Who is the Rock of Matthew 16:18?

Is it the Lord Jesus? Is it St. Peter? Is it Peter’s faith? Or yet someone or something else?

The Biblical Passage in Question

From Several Protestant Translations

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (New International Version).

(A footnote in the New International Version to the word “Peter” says “Peter means rock”.)

“And I say also vnto thee, That thou art Peter, and vpon this rocke I will build my Church: and the gates of hell shall not preuaile against it” (1611 King James Version).

(The original edition of the King James Version has a marginal cross-reference at Matthew 16:18 to John 1:42.)

“And I tell you, you are Peter [Greek, Petros — a large piece of rock], and on this rock [Greek, petra — a huge rock like Gibraltar] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades (the powers of the infernal region) shall not overpower it [or be strong to its detriment or hold out against it]” (Amplified Bible).

(A footnote in the Amplified Bible to the word “Peter” says “The rock on which the church is built is traditionally interpreted as either Peter’s inspired confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or it may be Peter himself (see Eph. 2:20)”; emphasis has been added here to the concluding phrase of the footnote, but the passages in the quotation bracketed here are actually bracketed in the Amplified Bible.)

The Position of Some Protestants

Some Protestants, especially those of a more anti-Catholic bent, try to make hay out of the distinction between the Greek words petros and petra in the original written version of Matthew 16:18. Petros, they say, means “stone” or “piece of rock” or, even merely “pebble”; petra, on the other hand, they say means “large rock” or “boulder”. So, they conclude, the two words cannot refer to the same person or thing. Moreover, they say (quite correctly) that petros is masculine and petra is feminine; so, they conclude, the male Peter could not have been the referent of the feminine term. And, therefore, Simon could not have been the Rock.

The Predominant Catholic Position

As Explained and Defended by Numerous Protestant Biblical Scholars

The following quotations regarding the meaning of Matthew 16:18 come from the book Jesus, Peter & the Keys: a Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess. (This book is referred to below as JPK.) To all of the Protestant biblical scholars quoted below, a traditional Catholic interpretation of this scripture — that Simon is the rock — is quite acceptable. Some of them explain clearly why — in their professional opinion — the anti-Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is mistaken.

Twelve Quotations from Ten Protestant Biblical Scholars

William Hendriksen
member of the Reformed Christian Church
Professor of New Testament Literature at Calvin Seminary

The meaning is, “You are Peter, that is Rock, and upon this rock, that is, on you, Peter I will build my church.” Our Lord, speaking Aramaic, probably said, “And I say to you, you are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my church.” Jesus, then, is promising Peter that he is going to build his church on him! I accept this view.

New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973), page 647
JPK page 14

Gerhard Maier
leading conservative evangelical Lutheran theologian

Nowadays a broad consensus has emerged which — in accordance with the words of the text — applies the promise to Peter as a person. On this point liberal (H. J. Holtzmann, E. Schweiger) and conservative (Cullmann, Flew) theologians agree, as well as representatives of Roman Catholic exegesis.

“The Church in the Gospel of Matthew: Hermeneutical Analysis of the Current Debate”
Biblical Interpretation and Church Text and Context
(Flemington Markets, NSW: Paternoster Press, 1984), page 58
JPK pages 16-17

Donald A. Carson III
Baptist and Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Seminary
(two quotations from different works)

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 kepha was used in both clauses (“you are kepha” and “on this kepha”), 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.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 8 (Matthew, Mark, Luke)
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), page 368
JPK pages 17-18

The word Peter petros, meaning “rock” (Gk 4377), is masculine, and in Jesus’ follow-up statement he uses the feminine word petra (Gk 4376). On the basis of this change, many have attempted to avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretations, it is doubtful whether many would have taken “rock” to be anything or anyone other than Peter.

Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary — New Testament, vol. 2
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), page 78
JPK page 18

John Peter Lange
German Protestant scholar

The Saviour, no doubt, used in both clauses the Aramaic word kepha (hence the Greek Kephas applied to Simon, John i.42; comp. 1 Cor. i.12; iii.22; ix.5; Gal. ii.9), which means rock and is used both as a proper and a common noun.... The proper translation then would be: “Thou art Rock, and upon this rock”, etc.

Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: The Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 8
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), page 293
JPK page 19

John A. Broadus
Baptist author
(two quotations from the same work)

Many insist on the distinction between the two Greek words, thou art Petros and on this petra, holding that if the rock had meant Peter, either petros or petra would have been used both times, and that petros signifies a separate stone or fragment broken off, while petra is the massive rock. But this distinction is almost entirely confined to poetry, the common prose word instead of petros being lithos; nor is the distinction uniformly observed.

But the main answer here is that our Lord undoubtedly spoke Aramaic, which has no known means of making such a distinction [between feminine petra and masculine petros in Greek]. The Peshitta (Western Aramaic) renders, “Thou are kipho, and on this kipho”. The Eastern Aramaic, spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ, must necessarily have said in like manner, “Thou are kepha, and on this kepha”.... Beza called attention to the fact that it is so likewise in French: “Thou art Pierre, and on this pierre”; and Nicholson suggests that we could say, “Thou art Piers (old English for Peter), and on this pier.”

Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew
(Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1886), pages 355-356
JPK page 20

J. Knox Chamblin
Presbyterian and New Testament Professor
Reformed Theological Seminary

By the words “this rock” Jesus means not himself, nor his teaching, nor God the Father, nor Peter’s confession, but Peter himself. The phrase is immediately preceded by a direct and emphatic reference to Peter. As Jesus identifies himself as the Builder, the rock on which he builds is most naturally understood as someone (or something) other than Jesus himself. The demonstrative this, whether denoting what is physically close to Jesus or what is literally close in Matthew, more naturally refers to Peter (v. 18) than to the more remote confession (v. 16). The link between the clauses of verse 18 is made yet stronger by the play on words, “You are Peter (Gk. Petros), and on this rock (Gk. petra) I will build my church”. As an apostle, Peter utters the confession of verse 16; as a confessor he receives the designation this rock from Jesus.

Evangelical Commentary on the Bible
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), page 742
JPK page 30

Craig L. Blomberg
Baptist and Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

Acknowledging Jesus as The Christ illustrates the appropriateness of Simon's nickname “Peter” (Petros = rock). This is not the first time Simon has been called Peter (cf. John 1:42), but it is certainly the most famous. Jesus’ declaration, “You are Peter”, parallels Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ”, as if to say, “Since you can tell me who I am, I will tell you who you are.” The expression “this rock” almost certainly refers to Peter, following immediately after his name, just as the words following “the Christ” in v. 16 applied to Jesus. The play on words in the Greek between Peter’s name (Petros) and the word “rock” (petra) makes sense only if Peter is the rock and if Jesus is about to explain the significance of this identification.

The New American Commentary: Matthew, vol. 22
(Nashville: Broadman, 1992), pages 251-252
JPK pages 31-32

David Hill
Presbyterian minister and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield, England

On this rock I will build my church: the word-play goes back to Aramaic tradition. It is on Peter himself, the confessor of his Messiahship, that Jesus will build the Church. The disciple becomes, as it were, the foundation stone of the community. Attempts to interpret the “rock” as something other than Peter in person (e.g., his faith, the truth revealed to him) are due to Protestant bias, and introduce to the statement a degree of subtlety which is highly unlikely.

“The Gospel of Matthew”
The New Century Bible Commentary
(London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972), page 261
JPK page 34

Suzanne de Dietrich
Presbyterian theologian

The play on words in verse 18 indicates the Aramaic origin of the passage. The new name contains a promise. “Simon”, the fluctuating, impulsive disciple, will, by the grace of God, be the “rock” on which God will build the new community.

The Layman’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, vol. 16
(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1961), page 93
JPK page 34

Donald A. Hagner
Fuller Theological Seminary

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 kepha occurs in both places), is that it is Peter who is the rock upon which the church is to be built.... 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... seem to be largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy.

Matthew 14-28
Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33b
(Dallas: Word Books, 1995), page 470
JPK pages 36-37


To Forestall Some Stereotypical Objections

1. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “These Protestant scholars don’t believe what Catholics do about the pope! How dare you quote them like this!”

Well, I’m quite sure they don’t believe as Catholics do about the pope: that is one of the reasons, I suppose, that they are Protestants. I’m also sure that I did not say they believe as Catholics do about the pope. Nor did I imply that they do. This webpage is about one specific item: Who is the Rock of Matthew 16:18? And it is perfectly legitimate for Messrs. Butler, Dahlgren & Hess — and for me — to quote Protestant biblical scholars who give their professional opinion about that verse.

2. “Hold your horses,” someone might object. “This verse doesn’t say anything about the pope! You are just a Catholic fundamentalist: you read about Peter in the Bible and think it automatically applies to the pope. Somebody has even given that knee-jerk attitude a name: The Peter Syndrome.”

Indeed, this verse does not necessarily say anything about the pope. But I didn’t say, nor did I imply, that it does. This webpage is about one specific item: Who is the Rock of Matthew 16:18? It does not attempt, or even purport, to answer any other question. It doesn’t even attempt or purport to ask any other question. So, throwing around high-sounding terms like “The Peter Syndrome” — if it even exists — would be a misdiagnosis here. Not to say a knee-jerk attitude.

3. “But there are only ten,” someone might object. “The Protestant biblical scholars you quoted here don’t speak for all Protestants. Not even for all Protestant biblical scholars.”

Of course they don’t. I didn’t say that they do. Nor did I imply that they do. Allow me to note, however, that it is Maier, a conservative evangelical Lutheran, who did say that “a broad consensus has emerged” about this among both liberals and conservatives, Catholics and Protestants.

4. “But, but, but,” someone might object. “But not even all Catholics have said that the Rock must be Simon. Some Catholics — even some saints — have said it is, or may be, Simon’s faith.”

True. So what? Where have I said otherwise? And, again, so what? Unless the Church has spoken authoritatively and definitively on a matter, Catholics are free to hold differing opinions, even when interpreting the Sacred Scriptures. And one interpretation need not necessarily exclude all others. But that attitude is worlds away from the anti-Catholic position that Simon certainly was not — that Simon could not have been — the Rock, based on quibbles about the meaning and gender of Greek words. And that is the position rebutted here. By Protestant biblical scholars.

The credit for research into the sources quoted here belongs to the authors of Jesus, Peter & the Keys: a Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess, © 1996 by the authors, ISBN # 1-882972-54-6. The book may be ordered on the Web: compare prices at Best Book Buys or AddALL.
As would be expected, Jesus, Peter & the Keys has been attacked by Protestant polemicists. In defense of JPK, see, for instance, James White vs. Jesus, Peter, and the Keys and A Response to James White’s Comments on Jesus, Peter and the Keys.

Original material © 2001 ELC

For other quotations from Jesus, Peter & the Keys, see The Primacy of the Roman Church.
Webpage © 2001 ELC
Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created February 14, 2001; revised February 15, 2001.