The Rock of the Church

Matthew 16.13-20

‘On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against it.’


One of the sharpest divisions between Catholics and Protestants is the office of ‘the pope’, the bishop of Rome as the global leader of the church in succession to the apostle Simon Peter. The primary biblical source for this belief is the conversation found in Matthew 16.13-20, in which Jesus gives Simon the nickname ‘Peter’ and identifies him as ‘the rock’ of the church. Or doesn’t, according to Protestants.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.’
And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

The idea that the ‘rock’ is not Peter did not originate with modern Protestants, but nevertheless is uniquely championed among them. The typical response of modern Protestants is that the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus builds his church is Peter’s confession of faith. That is, the ‘rock’ is the Christian proclamation ‘Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God’. Since Peter is not the rock, then he is not being established as the church’s universal leader, and hence there is no succession of popes after Peter. To bolster this explanation, Protestants point to the underlying Greek of the passage.

And I tell you, you are Πέτρος, and on this πέτρα I will build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against it.

‘Peter’ is Πέτρος, a masculine word for small rocks, while ‘rock’ is πέτρα, a feminine word for large rocks. Peter is not the rock, he is merely a pebble contributing to the larger boulder. However, there are problems with this interpretation.

In Aramaic, Simon’s nickname was Kēfā, and when transliterated into Greek it was nearly identical except for one small change: it would end with an s, as Κηφᾶς (seen in 1 Cor 1.12; Gal 2.9; John 1.42). Why the addition of the s? Regardless of a name’s form in its original language, the default position of ancient Greek grammar was that names should end with s in order to indicate they are masculine. Kēfā became Κηφᾶς (Cephas), Yēšūăʿ became Ἰησοῦς (Jesus), Yaʿaqóv became Ἰάκωβος (Jacob), and Yōħānān became Ἰωάννης (John), just to name a few.

While Kēfā would have been acceptable to call Simon in Aramaic, and while πέτρα would have been the closest translation for kēfā, it would not be acceptable to call Simon πέτρα, for then he would be a man with a woman’s name. So the fact that πέτρα and πέτρος were already different words in Greek is irrelevant, because πέτρα as the translation of kēfā would necessarily have to be adjusted into πέτρος when used as a masculine name. Cutting through the Greek back to the Aramaic, both πέτρα and πέτρος translate from kēfā.

And I tell you, you are Kēfā, and on this kēfā I will build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not prevail against it.

Though we may accept that both instances of ‘rock’ in the original Aramaic were kēfā, why does only the first instance conform to the grammatical rules of a masculine name, but the second instance remains feminine, if both words refer to Simon? This is because, although the name of the man had to match his gender, it was not grammatically necessary to force the metaphor referring to that man to match his gender; the feminine πέτρα, when used as a metaphor, was not required to become masculine to have Simon as its referent. This can be seen in other metaphors used in the New Testament, such as John 10.1, where Jesus is the referent of θύρα (door/gate), even though Jesus is masculine and θύρα is feminine.

This is all before acknowledging that the hard distinction between πέτρα and πέτρος that Protestants often point to is essentially meaningless. By the first century AD, the two terms could be used as synonyms, as much as ‘gigantic’ and ‘titanic’ are now despite their distinct origins.1

So while a superficial glance at the Greek might support the Protestant rejection of an interpretation in which Jesus established Peter as the ‘rock’ upon which he would build his church, a deeper analysis of the Greek grammar, and the Aramaic behind it, actually supports that view.

The text establishes Peter’s primacy over the original generation of Christianity. What the text doesn’t say is that Peter’s primacy brought with it an office that passed his authority on to successors.

1 Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 426-427. Cf. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 669, who admits that by the time Matthew was written πέτρα and πέτρος had become synonyms, each meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, and βράχος as a distinct term for ‘small rock’ had replaced πέτρος, yet Nolland strains to push his reader to accept his claim that there must be some distinction intended. Nolland subtly leads his readers in this direction by unusually translating the conjunction καί with the extremely rare meaning of ‘but’ instead of ‘and’, changing the accepted translation from ‘and on this rock’ into ‘but on this rock’. The difference is important, since ‘but’ necessarily creates a contrast between Simon the Rock and ‘this rock’, while ‘and’ draws a close connection between the two.