The Christian Church built Upon Peter: Mistranslation or Misunderstanding?

What is the correct understanding of Matt. 16:15-18? To whom was Jesus talking and about? Is Peter, the rock, on whom the church is built upon? Please share and remain true to the text. Thanks. CM

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  • WolfgangWolfgang Posts: 1,624

    Peter was a "stone", Jesus was the ROCK ... thus the church is not built on Peter but on Christ.

  • MitchellMitchell Posts: 461

    Hi CM,

    Here are three resources that may or may not be helpful in answering your question:

    Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001. Print. Reading the New Testament Series.

    The rock upon which Christ’s church is built is the confession, revealed by the Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. The answers of others about who Jesus is offer him nothing on which to build. Peter’s confession does. This confession alone provides the church a secure, defensive position from which it can repel attacks from the powers of the abyss. It is the foundation for strong faith as opposed to little faith.


    Constable, Tom. Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible. Galaxie Software, 2003. Print.

         There are three main views about the identity of “this rock.”

    The first is that Jesus meant Peter was the rock. Peter’s name meant “rock,” so this identity seems natural in the context. Moreover, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ subsequent confirmation of his confession also points in that direction. Peter became the leading disciple in the early church (Acts 1–12), a third argument for this view.

         However, Jesus used two different words for “Peter” and “rock.” Matthew recorded the Aramaic distinction in Greek. If Jesus had wanted to identify Peter as the rock on which He would build the church, the clearest way to do this would have been to use the same word. While Peter’s confession triggered Jesus’ comment about building His church on a rock, it did not place Peter in a privileged position among the disciples. Jesus never treated Peter as though he occupied a favored position in the church because he made this confession. Third, the New Testament writers never connected Peter’s leadership in the early church with his confession. That rested on divine election, Jesus’ command to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32), and Peter’s personality.

         A second view is that Jesus meant the truth that Peter confessed, namely that Jesus is the Messiah and God, was the rock. This position has in its favor the different words Jesus used for “rock” and the definite “this” before “rock” as identifying something in the immediately preceding context. Furthermore other New Testament references to the foundation of the church could refer to the truth concerning Jesus’ person and work (Rom. 9:33; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:5–8).

         Nevertheless calling the truth about Jesus a rock when Jesus had just called Peter a rock seems unnecessarily confusing. The addition of “this” only compounds the confusion. Finally the other New Testament passages that refer to the foundation of the church never identify that foundation as the truth about Jesus. They point to something else.

         This leads us to the third and what I believe is the best solution to this problem. Many interpreters believe that Jesus Himself is the Rock in view. Peter himself identified Jesus as such in 1 Peter 2:5–8 (cf. Rom. 9:33). This interpretation explains the use of two different though related words for “rock.” Jesus and Peter shared belief in the person and work of Christ. Third, this view accounts for the use of “this” since Jesus was present when He said these words. Fourth, the Old Testament used the figure of a rock to describe God (Deut. 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31, 37; 2 Sam. 22:2; Ps. 18:31, 46; 28:1). Since Peter had just confessed that Jesus was God, it would have been natural for Jesus to use this figure of God to picture Himself.



    Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 14–28. Vol. 33B. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998. Print. Word Biblical Commentary:

    18 This verse has rightly been described as “among the most controversial in all of Scripture” (Davies-Allison, 2:623). As Peter had made a declaration concerning Jesus, now Jesus makes an important declaration concerning Peter: σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, “you are Peter,” and that name is now to take on special significance because Peter is also the “rock” upon which Jesus the Messiah will build his community. It is more probable that new significance is given to a name by which Simon was already known (with Gundry, contra Davies-Allison) than that Jesus first at this point gives him the name “Peter” (by which he has repeatedly been referred to in the preceding narratives). Davies-Allison, however, speak of the gaining of a new name in connection with the founding of a new people, noting (with Cullmann) the parallel with Abraham and the reference in Isa 51:1–2, which refers to the “rock from which you were hewn.” The suggestion is intriguing but based more on speculation than evidence and furthermore must face the very different metaphors of being hewn from rock and being built upon rock. The word play is clear in the Greek (Πέτρος [Petros], “Peter [lit. ‘stone’]”—πέτρα [petra], “rock”) despite the shift required by the feminine form of the noun for “rock.” It is even more obvious in the Aramaic, where the name כֵּיפָא, Kêp̱āʾ, is exactly the same for the word “rock.” Since kêp̱āʾ usually means “stone,” not something one builds upon, Luz argues for the derivation of the word play from the Greek words. But word play does not demand the usual meaning of words, especially in metaphorical applications such as the present one. The Aramaic word play on the same word remains the most convincing explanation. Fortunately, the play also worked in Greek. For evidence that kêp̱āʾ was a name in current use, contrary to the claim of many scholars, see Fitzmyer. (For Κηφᾶς [Kēphas], “Cephas,” the Greek form of the name, see John 1:42; 1 Cor 1:12; Gal 1:18).


