Was Peter the Rock?
The "little rock, big rock" theory

In recent years some Evangelicals have suggested that the Greek word that means "rock" did not refer to Peter but only to his "faith." We got an email that said:

However Jesus stated "upon this rock I will build my church" in reference to Peter's declaration that He (Jesus) was the Christ (Matthew 16:16).

Let's call this the "little rock, big rock" theory. It claims that Peter is a little rock and his declaration (Jesus is the Christ) is the foundation of the Church. The Greek text of the passage says "You are Peter (Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my Church."(Matt. 16:18-20). In modern Greek, the name Peter Petros means "small stone" and Petra means "stone." The theory proposes that Peter was only a little pebble and unimportant, while the big rock was the "declaration that Jesus was the Christ" of several verses earlier.

OK, I'm going to get a little "heady" here by talking about Aramaic, and ancient Greek. The Greek text is a translation of Jesus' words, which were actually spoken in Aramaic. Aramaic only had one word for rock, kephas (which is why Peter is often called Cephas in the Bible). The word Kephas in Aramaic means "huge rock." The Aramaic word for "little stone" is "evna," and Peter was not called "Evna" or "Envas" or anything like that.  In Aramaic, Jesus said "You are Peter (Kephas) and upon this rock (kephas) I will build my Church." The metaphor worked well in Aramaic where nouns are neither feminine or masculine, but in Greek, the noun "rock" was feminine, and therefore unsuitable as a name for Peter. So the Aramaic word Kephas was translated to the masculine name Petros when it referred to Peter, and to the feminine noun petra when it referred to the rock. In ancient Koine Greek, petra and petros were total synonyms, unlike modern Attic Greek and unlike Ionic Greek which was about 400 year before Christ.

I'm a Canadian who speaks both English and French. In English, nouns are not masculine or feminine. However, in French all nouns have a "gender." In French, the name Pierre (Peter) is masculine and the noun pierre (rock) is feminine. The metaphor works wonderfully in French as it did in Aramaic. "Tu es Pierre et sur cette pierre je bâtirai mon Eglise..."

In Evangelical circles, the "little rock, big rock" theory is fairly recent. Nearly every Protestant commentary written in the last 50 years interprets Peter as the rock upon which the Church was built. (However, they didn't believe that Peter had a successor, more about that here ). The scholarly Evangelical work, Carson's "Expositors Bible Commentary" explains this well. It is in the section on Matthew 16. These Evangelical scholars looked closely at the Greek word for rock "Petra" and determined that it refers to Peter. The early Christians also referred to Peter as the Rock. Some Quotes are here.

I don't think the "little rock, big rock" theory hold up under scrutiny. I think Jesus built his Church on people, not a declaration. Following through on the passage we see that Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom to St. Peter, not to his declaration. The Reformer, Martin Luther, said this:

Why are you searching heavenward in search of my keys? Do you not understand, Jesus said, 'I gave them to Peter. They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven for I left them on earth. Peter's mouth is my mouth, his tongue is my key case, his keys are my keys. They are an office. They are a power, a command given by God through Christ to all of Christendom for the retaining and remitting of the sins of men. (Martin Luther 1530 - after he left the Church)(1)

W. F. Albright, one of the best known Protestant theologians of this century, in his Anchor Bible Commentary, says:

Peter as the Rock will be the foundation of the future community, the church....To deny the pre-eminent position of Peter among the disciples or in the early Christian community is a denial of the evidence.

I recently spoke with a grammar specialist who is not Catholic. She explained to me that the adjective "this" grammatically must refer to the nearest preceding noun, which was Peter, not his declaration which occurs two verses earlier.

upon this rock

When Jesus says  "whatever you bind" to Peter in Mat 16:18, the Greek text used for "you" is singular. In Mat 18:18 the Greek text, the word for "you" in "whatever you bind" is plural. Catholics think these two juxtaposed but similar phrases lay out the early structure of the Church with Peter as the Pope and the other apostles as priests.

