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The Exegetical Examination of Matthew 16:18

This chapter will focus solely upon the exegesis of the verse.37 Of course, the primary exegetical problem of the verse is the identity of the πέτρα. Is Jesus referring to himself as the rock, or is he referring to Peter? Could the rock be Peter’s confession of faith? And what are the implications of each interpretation?

“You are Peter”: A Linguistic Study of Πέτρος (16:18a)

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω. “And I” (κἀγώ) follows the revelation that the Father made to Peter. According to Walter Bauer, the pronoun κἀγώ should be understood as “but I, for my part.”38 In other words, Jesus is saying: “My Father has just revealed something to you, but I, for my part, will also reveal a truth to you.” Therefore, the καιδε combination essentially serves as an adversative conjunction.39 Jesus uses the emphatic pronoun, which in light of Peter’s confession, means “I, the Messiah”; it marks the following words as important.40 Peter has made an important statement about Jesus; Jesus, in turn will make an important statement to Peter.41

ὅτι σὺ ει Πέτρος. The ὅτι is a substantival conjunction of content.42 It introduces the direct object clause of λέγω. The σοι should then be taken as the indirect object of λέγω. The σύ here is being used emphatically. Jesus is therefore singling out Peter. He is essentially saying: “You, the man who has just made this important statement; you, to whom my Father has revealed this great truth.”43 This parallels the emphatic σύ in Peter’s confession in v. 16. Here, Πέτρος functions as the predicate nominative to σύ.

The word Πέτρος means “stone”44 and occurs 156 times in the New Testament.45 Except at John 1:42, where it is used to clarify the Aramaic Κηφᾶς, Πέτρος) is only used in the NT as the nickname of Simon, one of the original twelve apostles of Jesus.46 It occurs 29 times with Σίμων; of those 29 times, three occur in the Gospel of Matthew (4:18; 10:2; 16:16).47 The original name of the apostle is either Symeon or Simon.48 Symeon is a Hebrew name that was used quite commonly among Jews, but this Semitic form is only used of Peter in Acts 15:14 and 2 Peter 1:1.49 In the New Testament, nine people, apart from Peter are called Simon, and two people, apart from Peter, the patriarch Simeon (Rev. 7:7), and an ancestor of Jesus (Luke 3:30) are called Simeon (Luke 2:25, 34; Acts 13:1).50 It appears to have been the most prevalent Jewish name between the period of 100 B.C.-A.D. 200, no doubt because it was a patriarchal name that was readily assimilated into Greek.51 It should be noted that the use of the name “Simeon” in 2 Peter 1:1 has been met with some controversy.52 The Gospels, though, consistently use the Greek name of Simon.53 Since there is a similarity of sound between the Greek and Hebrew names, the former probably replaced the latter.54 It is possible that Peter bore both names from the very beginning, especially if he came from Bethsaida, which was under heavy Greek influence.55

Moreover, Simon also bears another name, Κηφᾶς. This name is a Greek transcription of the Aramaic wordֵֹכיפָא .56 The word ֵֹכיפָא means “rock”.57 The Hebrew noun kēph is found in Jer 4:29, Job 30:6, and Sir 40:1458; the common noun kephā appears twice in the Targum of Job from Qumran Cave 11 and several times in the texts of Aramaic Enoch from Qumran Cave 4.59 In the Qumran passages, the word has the sense of “rock” or “crag,” a part of a mountainous or hilly area.60 For years it was thought that Κηφᾶς was not used as a proper name. However, Fitzmeyer has shown that kp  does occur as a proper name in a Aramaic text from Elephantine that dates to the eighth year of the reign of Darius II, hence to 416 B.C.61 Thus Peter was not the first person to have had the name, and the existence of Κηφᾶς as a proper name at least makes more plausible the suggestion that a wordplay in Aramaic was involved.62 Κηφᾶς is used to reference Simon most often in the writings of Paul.63 It seems highly unlikely that Paul would simply choose to give Peter an Aramaic name, so it can be safely assumed that Paul knew that Peter was also called Κηφᾶς when he wrote his epistles.64 This would indicate a very early use of Κηφᾶς as a proper name, certainly prior to the composition of Matthew.65 This too would lend credence to the arguments that Jesus probably spoke to his disciples in both Aramaic and Greek.66

As previously stated, Πέτρος is used to clarify Κηφᾶς in John 1:42. As a rule, Semitic names of the New Testament period were far more subject to Hellenization than those of the OT.67 Often the same name, if it belongs to a NT person, is Grecized68; grammatically, this Hellenization could take place through a variety of ways, but Κηφᾶς-Πέτρος serves as a great example of Hellenization taking place through translation.69 While some have argued that the Κηφᾶς of Galatians is not the apostle Peter70, this is probably not the case.71

“Upon this Rock”: A Linguistic Study of πέτρα (16:18b)

καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃͅ τῇ πέτρᾳ. The καί merely serves as a connective conjunction, so it should simply be translated as “and.” When used with the dative, ἐπί can be understood in a spatial, temporal, or causal sense.72 Here, a spatial understanding works best, and the word may be understood as “on, upon”.73 The object of ἐπί should be understood as πέτρα.

