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Petros versus Petra

DAY 282

CHALLENGE

“Peter can’t be the rock that Jesus refers to in Matthew 16:18. He uses the word petros (small stone) for ‘Peter’ but petra (large rock) for ‘rock.’ Why would he change the word if he was referring to Peter both times?”

DEFENSE

This challenge has several problems and does not prove its case.

Protestant scholar D.A. Carson notes:

Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “[small] stone” and “[large] rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover the underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kêphā’ was used in both clauses (“you are kêphā’ and on this kêphā’”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses. The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Matt. 16:18).

He further notes: “Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the Rock, the more common word would have been lithos (“stone” of almost any size). Then there would have been no pun—and that is just the point!” (ibid.).

Although Jesus’ words could have been translated into Greek using petros in both cases (“You are petros and on this petros”), petra may appear in the second instance simply to avoid using the same word too closely in quick succession. Avoiding repetition by using a synonym is often an important element of style (so much so that it is the reason pronouns exist).

Even if we were to grant that petros and petra referred to small and large stones respectively, this would not show Peter isn’t the rock. That interpretation assumes antithetic parallelism, where the two are contrasted (“You are a small stone, but on this other big rock . . . ”). However, it could just as well be synthetic parallelism, where the second idea builds on the first (“You may appear to be a small stone, but on the big rock you really are . . . ”).

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