The Two “Rocks” of Matthew 16:18 in the Syriac Peshitta

By David Pell

In the thread entitled “How John Calvin Made me a Catholic,” Jason asserted that the “Greek grammar” of Matthew 16:18 does not allow for the interpretation that Peter is the rock upon which the Church was built. I challenged Jason to make his case from the Greek text, but he has yet to respond. Some readers, assuming that Jason was referring to the discrepancy between the (masculine) gender of the name Jesus gave to Peter (as it is recorded in the Greek), πέτρος, and the (feminine) of gender of the “this rock,” πέτρα, upon which Jesus said He would build the Church (as it is recorded in the Greek), responded that this is a necessary nuance of Greek grammar: Peter, being a man, couldn’t be given the feminine name Petra. And besides, we know that Jesus and Peter were speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and Jesus would have used the same word in both instances.

This is a common Catholic response to the Protestant charge regarding the disparity of gender, and I think it’s a fine response. I also know that it’s not new to many Protestants, and many Protestants (obviously) don’t find it convincing. I’ve heard it said that the texts are in Greek, not in Aramaic, so we should stick with what we know from the text rather than speculating and basing our interpretation on what we think was said in the original discussion. It is not my purpose to go over these arguments again here.

This summer I’ve been learning Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic that originated in Edessa. It was the vehicle of the diffusion of Christianity in the provinces east of Cappadocia (though Greek was also spoken by many in places like Antioch), and it is still the liturgical language of many particular churches (in the Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox “families”). As I alluded to above, many individuals who are interested in this issue assume that the argument is moot because the biblical manuscripts aren’t in Aramaic. This isn’t exactly true. Some of the oldest biblical manuscripts we have are in this Edessene dialect of Aramaic: Syriac. The standard Syriac version of the bible is known as the “Peshitta,” with the Old Testament having been translated in the 2nd century and the New Testament by the 4th century. I thought I’d share the passage in question as it appears in the Peshitta version of Matthew, which is the closest textual evidence we have to what the conversation would have looked like in Aramaic.

 “Again I say to you that you are the Rock (Kepha), and upon this Rock (Kepha) I will build my Church, and the gates of Sheol will not subdue it.”

In both places we see the same word, ܟܺܐܦܳܐ (Kepha or Kepho depending on pronunciation), which is just what we were expecting based on the arguments we’ve seen made about what Jesus would have actually said in Aramaic. I think this fact corroborates the argument, already made by others, that the disparity in gender between Peter’s name and the “this rock” upon which Jesus promised to build His Church is based on the demands of Greek noun inflection. It may also explain the frequency of references to Peter as Cephas in Paul’s letters. The Greek transliteration of the Aramaic/Syriac word ܟܺܐܦܳܐ is κφα. Our word “Cephas” is the Latin transliteration of the Greek word. It wasn’t mentioned in either of the responses in the thread on John Calvin, but Paul refers to Peter by name ten times (from my count) in his letters. Of those 10 times, he calls him Cephas eight times, but πέτρος only twice. This may indicate that Peter was commonly addressed by the Aramaic term in that time and place, which further corroborates the hypothesis that it is the name originally given to him by Jesus, and whose gender would not have conflicted in the two instances in Matthew 16. Why else would Paul, who obviously knew Greek just fine, consistently refer to Peter as Cephas in letters written to congregations in the Greek-speaking areas of Corinth (Greece) and Galatia (Asia Minor, northwest of Cappadocia)? Even further still, we have in John 1 another account of Jesus telling Peter that he will be called Rock. In this instance, even in the Greek we find Jesus telling Peter that he will be called Kepha (using the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic), which John then translates for us:

γαγεν ατν πρς τν ησον. μβλέψας ατ ησος επεν, Σ ε Σίμων υἱὸς ωάννου, σ κληφήσ Κηφς, ρμηνεύεται Πέτρος.

He [Andrew] led him [Peter] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You shall be called Cephas,” which is translated as Peter.

This seems to indicate that any appellation of Cephas as Petros is derived not from theological nuance but from the interest of translating the word for Greek-speakers, and thus the word would naturally be translated with a masculine ending (for reasons alluded to above).

I think there are several good arguments for taking Peter as the referent of “this rock” in Matthew 16:18 and that several of the really interesting ones often get overlooked because of arguments over the genders of these two “rocks.” In my opinion, the great forest of the passage’s narrative force is often missed for the trees of arguments like this. Perhaps I’ll be able to write more about that another time. For now I submit these thoughts because I think they give credence to the arguments made in defense of the Catholic interpetation of “rock” that draw on the relationship between the Greek manuscript tradition and the Aramaic language.