Sunday, August 28, 2011

Petros vs. Petra: A Non-Argument

Most of you are probably familiar with the argument raised by non-Catholics about Peter being called the "Rock" in Matthew 16 that is based upon drawing a distinction between the two Greek words petra and petros. If you are not familiar with this argument, Google it and you'll come up with a lot of material on it from Protestant and Catholic apologists. I think it is a rather weak argument; Patrick Madrid has dealt with it admirably here. Catholic Answers has a helpful tract about the topic as well, and Steve Ray's book Upon This Rock uses a plethora of sources, including Protestant scholarship, to dismantle this common Protestant objection.

These approaches that are based on etymology and grammar are helpful, but I do not necessarily think they are the strongest arguments. For one thing, unless you personally know Greek, or at the very least understand how inflected languages work, you won't really "get" the argument; you basically have to take somebody's word for it. When you start getting into arguments about inflected versus reflexive languages, Attic versus Koine Greek and word studies of other appearances of petros and petra in ancient Greek literature, you are perhaps moving out of the realm of where lay people can intelligently discuss the problem and into a place reserved to only a very small field of specialists.

I want to here propose two very strong arguments against the petros/petra objection that are based not on grammatical exegesis or etymology, but on history, and which, to my knowledge, has not been brought up by any Catholic apologists to date. My response to the Protestant petros/petra objection is as follows:


This is tremendously important. If anybody had a reason to deny papal authority or the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16, it would have been the Greek Orthodox. From the 5th century all the way through the Middle Ages the Greeks contested the papacy's claims over authority over the Church of God. Since this was the case, and since the Greeks, especially of the earlier centuries, were reading the Scriptures in their original languages, does it not stand to reason that if there was any import to Christ's use of the words petra and petros in Matthew 16, the Greeks would have noticed it? If such a distinction really did have the import that Protestants say it does, this argument would have been invaluable in the hands of the Greek apologists in the contest with Rome for primacy.

But, since the Greeks who read the New Testament in its original language and had a vested interest in debunking the claims of Rome to primacy never utilized this argument, their silence is telling. They attack Roman primacy, to be sure, but they never use the petros/petra argument. Instead they talk about the union between Church and Empire and Constantinople being the imperial seat; they talk about a fictional apostolic succession based on a legendary founding of the Byzantine Church by St. Andrew the Apostle; they bring forward different ecclesiological interpretations of what kind of primacy St. Peter was given; they drudge up the old canards of Vigilius and Honorious; but they never resorted to the petros/petra argument (at least until modern times, when they borrowed it from Protestants). If classical Greek Orthodox polemic at its height never utilized this argument, we are safe in presuming there never was an argument there to be utilized.


We can go ahead and use this same sort of reasoning when we come to Martin Luther. Here, once again, we have a man with a solid knowledge of New Testament Greek (who even made his own German translation of the NT) and a vested interest in disproving Rome's claims to primacy. If there really was any sort of argument to be made by the petros/petra distinction, Martin Luther was the person to notice it. Yet Luther does not use this argument either.

He certainly attacks the papacy; he uses selective citations from the Fathers, heaps abuse upon the Roman pontiffs for alleged excessive use of power and even fabricates a variant reading of Matthew 16 where Jesus says to Peter "You are a rock" but then turns and points to Himself before saying, "Upon this rock I will build my Church," thus inferring some sort of extra-biblical gesture or motion of our Lord to explain away the passage. Yet, though he has gone so far as imagine an invented extra-biblical gesture to explain our Lord's words, he does not center in on petros/petra as a point of argument. This is because he knew there was no argument there.

I am not sure when the petros/petra argument first came into vogue; my guess is sometime around the early 20th century with the rise of the historical critical school. But the fact that neither the Greek Orthodox or Martin Luther ever used the argument, though they had the knowledge of Greek and the motivation against the papacy to do so, ought to be a clear reminder that this argument is just a fabrication - a non-argument.

I'll have more to say about petros and petra in the future, but that's enough for now.


Mr. Carruth said...

These are compelling observations, but as arguments, they are not terribly solid. The two arguments are essentially arguments from silence -- both the orthodox church and Martin Luther were intelligent and stood to profit from disproving the papacy, and neither group made use of this argument to do so. Therefore, this must not be a proper or useful argument. This, as far as I can tell, though, is fallacious, because nothing comes from nothing. An absence of a particular argument from a set of arguments does not negate the validity of that particular argument.

Perhaps I'm misconstruing your argument, though.

Boniface said...

Mr. Carruth-

You are right that it is an argument from silence, but I think it is a bit stronger than that; perhaps the confusion is that I myself did not elaborate what the petros-petra argument is.

Basically, the argument is that, if you read the NT in Greek, the words Jesus chooses to use when He refers in the "thou art Peter" passage allegedly makes it clear that Jesus was not referring to Peter when He said, "upon this rock." This distinction is supposed to be clear when one reads the Greek.

The argument is that, if this distinction really were in the Greek, the Orthodox or Martin Luther would have picked up on it. It's not just that they didn't make the argument - it's that something that is alleged to be evident in the Greek really is not evident at all; if it were, these two groups, both of whom had axes to grind against the papacy, would have noted it.

So, it's not just an argument from silence; it is an argument based on what is or is not objectively in the Greek of the NT and whether it implies anything about the papacy. The fact that the papacy's enemies never "saw" this alleged implication suggests that no such implication exists in the original Greek.