The ταύτη (“this”) also refers to πέτρα. The use of the article τῇ with the demonstrative pronoun ταύτη, which is in the predicate position, indicates attributive function.74 So, the phrase may be translated as such: “and upon this rock.” The word πέτρα means “rock, stone”; literally, it refers to the rock out of which a tomb is hewn.75 According to Cullman, in the LXX, πέτρα can be used to signify the following: a. “rock or cliff” (Exod 17:6; Ps 80:16); b. place-name or geographical note, (1 Βar 23:28); c. fig. (Isa 8:14), of an unbending character (Isa 50:7) or the hardened mind (Jer 5:3); d. occasionally a name for God (2 Βar 22:2).76 The word occurs fifteen times in the New Testament77; nine of those fifteen occurrences are in the Gospels78; five of the fifteen are in Matthew.79 Only in Matt 16:18 are πέτρα and Πέτρος used in the same verse.

Possible Interpretations of πέτρα

While the argument from Aramaic would work well in proving that the πέτρα in question is Peter, it is by no means certain that Jesus spoke Aramaic here.80 Given the distinct possibility that Jesus may have spoken Greek here, and given the fact that Matthew’s verses are in the Greek, one might do well to stick to a Greek understanding of the πέτρα-Πέτρος word-play. If this is done, a wide variety of interpretations may be obtained. Gundry, for example, argues that the πέτρα is the teachings of Jesus. He argues that Matthew essentially quotes 7:24, so the πέτρα consists of Jesus’ teaching (i.e., the law of Christ).81 But other interpretations are offered as well. Caragounis argues that πέτρα refers to Peter’s confession of faith. He states the following:

It is obvious that if the reference were intended to [be] Peter there were only two alternatives available – which would have put the matter beyond reasonable doubt. The first alternative would be: Σὺ εἷ Πέτροςκαὶ ἐπὶ σὲ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. There would still be a word-play here, in as much as Πέτρος would have been understood to refer to the well-known disciple, while at the same time the thought of building would have reflected on the meaning of Peter’s name, i.e., the idea of a bedrock on which to erect the ἐκκλησία. The other alternative, which is still better, would be: Σὺ εἷ ὁ Πέτρος ἐφ= ᾧ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. Ηere, the word Πέτρος would have been understood doubly as the personal name of Jesus’ interlocutor and as the rock-foundation of the Church. In this case, there would have been no doubt that the rock was Peter. That Matthew chose to use Πέτρος and πέτρα, two different words, whose very collocation marks a conscious juxtaposition, indicates clearly his intention to contradistinguish the two terms… . It is this confession of Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah, a confession that sets Peter and the other disciples apart from unbelieving Jews, a confession which in Matthew’s context exercises a constraining influence on Jesus to come to terms with his hard calling, to direct his steps to the place of duty, seeing behind Peter’s words his Father’s affirmation of his mission and office, that lies at the basis of Jesus’ words to Peter. Peter’s words are not merely an honorific title; they are a challenge, the challenge of Messianic calling, of Messianic suffering, of Messianic community, of God’s kingdom, of reward and glory… . The πέτρα is the content of Peter’s insight, i.e., that Jesus is the Messiah.82

First, Caragounis places a great deal of emphasis on the fact that Matthew chose to use both Πέτρος and πέτρα in v. 18; for him, this proves that Matthew was not equating the “rock” with the apostle. Second, Caragounis argues that Matthew 16 centers largely upon the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. The “unbelieving Jews” (e.g., the Pharisees and the Sadducees) could not see that truth, and though they previously proclaimed him as the Son of God previously (14:33), even his disciples did not openly affirm Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. While Peter accurately identifies Jesus as the divine Son-Christ (and receives a blessing for doing so), the apostle does not stand at the center of Matt 16:18; what is important is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. Other commentators, such McNeile, Allen, and Ryle also support a πέτρα = faith reading of the text. Theologian John Ryle, for example, states the following about the identity of the πέτρα: “To speak of an erring, fallible child of Adam as the foundation of the spiritual temple is very unlike the ordinary language of Scripture… . The true meaning of the “rock” appears to be the truth of the Lord’s messiahship and divinity.”83 It should be noted that this view also had the support of some notable Reformers, including John Calvin.84

However, other theologians assert that rock is Jesus himself. This trend started with Augustine, and this was the dominant view dominant throughout the Middle Ages. During the Reformation, both Zwingli and Luther held a Christological interpretation of the verse. In his treatise On True and False Religion, Ulrich Zwingli states the following:

[It] is as though Christ were saying, ‘I was right to give thee the name Peter; for thou art Peter. For staunchly and clearly and unwaveringly [Peter] confesseth that which has saving power for all. I, too, will build my church upon this rock, not upon thee; for thou art not a rock (petra). God alone is the rock on which every building shall be built… . So, thou, Peter, art not a rock.’ For how would the Church have collapsed when he, trembling at the feeble voice of her who kept the door [John 18:17] began to make denial! … That the divine Apostle so understood the words of Christ he himself bears witness, 1 Pet 2:4-5: ‘Unto whom’ – Christ, that is – ‘coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of man, but with God elect and precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house.’ ‘Behold as Christ is a rock,’ you say, ‘so are we rocks,’ But see in what sense Christ is a rock, and in what sense we are rocks. Christ is the rock upon which the building rises, we are the common stones in the building which has its foundations in Christ. Christ alone, therefore, not Peter nor any creature is the rock, built upon which the Church stands fast against all the vicious fury of all the storms.85

Here, Zwingli argues that even in spite of his profession of faith, the apostle Peter cannot be the sturdy “rock” of the Church because he later denies his Lord. If the Church is built upon Peter the man, then it would have surely collapsed when he betrayed Jesus. Zwingli also argues that Peter’s own writings prove that he saw Jesus, not himself, as the “rock” of the Church. For the apostle, Christians are living stones that are used to build up the body of Christ, but Jesus is the living stone upon which the Church rests.

