I have done a lot of study and work on Matthew 16:17-19, with particular emphasis on understanding who or what the rock is when Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” The long traditional teaching has been that Jesus is referring to Peter’s confession. However, scholars are pointing out more and more that the Greek and, for that matter, natural English, point to Peter being the rock that the church would be built upon. So I thought I would share some of my research on this subject. After laying out some of the research, I will reveal some of my conclusions.
First, here is D.A. Carson from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary:
18 And I tell you… : Weiss sees a contrast between Jesus and his Father, as if Jesus were saying, “Just as the Father revealed something to you and thereby honored you, so now I do the same.” But the formula is common enough in places without such a contrast, and this may be an unwarranted refinement. The words simply point to what is coming.
that you are Peter… : The underlying Aramaic kepa (“Cephas” in John 1:42; 1Cor 15:5; Gal 1:18 et al.) was an accepted name in Jesus’ day (see on 4:18). Though B.F. Meyer (pp. 186-87) insists that Jesus gave the name Cephas to Simon at this point, Jesus merely made a pun on the name (4:18; 10:2; Mark 3:16; John 1:42). Yet Meyer is right to draw attention to the “rock” motifs on which the name Cephas is based (pp. 185-86, 194-95), motifs related to the netherworld and the temple (and so connoting images of “gates of Hades” and “church”: see below.) The Greek Kephas (Eng. “Cephas”) transliterates the Aramaic, and Petros (“Peter”) is the closest Greek translation. P. Lampe’s argument (“Das Spiel mit dem Petrusnamen–Matt. xvi.18,” NTS 25 : 227-45) that both kepa and petros originally referred to a small “stone,” but not a “rock” (on which something could be built), until Christians extended the term to explain the riddle of Simon’s name is baseless. True, the Greek petros commonly means “stone” in pre-Christian literature; but the Aramaic kepa , which underlies the Greek, means “(massive) rock” (cf. H. Clavier, “Pe·tro kai pe·tra,” Neutestamentliche Studien, ed. W. Eltester [Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1957], pp. 101-3).
and on this rock … “Rock” now becomes petra (feminine), and on the basis of the distinction between petros (above) and petra (here), many have attempted to avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Peter is a mere “stone,” it is alleged; but Jesus himself is the “rock,” as Peter himself attests (1 Peter 2:98) (so, among others, Lenski, Gander, Walvoord). Others adopt some other distinction: e.g., “upon this rock of revealed truth–the truth you have just confessed–I will build my church” (Allen). Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken “rock” to be anything or anyone other than Peter.
1. Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “stone” and “rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover the underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepa was used in both clauses (“you are kepa and on this kepa “), 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.
2. Paronomasia of various kinds is very common in the Bible and should not be belittled (cf. Barry J. Beitzel, “Exodus 3:14 and the Divine Name: A Case of Biblical Paronomasia,” Trinity Journal : 5-20; BDF, par. 488).
3. 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!
4. The objection that Peter considers Jesus the rock is insubstantial because metaphors are commonly used variously, till they become stereotyped, and sometimes even then. Here Jesus builds his church; in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul is “an expert builder.” In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Jesus is the church’s foundation; in Ephesians 2:19-20, the apostles and prophets are the foundation (cf. also Rev 21:14), and Jesus is the “cornerstone.” Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is “the light of the world”; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. None of these pairs threatens Jesus’ uniqueness. They simply show how metaphors must be interpreted primarily with reference to their immediate contexts.
5. In this passage Jesus is the builder of the church and it would be a strange mixture of metaphors that also sees him within the same clauses as its foundation.
None of this requires that conservative Roman Catholic views be endorsed (for examples of such views, cf. Lagrange, Sabourin). The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority. These late interpretations entail insuperable exegetical and historical problems–e.g., after Peter’s death, his “successor” would have authority over a surviving apostle, John. What the NT does show is that Peter is the first to make this formal confession and that his prominence continues in the earliest years of the church (Acts 1-12). But he, along with John, can be sent by other apostles (Acts 8:14); and he is held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1-18) and rebuked by Paul (Gal 2:11-14). He is, in short, primus inter pares (“first among equals”); and on the foundation of such men (Eph 2:20), Jesus built his church. That is precisely why Jesus, toward the close of his earthly ministry spent so much time with them. The honor was not earned but stemmed from divine revelation (v.17) and Jesus’ building work (v.18).
More to come….