Is Peter the Rock?

While I have discussed Matthew 16 in a previous post, I prescinded from the question of whether Peter is the rock upon which Christ would build His Church. But I think there are compelling reasons to identify Peter as the rock.

Grammatical issues

Some authors claim that the gender disparity between Peter’s new name (Petros) and the word for rock (petra) indicates that Peter isn’t the rock. However, this doesn’t hold up.

Jesus was speaking in Aramaic

While the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, the original dialog almost certainly took place in Aramaic. How can we tell? Because elsewhere in the New Testament, Peter is referred to by his Aramaic name Cephas (rock).

John 1:42

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).

Note that in this example, St. John explicitly identifies “Petros” as a translation of “Cephas.”

1 Corinthians 1:12

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Galatians 1:18

Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.

Why does it matter? Because in Aramaic “Petros” and “petra” are both the same word: “cephas.”

The gender distinction doesn’t actually make a difference

Let’s suppose (contrary to the evidence) that Greek was actually the original language. How does that affect the meaning? Answer: it doesn’t.

The standard word for a large rock in Greek is “petra.” However, “petra” is grammatically feminine, sort of like “rockette” in English. If, hypothetically speaking, one were to name a man after the “petra,” you’d want to switch it to the masculine gender.* Instead of calling him “Rockette,” you’d call him “Rocky.” (Probably not Balboa, though you probably wouldn’t want to go nine rounds with this guy either.) Since this is Greek you end up with the guy named after the “petra” as “Petros.”

Since the Catholic understanding expects the gender to be different, it’s hard to see how that constitutes an argument against the Catholic understanding.

Broader exegetical issues

The most common counter-explanation of Matthew 16 is that the rock isn’t Peter, but Peter’s faith or confession of faith. However, this doesn’t seem to do justice to the passage. Let’s look at it again.

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 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.

Clearly, Peter’s faith has something to do with the rock, since this identification was prompted by his confession of faith, but the most straightforward reading is that Peter himself is the rock. Also, note that it is clearly Peter who is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, as well as the power of binding and loosing in this passage. The whole context suggests that Peter is at the center of what the Church is about, so central in fact that you might call him foundational.

* Incidentally, we still see this sort of gender switching in names. “Josephine” and “Pauline” are the feminine forms of “Joseph” and “Paul.”

About Joshua Michael

Writer. Catholic. Fan of John Henry Newman and the Inklings.
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4 Responses to Is Peter the Rock?

  1. John Bowers says:

    Joshua, how would you respond to the arguments made by people who agree with what you’ve said above, but deny that this passes on to the person who occupies the bishopric of Rome after Peter? I’m asking because I’ve heard people put forward this argument.

    So in other words, say you are correct, Peter is the rock that the church is built on. Why does that necessitate that his successor also inheritance this rockyness, so to speak?

    • I think there are two good approaches to that question. First, let’s look at the context.

      Peter is given three promises: he will be the rock, he will have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and he will have the power to bind and loose.

      I believe everyone would agree that binding and loosing is passed on to the successors of the apostles. And if you look at the background of the key metaphor, you find that it signified an hereditary office (master of the palace) in the Davidic kingdom. This parallel suggests that the “rockyness” would also be passed on.

      The form of the passage as a whole also seems to suggest that these promises are continuing gifts to the Church in the battle against the Gates of Hell.

      The second thing that I’d suggest is to look into what the Church Fathers said about the papacy.


      You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all (The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [A.D. 367]).

      Pope Damasus 1

      the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it (Decree of Damasus 3 [A.D. 382]).

      St. Jerome

      I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails (Letters 15:2 [A.D. 396]).

      St. Augustine

      If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them [the bishops of Rome] from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it.’ Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement. (Letters 53:1:2 [A.D. 412]).

      These are just a few quotations that deal specifically with the question of “rockyness.”

      But beyond that question, there are also the keys. Even if against the evidence one maintains that Peter alone is the rock, and his successors gain nothing from that promise, the keys are still the symbol of a hereditary office possessed by none of the other apostles.

  2. That’s a great insight that the keys are a symbol of an office that can be passed to others. It’s not just for one man at one time but something that necessarily will continue as long as there is a kingdom. Why would it not? Very cool!

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