Interestingly, theologian George A. F. Knight holds a similar understanding of the verse. With Zwingli, he argues that Peter never would have understood himself to be the “rock” in question. As a first-century Jew, he would have automatically connected the “rock” with God.86 Throughout the Old Testament, the God of Israel is often called “rock” (Deut 32: 4, 15, 18, 30; 1 Sam 2:2, 22:32, 47; Ps 18:31, 19:14, 28:1, 42:9, 89:26; Isa 30:29). In the whole story of God’s self-revelation through His relationship with Israel, He proved that He was their provider and caretaker – the rock of their faith.87 Like Zwingli, Knight maintains that the rock cannot be either the apostle or his faith because “[in] a matter of only weeks Peter’s faith failed him wholly, and his so-called rock-like qualities became in the High Priest’s courtyard nought but sinking sand.”88 For Knight, then, it is not Peter’s faith that becomes the rock upon which the Church rests; instead, the Church rests on the faithfulness, the reliability, and the rocklike trustworthiness of God.89 Thus, according to Knight, “the rock is none other than God-in-Christ.”90

However, other scholars (such as Keener, Carson, and Ridderbos) argue that the πέτρα is Peter. Against Caragounis, Ridderbos argues that the difference between πέτρα and Πέτρος is rather insignificant. He asserts:

The most likely explanation for the change from petros (“Peter”) to petra is that petra was the normal word for “rock.” Because the feminine ending of this noun made it unsuitable as a man’s name, however, Simon was not called petra but Petros. The word Petros was not an exact synonym of petra, as it literally meant “stone.” Jesus therefore had to switch to the word petra when He turned from Peter’s name to what it meant for the church. There is no good reason to think that Jesus switched from petros to petra to show that he was not speaking of the man Peter but of his confession as the foundation of the church. The words “on this rock [petra]” indeed refer to Peter. Because of the revelation that he had received and the confession that it motivated in him, Peter was appointed by Jesus to lay the foundation of the future church. Only Peter is mentioned in this verse, and the pun on his name of course applied to him alone.91

Cullman agrees with Ridderbos’ assessment. He also maintains that since the word πέτρα is feminine in the Greek and has a feminine ending (-α), the New Testament chose a less usual Greek word which had the masculine ending (-ος) for the apostle: Πέτρος.92 Cullman goes on to state that there is no essential difference between πέτρα and Πέτρος, for even though πέτρα denoted a “live rock” and Πέτρος meant a “detached stone," the distinction was not strictly observed.93 In several instances, πέτρα is used with the meaning “piece of rock” or “stone.”94

Exegetically, it seems least probable that Jesus is referring to himself as theπέτρα. Carson maintains that if Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was the stone while Jesus was the rock, then the more common word to use would have been lithos (which denotes a “stone” of almost any size) and no pun would have existed.95 It is true that there are numerous instances of God the Father being described as “rock” in the OT (see above) and Jesus being described as “rock” or “foundation” in the NT (1 Cor 3:11, 10:4); however, that does not necessarily mean that Jesus is referring to himself (or the Father) as the “rock” of Matt 16:18.96 As a chapter, Matthew 16 does concentrate heavily on the theme of Jesus’ identity, but vv. 17-19 seem to focus particularly on Peter and his statements regarding Jesus’ identity. Therefore, it would seem likely that the πέτρα of v. 18 either refers to the man or to his confession of faith.

If Peter’s confession of faith is the “rock,” then why did Jesus not say “upon this faith” or “upon your words” I will build my Church? According to R. T. France, it is overreaction against the papal claims of the Roman Catholic Church that has inspired some Protestants to view the “rock” as Peter’s faith rather than the man.97 It seems that the word-play and the whole structure of the logion demands that v. 18 is every bit as much Jesus’ declaration about Peter as v. 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus.98

It should also be noted that in v. 17, Jesus refers to the apostle as “Simon”. In v. 18, though, Jesus specifically refers to Simon as Peter, the nickname that he had previously given the apostle. If Peter is not in view, why would Jesus deliberately use a word that almost mirrored the apostle’s name? Considering that this is the only place in the entire New Testament corpus in which πέτρα and Πέτρος are used in the same verse, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus was not in some way referring to Peter. This could very well be a case of paronomasia, which is common in the Bible and should not be belittled.99 The only logical explanation is that there is some relationship between the two, and Jesus wanted to make that connection known.

Furthermore, Keener asserts that Jesus does not say, “You are Peter, but on this rock I will build my church”; the adversative δε sometimes means “and” but the copulative και almost always means “and” (with a few exceptions).100 It is true that 16:18 is quite reminiscent of 7:24-27 and ultimately, Jesus’ teaching is the foundation for disciples (1 Cor 3:11), but in this verse, Peter functions as the foundation rock as the apostles and prophets do in Eph 2:20-21.101 If all the apostles and prophets are seen as rocks, does that diminish the unique blessing to Peter? Not at all. Although the apostles may be “rocks” in one sense, Peter is “the rock” in special sense.