Examples of Peter's Authority among the Apostles

  • Next to Jesus, Peter is mentioned more than any other apostle in Scripture (152 times).
  • He stood up and spoke on behalf of the apostles (Mt 19:27, Acts 1:15, 2:14)
  • He stood up at the birth of the Church at the Pentecost to lead them. (Acts 2:14)
  • The disciples were referred to as Peter and the Apostles. (Acts 2:37, 5:29)
  • Peter was given the authority to forgive sins before the rest of the apostles. (Mat 16:18)
  • He was always named first when the apostles were listed (Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13) -- sometimes it was only "Peter and those who were with him" (Luke 9:32);
  • John ran ahead of Peter to the tomb but upon arriving he stopped and did not go in. He waited and let Peter go in. (Jn 20:4)
  • Jesus told Peter to "feed my lambs...tend my sheep... feed my sheep." (Jn 21:15-17) The difference between a sheep and a lamb might be significant. A lamb is a baby, a sheep is an adult. Perhaps Jesus was asking Peter to take care of both the general people (the lambs), and the apostles (sheep). Regardless of that interpretation of sheep and lambs, it is clear Jesus is asking Peter to feed and tend his flock. That is what a shepherd does. It appears to me that he is asking Peter to shepherd his Church on earth, on his behalf.

What about Bill Webster's accusations in "The Church of Rome at the Bar of History"

Recently a Reformed Baptist named Bill Webster tried to deny the irrefutable concensus among the Fathers of the Church the Peter is the Rock and that his office was established by Christ and passed on to successors until this day. A great response to that charge by Steve Ray is here.

Early Church quotes about Peter as the Rock

Tatian the Syrian (170 A.D.)

"Simon Kephas answered and said, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' Jesus answered and said unto him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah: flesh and blood has not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee also, that you are Kephas, and on this Rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it" (The Diatesseron 23 [A.D. 170]).

Tertullian (220 A.D.):

"Was anything hid from Peter, who was called the Rock, whereon the Church was built; who obtained the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of loosing and of binding in heaven and on earth?" (Tertullian, De Praescript Haeret).

Tertullian thereafter writes to criticize Pope Callistus I by saying ....

"I now inquire into your opinions, to see whence you usurp the right for the Church. Do you presume, because the Lord said to Peter, 'On this rock I will build my Church ...[Matt 16-19]' that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed over to you, that is, to every church akin to Peter? What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when He conferred this ***personally on Peter****? 'On you,' He says, 'I will build my Church; and I give to you the keys'...." (Tertullian, On Modesty 21:9-10)

The Apocryphal Letter of St. Clement of Rome to St. James (C. 221 A.D.)

"Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the most sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was by Jesus Himself, with His truthful mouth, named Peter" (Letter of Clement to James 2 [A.D. 221])

The Clementine Homilies (C. 221)

"[Simon Peter said to Simon Magus in Rome:] For you now stand in direct opposition to me, who am a firm rock, the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]" (Clementine Homilies 17:19 [A.D. 221]).

St. Hippolytus (225 A.D.):

"Peter, the Rock of the Church ..." (Hippolytus in S. Theophan, n. 9, Galland, ii. p. 494). "Peter, the Rock of the Faith, whom Christ our Lord called blessed, the teacher of the Church, the first disciple, he who has the Keys of the Kingdom." (Hippolytus, Ex Fabricio, Op. Hippol. tom. ii. De Fine Mundi et de Antichristo, n. 9).

Origen (230-250 A.D.):

"See what the Lord said to Peter, that great foundation of the Church, and most solid Rock, upon which Christ founded the Church ..." (Origen, In Exodus. Hom. v. . 4 tom. ii).

"Look at [Peter], the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church [Matt. 16:18]. And what does our Lord say to him? 'Oh you of little faith,' he says, 'why do you doubt?'" [Matt. 14:31] (Homilies on Exodus 5:4 [A.D. 248]).

"Upon him (Peter), as on the earth, the Church was founded." (Origen, Ep. ad. Rom. lib. v.c. 10, tom iv.)

"Peter, upon whom is built Christ's Church, against which the gates of hell will not prevail." (Origen, T. iv. In Joan. Tom. v.)

St. Cyprian (246 A.D.):

"For first to Peter, upon whom He built the Church, and from whom He appointed and showed that unity should spring ..." (Cyprian, Ep. lxxiiii ad Fubaian).

