Just for Catholics

Home - Answers

Rocks and Stones

Question: Please comment on the following argument which I read in a Catholic website. It can be summarized like this:

  1. Jesus spoke Aramaic. So, what Jesus said to Simon in Matthew 16:18 was this: ‘You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my Church.’

  2. The Aramaic word kepha is translated petra or petros in Greek. The two words are synonyms in first century Greek.

  3. Jesus could not have said, ‘You are petra, and on this petra I will build my Church’ because that would have entailed giving Simon a feminine name. So, Jesus changed the ending of the noun to render it masculine. “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my Church.”

  4. That is the real reason why Jesus employed two different words and not as Protestants argue, that ‘this rock’ may refer to something or somebody else other than Peter.

Answer: The question about the papacy is broader than the interpretation of petros and petra in Matthew 16:18. Do not be fooled by Catholic apologists who make a big deal about ‘this rock’ as if the papacy is vindicated if it could be proved that ‘this rock’ refers to Peter. This passage says nothing about universal jurisdiction, successors or Roman bishops.

Even if this can be conclusively proven (and I think it cannot), it does not confirm the papacy, i.e. the universal rule of the bishop of Rome over the whole church. In fact there is a sense in which the apostle Peter, together with the other apostles and the prophets, form the foundation of the church because the Gospel was first given through them. This has nothing to do with the claimed universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome as the Roman apologist would have us believe.

But let me just deal with the convoluted Aramaic/Greek argument that you kindly sent to me.

It is true that Jesus spoke in Aramaic. But how do the Catholic scholars know what Jesus said in the Aramaic language, since all the existing manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew are written in Greek? You realize that this business of what Jesus must have said in Aramaic is pure speculation. I don’t know what were Jesus’ original words in Aramaic, neither do our Catholic friends. Should we build an argument - indeed the structure of the church of Jesus Christ - on mere speculations?

The Catholic apologist bends over backwards to convince us that petros and petra are equivalent Greek words that mean the same thing. They say that it is merely a question of different gender ending. The truth of the matter is that these are two distinct Greek words with similar, but not identical meaning. According to the Greek Lexicon, petros is “a rock or a stone”, whereas petra is “a rock, cliff or ledge.” Jesus illustrates the meaning of petra as a massive foundational rock: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock” (Matthew 7:27).

Still, assuming they know what Jesus originally said in Aramaic, the Catholic apologist goes on to explain why Jesus employs the two different Greek words. He puts these words in the mouth of a Protestant missionary:

"Wait a second," he said. "If kepha means the same as petra, why don’t we read in the Greek, ‘You are Petra, and on this petra I will build my Church’? Why, for Simon’s new name, does Matthew use a Greek word, Petros, which means something quite different from petra?"

To this the Catholic apologist answers triumphantly:

“Because he had no choice," I said. "Greek and Aramaic have different grammatical structures. In Aramaic you can use kepha in both places in Matthew 16:18. In Greek you encounter a problem arising from the fact that nouns take differing gender endings. You have masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. The Greek word petra is feminine. You can use it in the second half of Matthew 16:18 without any trouble. But you can’t use it as Simon’s new name, because you can’t give a man a feminine name—at least back then you couldn’t. You have to change the ending of the noun to make it masculine. When you do that, you get Petros, which was an already-existing word meaning rock.”

So that’s why He uses Petros! Not to give Simon a feminine name!

But I’m sure that the reader can think of a third option. Contrary to the Catholic apologist assertion, He had another choice!

Why not use petros in the second part of the sentence if the Holy Spirit wanted to make it absolutely clear that He was building His church on the son of Jona, and avoid the gender problem? If petra and petros mean the same thing (as the Catholic apologist insists), Jesus could have said:

“Thou art PETROS and upon this PETROS I will build my church.”

There, the third option! That way any ambiguity would have been avoided – if indeed Jesus wanted to identify the foundation rock with the apostle Peter! Needless to say, that is not what Jesus said. Rather, He said:

“Thou are PETROS and upon this PETRA I will build my church.”

Christ insisted on a distinction! At the very least we can say that the rock upon which the church is built could refer to something other than Peter.

So, rather than speculate on Jesus’ original words in Aramaic, we should study the inspired words of the Holy Scriptures, and in Matthew 16:18, the Holy Spirit employed two different words to distinguish between ‘Peter’ and ‘the rock’. That is what we can say with certainty.

I hope you can see the emptiness of the Catholic argument. They want it to sound that it is obviously clear that Jesus built His church on Peter. It is not so. And though any Catholic reading this article may not be inclined to trust me, I would appeal to you to listen to St Augustine’s explanation of this message:

“For on this very account the Lord said, ‘On this rock will I build my Church,’ because Peter had said, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.’ On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed, I will build my church. For the Rock (petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation no man lay that this is laid, which is Christ Jesus.” (Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John).

"This rock" is Peter's confession; the rock, the foundation is Jesus Christ!

© Dr Joseph Mizzi