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When Peter made his famous confession, Jesus responded by saying:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (NIV Mathew 16:18)

Looking up the original Greek I see that Jesus is referring to two types of rocks and one is related to the other, but they are not the same.

Peter = Πέτρος, Pétros (a masculine noun) – properly, a stone (pebble), such as a small rock found along a pathway.

Rock = pétra (a feminine noun) – "a mass of connected rock”

The question is, ‘What is the point of bringing in two types of rocks in response to Peter’s confession?’

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In English, this is called equivocalness. However, Jesus' point was to contrast the smallness and changeability of the pebble with the vastness and durability of bedrock. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Aug 9 '12 at 13:18
I wonder if this would not be a better fit for Biblical Hermeneutics. Thoughts? –  Caleb Aug 9 '12 at 13:53
@Caleb - I was thinking that but I kind of already brought out the relevant exegetical points in the question. Still I can go either way if you have a preference. –  Mike Aug 9 '12 at 14:45

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

A large, solid rock that served as a foundation to build something upon that nothing could wipe out calls to mind the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:24-25

24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

So we know that Jesus was familiar with this sort of imagery. The question, then, is what he was referring to in this specific passage?

Catholics claim that this is the point where Jesus established the church, and its authority, in the hands of Peter, naming him the first Pope, the small rock, an individual example of the large rock (the office of Pope that holds the authority over the church.)

And yet this answer feels somewhat unsatisfying. Popes are human too. Peter was human too. Peter was hotheaded and a bit boastful, and he had some serious problems with his faith. When Jesus invited him out onto the water to walk to him, he was actually able to do it, but then, after it had already been proven to him beyond any doubt that he was in the middle of a bona fide miracle, he doubted! Peter the Rock began to sink like a stone and Jesus had to run over and save him from drowning. And who can forget his cowardice in the face of Jesus's trial and crucifixion, denying his Lord three times just hours after he had boasted of his willingness to follow him even unto death? This is not the picture of a solid foundation that will uphold the church no matter what bad weather beats against it!

But if we reject this interpretation, we are under the necessity of providing a better one, because Jesus did still say that he was going to build his church upon "this rock". So the question becomes, what is "this"? For that, we need more context. Let's look back a few verses:

Matthew 16:13-18

13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Here we see what it is that they were talking about when he said this. Peter was blessed for the testimony he had received, not by men but by revelation from God, of the divinity of Jesus. Men don't understand who Jesus is--they have all sorts of weird and conflicting theories--but by the power of God, men can have the truth revealed unto them. This revelation, being from God, is infallible, and if the Church is built upon it, it can never fall. Simon was named petros because he was the archetype, the first (of his contemporaries at least) to have received this personal revelation from God. (See Matthew chapter 4, where he and his brother Andrew are named as the first two of Jesus's disciples.)

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Ya I think it was the petra in petros that Jesus drew attention to. That is the confession of faith in Christ, upon which we as living stones are built onto the corner-stone. 1 Peter 2:5 'you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house' –  Mike Aug 10 '12 at 1:21
I'm curious for your thoughts on (as I understand it) the original Aramaic not having this distinction. Also, as a side comment, we Catholics do not think that the Pope, Peter or any of his successors, are without sin, only that they are guided by the Holy Spirit not to definitively teach error. –  Jason Aug 10 '12 at 18:31

Ok, so the reality is that there is the appearance of a Discrepancy of sorts in the bible, Peter being called "Pétros", and The church being built on "pétra."

As a Catholic heres how we interpret this scripture.

the Aramaic word kēpā' meaning rock and transliterated into Greek as Kēphas is the name by which peter is called in the Pauline letters (1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:4; Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14) except in Gal 2:7-8 ('Peter'). It is translated as Petros ("Peter") in Jn 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of jesus' statement would have been in English, "You are the Rock (kēpā') and upon this rock (kēpā') I will build my church." The Greek text probably means the same, for the difference in gender between the masculine noun petros, the disciples new name, and the feminine noun petra (rock) may be dew to the unsuitability of using a feminine noun as the proper name of a male.Although the two words were generally used with the same meaning, "rock" ...

Thats found in the note on Mt 6:18 (NAB) in my bible

So another words Jesus used the same word to refer to peter and 'the rock,' which is why Catholics believe that Jesus "built the church" on Peter, and the other popes. Of course, Faith is a gift given by God, and if it wasn't for that faith, Peter, and the rest of the Papacy, and their flock could have never started the church that we know today. So it does make sense, in a way, to say that Peter is a 'little rock' and upon the 'Big rock', the faith Of the head of the body of Christ, (which is given to peter) Jesus builds his church.

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It would also have been impossible to say, "You are rock and on this rock" because the word, "rock" is feminine in Greek. I believe the rule is that feminine words take on masculine forms when applied to people. –  Ignatius Theophorus Aug 9 '12 at 19:10
Yeah, i think the Greek writers just thought: "lets make sure this is clear, Peter is a dude." Its like, if you want to name your kid Mary, but you end up with a 'He,' you could use 'mario' instead... –  Joe Daniels Aug 9 '12 at 19:38
This does not seem to explain why two different words for rock are used, but it does explain why the male version should have been used in both places,pre-assuming that there was no intended difference. –  Mike Aug 9 '12 at 23:49

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