Anonymous said...

There's also a further point to be made from various Hebrew and Aramaic parallels. In brief, Jesus called Peter Cephas, which in the Latin transliteration of the Aramaic word Kepha', which is a feminine noun. So as far as I can tell Aramaic words are not subject to the same sort of masculine/feminine morphological distinction as Greek. (It's a bit more complicated than that. But I would argue that Petros/petra is distinguished in Greek because the Greek language long ago developed the resources to make this kind of distinction available and expected in terms of personal gender)

Furthermore, I would recommend looking up the word Keph (K-Y-P) in this dictionary and checking where it is used in various places in the Aramaic Targumim, since this is what would arguably have had the most resonance with Jesus's disciples and audience. If I recall correctly, the references are all either to large outcroppings of rock where people seek refuge, or to small precious gems. So there's no basis to the idea that Jesus was belittling Peter, unless we want to conjecture that he was speaking sarcastically/ironically, which seems out of character.

Adrian Mascarenhas said...

Thank you, your posts were very enlightening and helpful. In Deuteronomy 32:13, Petra in the Septuagint corresponds to Kepha in the Aramaic Targum. Hence there is no problem with saying that Cephas (Petros) is the Rock (Petra). A Protestant writer has written the following: "The idea of the reformers that Jesus is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable in view of the probably different setting of the story [i.e. these words were probably not spoken immediately after Peter's confession but at a different time]. 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." - Oscar Cullmann.

Anonymous said...

Well, I must say that I think this argument pretty much sucks. here's why. If it is INEED Peter and ONLY Peter upon which Christ builds the church, this should be reflected in the Bible. And using your history argument, we know that this simply IS NOT THE CASE. Ask yourself, which of the Apostles did the most to actually build the church in the 1st century? Was it Peter? nope. it was Paul. PAUL was building the Church far more than Peter was. Also, if succession is THAT important consider the succession of the Kings of Judah or Israel. Sure they were legitimate, but how many actually did what was right and Holy in the sight of God? hardly ANY. My point is that just because you are part of the succession doesn't make you correct. It just means you're part of the succession. And if Christ was referring to Peter, then the keys aren't passed to the next Pope... the church will not be built on the next Pope... because Christ was referring only to Peter.

If you study early Church history, you will realize that there were 4 Sees at the beginning. Only one of them survived the muslim conquest... the one in Rome. and that is why the Pope is considered so central. But the Pope and the Patriarch in Constantinople (by the way, the two words mean pratically the same thing) where both rival heads of the Christian Church before the muslims finally felled Constantinople in 1453.

Ultimately, what I believe is that Christ WAS referring to Peter. But he did not mean that it was ONLY upon Peter that the Church would be built. Because, as we know, History has proved this not to be the case! Paul built most of the early churches! The other thing is that I feel most Catholics are less accepting of Protestants than the reverse. We would never deny a Catholic communion because he is not a member of the "Church". protestants believe that there is only ONE Church. the Christian Church which comprises of ANYONE who trusts Jesus for their salvation by faith, through grace, not by works so no one can boast.

Boniface said...

The Church is built upon the Twelve, but to Peter alone is given the keys.

I am not going to respond to your argument point by point because you seem ignorant of some very basic facts of history and some very basic theological concepts that would make discussion possible. Such as,

1) The argument is about the Greek orthodox understanding of the Greek language, which you do not address.

2) Peter founding the Church of Rome, which even Protestants agree on

3)An ignorance of what apostolic succession meant in the early church

4) That the Pope was asserting his primacy WAY before the Muslim conquest

5) That the Church being "built" upon Peter does not mean Peter physically founded the most Churches

Please study this issue more and come back in five years or so.

Unknown said...

"Please study this issue more and come back in five years or so."

Oh Burn! Best comeback ever!

Eric said...

My mom just quoted this passage in hopes I would return to the denomination of my childhood. Further curiosity brought me here.

Whether we review the Greek or the Aramaic, or wether we are concerned with succession, primacy, or something else entirely, an important point is that Jesus does not say “i will build my church upon *you*”.

By using the word “rock,” in any form, a second time, he is clearly drawing out an additional meaning. It is not peter the man which is a useful foundation, but rather that part of Peter’s personality, history, mode of action, or what-have-you which leads Jesus to call him a rock in the first place. That quality of peter that makes him a rock may be found or fostered in others, and this is an important foundation stone of Jesus’ Church.

Boniface said...


That's a little bit silly. Christ did not say *you*, He said "rock", but He identified Peter as the rock. The important word is not so much "rock" as "this", because when He says "THIS rock", He is emphatically stating that He is not introducing something new, but referring back to the noun about which He was just speaking. If I say "This is a table, and upon this table I will set my dinner," it would be ridiculous to assume the second use of table referred to some table distinct from first use. Or if I say, "This is my computer, and upon this computer I will save my files," it would be linguistically ridiculous to presume the sentence referred to two separate computers.

Similarly, Jesus says Peter is the Rock, and then says "and upon this rock I will build my church." The rock upon which He will build the Church is the same rock that Peter is, which is what the sentence clearly says. It is linguistically dishonest to try to twist the sentence to make the second usage of "rock" refer to Peter's faith, Peter's personality, etc. The Church is built upon Peter the man--granted, Peter the man as ennobled and graced by the Holy Spirit, guided so that His faith may not fail (cf. Luke 22:32)--but it is still Peter, the *person*, not some intangible trait of Peter.