One of the Roman Catholic Church’s chief scriptural supports for the authority of St. Peter as the leading Apostle, who would become the bishop of Rome — whom we would eventually refer to as the first pope — is the verses of Matthew 16:17-19:
And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’
This is also a favorite passage of anti-Catholics to pick apart. But with even a basic understanding of the ancient languages, the wordplay that Jesus and the Evangelist were implementing here becomes clear: These verses cannot be interpreted any other way but as an explicit declaration of Peter’s authority. And they never were, until the time of Luther.
κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.
Now, I don’t expect my readers to have a lot of Greek. If you do, I am delighted — but I’m here to make this as simple as possible. Here it is transliterated into Roman characters:
kagō de soi legō hoti su ei Petros, kai epi tautē tē petra oikodomēsō mou tēn ekklēsian, kai pulai hadou ou katischusousin autēs.
And one more time, all together: this time cribbed so you can understand it.
κἀγὼ [I, emphatically, in response to Peter’s delaration] δέ [and, also, postpositive: together with first word, and I or I also] σοι [2nd person singular dative pronoun, to you] λέγω [(I) say] ὅτι [that] σὺ [2nd person singular nominative pronoun, you, emphatically] εἶ [2nd person singular present active, are] Πέτρος [Peter], καὶ [and] ἐπὶ [preposition on, upon] ταύτῃ [this] τῇ πέτρᾳ [rock] οἰκοδομήσω [first person singular future active I will build, as in building a house] μου [my (lit. of me)] τὴν ἐκκλησίαν [church (lit. a calling out, a meeting, an assembly — but concretely and universally in Christian lit. refers to the Church)], καὶ [and] πύλαι [(the) gates] ἅδου [of hades] οὐ [negative particle, not] κατισχύσουσιν [3rd person plural future active, will overpower] αὐτῆς [it].
Now, the first thing to note about this is that Jesus addresses Peter in the second person singular: that is, he says you and not y’all. The distinction between the second-person singular and plural personal pronouns has died out in modern English; technically, the singular personal pronouns (thou, thy, thee) have died out and been replaced by the plural (ye, your, you). This is why the Southern U.S. y’all will save the English language. But back to the point: Jesus addresses Peter in the singular you — the King James’ Thou art Peter actually preserves the important distinction. So there can be no question that Jesus is speaking to Peter and to Peter alone here; not to all the Apostles; not to all Christians.
Second, and more important: the wordplay. The name “Peter” — Petros in Greek, Petrus in Latin — translates as “Rock.” Jesus is giving Simon a new name, Peter or Rock, in reference to his firmness or steadfastness.
And on this Rock I will build my Church. “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.” That’s the proper way to understand the statement, had it been spoken in English.
Now, the common anti-Catholic refutation of this is thus (first put forward by Luther himself): the Evangelist uses different words in the Greek for Peter and Rock. You are Peter (Πέτρος, Petros) and upon this Rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my Church. Not only are the two words different, but they are different genders — Petros is masculine and petra is feminine — and they have supposedly, according to the Protestant argument, different meanings in Greek. A petros is a small rock or a piece of rock; a petra is the bedrock or a massive rock formation. Therefore clearly, Jesus wasn’t referring to the same rock in both cases, so the argument goes.
There are several reasons why this argument doesn’t work. First of all, the context. Jesus had asked the disciples who they said he was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet? And in one of the most dramatic moments of the Gospel, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And Jesus in turn confesses Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you . . .” The episode would not make any sense if Jesus had said, “I rename you Peter, a steadfast Rock; and on this (other) rock I will build my Church.”
Not only does that not make sense — but Jesus doesn’t say “other” — he says ταύτῃ, this rock. And there doesn’t seem to be any other rock, any petra present. The common Protestant argument is that petra here refers to Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith. But if that were the case, why the wordplay on Peter’s name? Even more so, why the wordplay without any clarification of the ambiguous metaphor? It seems unlike Matthew to let such an ambiguous statement go without explanation, who in other places is careful to provide explanations for the fulfillment of prophecies (Matthew 3), difficult parables (Matthew 13), and foreign words (Matthew 27:46). The reason he doesn’t here is because to Matthew, and to his earliest readers, it wasn’t ambiguous.
