The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus entrusted St. Peter the Apostle with the unique office to be the rock or foundation to keep the Church firm in her faith and this mission has continued through St. Peter’s successors, the popes.1 Several biblical texts support St. Peter’s unique role including Peter being renamed by Jesus, Peter always being mentioned first in the list of the apostles, and Jesus telling Peter to “Feed my lambs.” Matt Slick, the founder of the helpful Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry website, disagrees with the Catholic Church’s position and argues that Peter is not the rock on which Christ built His Church.2 Instead of proving Peter’s preeminence among the apostles, it will be demonstrated that Slick’s argument is not exegetically sound and he does not adequately disprove the Catholic Church’s position.
The understanding of Peter as the rock of the Church is found in the Gospel of Matthew. After Jesus asks His disciples what they think of Him, Peter exclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus replies,
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:17–19 RSVCE)
The central point of Slick’s argument against Peter being the rock is that “Peter” (Πέτρος/petros) in the original Greek is a masculine noun while “rock” (πέτρᾳ/petra) in the Greek is a feminine noun. Since these words have different genders, Slick thinks each word refers to two different objects and they are just as different as the referents for the English words “actor” and “actress.” Slick gives the example, “You are an actor; and with this actress, I will make my movie.” He thinks an actor and an actress cannot refer to the same person because he assumes an actor is necessarily a male while an actress must be a female. However, the example Slick has chosen ironically lends more support to the Catholic Church’s position than his own. The word actor has been used throughout history more often to refer to a person of either gender while an actress can only be a female.3 It is possible that the actor in Slick’s example is a female and the director will make his movie with this female actor who is later called an actress. The syntax is a little odd but we are using the syntax of the ancient Greek text and the spoken Aramaic behind that.
In several languages including ancient Greek, nouns are classified according to gender to be male, female, or neuter. This classification system is known as grammatical gender and this aspect of some languages enables a semantic variety, inner unity, and organization that is not found in English. Nouns categorized according to gender do not indicate natural or biological gender of a thing.4 The word “house” in Hebrew is a feminine noun but a “house” is not biologically female; it has no gender. The word for manliness in Latin, virtus, is a feminine noun but saying a male is virtus does not mean he is feminine. In Genesis 1:2, the Hebrew word for “spirit” is a feminine noun but in the ancient Greek versions of this verse, it is a neuter noun and the Latin Vulgate’s spiritus is a masculine noun. The Jews who translated the Old Testament into Greek did not see a problem using a neuter noun in place of a Hebrew feminine one and Jerome did not see himself contradicting the feminine Hebrew noun by using a Latin masculine one. Therefore, the grammatical genders of the words petros (Peter) and petra (rock) do not necessarily indicate two different things with different genders as Slick asserts.
Ironically, Slick contradicts his principle that the gender of a noun must refer to a thing with the same gender when he cites other instances of the word petra in biblical texts. He correctly notes that in two cases, petra refers to Jesus Christ as when Paul says,
and [they] drank from the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock (petras) which followed them, and the Rock (petra) was Christ (christos). (1 Cor 10:4)
The word petra is feminine in Greek and christos, the Greek word for Christ, is a masculine noun. According to Slick’s assumption that petra cannot refer to petros because petros is masculine, it would follow that Christ could not be the rock in 1 Corinthians 10:4 because christos is masculine. This is simply not true and the Greek is quite clear that the rock, a feminine noun, is Christ as St. Paul says. Again, grammatical gender does not refer to the biological gender of a thing.