In v. 15, Jesus specifically asked his disciples who were present: “But who do you say that I am?” (The term μαθητάς in v. 13 and the plural forms ὑμεις and λέγετε make it clear that he was speaking to more than one disciple.) Only one person responded, namely Peter, and he answered by correctly confessing that Jesus is the Christ. Just as Peter singled out Jesus and unveiled his identity, Jesus now singles out Peter and uncovers his true identity.102 However, Jesus does not assign the role of “rock” to Peter in an arbitrary manner: Peter is the rock because he is the one who confessed Jesus as the Christ here.103 Furthermore, Peter is not given the title because he is inherently worthy to receive it; he is not more righteous than any of the other disciples. Certainly Peter had his failings and shortcomings, as indicated in 16:22-23. But his failures and vacillations do not detract from his preeminence; in fact, his inadequacies probably highlight it.104 Had Peter been a lesser figure, his behavior probably would have been of far less consequence.105 In any case, Peter was able to rise above his shortcomings here and make a profession about the true identity of Jesus; on that basis is his preeminence established.

It has been argued that there may be a Jewish tradition behind the title given to Peter. There is a personal tradition that is connected to Isa 51:1-2, in which Abraham is said to be the rock out of which Israel was broken.106 Davies-Allison notes that there are parallels between Gen 17 and Matt 16: in both cases, the reader sees the birth of the people of God (the Jews in one case; the church in the other); in both instances, the birth is associated with one particular individual (Abraham, then Peter); in both texts, the individual has a name change that symbolizes his crucial function (Abraham is the “father of a multitude” while Peter is the “rock” upon which the Church is built).107 While this idea is interesting, it faces the very different metaphor of being hewn from a rock and being built upon a rock.108 Most likely, then, Peter, is probably not meant to be seen as the new Abraham.109 It should also be noted that the Qumran sect was founded upon a “rock”.110 Tractate 1QH 6.25-28 reads: “For Thou wilt set the foundation on rock and the framework by the measuring-cord of justice; and the tried stones [Thou wilt lay] by the plumb-line [of truth], to [build] a mighty [wall] which shall not sway; and no man entering there shall stagger.”111 So, the idea of a community being founded upon a “rock” is present in the Jewish milieu of Jesus’ day.

Certainly, though, questions have been raised regarding this interpretation. After all, if Peter is the “rock” in question, and if he is given a position of preeminence, the question of the disciples as to who would have that place (18:1) seems inexplicable.112 Moreover, in 16:19, Peter is given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the authority to loose and bind things on earth; this would seem to imply preeminence, but in 18:18, this authority is given to all the apostles. Surely, Jesus has not forgotten his own words! If such an authority is given to all of the apostles, then it would seem unlikely that Jesus is referring to Peter as the πέτρᾳ. In light of these factors, does the argument hold that the πέτρᾳ is pointing to Peter?

These questions do bring up valid points. It is true that the other disciples were also given the “keys,” and it is true that the disciples later inquire about “who is the greatest.” Despite the fact that Peter was probably voicing the belief of all of the disciples, it was still he who so emphatically declared their conviction.113 However, some theologians, such as Leon Morris114, point to the fact that it was James, not Peter, who became the head of the Jerusalem Church. If anyone were to be assigned a place of preeminence, then, it would seem to be James and not Peter. Even if it is conceded that James was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, that still does not necessarily diminish the primacy of Peter among the apostolic band; this is made evident within the Gospels themselves. In all of the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is named first in the lists of the apostles (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16); the same is true for the book of Acts (see 1:13). Peter, along with James and John, is included among the innermost circle of Jesus’ apostles; even among this band, though, Peter is listed first (Matt 17: 1-8; 26:37; Mark 5: 37; 9:2-8; Luke 9: 28-26; 13:3). Peter asks questions for the disciples (15:15: 18:21), and on one occasion, outsiders addressed him instead of Jesus (17:24).115 It is Peter who is the leading character in the story of the miraculous catch (Luke 5: 1-11).116 It is Peter who tries to imitate Jesus by walking on water (Matt 14:28).117 It is Peter who is called “blessed” for confessing that Jesus is the Christ (Matt 16:17), and it is Peter who is reprimanded for rebuking Jesus when the latter spoke of his impending death (Matt 16:23). It is Peter who cuts off Malchus’ ear in order to defend Jesus (John 18:10); it is Peter who is rebuked for doing so (John 18:11). It is Peter who denies Jesus three times (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:55-62; John 18:16-18, 25-27); it is Peter who receives a special commission from the post-resurrected Jesus (John 21:15-18). The occurrence of phrases such as “Peter and those who were with him” (see Mark 1:36 and Luke 9:32) is worth noting.118 On the morning of the resurrection, even the angel singled out Peter by saying: “Go and tell the disciples and Peter” that Jesus had risen from the dead. All four of the gospel writers, then, seem to attribute a unique position to Peter.119

Peter is also featured prominently in the first half of Acts. He guides the process of choosing Matthias as a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:15-26); he functions as a preacher within the Jerusalem Church and as a missionary to those who are outside (Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43); he is a miracle worker and (as in the case of Paul) some of his miracles resemble that of Jesus (Acts 3:1-10; 5:1-11, 15; 9:32-42); he is the object of divine care and receives visionary or heavenly guidance (Acts 5:17-21; 10:9-48; 12:6-11); and he is a spokesperson for the Jerusalem community (Acts 8:14-25; 11:1-18; 15:7-11).120 Despite the fact that it is James who becomes the leader of the Jerusalem Church, he is not consistently singled out like Simon Peter. Even with James’ eminent position in Jerusalem, it appears that Peter was the leader of the “apostolic band” that is, of the Twelve. It should also be noted that James’ rise in the Jerusalem Church did not occur until after Peter began his missionary work.121 Whether the interactions were positive or negative, it appears that Peter became a central apostolic figure because of his close and unique relationship to Jesus.122 Even though the position has its weaknesses, the interpretation of πέτρα as Peter the apostle still seems most likely.

