There is ample evidence in the New Testament that
Peter was first in authority among the apostles. Whenever they were named,
Peter headed the list (Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13);
sometimes the apostles were referred to as "Peter and those who were with
him" (Luke 9:32). Peter was the one who generally spoke for the apostles
(Matt. 18:21, Mark 8:29, Luke 12:41, John 6:68-69), and he figured in many
of the most dramatic scenes (Matt. 14:28-32, Matt. 17:24-27, Mark 10:23-28).
On Pentecost it was Peter who first preached to the crowds (Acts 2:14-40),
and he worked the first healing in the Church age (Acts 3:6-7). It is Peter’s
faith that will strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32) and Peter is given
Christ’s flock to shepherd (John 21:17). An angel was sent to announce
the resurrection to Peter (Mark 16:7), and the risen Christ first appeared
to Peter (Luke 24:34). He headed the meeting that elected Matthias to replace
Judas (Acts 1:13-26), and he received the first converts (Acts 2:41). He
inflicted the first punishment (Acts 5:1-11), and excommunicated the first
heretic (Acts 8:18-23). He led the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15),
and announced the first dogmatic decision (Acts 15:7-11). It was to Peter
that the revelation came that Gentiles were to be baptized and accepted
as Christians (Acts 10:46-48).
Peter the Rock
Peter’s preeminent position among the apostles
was symbolized at the very beginning of his relationship with Christ. At
their first meeting, Christ told Simon that his name would thereafter be
Peter, which translates as "Rock" (John 1:42). The startling thing was
that—aside from the single time that Abraham is called a "rock" (Hebrew:
Tsur; Aramaic: Kepha) in Isaiah 51:1-2—in the Old Testament
only God was called a rock. The word rock was not used as a proper name
in the ancient world. If you were to turn to a companion and say, "From
now on your name is Asparagus," people would wonder: Why Asparagus? What
is the meaning of it? What does it signify? Indeed, why call Simon the
fisherman "Rock"? Christ was not given to meaningless gestures, and neither
were the Jews as a whole when it came to names. Giving a new name meant
that the status of the person was changed, as when Abram’s name was changed
to Abraham (Gen.17:5), Jacob’s to Israel (Gen. 32:28), Eliakim’s to Joakim
(2 Kgs. 23:34), or the names of the four Hebrew youths—Daniel, Hananiah,
Mishael, and Azariah to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan.
1:6-7). But no Jew had ever been called "Rock." The Jews would give other
names taken from nature, such as Deborah
("bee," Gen. 35:8), and Rachel ("ewe," Gen. 29:16), but never "Rock." In
the New Testament James and John were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning "Sons
of Thunder," by Christ, but that was never regularly used in place of their
original names, and it certainly was not given as a new name. But in the
case of Simon-bar-Jonah, his new name Kephas (Greek: Petros) definitely
replaced the old.
Look at the scene
Not only was there significance in Simon being
given a new and unusual name, but the place where Jesus solemnly conferred
it upon Peter was also important. It happened when "Jesus came into the
district of Caesarea Philippi" (Matt. 16:13), a city that Philip the Tetrarch
built and named in honor of Caesar Augustus, who had died in A.D. 14. The
city lay near cascades in the Jordan River and near a gigantic wall of
rock, a wall about 200 feet high and 500 feet long, which is part of the
southern foothills of Mount Hermon. The city no longer exists, but its
ruins are near the small Arab town of Banias; and at the base of the rock
wall may be found what is left of one of the springs that fed the Jordan.
It was here that Jesus pointed to Simon and said, "You are Peter" (Matt.
The significance of the event must have been clear
to the other apostles. As devout Jews they knew at once that the location
was meant to emphasize the importance of what was being done. None complained
of Simon being singled out for this honor; and in the rest of the New Testament
he is called by his new name, while James and John remain just James and
John, not Boanerges.
Promises to Peter
When he first saw Simon, "Jesus looked at him,
and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas
(which means Peter)’" (John 1:42). The word Cephas is merely the
transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha into Greek. Later, after Peter
and the other disciples had been with Christ for some time, they went to
Caesarea Philippi, where Peter made his profession of faith: "You are the
Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Jesus told him that this
truth was specially revealed to him, and then he solemnly reiterated: "And
I tell you, you are Peter" (Matt. 16:18). To this was added the promise
that the Church would be founded, in some way, on Peter (Matt. 16:18).
Then two important things were told the apostle.
"Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you
loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). Here Peter was
singled out for the authority that provides for the forgiveness of sins
and the making of disciplinary rules. Later the apostles as a whole would
be given similar power [Matt.18:18], but here Peter received it in a special
Peter alone was promised something else also: "I
will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 16:19). In ancient
times, keys were the hallmark of authority. A walled city might have one
great gate; and that gate had one great lock, worked by one great key.
To be given the key to the city—an honor that exists even today, though
its import is lost—meant to be given free access to and authority over
the city. The city to which Peter was given the keys was the heavenly city
itself. This symbolism for authority is used elsewhere in the Bible (Is.
22:22, Rev. 1:18).
Finally, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared
to his disciples and asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17).