"God is one, and Christ is one, and the Church is one, and the Chair (of Peter) is one, by the Lord's word, upon a Rock ..." (Cyprian, Ep. xl. ad Pleb).

"There is one God and one Christ and but one episcopal chair, originally founded on Peter, by the Lord's authority. There cannot, therefore, be set up another altar or another priesthood. Whatever any man in his rage or rashness shall appoint, in defiance of the divine institution, must be a spurious, profane and sacrilegious ordinance" (St. Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church)

"Peter, also to whom the Lord commends His sheep to be fed and guarded, on whom He laid the foundation of the Church ...." (Cyprian, De Habitu Virg).

St. Ephream the Syrian (350-370 A.D.):

"Simon my follower, I have made you the foundation of the Holy Church. I betimes called you Peter because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head and fountain from which all My teaching flows." (Ephraem, Homilies 4:1).

"Peter, who was called Kephas, he who was captured on the sea shore, and who received testimony from the great Shepherd, that 'Upon this Rock I will build my Church.'" (Ephraem T. iiii. Gr. De Sacred).

"That Rock which He set up that Satan might stumble thereon, Satan, on the other hand, wished to put this Rock in the way of the Lord that He might stumble upon it, when Peter said, 'Far be it from Thee, Lord.' [Matt 16:22-23] (Ephraem, Sermo de Transfig. Dom., Sec. IV).

St. Hilary of Poitiers (356 A.D.)

"Blessed Simon who, after his confession of the Mystery, was set to be the foundation-stone of the Church and received the Keys of the Kingdom." (Hilary, De Trinitate, 6:20).

"Peter, the first Confessor of the Son of God, the Foundation of the Church, ..." (Hilary, Tract in Ps. cxxxi.)

"And in truth Peter's confession obtained a worthy recompense ....Oh! in thy designation by a new name, happy Foundation of the Church, and a Rock worthy of the building up of that which was to scatter the infernal laws of the gates of hell!" (Hilary, Comm. in Matt. c. xvi.)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (363 A.D.):

"Our Lord Jesus Christ then become man, but by the many He was not known. But wishing to teach that which was not known, having assembled His disciples, He asked, 'Who do you say that I the Son of man am?' ...And all being silent, for it was beyond man to know, Peter, the Foremost of the Apostles, the Chief Herald of the Church, not using language of his own finding, but having his mind enlightened by the Father, says unto Him, 'Thou art the Christ,' and not simply that, but, 'the Son of the living God.' And a blessing follows the speech. ....' ....and upon this Rock I will found my Church ...' " (Cyril, Catech, xi. n. 3).

"He said to Peter, 'And upon this Rock I will build my Church.' " (Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, 18:25).

Optatus (367 A.D.)

"You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head - that is why he is also called Cephas ["Rock"] - of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all" (The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [A.D. 367]).

St. Gregory Nazianzen (370 A.D.):

"See thou that of the disciples of Christ, all of whom were great and deserving of the choice, one is called a Rock and entrusted with the foundations of the Church." (Gregory Naz., T. i or xxxii).

"Peter, the Chief of the disciples, but he was a Rock ... (Gregory Naz., T. ii.)

"[Peter], that unbroken Rock who held the keys." (Gregory Naz., Sect. ii Poem Moral. tom. ii.)

St. Gregory of Nyssa (371 A.D.):

"Peter, with his whole soul, associates himself with the Lamb; and, by means of the change of his name, he is changed by the Lord into something more divine. Instead of Simon, being both called and having become a Rock, the great Peter did not by advancing little by little attain unto this grace, but at once he listened to his brother (Andrew), believed in the Lamb, and was through faith perfected, and, having cleaved to the Rock, became himself Peter." (Gregory of Nyssa, T. i. Hom. xv. in C. Cantic).

"Peter ...that most firm Rock, upon which the Lord build His Church." (Gregory of Nyssa, Alt. Or. De. S. Steph.)

St. Basil the Great (371 A.D.):

"The house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the foundations of which are on the holy mountains, for it is built upon the Apostles and prophets. One also of these mountains was Peter, upon which Rock the Lord promised to build His Church." (Basil, T. i. Comment. in Esai. c. ii.).