     The natural reading of the passage, despite the necessary shift from Petros to petra required by the word play in the Greek (but not the Aramaic, where the same word kêp̱āʾ occurs in both places), is that it is Peter who is the rock upon which the church is to be built (thus rightly Morris, France, Carson, Blomberg, Cullmann [Peter, 207], Davies-Allison; so too the interconfessional volume by Brown, Donfried, and Reumann [Peter in the NT, 92]). The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny this in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock (e.g., most recently Caragounis) seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy. Not infrequently these attempts reveal the improper influence of passages such as 1 Cor 3:11 and Eph 2:20. But to allow this passage its natural meaning, that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, is by no means either to affirm the papacy or to deny that the church, like the apostles, rests upon Jesus as the bedrock of its existence. Jesus is after all the builder, and all that the apostles do they do through him. For a similar point, buttressed with OT allusions, see Knight, who refers finally to the rock as “none other than God-in-Christ” (179; cf. Moule). As has often been pointed out, it is none other than the confessing Peter who is in view here as the rock, and it is as the representative of Christ that the authority to be mentioned in the next verse is given to him in his custody of the gospel of Christ.

     Luz follows the argument of P. Lampe that kêp̱āʾ meant a round stone rather than rock and would not have been thought of as suitable to build upon. (For this reason Luz regards vv 18–19 as deriving from a Greek-speaking context.) As Davies-Allison (following Fitzmyer) note, however, kêp̱āʾ can mean rock (as, e.g., at Qumran and in the Targumim). Even if one were to think only of a stone, Davies-Allison point out that the Greek equivalent, λίθος, “stone,” is the word used for the foundation stone for the temple (cf. Isa 28:16). For a possible link with the stone passage of Ps 118:22, see Wilcox (cf. Moule). Cullmann sees a connection with the block of stone in Dan 2:34–35, 44–45, which Judaism associated with the Messiah (Peter, 191–92).

    The rock imagery implies both stability and endurance (cf. 7:24–25), even before the gates of Hades (see below). For Jewish background concerning a community built upon a “rock,” see Str-B 1:732–33. “Rock” of course refers here not to Peter’s character, as will become clear later in the narrative, but to his office and function (see too France) as leader of the apostles.

    As argued above, underlying the Greek word ἐκκλησία, “church,” is an Aramaic word spoken by Jesus meaning “community” (קָהָל; [qāhāl]; עֵדָה, [˓ēḏâ] = συναγωγή, “synagogue,” in LXX; or possibly כְּנִישְׁתָּא [kĕnîštāʾ]). The word ἐκκλησία appears often in the LXX, usually as the translation of קָהָל (qāhāl). Israel can be called קהָל יְהוה (qĕhāl YHWH), ἐκκλησία τοῦ κυρίου, “community of the LORD.” The word for community in Jesus’ day was עֵדָה (˓ēḏâ), usually translated συναγωγή. If Jesus is the Christ, then it is natural to expect that the community Jesus refers to is the messianic community or the eschatological people of God. Jesus says “my community,” where the μοῦ, “my,” is emphatic by its position. It is the messianic community of the Messiah, and the statement is thus an implicit messianic claim (Carson; cf. Brown, 33). Naturally Matthew and his readers understood by ἐκκλησία the church, and they did so justifiably. (The word ἐκκλησία occurs only here and in 18:17 in the four Gospels.) The point of the assertion is that Jesus, i.e., the risen Jesus, will build his new community in the first instance through the labor of the apostles (cf. Eph 2:20), and Peter has been designated as the leader of the apostles (cf. the early chapters of the book of Acts). The metaphorical use of “build” (οἰκοδομήσω) is appropriate to a community conceived of as a spiritual “house” or “temple” (cf. “house of Israel” and note the description of the church as “God’s building” in 1 Cor 3:9; cf. Eph 2:19–21).


    Grace and Peace

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