Slick correctly notes that petros means “stone” while petra means rock and the latter is considered to be larger than the former. In ancient Greece, if a person was talking about a rock that can be thrown in a sling, they would use the word petros and if they wanted to refer to a large rock that would take a lot of effort to move or is immovable they would use the word petra. The difference between petros and petra is similar to the difference between a puddle and a pond. Greek dictionaries do note that the word petra also has the proverbial meaning of firmness or hardness. However, this does not mean that the word petros has the opposite proverbial meaning of movable or unstable as Slick states. This would be like using the English phrase “I slept like a rock,” which means I slept well, to interpret the phrase “I slept like a stone” to mean a person did not sleep well. The problem is that “I slept like a stone” is a not a proverbial phrase in English and does not indicate whether a person slept well or not. Likewise, petros has no meaning of instability or movability in ancient Greek thought as Slick claims. On the contrary, petros has been used in ancient Greek proverbially to signify something being imperturbable, similar to petra denoting hardness.5 Thus, it is not true that petros means instability or movability contrasted with the firmness indicated by petra. Both petros and petra have similar but distinct proverbial meanings.
Contrasting Peter’s faults or instability as Slick calls it, with Scripture references of Jesus being called a “rock” is a fallacy of false equivalence. Anyone compared to Jesus will fall short and citing passages where God is called “Rock” does not mean Peter cannot also be a rock. King David is called a king and lord even though these titles are often ascribed to God (e.g. 1 Kings 1:17 et passim). Peter’s mistakes do not invalidate the mission Jesus gave to Peter and the other apostles. God chose to found the nation of His people Israel on Jacob’s twelve sons. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, Judah slept with his daughter-in-law, Joseph lorded over his brothers his special status, and all the brothers tried to kill Joseph. These evil actions do not nullify the twelve brothers’ biological mission to found the people of Israel. Like Israel’s founding fathers, Jesus chose twelve men to found a new institution, the Church, and the weaknesses of the apostles do not abrogate the responsibility Jesus gave them. The apostles are spiritual founding fathers of the Chuch to carry out Jesus’s mission as He commanded them like Jacob’s sons are biological founding fathers. The apostles, including Peter, are not rivals with Jesus Christ for following their Lord’s commands. God founded both the people of Israel and the Church. He chose twelve men for both institutions to carry out His will and these men are co-founders in cooperation with what God wanted them to do.
Lastly, Peter’s Aramaic name of Kephas is significant to understand the role Jesus gave him and should not be dismissed so easily. Several people including Abram, Jacob, Peter, and Paul have been given names by God to signify their missions whether they be biological or spiritual. Slick thinks Peter’s Aramaic name of Kephas cannot be used to understand Matthew 16:18 because the text is written in Greek. However, all four Gospels point out the change in Peter’s name and this indicates that the name change has some importance. John even transliterates the Aramaic name into Greek in John 1:42. If John says Kephas is behind the Greek name Peter, it is not unreasonable to see Kephas as the original name behind every occurrence of Peter. The Greek text has a Semitic background and many Greek terms cannot be explained without investigating this background. For example, when Jesus says, “I am” in the Gospel of John, these sayings only make sense if the Hebrew “I am” is seen in the background. Also, if Kephas was not a proper name, this does not mean Jesus could not have invented a new name for Peter like God did for Jacob when he was renamed Israel.
In sum, Slick’s arguments against the Catholic Church’s position that Peter is the rock of the Church are not exegetically accurate. Feminine nouns can refer to men in languages with grammatical gender. The word petros does mean “stone” in ancient Greek but the Greeks did not use this word to indicate instability. On the contrary, Greek literature used the word petros to denote something difficult to penetrate like a hard-hearted person. Lastly, although Kephas may not have been a proper name during the time of Jesus, the names Peter and Israel also were not proper names until God gave them.
- This blog post is dedicated to Rachel, who asked me about Slick’s position. ↩
- Matt Slick, “Is Peter the Rock on which the Church is Built?” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, December 3, 2008, https://carm.org/is-peter-the-rock. ↩
- English Oxford Living Dictionary, s.v. “actor,” accessed August 17, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/actor. ↩
- Alison Kroulek, “Why Do Languages Have Gender?” K International, accessed August 17, 2017, http://www.k-international.com/blog/why-do-languages-have-gender/. Wikipedia, s.v. “Grammatical Gender,” accessed August 17, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender. ↩
- LSJ, s.v. “πέτρος.” ↩