You Can't Get Past this Rock


Few texts have occasioned the spilling of more ink than Matthew 16:18–19:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on 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.

Although all twelve apostles were present, Jesus promised Peter alone the keys of the kingdom. The keys symbolize Christ’s authority over the kingdom of heaven on earth—the Church. Yet many Protestants believe the two "rocks" in the Greek text have different meanings: "Thou art Petros, and on this petra I will build my church." They believe Petros, the first "rock," refers to a small rock (Peter) and petra, the second "rock," means a massive boulder—either Jesus or Peter’s confession of faith. Thus the argument concludes that Jesus did not build his Church upon Peter but upon either himself or Peter’s faith.

This is not how Catholics understand this passage. There are ten reasons for why we believe that Peter is undeniably the rock of the Church.

We’re Not in Little Rock

1. There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Aramaic. Both Papias and Irenaeus told us that in the second century. More importantly, and more certainly, Jesus would have spoken his discourse of Matthew 16 in Aramaic, not Greek. Although Greek was the dominant language of the Roman Empire in the first century, most of the Jewish people Jesus spoke to were not fluent in it. They spoke Aramaic.

There is also biblical evidence, in John 1:42, that Jesus used 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" (which means Peter).

The name Cephas is an anglicized form of the Aramaic name Kepha, which simply means "rock." There was no "small rock" to be found in Jesus’ original statement to Peter. Even well-respected Protestant scholars agree on this point. Baptist scholar D. A. Carson writes:

The underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; at 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. (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Zondervan, 368)

Rocky Road

2. In Koine Greek (the dialect used by the authors of the New Testament), petros and petra are the masculine and feminine form of a word with the same root and the same definition—"rock." Therefore, there is no "small rock" in the Greek text either. So why did Matthew use two different words for "rock" in the same verse?

Petra was a common word for "rock" in Greek. It is used fifteen times to mean "rock," "rocks," or "rocky" in the New Testament. Petros is an ancient Greek term that was not commonly used in Koine Greek at all. In fact, it was never otherwise used in the New Testament except when Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon to Peter.

It follows that when the Gospel of Matthew was translated into Greek, petra would have been used for "rock," but petra is a feminine noun. It would have been improper to call Peter " petra," and so petros, the masculine form, was used for his name.

3. There are several words the inspired author could have used for "rock" or "stone" in Greek. Petra and lithos were the most common and were used interchangeably. Any connotation of small or large depends on context. The words simply mean "rock" or "stone."

In the Septuagint, in Joshua 5:2–3, "God said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time.’ So Joshua made flint knives [out of rocks]." One cannot make a stone knife out of a boulder, but it can be done out of a small rock that is manageable by hand.

Though it can be argued that lithos is more commonly used for "small rock" or "stone," we have examples of it being used as "large stone" as well. In Matthew 28:2, it is used for the large stone that was used to seal the tomb of Christ. Christ refers to himself as a "stone" in Matthew 21:42–44. It is used as "small stone," for example, in Matthew 4:3, when the devil shows Jesus some small stones (Greek: lithoi) and tempts him to turn them into bread. In John 10:31, certain Jews pick up lithoi to stone Jesus. Perhaps most importantly, in 1 Peter 2:5, Peter himself uses lithoi to describe the people of God as "living stones . . . built into a spiritual house." He does not call the body of Christ petroi. The only word that is never used to denote "small stone" or "small rock" in the New Testament is petros.

Peter himself had an opportunity to use that word in 1 Peter 2:5, but he did not. The word petros is uniquely applied to Peter in Scripture and is never used to connote "small rock."

Carson also pointed out that the large/small distinction is found only in ancient Greek, which was used from the eighth to the fourth century B.C., and even then it was confined largely to poetry. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, used from the fourth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Carson agrees with Catholics that there is no distinction in definition between petros and petra.

One of the most respected and referenced Greek dictionaries among Evangelicals is Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. In a most candid and honest statement about Matthew 16:18, Oscar Cullman, a contributing editor to this work, writes:

The obvious pun which has made its way into the Greek text . . . suggests a material identity between petra and Petros . . . as it is impossible to differentiate strictly between the two words. . . . Petros himself is this petra, not just his faith or his confession. . . . The idea of the Reformers that he is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable. . . . For there is no reference here to the faith of Peter. Rather, the parallelism of "thou art Rock" and "on this rock I will build" shows that the second rock can only be the same as the first. It is thus evident that Jesus is referring to Peter, to whom he has given the name Rock. . . . To this extent Roman Catholic exegesis is right and all Protestant attempts to evade this interpretation are to be rejected. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, Eerdmans, 98–99, 108)

4. If Matthew wanted to distinguish between "rocks" in the text, he most likely would have used lithos, which could be used to refer to a large rock, although it, too (like petra), was more commonly used to denote a small stone. There is also a third word that Matthew could have used that always means "small stone" or "pebble": psephos. It is used this way twice in Revelation 2:17, when Jesus says, "To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it."