However, the fact that this exegesis points to Peter as the πέτρα in no way endorses a Roman Catholic understanding of Peter’s successors. In fact, the text states nothing about Peter’s successor, papal infallibility, or exclusive authority over the Church.123 Peter’s privilege of being the “rock” is historically unrepeatable.124 Understood in its original sense, Jesus assigns the apostle a unique and unrepeatable position in the spiritual edifice of God.125 On the one hand, the verse speaks of the ἐκκλησία, a fellowship that is to be built in the future, without any time limit being given; on the other hand, the verse speaks about Peter, a human person, whose earthly activity will necessarily be limited by his death.126 Just as Peter’s feeding of the lambs in John 21:16ff is limited by his martyrdom, so is Peter’s status as “rock” of the Church limited by his earthly demise.127 According to Luz, “the rock, the foundation, is fundamentally different from what is built on it, that is, the house.”128 The rock remains, but the house built on it gets higher and higher.129 Even though Peter and the other apostles died, their ministry certainly continued, but in the post-apostolic age it was the apostolic traditions and the writings of the New Testament that “assumed” this ministry.130 Certainly, the apostles appointed elders, deacons, and bishops in the local churches that they founded; this is clear from the New Testament writings themselves (1 Tim 1:1-5, 3:1-13, 5: 17-21, 2 Tim 4:1-5; Titus 1:5-9). However, there is no evidence for the succession of the apostles in their apostolic office that is valid for the whole church.131 For instance, the Pastoral Epistles in no way indicate that Timothy or Titus, students of Paul, assumed his role as apostle and giver of tradition. What this seems to mean is that Matthew knows nothing of a perpetual office of Peter; instead, he knows Peter the disciple of Jesus, whose image he preserves for his community.132

“I will Build My Church”: The Role of ἐκκλησία (16:18b cont.)

οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. Οἰκοδομέω occurs 40 times in the New Testament, and 8 times in the Gospel of Matthew.133 Οἰκοδομήσω is in the future tense, so Jesus is looking forward to building a community on the rock of Peter. 134 The theme of “building” a people springs from the Old Testament (Ruth 4:11; 2 Sam 7:13-14; 1 Chr 17: 12-13: Jer 1:10, 24:6, 31:4, 33:7; Amos 9:11).135 The metaphorical use of “build” here is appropriate for a community conceived of as a spiritual “house” or “temple” (note the description of the church as God’s building in 1 Cor 3:9; Eph 2:19-21).136

The word ἐκκλησία is used 114 times in the New Testament but only twice in the gospels. Both occurrences are in Matthew (16:18; 18:17). According to Walter Bauer, the term can be use to mean the following: 1) “assembly” such as a regularly summoned political body (cf. Josephus, Ant., 12, 164; Acts 19:39); 2) “assemblage, gathering, meeting” (1 Macc 3:13; Acts 19:32); 3) the congregation of the Israelites, especially when gathered for religious purposes (Deut 31:30; Judg 20:2; Josephus, Ant., 4, 309); 4) of the Christian church or community.137 With regard to definition #4, the term ἐκκλησία may be categorized even further; Bauer asserts that in this verse, ἐκκλησία is best understood as “the universal church to which all believers belong.”138 The word ἐκκλησία often appears in the LXX, usually as the translation of קָהָל.139 The possessive pronoun μου essentially functions as an adjective and identifies the owner of the church, namely Jesus himself. Peter may be the “rock,” but the church does not belong to Peter, his successors, or to any other church leader; she belongs to Jesus, exclusively and entirely.140

“The Gates of Hell”: The Strength of the Church in the Face of πύλαι ᾅδου (16:18c)

καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. Πύλη means “gate or door”141and occurs 10 times in the New Testament, with four of those occurrences in Matthew (7:13, 7:14, and 16:18).142 Here, ᾅδης refers to the “nether world, the place of the dead”143; the word appears 10 times in the New Testament, with two occurrences in Matthew (11:23 and 16:18).144 The phrase πύλαι ᾅδου occurs only here in the New Testament, withᾅδου functioning as an attributive genitive to<ι> <ͅι>πύλαι .145 The phrase “gates of Hades” is a common Semitic expression for the threshold of the realm of death (11:23; Rev 1:18).146 The phrase can be found in the both the Old Testament and apocryphal writings (Job 38:17; Isa 38:10; Wis 16:13; 3 Macc 5:51), and in later Jewish literature (1QH 6.24).147 Here, though, the interpretation is a bit more dubious. Gundry argues that given the prominence of persecution in the gospel, Matthew is probably using the phrase to represent death by martyrdom.148 Even in the face of the apostles’ bloody deaths, then, the church will still remain victorious. Other commentators, such as Jeremias, lean towards the πύλαι ᾅδου serving as the forces of the underworld.149 Given the usual understanding of the phrase, it is probably best taken as meaning “the power of death” or simply “death.”150

