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WILL THE REAL ROCK PLEASE STAND UP! An Exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19


An Exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19

by Robert A. Sungenis

One of the main contentions that Protestants have with the Catholic Church is the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church..." Historical Protestantism has had a hard time accepting the Catholic view that Peter is the rock to which Jesus referred.

They have advanced two alternative interpretations: First, it has been said that Jesus is remarking about Peter's faith and/or confession, saying, in effect, that it is as solid as a rock.

Since the soteriology of the Protestant movement was based on _sola fide_ (faith alone), it seems fitting that Protestants see in Peter the prototype of that solitary faith.

Second, it is said that Jesus Himself is the rock, not Peter. Since they claim that the metaphor "rock" in the Bible is invariably used in reference to God, Protestants cannot see how a mere man can be designated as something that is exclusive to divinity.

To support these views, the more scholarly Protestant may even point to the interpretation of some of the Fathers of the Church. For example, it is true that in the writings of Augustine, at least two of the views of the rock can be found. Various other Church Fathers offer one or more of the three interpretations as well. So, we must be careful in accusing the Protestants of a novel interpretation of the rock that was not known until the 16th century.

Upon closer examination, however, we find that most of the Church Fathers agreed that Peter was the rock of Matthew 16:18. Even the few who failed to see Peter as the rock did not have any problem with Peter's primacy. Augustine, in whom we find at least two views, was unequivocal that the chair of Peter in Rome was the supreme authority for the Church. His famous statement, "Rome has spoken, the case is closed," has rung in the ears of Catholics for a millennium and a half. Further, one needs to understand the contexts in which Augustine was writing, as well as the theological license he gave himself to explain the deeper truths of the Faith. All in all, Augustine was a diehard supporter of the papacy.

Interesting developments in the exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19 have occurred in the Protestant world since the turn of this century. Many Protestant scholars have come to the conclusion that Peter is indeed the rock to which Jesus referred. Renowned Protestant theologians such as Oscar Cullman and Herman Ridderbos have written voluminous works works exegeting Matthew 16:18 in fine detail, showing that classical Protestant exegesis is full of false assumptions and shortcomings. One of the most salient errors pointed out by these sources is the Protestant claim that that the original Greek of Matthew 16:18 made a lexical distinction between Peter (Greek: petros) and rock (Greek: petra). Petros was understood to be a small stone or pebble, while petra was understood to be a huge, immovable rock, or rocky cliff. Conclusion: Peter could not be the rock to which Jesus referred, since it is obvious that a small stone is not a huge, immovable rock. In discovering more about Greek etymology, however, Protestant scholars learned that petros and petra are actually interchangeable terms. Though desiring to complete the pun and convey assonance, the Gospel writer was simply limited by the fact that since Peter is a masculine name, it must be designated by a masculine Greek noun (i.e., petros), whereas petra is a feminine noun.

Greek, however, may not have been the original language of the Gospel of Matthew, since many Church Fathers (e.g. Irenaeus, Eusebius, Epiphanius and Jerome) indicate Matthew's Gospel originally was written in Hebrew/Aramaic. The Greek of Matthew's Gospel could then be a translation of the Hebrew. Also, it is known that Jesus spoke in a Hebrew dialect called Aramaic. This is very significant, since Aramaic did not have different words for "Peter" and "rock" as Greek does, but would have used the same word _kepha_ (transliterated as "Cephas" in John 1:42) where Jesus, speaking Aramaic, equates _kepha_ with the Greek _petros_). It is also interesting to note that "Simon" in Aramaic means "grain of sand." If _petros_ referred only to a pebble, as some Protestants claim, it would be pointless for Jesus to change his name from "grain of sand" merely to "pebble," since that would do little to portray the monumental change in Peter's stature that was meant to take place in John 1:42 and Matthew 16:18.

Even though Greek may not have been the original language in which Matthew penned his Gospel, it can be shown from the scriptural usage of Greek that _petra_ does not refer exclusively to a huge rock. It also can refer to a stone or small rock. For example, in Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:8, the Greek word _lithos_ (a small stone), is coupled with _petra_ in the imagery of making a man stumble and fall. The verse in the Old Testament from which these verses are quoted is Isaiah 8:14: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." The image is of a man walking on his way and stumbling over a stone or small rock so that he falls to the ground. It is not the picture of a big boulder appearing in his way or coming down from the sky and crushing him under its weight. Paul actually refers to stumbling in Romans 9:32, and one cannot stumble and fall over a _petra_ if it is a huge, massive rock.

Hence, since both _petra_ and _petros_ can refer either to a small or large rock, perhaps Jesus was not so much concerned about size in calling Peter the rock, but with solidity.

This reasoning is supported by the parable in Matthew 7:24-27 concerning the man who built his house upon sand as opposed to the one who built his house on rock. On grains of sand, ("Simon"), the Church could not be supported. On a rock, ("Peter"), it was well-supported.

Because of these and other discoveries, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a Protestant scholar who has not capitulated to the Catholic understanding of the rock in Matthew 16:18.

