Is Peter the rock on which the Church is built?

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it." (Matt. 16:18).

The Roman Catholic Church Puts a great deal of emphasis on Peter and claims that Jesus said he would build his church on him.

  1. Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Our Lord then declared to him: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." Christ, the "living Stone", thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it."  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 552).
  2. "By the word "rock" the Saviour cannot have meant Himself, but only Peter, as is so much more apparent in Aramaic in which the same word (Kipha) is used for "Peter" and "rock". His statement then admits of but one explanation, namely, that He wishes to make Peter the head of the whole community of those who believed in Him as the true Messias; that through this foundation (Peter) the Kingdom of Christ would be unconquerable; that the spiritual guidance of the faithful was placed in the hands of Peter, as the special representative of Christ." (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11744a.htm).

The scripture reference to which the Roman Catholic Church attempts to substantiate its position is found in Matt. 16:18.  Here it is in context.

"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  15 He *said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. 19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." 20 Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ." (Matt. 16:13-20).

There are problems with the Roman Catholic position.  First of all, when we look at the Greek of Matthew 16:18, we see something that is not obvious in the English.  " . . . you are Peter (πέτρος, petros) and upon this rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build My church . . . " In Greek nouns have gender.  It is similar to the English words actor and actress.  The first is masculine, and the second is feminine.  Likewise, the Greek word "petros" is masculine; "petra" is feminine.  Peter, the man, is appropriately referred to as Petros. But Jesus said that the rock he would build his church on was not the masculine "petros" but the feminine "petra." Let me illustrate by using the words "actor" and "actress:"  "You are the actor; and with this actress, I will make my movie."  Do see that the gender influences how a sentence is understood?  Jesus was not saying that the church will be built upon Peter but upon something else.  What, then, does petra, the feminine noun, refer to?

The feminine "petra" occurs four times in the Greek New Testament:

  • Matt. 16:18, "And I also say to you that you are Peter (petros), and upon this rock (petra) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."
  • Matt. 27:60, "and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock (petra); and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away."
  • 1 Cor. 10:4, "and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock (petras) which followed them; and the rock (petra) was Christ."
  • 1 Pet. 2:8, speaking of Jesus says that he is "A stone of stumbling and a rock (petra) of offense"; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed."

We can clearly see that in the three other uses of the Greek word petra (nominative singular; "petras" in 1 Cor. 10:4 is genitive singular) we find it referred to as a large immovable mass of rock in which a tomb is carved out (Matt. 27:60) and in reference to Christ (1 Cor. 10:4; 1 Pet. 2:8).  Note that Peter himself in the last verse referred to petra as being Jesus!  If Peter uses the word as a reference to Jesus, then shouldn't we?

In addition, Greek dictionaries and lexicons give us further insight into the two Greek words under discussion:

