Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is Peter the Rock? (Part 3: "You are Petrina"?)

Read Part 1, Part 2

As I explained in the last post in this series, Gundry has made the case that Jesus’ use of petros / petra was intended to highlight the fact that Peter was not the foundation but that the church would be built upon Jesus’ own words.

While this reading may at first seem possible, a number of observations, in my opinion, render such an approach highly implausible. In sum, I would suggest that while Gundry’s reading is possible, it is exceedingly unlikely. Indeed, I think a growing number of commentators would agree--even Protestant ones.

First, we must first acknowledge that it would be odd for Jesus to state that he was building upon a πέτρος (petros), since one would usually associate a building-project with the more sturdy foundation of a πέτρα (petra), as Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:24 indicate.

Going on from this we can point out that, as reader Cale Clark wrote correctly in the comment-box of the previous post, there is a perfectly natural explanation for the πέτρος (petros) / πέτρα (petra) construction: πέτρα (petra) is a feminine word. Jesus could hardly have used a feminine noun as the name of Simon Peter—“You are Petrina”? I think not!

So, grammatically, we have a problem. On the one hand, one cannot use πέτρος (petros) to describe a suitable foundation for a building project—for that, again as Matthew 7:24 indicates, one must speak of πέτρα (petra). Yet, on the other hand, Jesus can hardly name Peter, πέτρα (petra)—because the word is feminine! Jesus can’t give Peter a feminine name!

In fact, if Jesus wanted to apply the terminology of the πέτρα (petra), i.e., that which the Church is built upon, to Peter, we would expect to find very kind of shift in language we have in Matthew 16:18. France puts it well:
“The reason for the different Greek form is simply that Peter, as a man, needs a masculine name, and so the form Petros has been coined. But the flow of the sentence makes it clear that the wordplay is intended to identify Peter as the rock.”[1]

But perhaps all of this is moot. Perhaps Jesus didn’t intend to link Peter to the “rock” the Church is built upon. Well, we’ll tackle that one in the next offering.

(Continue reading: Part 4)


[1] France, Gospel of Matthew, 621.


Doug Chaplin said...

Michael, thanks for this series. However, while I fully agree with the comment in a previous post that we need to take seriously the fact that the NT is written in Greek, I find the particular way you express the argument here very strange, since it depends on a conversation in Greek between Jesus and Peter.
Obviously at a narrative level (and the level Gundry is claiming to work) that's so, but discussion of Jesus' intention in relation to Matthew's character's Greek speech seems misplaced.
In saying that I don't mean to make a comment on the historicity of the question, nor the meaning of the text, but rather to suggest that your argument is confusing the two, as if the language of the translation or narration determines the history.

Cale Clarke said...


Thanks for mentioning me in the post! You're too kind. Oddly enough, I just mentioned you in an article published over at Headline Bistro on The New Mass:


Anonymous said...

I think we need to assume that Jesus was speaking Aramaic and ask the question, what would the Aramaic word be? I think it was Karl Keating who pointed that out a number of years back (or whoever he was perhaps quoting).

Parker said...

Isn't the tradition that Matthew wrote in his native tongue? i.e in Hebrew or aramaic?

John said...


Wonderful discussion. Hope you don't mind me barging in. :)

I'm of the opinion that the "rock" the Church is built on is the Lord Jesus Christ. After reading this latest blog entry, I have to ask: didn't Paul use the same word you are saying the Lord avoided, petra, to describe Jesus Christ, a man (Romans 9:33; 1 Cor 10:4)? Is my confusion validated or am I missing something there?

Thanks! Looking forward to more.

Michael Barber said...


You are absolutely right that Jesus is identified as a "rock", but that is not his proper name, i.e., Jesus is not renamed "Rock". Nowhere is Jesus' proper name "petra"--yet over and over again in Scripture we see that Simon's name is in fact "Petros". The point is that Jesus is here giving him a new proper name and that he cannot use a feminine term for that, hence, he cannot say, "You are Petra", i.e., "You are Petrina".

Great question.

John said...

Understood. Thanks.

So, can a person who is male (Jesus) be referred to with a word in Greek that is feminine (petra)? (although I have learned how to use resources over time, please understand that I know very little Greek and certainly don't know the "rules" of Greek).


Michael Barber said...


Right. In John 14:6 Jesus says he is the "aletheia", "truth". The word is feminine. But Jesus' name is not "aletheia"--his name is not "Truthina"!

John said...

Got it. Thanks. Looking forward to more then. I'm guessing the conclusive "evidence" of this is not found in the original language, something I'm finding more and more as I study. It's amazing how two words or phrases can produce such varied interpretations among those who study scripture.

Is Part 4 coming soon? :)