Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Matthew 16:18 and the Consensus of Scholars.

The pericope under consideration reads,

"καγω δε σοι λεγω οτι συ ει πετρος και επι ταυτη τη πετρα οικοδομησω μου την εκκλησιαν και πυλαι αδου ου κατισχυσουσιν αυτης." 1.

Which is translated,

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build of me the church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." 2.

Or also translated among the popular translations,

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" 3.

The purpose of this brief article is to help put to rest the persitent argument that is still being put forward by less informed Protestant evangelicals concerning the words that are recorded by St. Matthew in Chapter 16 verse 18. Starting with the Protestant Reformation it was claimed that the words of Jesus concerning St. Peter as being the "rock" was not to be understood as the person of St. Peter but rather, strictly Peter's Messianic confession, and thus, whomever repeats this divinely given profession of faith - on such people it can be said, are the "rock" on whom the church is built 4.

However, such straining of the text is not allowed by the Greek grammar and the natural reading of the passage in context makes clear, namely that Jesus is giving a word play on St. Peter's name πετρος with the appellation that is given to him by Jesus, πετρα. St. Matthew goes to great lengths to bring out this juxtapositioning of the Aramaic original out in the Greek. That St. Matthew is manifestly claiming that the rock is the person of St. Peter is the overwhelming consensus of New Testament scholarship today 5. Virtually all the non-evangelical critical commentaries and monographs agree. Of the better in depth Protestant commentaries the majority agree, that the person of St. Peter is clearly "the rock" in the Matthean pericope. Let me cite a few examples;

· (Protestant) W. Hendriksen, (Matthew. 645-49).

· (Protestant) R.T France in the Tyndale Commentary Series, (Matthew. 254).

· (Protestant) D.A Carson in the Expositor Bible Commentary Series, (Matthew. 368).

· (Protestant) Craig Blomberg in the New American Commentary Series, (Matthew. 251-53).

· (Protestant) Leon Morris, (Matthew. 422-24).

· (Protestant) D.A Hagner in the acclaimed Word Biblical Commentary Series, (Matthew V2. 469-71).

· (Protestant) C.S Keener in his mammoth commentary on Matthew, (Matthew. 426-27).

· (Protestant) D.L Turner in the recent and massive entry in the acclaimed Baker Exegetical Commentary Series, (Matthew. 406-07).

The issue for scholarship is no longer who the words "this rock" refers to but in what sense do they refer to St. Peter? 6.


1. (Matt 16:18).
2. My own ultra literal translation for the purpose of cutting away any theological bending of the text in translation.
3. As seen in the ESV, a very good modern Evangelical translation. The RSVCE (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) is practically the same rendering as found in the ESV, with the differences in that "church" is capitalized "Church" to give εκκλησιαν an institutional rendering. Also αδου is correctly translated the more literal "Hades" rather than "hell". The first difference in the translation of the RSVCE is unfortunate since it can be seen as imposing a theological distinctive (C)hurch into the Greek. The second rendering of "Hades" is the better rendering since it adheres to the literal sense leaving the theological understandings of the text transparent. This is a classical instance of the irregularity of the RSVCE translation. Catholics desperately need an up to date translation of the New Testament that is essentially literal but that side steps theological impositions into the renderings.
4. See for example Calvin (Inst. 4, 6, 4) or the recent defense of this understanding by C. Caragounis, (Peter and the Rock). Other attempts at dodging the clear understanding of the text have been to argue that Jesus is here speaking of Himself soley as "the rock", (i.e, R.C.H Lenski (St. Matthew. 626). But such readings of the text are the minority reports that have been exposed as been controlled primarily by theological bias rather than clear exegesis.
5. Not to mention the unanimous interpretation of the patristic fathers, (Tertullian (Dem. C. her. 22), St. Cyprian (De unit. eccl. 4), et. al). Not to say that this was the only interpretation of the Matthean texts in the fathers but it was the majority position. Moreover, the fathers that held "the rock" as being the profession of St. Peter also held that it was the person of Peter as well. The views overlapped (in a minority of the fathers) and were not mutually exclusive.
6. Most if not all of the Protestant scholars I listed would argue that with the appellation given to St. Peter by Christ, is given with the intention for Peter to be understood in a representative fashion, "Jesus is not speaking of himself as the foundation of the church, since he describes himself as the builder. Neither is Peter's apostolic confession the foundation of the church - he, as the confessing apostle, is the foundation. And it is not Peter alone but as first among equals, since the context makes it clear that Peter is speaking for the apostles as a whole in Matt 16:16." D.L Turner (Matthew. BECNT. 407).