The word κατισχύσουσιν occurs only three times in the New Testament (Matt 16:18; Luke 21:36, 23:23),151 and it is derived from κατισχύω, which means “to win a victory over.”152 In other words, the power of death will not win a victory over the church. It makes sense that the antecedent for αὐτῆς refers to ἐκκλησία rather than πέτρα since “church” is closer in proximity.153 Therefore, the church, as an eschatological community, will never die or come to an end.154 As Keener states: “The church will endure until Jesus’ return, and no opposition, even the widespread martyrdom of Christians … can prevent the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes in history.155


While some exegetes and theologians assert that the πέτρα of this verse points to Jesus or the confession of Peter, the deliberate use of the πέτρα-Πέτρος pun in 16:18, the only verse in the entire NT that contains both words, seems to indicate the Jesus specifically singled out the apostle Simon Peter as the “rock” in question. Peter is not given this position because he is inherently worthy; instead, he receives this title because he confessed his faith in the Messiah. Under the leadership of Peter, Jesus will build his own community (as seen in Acts), and nothing, not even death itself, will overcome the establishment of this body throughout history. Despite the fact that this exegesis points to Peter as the πέτρα, the verse states nothing about Peter’s apostleship being passed down to future successors. It is the historical Peter who remains the “rock” of the Church156, and the exegesis of Matt 16:18 gives no indication that Jesus was establishing a permanent apostolic see for future Bishops of Rome.

37 For information on the form, structure, and authenticity of Matt 16:17-19, see Appendix A.

38 William Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), 3rd ed., rev. and ed. by Frederick Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 487. See 3b.

39 Friedrich Blass and Albert Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDF), rev. and trans. by Robert Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 232. See 447.9.

40 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishers, 1992), 422.

41 Ibid.

42 Categorizations are taken from Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 678.

43 Morris, Gospel according to Matthew, 422.

44 BDAG, 809.

45 John R. Kohlenberger, Edward W. Goodrick, and James A. Swanson, The Exhaustive Concordance to the Greek New Testament (ECGNT) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers, 1995), 794.

46 O. Cullman, “Πέτρος Κηφᾶς,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 100.

47 Ibid.

48 Oscar Cullman, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 19.

49 Ibid.

50 Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 50 (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 166.

51 Ibid.

52 According to Bauckham, the use of the name “Simeon” in 2 Pet 1:1 has generally been regarded as either a mark of authenticity or as a deliberate, archaizing mark of a anonymous writer who used a pseudonym to make his work look authentic (ibid., 166-67).

53 Cullman, Peter, 19.

54 Cullman, “Πέτρος Κηφᾶς,” 100.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 BDAG, 809.

58 Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, “Aramaic Kepha  and Peter’s Name in the New Testament,” in To Advance the Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 115.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid., 116.

62 Ibid., 118. However, it should be noted that while it is certainly possible that Jesus spoke Aramaic here, it also possible that Jesus could have spoken Greek as well. See the section of Appendix A entitled “Should the Pun be Understood in Aramaic or Greek?”

63 Ibid. See Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14; 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5.

64 Furthermore, it is also possible that Paul was aware of what transpired in Matt 16:17-19. For more information on Paul’s possible knowledge of Peter’s status as “rock” of the Church, see the section of Appendix A entitled “Considerations on Source, Redaction, and Authenticity: Pauline Testimony.”

65 Ibid., 116. For more information on the dating of Galatians, see ff. 96 of Appendix A.

66 See ff. 25 above.

67 BDF 53, 2e.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 This theory can be traced back to the writings of Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History, the church historian writes: “This is the account of Clement, in the fifth book of his Hypotyposes, in which he also says that Cephas was one of the seventy disciples, a man who bore the same name as the apostle Peter, and the one concerning whom Paul says, ‘When Cephas came to Antioch I withstood him to his face’” (1.12.2, 1.12.3. See Eusebius: Church History from A.D. 1-324, Life of Constantine the Great, Oration in Praise of Constantine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF), Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 100. See also Histoire Ecclsiastique, Sources Chrtiennes (SC), ed. Gustav Bardy, vol. 31 [Paris: Cerf, 1984], 39.) According to Eusebius, then, the Cephas of Galatians 1-2 was not the Apostle Peter. Moreover, the New Testament Apocryphal text The Epistle of the Apostles also states that Peter and Cephas are two different people. This document lists the apostles in the following manner: “(We,) John and Thomas and Peter and Andrew and James and Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Nathanael and Judas Zelotes and Cephas, we have written to the churches of the East and the West, towards the North and the South, recounting and proclaiming to you concerning our Lord Jesus Christ” (See J. K. Elliott, ed., Epistle of the Apostles, in The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993], 558). Thus, Cephas and Peter are listed as two different apostles. The Epistle of the Apostles was probably written between A.D. 175-200, so the idea that Peter ≠ Cephas was still circulating by the end of the second century.

The hypothesis has persisted in modern exegesis as well. Throughout most of his writings, Paul consistently refers to Peter as Cephas (see ff. 25 above); in Gal 2:7-8, though, Paul uses the name Peter rather than Cephas. This has led some commentators to conclude that the “Peter” of Gal 2:7-8 is not the same as the “Cephas” of Gal 1-2. Kirsopp Lake, for example states: “The apostle Peter is only mentioned once in the Pauline Epistles; Cephas is mentioned eight times. Did Paul mean that they were the same person? … We are influenced, and probably ought to be influenced, by a combination of the fact that Gospel of Mark, when it breaks off, seems to be leading up to an appearance of Jesus to Peter, and that Paul says that the first appearance of Jesus was to Cephas; ergo, Peter is Cephas. This is no doubt a reasonable proposition, but it is just as well to understand that it does not rest on the strongest possible authority, for Paul nowhere says that Peter is Cephas, though commentators have the bad habit (to which I plead guilty myself) of constantly talking of Peter when he says Cephas, and Mark never speaks of Cephas at all” (Kirsopp Lake, “Simon, Cephas, Peter,” Harvard Theological Review 14 [1921]: 96-97. See also Bart Ehrman, “Cephas and Peter,” Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL) 109 [1990]: 463-474).

