reasons the two forms are used here.  He is assuming that his interpretation, based on a variety of considerations from broader scripture references and his composite theology, is the only possible one, or the most valid.


A stalemate was hit on that topic because the Lutheran theologian disagreed, saying that 'Petros' and 'Petra' were indeed distinguishable from one another in Koine Greek, with 'Petros' meaning 'small stones/pebbles' and the latter meaning 'large rock'.  And that during the actual times this is exactly how one speaking that language would interpret the sentence.  Whose contention is more correct?

In a sense, I guess I support the stalemate result.

Limitations of Interpretation
The syntax of "upon this rock" is just as ambiguous in Greek as in English.  The word here is petra.

However, the closest referent in the sentence is the word "petros," so it makes sense to consider "this rock" as referring to "Petros."  However, this syntax is still ambiguous, and not definitive.

Jesus could have been referring to Peter, with his name Petros as "this rock," and have used the word in its original form "petra" to indicate the idea that he is going to firm Peter up from a stone to a foundation stone.

On the other side of the ambiguity, it would make just as much sense in this syntax, to consider that Jesus was making a contrast:  that instead of the common, small pebble of Peter, he was going to use a firm building stone of
(1) Peter's declaration,
(2) the reality of God revealed in himself as the Messiah.

The first of these two is one commonly expressed by Baptist preachers and exegetes.  Some occasionally resolve 1 into 2.  They take this not institutionally, but relationally.  They see this as a declaration that the meaning and state of the "church" is a spiritual one depending on the Christ.

It is not a question of temporal authority, in this view, but of spiritual authority, that is the focal point is the role of Christ and the relationship of the church as a body to him, not of the role of his representative in a government here on earth.

I feel fairly comfortable with this interpretation.  But the fact remains that this resolves an answer past the actual text here.

There is no way you can resolve this consistently from the linguistic factors alone.  The theological factors have to necessarily go beyond the language here.

Keys to the Kingdom
Related in the question of the Keys to the Kingdom, Jesus is definitely speaking to Peter when he says "I give to you the keys of the kingdom."  The grammatical form is in the singular, including the emphatic pronoun soi, you singular, which could not be interpreted otherwise.

What are the "keys of the kingdom?"  What that means or what powers or responsibilities that figure of speech refers to, is another whole question.  It is never interpreted or referred to again in another passage or by another writer.  And it is again ambiguous, or more appropriately, unclear as to the aphoristic reference.

So the whole discussion lies behind the printed lines of the words.  If it had been so particularly critical as some argue, then it seems like it would have been a lot clearer!

Related Articles
[TXT]Aramaic New Testament
[reviews] Critical Thought Construction: Schubert Ogden
[TXT] Denominations, Doctrines and Fellowship
[TXT]Hebrew Usage in the First Century
[TXT]The Language Jesus Used
[review] The Pope and Peter Revised
[reviews] Rahner's Dynamic and Practical Thought: Some Reflections on the Dynamic of Relationship in Modern Theology
[review] Sympathetic Conversion
[TXT]What Was Koine Greek?

For Further Reading

petra, noun feminine
a rock, cliff or ledge
a projecting rock, crag, rocky ground
a rock, a large stone
metaph. a man like a rock, by reason of his firmness and strength of soul.  
  Source:  Greek Lexicon

Greek — petra    KJV - rock   NRSV - rock
rock, solid rock [Matthew 7:24,25; Matthew 16:18; 1 Co 10:4; et al.]; stone; rocky ground (Luke 8.6, 13)
  Source:  Bibletexts.com

Discussions on the Matthew Passage
Some Thoughts On Matthew 16:18
Matthew 16:18: The Petros-petra Wordplay — Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?
  This is a Word analysis of the words in the Matthew passage, based on Midrashic usage and linguistic style
  From the web source Jerusalem Perspective

Matthew 16.18 -- B-Greek Discussion List
This writer focuses on the word play aspect

Linguistic Considerations in Interpretation
The Petros-petra Wordplay
  This writer focuses on the word play aspect
  Similar to the Jerusalem Perspective article above

Answers In Action — kephas petros petra
  Many links to comments on aspects of this discussion

Theological and Ecclesiological Focus
St. Peter the Rock — Catholic Insight
Is The Church Built on “Petros” or “Petra”?
10 Answers on St. Peter the Rock — Catholic Insight
Envoy Magazine Posting
Blog Discussion Group
  Covers the range of issues arising from this question; responsible discussion


Notes developed from June to September 2006, in response to an email question
Finalized as an article 22 August 2007
Last edited 9 July 2011

Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  researchguy@iname.com
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