In repentance for his threefold denial, Peter gave a threefold affirmation
of love. Then Christ, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), gave Peter the
authority he earlier had promised: "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17). This specifically
included the other apostles, since Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me more
than these?" (John 21:15), the word "these" referring to the other apostles
who were present (John 21:2). Thus was completed the prediction made just
before Jesus and his followers went for the last time to the Mount of Olives.
Immediately before his denials were predicted,
Peter was told, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that
he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith
may not fail; and when you have turned again [after the denials], strengthen
your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32). It was Peter who Christ prayed would have
faith that would not fail and that would be a guide for the others; and
his prayer, being perfectly efficacious, was sure to be fulfilled.
Who is the rock?
Now take a closer look at the key verse: "You are
Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church" (Matt. 16:18). Disputes
about this passage have always been related to the meaning of the term
"rock." To whom, or to what, does it refer? Since Simon’s new name of Peter
itself means rock, the sentence could be rewritten as: "You are Rock and
upon this rock I will build my Church." The play on words seems obvious,
but commentators wishing to avoid what follows from this—namely the establishment
of the papacy—have suggested that the word rock could not refer to Peter
but must refer to his profession of faith or to Christ.
From the grammatical point of view, the phrase
"this rock" must relate back to the closest noun. Peter’s profession of
faith ("You are the Christ, the Son of the living God") is two verses earlier,
while his name, a proper noun, is in the immediately preceding clause.
As an analogy, consider this artificial sentence:
"I have a car and a truck, and it is blue." Which is blue? The truck, because
that is the noun closest to the pronoun "it." This is all the more clear
if the reference to the car is two sentences earlier, as the reference
to Peter’s profession is two sentences earlier than the term rock.
The previous argument also settles the question
of whether the word refers to Christ himself, since he is mentioned within
the profession of faith. The fact that he is elsewhere, by a different
metaphor, called the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:4-8) does not disprove
that here Peter is the foundation. Christ is naturally the principal and,
since he will be returning to heaven, the invisible foundation of the Church
that he will establish; but Peter is named by him as the secondary and,
because he and his successors will remain on earth, the visible foundation.
Peter can be a foundation only because Christ is the cornerstone.
In fact, the New Testament contains five different
metaphors for the foundation of the Church (Matt. 16:18, 1 Cor. 3:11, Eph.
2:20, 1 Pet. 2:5-6, Rev. 21:14). One cannot take a single metaphor from
a single passage and use it to twist the plain meaning of other passages.
Rather, one must respect and harmonize the different passages, for the
Church can be described as having different foundations since the word
foundation can be used in different senses.
Look at the Aramaic
Opponents of the Catholic interpretation of Matthew
16:18 sometimes argue that in the Greek text the name of the apostle is
Petros, while "rock" is rendered as petra. They claim that
the former refers to a small stone, while the latter refers to a massive
rock; so, if Peter was meant to be the massive rock, why isn’t his name
Note that Christ did not speak to the disciples
in Greek. He spoke Aramaic, the common language of Palestine at that time.
In that language the word for rock is kepha, which is what Jesus
called him in everyday speech (note that in John 1:42 he was told, "You
will be called Cephas"). What Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 was: "You
are Kepha, and upon this kepha I will build my Church."
When Matthew’s Gospel was translated from the original
Aramaic to Greek, there arose a problem which did not confront the evangelist
when he first composed his account of Christ’s life. In Aramaic the word
kepha has the same ending whether it refers to a rock or is used
as a man’s name. In Greek, though, the word for rock, petra, is
feminine in gender. The translator could use it for the second appearance
of kepha in the sentence, but not for the first because it would
be inappropriate to give a man a feminine name. So he put a masculine ending
on it, and hence Peter became Petros.
Furthermore, the premise of the argument against
Peter being the rock is simply false. In first century Greek the words
petros and petra were synonyms. They had previously possessed
the meanings of "small stone" and "large rock" in some early Greek poetry,
but by the first century this distinction was gone, as Protestant Bible
scholars admit (see
D. A. Carson’s remarks on this passage in the
Expositor’s Bible Commentary, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Books]).
Some of the effect of Christ’s play on words was
lost when his statement was translated from the Aramaic into Greek, but
that was the best that could be done in Greek. In English, like Aramaic,
there is no problem with endings; so an English rendition could read: "You
are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church."
Consider another point: If the rock really did
refer to Christ (as some claim, based on 1 Cor. 10:4, "and the Rock was
Christ" though the rock there was a literal, physical rock), why did Matthew
leave the passage as it was? In the original Aramaic, and in the English
which is a closer parallel to it than is the Greek, the passage is clear
enough. Matthew must have realized that his readers would conclude the
obvious from "Rock . . . rock."
If he meant Christ to be understood as the rock,
why didn’t he say so? Why did he take a chance and leave it up to Paul
to write a clarifying text? This presumes, of course, that 1 Corinthians
was written after Matthew’s Gospel; if it came first, it could not have
been written to clarify it.
The reason, of course, is that Matthew knew full
well that what the sentence seemed to say was just what it really was saying.
It was Simon, weak as he was, who was chosen to become the rock and thus
the first link in the chain of the papacy.
I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors. Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted. +Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004