"The soul of blessed Peter was called a lofty Rock ..." (Basil, Sermon 1 De Fide I.13).

St. Epiphanius (385 A.D.):

"Blessed Peter, who for a while denied the Lord, Peter who was Chief of the Apostles, he who became unto us truly a firm Rock upon which is based the Lord's Faith, upon which Rock the Church is in every way built." (Epiphanius, Adv. Haeres).

"Holy men are therefore called the temple of God, because the Holy Spirit dwells in them; as the ***Chief of the Apostles*** testifies, he who was found worthy to be blessed by the Lord, because the 'Father had revealed unto him.' .....This was befitting in that the ***First of the Apostles***, that ****firm Rock*** upon which the Church of God is built, and 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' 'The gates of hell' are heretics and heresiarchs. For, in every way, the faith confirmed in him who received the Keys of Heaven; who looses on earth and binds in heaven. For in him are found all subtle questions of faith ....And He heard from the same God, Peter, 'feed my lambs;' ***to him was entrusted the flock***; he **leads the way admirably in the power of His own Master***. (Epiphanius, T. ii. in Anchor., 9).

St. Ambrose of Milan (385 A.D.):

"Peter is called the Rock because, like an immovable rock, he sustains and joins the mass of the entire Christian edifice." (Ambrose, Sermon 4).

"Christ is the Rock, 'For they drank from that spiritual Rock that followed them and that Rock was Christ, ' and He did not refuse to bestow the favor of this title even upon His disciple, so that he too might be 'Peter,' in that he has from the Rock a solid consistancy of firm faith." (Ambrose, Expos. in Luc.).

"[Christ] made answer: 'You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church . . . ' Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?" (The Faith 4:5 [A.D. 379]).

"It is to Peter that he says: 'You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church' [Matt. 16:18]. Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal" (Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David 40:30 [A.D. 389]).

St. Asterius of Pontus (387 A.D.):

"Peter went not away unrequited and unrewarded; but was declared "blessed" by the truly Blessed, and was called the Rock of faith, the foundation and substructure of the Church of God." (Ambrose, Hom. in Apost. Pet. et Paul, tom ii.).

St. John Chrysostom (387 A.D.):

"...and when I name Peter, I name that unbroken Rock, that firm foundation, the Great Apostle, the First of the disciples ..." (Chrysostom, T. ii. Hom. iii. de Paednit).

"Peter, the leader of the choir, that Mouth of the rest of the Apostles, that Head of the brotherhood, that one set over the entire universe, that Foundation of the Church." (Chrysostom, In illud. hoc Scitote).

"Peter, ... that Pillar of the Church, the Buttress of the Faith, the Foundation of the Confession." (Chrysostom, T. iii. Hom. de Dec. Mill. Talent)

St. Jerome (393 A.D.):

"Christ is not alone in being the Rock, for He granted to the Apostle Peter that he should be called 'Rock'. " (Jerome, Comm. on Jerimias 3:65).

"For what has Paul to do with Aristotle? Or Peter to do with Plato? For as the latter (Plato) was prince of philosophers, so was the former (Peter) prince of Apostles: on him the Lord's Church was firmly founded, and neither rushing flood nor storm can shake it." (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 1:14a).

"'But,' you [Jovinian] will say, 'it was on Peter that the Church was founded' [Matt. 16:18]. Well . . . one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division." (Against Jovinian 1:26 [A.D. 393]).

"I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark on Noah will perish when the flood prevails" (Letters 15:2 [A.D. 396]).

St. Augustine (410 A.D.):

"These miserable wretches, refusing to acknowledge the Rock as Peter and to believe that the Church has received the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, have lost these very keys from their own hands." (Augustine, Christian Combat).