However, most modern commentators do agree that Cephas of Gal 1-2 is the Apostle Peter. According to J. K. Elliott, Paul’s preference for the Semitic name Cephas highlights the rivalry between Peter (the apostle to the Jews) and Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles). By using the name Cephas, Paul emphasizes Peter’s pro-Jewish sympathies and his connection to the Jerusalem establishment (See “Kephas: Simon Petros: O Petros: An Examination of New Testament Usage," Novum Testamentum (NT) 14 [1972]: 249). According to Elliott, Peter and the Jerusalem pillars are against Paul’s efforts at making converts among the Gentiles; for that reason, Paul is against them (ibid.). Elliott states that in Gal 2 and 1 Cor 5, Paul speaks disparagingly of Cephas and the other Jerusalem pillars; only in Gal 2:7-8 is Cephas commended for his missionary work to the Gentiles, and for this reason Paul calls him Πέτρος (ibid.). Cullman, however, has a different theory: Paul simply uses Petros in Gal 2:7-8 because he is quoting an official document in which the Greek translation Petros is used (Peter, 18). Thus, the shift in name does not necessarily indicate a rivalry between the two apostles, nor does it show that anyone other than the Apostle Peter is in view.

71 Cullman, “Πέτρος Κηφᾶς,” 100.

72 Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, 376.

73 Ibid. See also BDF 235.1 and C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 50.

74 Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, 241.

75 BDAG, 809.

76 O. Cullman, “Πέτρα,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 95.

77 ECGNT, 794.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid. In 7:24, the wise man built his house upon the “rock” (πέτραν); in 7:25, the house founded upon the “rock” (πέτραν) did not fall; in 16:18, Jesus will build his Church upon a “rock” (πέτρα); in 27:51, the “rocks” (πέτραι) were split at Jesus’ death; in 27:60, Joseph of Arimathea places Jesus’ body in a tomb, which he had hewn out in the “rock” (πέτρα).

80 See Section of Appendix A entitled “Should the Pun be Understood in Aramaic or Greek?”

81 Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 334.

82 Chrys C. Caragounis, Peter and the Rock (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990), 89-107.

83 J. C. Ryle, Matthew (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 139.

84 In his exegesis of the verse, Calvin writes the following: “Hence it is evident how the name Peter comes to be applied both to Simon individually, and to other believers. It is because they are founded on the faith of Christ, and joined together, by a holy consent, into a spiritual building, that God may dwell in the midst of them (Ezra 43:7). For Christ, by announcing that this would be the common foundation of the whole Church, intended to associate with Peter all the godly that would ever exist in the world. ‘You are now,’ said he, ‘a very small number of men, and therefore, the confession which you have now made is not at present supposed to have much weight; but ere long a time will arrive when that confession shall assume a lofty character, and shall be much more widely spread’ ” (Jean Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 16, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. John Owen [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999], 291). Here, then, the great Reformer seems to imply that the πέτρα is none other than the faith of Peter. This faith in Jesus is shared universally by the church, and it is on that faith in Jesus that the church rests.

85 Ulrich Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, 2nd ed., ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Clarence Nevin Heller (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1981), 161.

86 G. A. F. Knight, “Thou Art Peter,” Theology Today 17 (1960): 168.

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid., 178.

90 Ibid., 179.

91 H. N. Ridderbos, Matthew, trans. by Ray Togtman (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1987), 303.

92 Cullman, Peter, 19.

93 Ibid.

94 Ibid. (See also Homer, Od., 243; Hesiod, Theo., 675.)

95 Ibid.

96 In fact, Carson states the following regarding the use of repeated metaphors: “The objection that Peter considers Jesus the rock is insubstantial because metaphors are commonly used variously, till they become stereotyped, and sometimes event then. Here, Jesus builds the church; in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul is the ‘expert builder.’ In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Jesus is the church’s foundation; in Ephesians 2:19-20, the apostles and prophets are the foundation (cf. also Rev 21:14), and Jesus is the ‘cornerstone.’ Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is the light of the world’; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. None of these pairs threatens Jesus’ uniqueness. They simply show how metaphors must be interpreted primarily with reference to their immediate contexts” (D. A. Carson, "Matthew," in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, J. D. Douglas, and Walter Kaiser, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 368).

97 R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 254.

98 Ibid.

99 Carson, Matthew, 368. See also BDF 488.

100 Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 427.

101 Ibid.

102 Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce Metzger, David Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 33B (Dallas: Word Publishers, 1995), 469-70.

103 Ibid.

104 W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew, Anchor Bible, vol. 26 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), 195.

105 Ibid.

106 Ulrich Luz, Matthew: 8-20, trans. by James E. Crouch (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishers, 1989), 362.

107 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII, New International Critical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 624.

108 Hagner, Matthew, 470.

109 Luz, Matthew, 362.

110 Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 427.

111 Geza Vermes, ed., The Thanksgiving Hymns, in The Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 209.

112 Morris, Gospel according to Matthew, 423.

113 Ridderbos, Matthew, 303.

114 See Morris, Matthew, 424, ff. 32.

115 Luz, Matthew, 366.

116 Cullman, “Πέτρος Κηφᾶς 101.

117 Ibid.

118 Ibid.

119 Some may conclude that this “singling out” of Peter may be due, in large part, to his personality. To this, Cullman writes: “One might indeed be tempted to go further and ask how this preeminence is to be explained. Is it due to the fact that by giving the name mentioned, Jesus strengthened greatly Peter’s consciousness of being a disciple? Or on the contrary, is it, together with the giving of the name, to be explained on psychological grounds by the character of Peter? The latter possibility has often been considered. It takes its clue from the fact that during the lifetime of Jesus, Peter did not show himself a “rock” at all; in the contrary, his human weakness is very striking… . He is impulsive and enthusiastic; in the first burst of enthusiasm, he does not hesitate to throw himself into the sea when Jesus calls him, but his courage soon fades and fear grips him. So, too, he is the first to confess loudly to his Master, but he is the first one who will deny him in the hour of danger. And yet, so one assumes, precisely this character, with its notable contradictions, makes Peter appear as the disciple with special psychological fitness to be the “rock” among the other disciples. The exuberant enthusiasm, the fiery zeal of this disciple are said to be in fact the human qualities that are necessary to deserve such a title of honor… . Nevertheless, it is hardly possible to give a psychological basis for the unique position of Peter and for the giving of the name” (Cullman, Peter, 31). Perhaps Peter’s forceful personality did give him the courage to proclaim boldly that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”; however, it was Peter’s confession, not his zealous (and flawed) character which prompted Jesus to make him the “rock” of the Church.

120 Karl Donfried, “Peter in the Book of Acts,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 5 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 253.

121 Davies-Allison states: “What matters most is that, according to Acts, James came to power only after Peter had begun to travel abroad. Before that, Peter was the central figure in the church. Galatians confirms this picture. Paul spoke of his first visit to Jerusalem in this way: ‘Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to consult with Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none other of the apostles except James the Lord’s brother’ (Gal 1:18-19). This seemingly presupposes that Peter was then the leading man among the disciples. But when writing about his second trip to Jerusalem, Paul used the phrase, ‘James, Cephas, and John’ (Gal 2:9). This points to James’ ascendancy. It does appear to us, in any case, that Peter’s place in the early church, as attested to in Acts and the Pauline epistles, is more than consistent with his having been given by Jesus a very special function” (Commentary on Matthew, 615).

122 Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 69.

123 Carson, Matthew, 368.

124 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Dallas: Word Publishers, 1990), 581.

125 K. L. Schmidt, “ἐκκλησία,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 523.

126 Cullman, Peter, 213.

127 Ibid., 214.

128 Luz, Matthew, 369.

129 Ibid.

130 Ibid.

131 Ibid. For more information on the nature of the apostolic office, see chapter six.

132 Ibid.

133 ECGNT, 678. In 7:24, the wise man “built” (ᾠκοδόμησεν) his house upon the rock; in 7:26, the foolish man “built” (ᾠκοδόμησεν) his house upon the sand; in 16:18, Jesus “will build” (οἰκοδομήσω) his church upon a rock; in 21:33, the landowner “built” (ᾠκοδόμησεν) a tower; in 21:42, the stone that “the builders” (οἱ οἱκοδομοῦντες) rejected became the cornerstone; in 23:29, the scribes and Pharisees “build” (οἰκοδομεῖτε) the tombs of the prophets; in 26:61, Jesus is accused of saying that he was able to destroy the temple and “to rebuild” (οἰκοδομῆσαι) it in three days; in 27:40 Jesus is once again accused of being able to “rebuild” (οἰκοδομῶν) the temple in three days.

134 For more information on the use of οἰκοδομήσω, see the section of Appendix A entitled “Considerations on Source, Redaction, and Authenticity: The Problem of οἰκοδομήσω.”

135 Carson, Matthew, 369.

136 Hagner, Matthew, 471.

137 BDAG, 303-04.

138 Ibid., 4d, 241.

139 Hagner, Matthew, 471. For additional information on the phrase μου τήν ἐκκλησία, see the section of Appendix A entitled “Considerations on Source, Redaction, and Authenticity: The Problem of μου τήν ἐκκλησίαν.”

140 Bruner, Matthew, 574.

141 BDAG, 897.

142 ECGNT, 870. In 7:13, Jesus commands his listeners to enter through the narrow “gate” (πύλης); in the same verse, Jesus also states that the “gate” (πύλη) is wide that leads to destruction; in 7:14, Jesus declares that the “gate” (πύλη) is small that leads to life; in 16:18, the “gates” (πύλαι) of hell will not overcome the Church.

143 BDAG, 19.

144 ECGNT, 22. In 11:23, Capernaum will descend into “Hades” (ᾅδου); in 16:18, the gates of “Hades” (ᾅδου) will not conquer the Church.

145 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 780.

146 Hagner, Matthew, 471.

147 Ibid.

148 Gundry, Commentary, 335.

149 Joachm Jeremias, “Πλη,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 926.

150 Hagner, Matthew, 472.

151 ECGNT, 523.

152 BDAG, 534.

153 Hagner, Matthew, 474.

154 Ibid.

155 Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 429.

156 Cullman, Peter, 224

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