Then why, you ask, have not these scholars not yet become Catholics? Some have, but among other things, what most of these Protestant scholars still have a problem with is whether Peter's office is to succeed him. To explore this question, we find more help from the Greek language.

Various nuances in exegeting Matthew 16:18-19 are being discovered all the time, and each of them support the Catholic interpretation of the verse. I have discovered a few of these myself that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Peter is the rock.

There are nuances to the Greek that are much more illustrative in identifying Peter as the rock that are not available in Hebrew/Aramaic. For example, the Greek _epi taute te petra_ ("upon this rock") uses the dative case demonstrative adjective, _taute_ (pronounced "tautee") with the dative article _te_ (pronounced "tee"). To show the intended force of its demonstrative quality, the Greek phrase can be translated as: "this same," "this very" or "even this." Hence, the wording of Matthew 16:18 could very well read: "You are Peter and upon _this same_ rock I will build my Church" or, "You are Peter and upon _this very_ rock I will build my Church."

That this Greek phrase can be used in such a manner, one need only turn to Protestant translations of the New Testament. For example, in the King James Bible, the same dative construction is translated, as "the same" or "this same," respectively, in 1 Corinthians 7:20 ("Let every man abide in _the same_ calling in which he was called") and 2 Corinthians 9:4 ("...we should not be ashamed in _this same_ confident boasting"). It is also translated as "even...this" in Mark 14:30 ("This day, _even in this_ night...thou shalt deny me thrice"). The New American Standard Bible translates this demonstrative adjective as "this very" in Luke 12:20 ("_This very_ night your soul is required of you.") It is translated the same way in the New International Version and The New English Bible. The Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible translate the same dative construction as "this very" in Acts 27:23 ("For _this very_ night there stood by me an angel..."). There are other instances of such translations in Protestant Bibles, but these will suffice to make the point that it is very possible, in fact, more correct, to translate Matthew 16:18 much more emphatically than it is usually rendered. In addition, what may be just as important in this analysis is not what the Gospel writer said, but what he did not say. He did not say, "upon THE rock" or "upon A rock," which would have made the identity of the rock more ambiguous. The demonstrative force added by the inclusion of the Greek word "tautee" makes clear that the rock which Jesus mentioned is the _same_ or _very_ rock to which He had just referred, i.e., Peter.

R.C.H. Lenski, a renowned Lutheran commentator, suggests that Jesus could have said, "You are Peter, I will build my Church _on you_" if He meant to refer to Peter. Certainly this is plausible since there are many ways to say the same thing in human language.

But Lenski avoids the literary and historical genre in his suggestion. The apostles are in the vicinity of Caesarea Phillipi, which contained a massive rock structure. Jesus had already changed Simon's name to Peter, meaning rock (Jn 1:42). Jesus and Peter have an intense conversation in which they exchange titles (Mt 16:13-18).

Jesus give only Peter the keys of the kingdom (Mt 16:19). What more profound way could there be to set the stage for the declaration that Peter is the rock?

In fact, most Protestant scholars see such force in this genre that the only way they can neutralize it is to claim that this entire section of Matthew is not authentic (e.g. Rudolph Bultmann).

Ironically, in a letter congratulating Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner on his devastating critique of Hans Kung's book which questioned papal infallibility, Bultmann said, "How fortunate you must be to be able to appeal to the Pope; appeal to the Lutheran synods merely leads to greater disunity."

We might also add that the Latin Vulgate, written by Jerome in the fifth century, translates the aforementioned phrase as "_hanc petram_" wherein "hanc" can be understood in Latin as "this very." From Jerome's perspective, this usage was especially significant since since he was an expert in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

For those Protestants who have come to the realization that Peter is the rock of Matthew 16:18, the next step is accepting that Peter's office is to succeed him (i.e., that Peter was the first pope to be followed by an unbroken succession of popes).

Logic would dictate that if Jesus was going to take the trouble to set up an office for Peter (i.e giving him the _keys_, which denote an office of power and authority) this position would naturally continue for the life of the Church.

Jesus did nothing without planning it out for the future. If not, what would be the sense in establishing such a high-ranking office if Jesus had no intention of seeing it last beyond Peter's death? It would be one of the most anti-climactic events in the life of Jesus and the history of the Church, not to mention a complete shutdown of the Old Testament precedent of dynastic succession.

Imagine the framers of the U.S. Constitution creating the office of president and electing George Washington as its first official, all the while musing that the office would be destroyed after Washington's death! That would be an absurd proposition. Were the framers of the Constitution smarter than Jesus? Certainly not. They were emulating what had been passed down since the dawn of history--that a single individual takes the reins of power but hands them over to his successor upon his vacancy from the office. But this is a big subject requiring yet further analysis.


Mr Sungenis, who holds religious degrees from George Washington University in Washington, DC and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is a former Protestant radio Bible teacher who converted to Catholicism in 1992.

Permission to reproduce granted by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas on 5-15-95.

Robert Sungenis account of his conversion to the Catholic Church can be found in the book _Surprised by Truth_, published by Basilica Press (available from Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego CA 92177--telephone 619-541-1131.)