"...Why! a faggot that is cut from the vine retains its shape. But what use is that shape if it is not living from the root? Come, brother, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine. It is grievous when we see you thus lying cut off. Number the bishops from the See of Peter. And, in that order of fathers, see whom succeeded whom. This is the Rock which the proud gates of hades do not conquer. All who rejoice in peace, only judge truly." --St. Augustine, Psalmus Contra Pertem Donati.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (424 A.D.):

"He suffers no longer to be called Simon, exercising authoriy to rule over him already as having become His own. But by a title suitable to the thing, He changed his name into Peter, from the word petra (rock); for on him he was afterwards to found His Church." (Cyril T. iv. Comm. in Joan.).

" 'Blessed art thou ...,' calling, I imagine, nothing else the Rock, in allusion to his name (Peter), but the immovable and stable faith of the disciple upon whom the Church of Christ is founded and fixed without danger of falling." (Cyril, On the Holy Trinity).

"He promises to found the Church, assigning immovableness to it, as He is the Lord of strength, and over this He sets Peter as Shepherd." (Cyril, Comm. on Matt., ad. loc.)

Sechnall of Ireland (A.D. 444)

"Steadfast in the fear of God, and in faith immovable, upon [St. Patrick] as upon Peter the [Irish] church is built; and he has been allotted his apostleship by God; against him the gates of hell prevail not" (Hymn in Praise of St. Patrick 3 [A.D. 444]).

Pope Leo I (C. 445)

"Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the apostles . . . He wished him who had been received into partnership in his undivided unity to be named what he himself was, when he said: 'You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church' [Matt. 16:18], that the building of the eternal temple might rest on Peter's solid rock, strengthening his Church so surely that neither could human rashness assail it nor the gates of hell prevail against it" (Letters 10:1 [A.D. 445]).

Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.)

"Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of the episcopate" (Acts of the Council, session 3 [A.D. 451]).

Gregory the Great (c. A.D. 600)

"Who could be ignorant of the fact that the holy Church is consolidated in the solidity of the prince of the Apostles, whose firmness of character extended to his name so that he should be called Peter after the 'rock,' when the voice of the Truth says, 'I will give to you the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.'   To him it is said 'When after a little while you have come back to me, it is for you to be the support of your brethren.' "  (Gregory, Letter 40 in Book 6, Migne, Patr. Lat., vol 77). 

"It is evident to all who know the Gospel that, by the voice of the Lord, the care of the whole Church was committed to holy Peter, the prince of the Apostles.   For to him it is said ...'You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church.   And to you I will give the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.'  Behold, he receives the Keys of the heavenly Kingdom; the power of binding and of loosing is given to him; to him the care and government of the whole Church is committed." (Gregory, Epistle ad. Maurit. Augustus, lib. iv. epist. 32).  

Did the Church Fathers EVER speak about Peter's confession as the Rock?

Mark Bonocore writes: It is true that some of the Church fathers do speak of Christ or of Peter's confession as "the Rock" of Matt 16:18. However, all of these same Church fathers also speak of Peter himself as the Rock. This was not an either-or proposition for our ancient Christian forefathers, but a "both-and" proposition.   What the Church has always believed is that Christ Himself is the only TRUE Rock of the Church.   But, in Matt 16:18, Peter (because of his Divinely inspired confession) was made the VICARIOUS Rock of the Church -the focal point of Church unity and sound, orthodox doctrine in Christ's own physical absence.   A parallel dynamic can be seen in John 21:15-19,. where Christ makes Peter the primary shepherd of His flock, telling Him to "feed my lambs" and "tend ("rule" in the original Greek) my sheep."   Jesus could "feed" and "tend/ rule" His own sheep.    Clearly, He can, since He is God and since He is always the Church's TRUE Good Shepherd.   But, Jesus commands Peter to do it IN A VICARIOUS SENSE --that is, to lead the Church and govern it with sound teaching and unity in Christ's PHYSICAL absence.   Thus, there is only one TRUE Shepherd (Jesus Christ), and one primary VICARIOUS Shepherd to unify the entire flock (St. Peter).   Likewise, there is only one TRUE Rock (the Lord Himself) and one Christ-appointed VICARIOUS Rock --that is, St. Peter, who was commissioned with this ministry in Matt 16:18-19 and then reaffirmed in this same ministry in Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-19.  

Conclusion

When we look at this passage grammatically, linguistically, historically and Biblically, it is quite clear that Jesus intended Peter to be the Rock.

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen