Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Some Thoughts On Matthew 16:18
by Pastor David Th. Stark
The Church of Rome says that because the Aramaic/Syriac original of Matthew 16:18, underlying the existing Greek text, uses the word KE'PHA' both as the proper name given to Simon bar Jonas and as the word for the Rock upon which Christ promised to build His Church, that therefore Peter (Aramaic, Ke'pha') is the rock and the foundation of the Church. Rome bases many of its claims of papal supremacy on this identification of the Apostle Peter with the Rock mentioned by Christ in this passage of Matthew's Gospel. If the defenders of Rome are wrong at this point then their argument that Peter is the Rock fails.
1. The Greek text is the inspired original of the New Testament. No Aramaic underlying text is extant. Though there are Syriac/Aramaic translations of these original Greek texts they cannot be relied upon to accurately represent any supposed original Aramaic usage. They are merely uninspired translations of the original Greek text and may or may not represent any Aramaic/Syriac original.
2. The Greek text of Matthew 16:18 uses two separate (different) Greek words in the passage.
Petros, the name given to the Apostle.
Petra, the word used for rock.
Rome says that "Peter" (PETROS) is merely the masculine form of the feminine noun PETRA, and therefore means the same thing. But...
3. Classic Greek authors (before the New Testament was written) treat the words PETROS and PETRA as two different words.
According to Liddell and Scott:
Petros, ...(distinct from petra)...
Hom. IL. 16.734; 7:270; 20.288
E. Heracl.1002, "panta kinesai petron" ..."Leave no stone unturned"
cf. Pl. Lg. 843a
X. HG 3.5.20 "Petrous epekulindoun" "They rolled down stones."
S. Ph 296 to produce fire "en petroisi petron ektribon"
Id. OC 1595 of a boulder forming a landmark [the usual prose word is lithos]
from: A Greek - English Lexicon, complied by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, pg. 1397- 8, Pub. by Oxford, at the Clarendon Press.)
NOTE: Petros, a stone, a smaller movable stone (Heracletes uses it in the phrase "leave no stone unturned.") So, a "PETROS" is a stone which can by turned over, hence, a movable stone.
Petra, a large massive rock, a large boulder, a foundation stone.
The word "Petros" is only used in the Greek New Testament as a proper name for Simon bar Jona.
Petros is not merely a masculine form of the word petra, but is a different word with a different meaning, though both words are derived from a common root.
4. The wording of Matt. 16:18 uses two different Greek words. If Jesus was referring the second word to Simon Peter he could have said "epi tauto to petro" (using the masculine gender in the dative case) the same word as "Petros." But what he said was "Epi taute te petra" using Petra, a different Greek word.
5. The usage of two different words in the inspired Greek original, if representing an Aramaic original (which is in no case certain) would seem to point to the usage of two separate Aramaic words in this passage.
6. The Peshitta Syriac translation of the New Testament in Matthew 16:18 uses kepha' for both Greek words petros and petra. Is this accurate, or could it be a mistranslation of the original Greek Text?
7. The proper translation of Petros is Ke'pha'. On this we have the authority of the Word of God itself in the Greek original of the New Testament, where the name "Ke'pha" (in the English Bible "Cephas") is six times given as the Aramaic equivalent to Petros for the name of Simon bar Jonas. (John 1:42; 1Corinthians1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 2:9) So, we can say, based upon the authority of the original Greek of the New Testament that Petros, the name given to Simon bar Jona by the Lord Jesus (John 1:42) is the correct translation of the Aramaic/Syriac word Ke'pha'. Greek: Petros = Aramaic: Ke'pha' ("Cephas").
But what of the Greek word Petra? Is it correctly translated as Ke'pha'? There is nowhere in the Greek New Testament where the word Ke'pha' is given as the correct translation of the Greek word Petra. In order to determine the Syriac/Aramaic word which best translates the Greek word Petra we will have to look at the translations of the Greek New Testament which were made in the first five centuries of the Christian Church to determine how the Greek word Petra was understood.
Greek: Petra = Aramaic: ?
8. In the Peshitta Syriac New Testament the Greek word "PETRA" is translated by the Aramaic word SHU`A' as in Matthew 7:24-25 meaning a massive rock or a boulder.
PETRA is used 16 times in the Greek New Testament:
Of those times it is translated in the Peshitta Syriac
9 times by the word SHU`A' ,
6 times by the word KE'PHA' and
1 time by the Hebrew root word 'ABENA'
Of the ten times PETRA is used in the Gospels it is translated:
7 times by the word SHU`A'
(Mt.7:24, 25; Mk.15:46; Lk 6:48[2x];8:6, 13)
3 times by the word KE'PHA'
(Mt.16:18; 27:51; 27:60)
Of the three times KE'PHA' is used to translate PETRA in the Gospels:
 in Mt. 27:60 the parallel passage in Mark's gospel (Mark 15:46) more correctly uses SHU`A' to translate PETRA.
 in Mt. 27:51 the word KE'PHA' is used to describe the rocks (plural) which were broken at the earthquake when Christ died (and hence, these rocks became movable).
 the other passage is Mt. 16:18 where KE'PHA' is used to translate both PETROS and PETRA.
In all other places in the Gospels the Greek word PETRA is translated by the Syriac word SHU`A', meaning "a massive rock."
KE'PHA' is used in the Syriac N.T. as the translation of both the Greek words LITHOS and PETROS.
The Greek word LITHOS, which means "a stone" (generally of a size which could be picked up or moved) is ALWAYS translated by the Syriac word KE'PHA'.
As LITHOS in classical Greek is the common prose word for "a stone" (see the quote from Liddle and Scott's Lexicon, above) and PETROS is more common in poetry, this shows that the definition of KE'PHA' as "a stone" is correct. The Syriac KE'PHA' is equivalent to the Greek LITHOS, a movable stone.
KE'PHA' IS ALWAYS USED TO TRANSLATE THE GREEK WORD LITHOS.
SHU'A IS THE MORE USUAL AND CORRECT SYRIAC WORD TO TRANSLATE THE GREEK WORD PETRA.
KE'PHA IS A MOVABLE STONE = LITHOS / PETROS.
SHU'A IS A MASSIVE ROCK = PETRA.
The Syriac word SHU`A' is NEVER used to translate the Greek word LITHOS. Because a LITHOS is NOT a large massive rock, but a SHU`A' is. The Syriac KE'PHA' is correctly used to translate the Greek words LITHOS and PETROS because these are movable stones.
9. The fact that the Greek text of the New Testament uses two separate Greek words in the passage [Matthew 16:18] indicates that any underlying Aramaic/Syriac original (if there was one, AND THIS IS FAR FROM PROVEN) also must have used two separate words.
a. A reconstructed Aramaic/Syriac of the passage would properly be: "You are KE'PHA' (a movable stone) and upon this SHU`A' (a large massive rock) I will build my church."
This is in exact correspondence to the original inspired Greek text: "You are PETROS (a movable stone) and upon this PETRA (a large massive rock) I will build my church."
b. The Peshitta Syriac New Testament text, at least in its extant Manuscripts, mistranslated the passage in Matthew 16:18, incorrectly using the Syriac word KE'PHA' for both Greek words PETROS and PETRA.
c. The Church of Rome bases its doctrine of Peter being the Rock upon which the Church is built on this mistranslation and/or a falsely reconstructed Aramaic/Syriac original, ignoring the distinctions in the Aramaic language.
d. The Greek text does not teach that Peter is the rock. The rock is either Peter's confession of Christ, or Christ Himself, in Peter's answer to Jesus' earlier question "Who do men say that I the Son of man am?"
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The Reverend David Th. Stark is Pastor of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Redding California which is community Church committed to the word of God and the faith of the Reformation. Member of the Covenanting Association of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches (CARPC).