What’s in a Name?

5. A simpler line of reasoning is found in the context of the passage. Our Lord says to Peter, "Blessed are you. . . . And so I say to you, you are Peter. . . . I will give to you the keys to the kingdom. . . . Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." Jesus uses the word you seven times in just three verses. It doesn’t follow that Jesus would address so much of this passage to Peter, and then say, "But I will build my Church upon me." The context is clearly one in which Jesus is communicating a unique authority to Peter.

In addition, Jesus is portrayed as the builder of the Church, not the building. He said, "I will build my church." Jesus is "the wise man who built his house upon the rock" (Matt. 7:24) in Matthew’s Gospel. Once again, the interpretation of Jesus building the Church upon himself does not fit the context.

6. The changing of Simon’s name to Peter is also significant and often overlooked. In Scripture, we find that when God revealed a new and radical calling to certain of his people, he sometimes changed their names. In particular, this is true in the calling of the patriarchs. Abram ("exalted father" in Hebrew) was changed to Abraham ("father of the multitudes"); Jacob ("supplanter") was changed to Israel ("one who prevails with God"). In fact, there is an interesting parallel between Abraham and Peter. Isaiah 51:1–2 says:

Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn. . . . Look to Abraham your father.

Jesus made Peter a true father over the household of faith, just as God made Abraham our true father in the faith (cf. Rom. 4:1–18; Jas. 2:21). It is fitting that Peter’s successors are called "pope" or "papa," as was Abraham (Luke 16:24).

God’s Prime Minister

7. When we understand that Christ is the true son of David who came to restore the prophetic kingdom of David, we understand that in Matthew 16, Christ, like the king of Israel, was establishing a "prime minister" among his ministers, the apostles, in the kingdom. Isaiah 22:20–22 gives insight into the ministry of the "prime minister" in ancient Israel:

In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

In Revelation 1:18, Jesus declares, "I have the keys of Death and Hades," then quotes this very text from Isaiah in Revelation 3:7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: "The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens."

No Christian would deny that Jesus is the King who possesses the keys. To whom does he give the keys? To Peter!

8. If we examine the text grammatically—"You are Peter, and on this rock"—"this rock" must refer to the closest noun. To say "this rock" refers to Jesus, or to Peter’s declaration of faith, is to completely ignore the structure of the sentence.

As an analogy, consider this 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 would be even clearer if the reference to the car were two sentences earlier, as Peter’s profession is two sentences earlier than the word rock.

If Jesus wanted to distinguish between rocks, he could have said: "You are Peter, but upon this rock I will build my Church." "This rock" would then have clearly referred to something other than Peter.

On Second Thought

9. Jesus does not speak in the third person when referring to Peter as the "rock." James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries claims:

When Christ speaks to Peter, He does so in the second person; that is, direct address. Yet, the term "this rock" is third person (indirect address indicated by the use of taute), making the differentiation between "Peter" and "this rock" complete. . . . He is speaking to Peter, about the "rock." Hence, the text differentiates between Peter and the rock in two ways: the form of the word [petros and petra] and the person of address. (Answers to Catholic Claims, Crowne Publications, p. 105)

But because "this rock" is a metaphor for Peter, it is natural to use the third person. Jesus does something similar in Matthew 21:42–44:

Have you never read in the Scriptures: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner?" . . . He who falls on this stone (ton lithon touton) will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him.

"This stone" refers to Jesus, just as "this rock" refers to Peter, but the third person is used in both cases because both the "rock" and the "stone" are metaphors.

10. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul declared, "No other foundation can any one lay except that which has been laid, Jesus Christ." In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Jesus himself is called "the supernatural Rock." But neither of these passages means that Christ was speaking of himself as "the rock" in Matthew 16.

The same metaphor can be used in different places and with different meanings. For example, in Ephesians 2:20 and Revelation 21:14, the apostles are referred to as the foundation of the Church. In Psalm 18:31 and 1 Samuel 2:2, "God alone" is our "rock." Yet in Isaiah 51:1–2, Abraham is called "rock."

God freely chooses to communicate his authority in varying degrees to members of the people of God in order to accomplish his governance and authority on the earth. God’s ministers participate in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry of Christ. Jesus Christ, the rock foundation of our faith, is certainly capable of making Peter the rock and the foundation of our faith in him.


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of...

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.