R.E. Aguirre, Anno Domini MMVIII.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Nice post - quick and to the point. It's funny, I was just thinking about this exact subject - that is, the consensus of scholarship on the Greek here in addition to the early fathers (maybe thats not too rare, what else do we polemic-minded Catholics think about all day?)

Tertullian is perhaps the strongest evidence from antiquity here. The fact that he denies papal primacy yet still assents to the fact that the Greek was referring to Peter himself is significant.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Indeed, the evidence from the pen of Tertullian is important as you note. Equally interesting is the shift that Tertullian had against the Catholic Church when he joined the Montanists. In his early writings he was not as hostile and very "pro" tradition. It was only after he was decieved by the Montanist sect that he really shifted gears against Catholicism. Very similar shift to what we see in the Reformational "fathers" such as Luther, et. al.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Exactly. And in his pre-Montanist days he even affirmed the primacy of Rome:

"Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood!"
- Prescription Against Heretics

And then nearly 20 years later he denies it in "On Modesty" (yet still affirms that Matthew 16:18 refers to Peter).

TheDen said...


I stumbled over here from Ecumenicity.

First off, I'm a lifelong Catholic and agree with everything you said.

However, the argument about Peter and the Confession doesn't come from Evangelical Protestants. It comes from Augustine (I found this out when arguing with one once...) I concluded that this was because Augustine didn't know Aramaic and he had to make sense of it somehow.

The Catholic Church does accept that the confession of faith can be interpreted as the rock (ref: CCC#424) as per Augustine's teaching however, all Catholics understand that Christ was referring to Peter (per Church teaching). On that point, I had to stop arguing with the Protestant fellow because the CCC acknowledges it as well.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

The Den welcome,

As I pointed out in a footnote on my posting the Catholic fathers have other interpretations of the pronouncement of Matt 16:18.

My main thrust of the article is that it was the Protestant Reformers who were the first to deny the identification of the "rock" with St. Peter under theological bias.

The Catholic Catechism echoes the patristic tradition correctly, the Protestants were in error on this point.

George Weis said...


I see your point in this article, however as the Den pointed out and you acknowledged we see more than just Peter himself as the view held by the Church Fathers. This is sort of my point on many topics. We see a plurality of opinions within the first couple of centuries. How then, can we make blanket statements in regards to what was really held as tradition. It seems as though people in general lean to whatever opinion they wish to hold fast to. I see this with this topic, and again in regards to the Eucharist. I feel like a scholar must be careful not to wrap up the early church in any absolute sense. We must give nod to the variety of thoughts. This to me, still begs the diversity of thought within Christianity.

Much love to each of you!


George Weis said...

One other thing, and this moves away from the point of this article.

We know that the NT was not written in Aramaic, but in Greek. We also agree that it is the Holy Inspired Word of God. The words that are there are two different words (I know you know this) One means Pebble and the other means Rock. Also, the gender comes in to play. Let us also not forget Ephesians 2:20.

Again, may each of you be blessed for the sake of Christ!


R. E. Aguirre. said...

George, good to hear from you brother.

Let me respond to some excellent points you bring up.

1. While admitting that there are small divergences within the received tradition, it is the exception rather than the rule. The rule is the "rule of faith" or the regula fidei which is the unanimous consent of the patristic fathers.

2. Therefore brother George, Catholics have a measuring rod that has been codified. We cannot by definition come up with new doctrines or pick and choose what we decide to hold from the patristic testimony as if Christianity was a cafeteria where one can pick a little of this and a little of that.

3. You bring out the Eucharist and this is a classic example of what I am speaking about. The fathers are unanimous in their interpretation (the real literal presence)of the Eucharist and it's role in our Christian lives. He who strayed from the historic position was singled out as heterodox at best (hence, what Catholic theologians did to the Reformers, who could not -and still do not- agree among themselves on what the Eucharist means).

3. We know for a fact that the New Testament was written (in Koine GreeK) based upon the oral kergyma (the oral stories around the life of Jesus). Many stories are recounted in Aramaic because that is the language Jesus spoke. Matt 16:18 is a case in point that any good Protestant commentary would tell you.

4. The arguments about pebble/rock, the egalitarian interpretation of the Church's foundation based on Eph 2:20 and the genders in the Greek syntax (all arguments stemming from Calvin) have been thoroughly answered even by the majority of Protestant Matthean scholars.

The text read in it's natural and literal sense based on the grammar is plain and indisputable (a point that most Protestant commentaries even make). The rock is St. Peter. That is beyond question. The real question that is sharply dividing scholars is what does this appellation of rock to the person of St. Peter mean.