  1. Petros
    1. Petros, "πέτρος, a stone, distinguished from πέτρα (Source:  Liddell, H., 1996. A lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon (636). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).
    2. Petros, Πέτρος, Peter, meaning stone. The masc. of the fem. pétra (4073), a massive rock or cliff.” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, electronic ed., G4074, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000, c1992, c1993).
    3. Petros, Πέτρος, “a noun akin to 4073, used as a proper name; “a stone” or “a boulder,” Peter, one of the twelve apostles:— Peter(150), Peter’s(5).” (Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition, H8674, Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998, 1981).
  2. Petra
    1. Petra, πέτρα , Ion. and Ep. πέτρη, , a rock, a ledge or shelf of rock, Od. 2. a rock, i.e. a rocky peak or ridge . . . Properly, πέτρα is a fixed rock, πέτρος a stone." (Source:  Liddell, H. (1996). A lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon (636). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).
    2. Petra, πέτρα , (4073) denotes a mass of rock, as distinct from petros, a detached stone or boulder, or a stone that might be thrown or easily moved." Source:  Vine, W., & Bruce, F. (1981; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996). Vine's Expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (2:302). Old Tappan NJ: Revell)
    3. Petra, πέτρα, ας, ἡ (1) literally, living rock, bedrock (MT 7.24), in contrast to πέτρος (isolated stone); (Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament library, 311, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000).
    4. Petra, πέτρα, noun feminine; ≡ bedrock, (James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed., GGK4376 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  3. Petros & Petros
    1. πέτρα petra; a prim. word; a (large mass of) rock:--rock(10), rocks(3), rocky(2). Πέτρος Petros, “a noun akin to 4073, used as a proper name; “a stone” or “a boulder,” Peter, one of the twelve apostles:— Peter(150), Peter’s(5).” (Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition, H8674, Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998, 1981).
    2. "On this rock (ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ). The word is feminine, and means a rock, as distinguished from a stone or a fragment of rock (πέτρος, above)." (Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 1:91, Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002).
    3. Petros, "πέτρος, a stone, distinguished from πέτρα.  Petra, πέτρα , Ion. and Ep. πέτρη, , a rock, a ledge or shelf of rock, Od. 2. a rock, i.e. a rocky peak or ridge . . . Properly, πέτρα is a fixed rock, πέτρος a stone." (Source:  Liddell, H. (1996). A lexicon : Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English lexicon (636). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).

A stone is movable, unstable; and this is exactly what we see with Peter, who doubted when he walked on water, who denied Jesus, and who was rebuked by Paul at Antioch.

  • Matt. 14:29-30, "And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!"
  • Luke 22:57-58, "But he denied it, saying, "Woman, I do not know Him." 58 And a little later, another saw him and said, "You are one of them too!" But Peter said, "Man, I am not!"
  • Gal. 2:11,14 "But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned . . . 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

Jesus, who knew the heart of Peter, was not saying that Peter, the movable and unstable stone, would be the immovable rock upon which the Church would be built.  Rather, it would be built upon Jesus; and it was this truth that Peter had affirmed what he said to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matt. 16:16).  This is consistent with scripture elsewhere where the term rock is sometimes used in reference of God but never of a man.

  • Deut. 32:4,  "The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice."
  • 2 Sam. 22:2-3, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; 3 My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge."
  • Psalm 18:31, "And who is a rock, except our God."
  • Isaiah 44:8, "Is there any God besides Me, or is there any other Rock?  I know of none."
  • Rom. 9:33, "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed."

It should be obvious from the Word of God that the rock Jesus was referring to was not Peter--but himself.

The Aramaic Kepha

In contrast to this, in paragraph #2 at the beginning of this article, the Roman Catholic Church says that the rock cannot refer to Jesus "but only Peter--as is so much more apparent in Aramaic in which the same word (Kipha) is used for 'Peter' and 'rock.'" The problem is that the text is not in Aramaic--but Greek.  Since we do not have the Aramaic text, it is not proper to refer to it as proof of the Roman Catholic position.  We have to ask ourselves why the Roman Catholic Church would resort to using something that we don't have:  the aramaic text.  Is it because their argument is not supported by the Greek, and so they must infer something from a text we don't possess?

Furthermore, in John 1:42 it says, "He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas," (which is translated Peter)." The word "Peter" here is petros--not petra.  It is used to elucidate the Aramaic kephas which is not a name in Aramaic.

"Except in Jn. 1:42, where it is used to elucidate Aramaic kēphás, Pétros is used in the NT only as a name for Simon Peter . . . The translation supports the view that Kēphás is not a proper name, since one does not usually translate proper names."1

Jesus is the rock on which the church is built

The truth is that the only foundation is Jesus.  The only rock of truth is Jesus Christ; and that we, as his redeemed, need to keep our eyes on him.  We are to look to no one else as the foundation, the source, or the hope on which the church is built.  The Church is built upon Jesus--not Peter.

"For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:11).


_____________
1.  Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1995, c1985). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Translation of: Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament. (835). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

 

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