Peter, the Rock
upon which the
Church is Built

Definition of Terms:

  • Koine Greek:  a historical form of the Greek language that emerged as a common dialect during the Hellenistic period, around the 4th century BCE. It was widely spoken and understood throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and became the lingua franca of the region. It is particularly significant for its role in the spread of early Christianity, as the New Testament of the Bible was written in Koine Greek. 
  • Aramaic:  an ancient Semitic language that originated in the Near East and is closely related to Hebrew and Arabic. Aramaic became widely used as a lingua franca in the ancient Near East and was the language of Jesus Christ and was spoken in parts of the Levant during the time of the New Testament. Aramaic continues to be spoken by small communities today, particularly among Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in the Middle East.

“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! 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 upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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.” (Matthew 16:17-19)

The context of this verse is clearly one of Jesus communicating a unique authority to Peter.  Grammatically, Jesus uses the second-person personal pronoun seven times in just three verses. Jesus is portrayed as the builder of the Church, and it is upon Peter that He says, “I will build my church”. This understanding was well attested to in the early church by the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage. However, in recent years, the grammar of the original Koine Greek has led to debate over whether Christ was intending to infer that Peter was the rock upon which the church would be built.

In the passage found in Matthew 16:18, Jesus states, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.” Grammatically, the phrase “on this rock” refers to something specific. In the original Greek text, Jesus says, “σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν.”  The word used for “rock” in the phrase “on this rock” is “πέτρᾳ” (petra), which is a feminine noun, the word used for Peter is “Πέτρος” (Petros), which is a masculine noun. In Koine Greek, petros and petra are masculine and feminine forms of words with the same root and the same definition: rock.

Petra was a common word used for “rock” in Greek, whereas petros was not commonly used in Koine Greek at all. While “Petra” is used fifteen times in the New Testament, “Petros” is never used at all in the New Testament, except for Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter. Because Petra is a feminine noun, it would have been improper to call Peter “Petra”, which would have been equivalent to calling him “Patricia”. Matthew, therefore, made the appropriate gender change in Greek. If Matthew had wished to make a distinction , there are several words he could have used, such as “lithos” (meaning “stone”) or “psephos” (meaning “stone” or “pebble”) or simply a connotation of “large” or “small”.

The difference between “Petra” and “Petros” is ultimately a moot point as Jesus would not have spoken his discourse of Matthew 16 in Greek, but rather Aramaic. There is evidence from the early church that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. Papias of Hierapolis, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyons all record that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. John 1:42 also indicates that Jesus spoke using Aramaic in the naming of Peter: “[Andrew] brought [Peter] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas.’” The name Cephas is a transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha, which means “rock.” Paul also refers to Peter as “Cephas” on several occasions in 1 Cor. 1:12, 3:22 and Gal. 1:18, 2:9.

Even well respected Protestant scholars will agree on this point. Baptist scholar D.A. Carson, writes, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary,

“The underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepha was used in both clauses (“you are kepha” and “on this kepha”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with a dialect of Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses.”

In the Old Testament, a new name indicated a change in that person’s status. For example, Abram became Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Jacob became Israel (Gen 32:28), and Eliakim became Joakim (2 Kings 23:34). Simon’s name change to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew also draws an additional parallel to Abraham as Abraham is “the rock from which Israel is hewn” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Now Peter is to be the “rock on which the Church would be built.” Abram (“exalted father” in Hebrew) was changed to Abraham (“father of the multitudes”). Just as God made Abraham our true “father” in the Faith (see Rom. 4:1-18; James 2:21), Peter’s successors would be called “pope” meaning “papa,” as was Abraham (see Luke 16:24).

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Bible Verses:

John 1:42

“And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).”

1 Corinthians 1:12

“What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.'”

1 Corinthians 3:22

“whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours.”

Galatians 1:18

“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.”

Galatians 2:9

“James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.”

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Church Father Quotes:

Clement of Rome 

“Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the most sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter, the first fruits of our Lord, the first of the apostles; to whom first the Father revealed the Son; whom the Christ, with good reason, blessed” (Letter of Clement to James 2 [A.D. 221]).

Tertullian of Carthage 

“[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church” (Modesty 21:9–10 [A.D. 220]).