In fact, the literary structure of Jesus’s proclamation mirrors Peter’s exactly: “You are the Christ”; “You are Peter.” And Jesus’s other pronouncements here are perhaps even more important, more indicative of Peter’s singular authority, than His pronouncement of Peter as “Rock”. Jesus gives three separate blessings directed to Peter and Peter alone that leave no doubt of His intention to invest Peter specifically with authority:
You (Peter) are “Rock,” and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven [mirroring “the gates of hell”].
Whatever you (Peter) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [linked implicitly to the “keys”].
Further, there is no evidence, beyond the assertion itself, that the meanings of petros and petra are as distinct as Protestants argue. No scholarly lexicon I have consulted, in particular neither the LSJ for Classical Greek nor the BDAG for Koine, supports the definiton of petros as merely a small rock or piece of rock. The words seem, rather, to be nearly synonymous. If there is a distinction between them at all, it is between petra, a great mass of rock, and petros, stone as a monumental building material — for building, say, a Church.
But most important: there are perfectly good reasons why Matthew used two different words here, Petros and petra: this was the only way to compose the statement so that it would make sense in Greek.
- Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, not Petra. Why didn’t they call him Petra in Greek? Because Petra is a feminine noun, and Peter is a male. By the time the Gospels were written, Petros had been his Greek name for decades.
- Even supposing the Protestant argument about the different meanings of the words petros and petra were true (all evidence is that this is an anti-Catholic invention) — Jesus wouldn’t have said “on this petros I will build my Church,” to make the statement in Greek seem less ambiguous (to us), because that wasn’t what He meant. He meant “I will build my Church on this bedrock,” this unmovable foundation, not this piece of rock.
- Greek is an inflected language, meaning that the endings of words change depending on the grammatical function in which they are used. For example, πέτρος (petros), πέτρον (petron), and πετρῷ (petro[i]) are all the very same word. So variations in the endings of words with the same stem seem quite natural to the Greek mind, and the difference between petros and petra would have seemed much less significant than it does to an English-speaker. In fact, this type of wordplay between similar-sounding words, called paronomasia, was common in ancient Greek.
- Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek at all. Scholars are pretty certain that in His day-to-day life and teachings, Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels quote Jesus in Aramaic for special dramatic emphasis: “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15.34).
- So if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, the words for Peter and Rock — Petros and petra — would have been the same word: Kepha (כיפא).
“You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church,” is what Jesus would have said (pretending that the rest of the sentence is in Aramaic, which I don’t know, and you probably don’t either).
- The Aramaic Kepha (כיפא) was rendered into Greek as Kephas (Κηφᾶς). Why didn’t Matthew just use that in both cases? Because it would have been as awkward as my sentence above, saying most of the sentence in Greek and a couple of words in Aramaic, and then having to explain it. Matthew’s readers apparently didn’t know Aramaic — or at least, if the book was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic as some of the Church Fathers suggest, whoever translated it into Greek didn’t expect his readers would know Aramaic, and provided a crib for the Aramaic phrases.
To further confirm the Catholic interpretation — it’s not a Catholic interpretation; at least not an invention or reinterpretation of the modern Catholic Church as anti-Catholics charge. This is the way this Scripture has been interpreted since the very earliest biblical commentators:
“. . . I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a Church whose faith has been praised by Paul . . . The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold . . . My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built! This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”
—St. Jerome, To Pope Damasus, Epistle 15:1-2 (A.D. 375)
“Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of Fathers see who has succeeded whom. That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail.”
—St. Augustine, Psalm against the Party of Donatus, 18 (A.D. 393)
“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.”
—Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451)
To me, this makes a rock-solid (that’s petra-solid) case: In this verse, there is no doubt that Jesus is declaring Peter to be the Rock on which He would build his Church. Seeing these words in stone did more to move me to this truth, and toward the Catholic Church, than almost anything else: my banner above is a photograph I took of this same declaration, in Latin, around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, over the high altar and St. Peter’s tomb.