Cyprian of Carthage 

“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).

Ephraim the Syrian 

“[Jesus said:] Simon, my follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on Earth a Church for me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which my teaching flows; you are the chief of my disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples. Yours is that life-giving sweetness which I dispense. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the firstborn in my institution so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures” (Homilies 4:1 [A.D. 351]).

Pope Damasus I

“Likewise it is decreed . . . that it ought to be announced that . . . the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . ’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it” (Decree of Damasus 3 [A.D. 382]).

Jerome of Stridon

“‘But,’ you [Jovinian] will say, ‘it was on Peter that the Church was founded’ [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division” (Against Jovinian 1:26 [A.D. 393]).

Council of Ephesus

“Philip, the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See [Rome] said: ‘There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors’” (Acts of the Council, session 3).

Pope Leo I

“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the apostles, and from him as from the head wishes his gifts to flow to all the body, so that anyone who dares to secede from Peter’s solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery. He wished him who had been received into partnership in his undivided unity to be named what he himself was, when he said: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt. 16:18], that the building of the eternal temple might rest on Peter’s solid rock, strengthening his Church so surely that neither could human rashness assail it nor the gates of hell prevail against it” (Letters 10:1 [A.D. 445).

“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . established the worship belonging to the divine [Christian] religion. . . . But the Lord desired that the sacrament of this gift should pertain to all the apostles in such a way that it might be found principally in the most blessed Peter, the highest of all the apostles. And he wanted his gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as if from the head, in such a way that anyone who had dared to separate himself from the solidarity of Peter would realize that he was himself no longer a sharer in the divine mystery” (ibid., 10:2–3).

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Non-Catholic Quotes:

Albert Barnes, Nineteenth-Century Presbyterian
“The meaning of this phrase may be thus expressed: ‘Thou, in saying that I am the Son of God, hast called me by a name expressive of my true character. I, also, have given to thee a name expressive of your character. I have called you Peter, a rock. . . . I see that you are worthy of the name and will be a distinguished support of my religion” [Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, 170].

John Broadus, Nineteenth-Century Calvinistic Baptist
“As Peter means rock, the natural interpretation is that ‘upon this rock’ means upon thee. . . . It is an even more far-fetched and harsh play upon words if we understand the rock to be Christ and a very feeble and almost unmeaning play upon words if the rock is Peter’s confession” [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 356].

Craig L. Blomberg, Contemporary Baptist
“The expression ‘this rock’ almost certainly refers to Peter, following immediately after his name, just as the words following ‘the Christ’ in verse 16 applied to Jesus. The play on words in the Greek between Peter’s name (Petros) and the word ‘rock’ (petra) makes sense only if Peter is the Rock and if Jesus is about to explain the significance of this identification” [New American Commentary: Matthew, 22:252].

J. Knox Chamblin, Contemporary Presbyterian
“By the words ‘this rock’ Jesus means not himself, nor his teaching, nor God the Father, nor Peter’s confession, but Peter himself. The phrase is immediately preceded by a direct and emphatic reference to Peter. As Jesus identifies himself as the builder, the rock on which he builds is most naturally understood as someone (or something) other than Jesus himself” [“Matthew” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 742].

R. T. France, Contemporary Anglican
“The word-play, and the whole structure of the passage, demands that this verse is every bit as much Jesus’ declaration about Peter as verse 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus. Of course it is on the basis of Peter’s confession that Jesus declares his role as the Church’s foundation, but it is to Peter, not his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied” (Gospel According to Matthew, 254).

Herman Ridderbos, Contemporary Dutch Reformed
“It is well known that the Greek word petra translated ‘rock’ here is different from the proper name Peter. The slight difference between them has no special importance, however. The most likely explanation for the change from petros (‘Peter’) to petra is that petra was the normal word for ‘rock.’ . . . There is no good reason to think that Jesus switched from petros to petra to show that he was not speaking of the man Peter but of his confession as the foundation of the Church. The words ‘on this rock [petra]’ indeed refer to Peter” [Bible Student’s Commentary: Matthew, 303].

Donald Hagner, Contemporary Evangelical
“The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny [that Peter is the rock] in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock . . . seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy” (Word Biblical Commentary 33b:470).

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