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Bible Q

Since the Aramaic translation of the Greek New Testament has only one word for “rock” Kepha, how do we know that Jesus intended to contrast Petros and Petra in Matthew 16:18?

Since the Aramaic translation of the Greek New Testament has only one word for “rock” Kepha, how do we know that Jesus intended to contrast Petros and Petra in Matthew 16:18?

This question relates to the Greek wordplay in Matthew 16:18 “I also say to you that you are Peter (Greek masculine noun, Petros, loose rock), and upon this rock (feminine Petra, bedrock) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

So the questioner is correct. In the translation from Greek original into Syriac (Aramaic) the same word Kepha is used twice for both rocks in the Aramaic translation of the Greek :

Matthew 16:18 Peshitta Syriac read from right to left as Hebrew
ܐܦ ܐܢܐ ܐܡܪ ܐܢܐ ܠܟ ܕܐܢܬ ܗܘ ܟܐܦܐ ܘܥܠ ܗܕܐ ܟܐܦܐ ܐܒܢܝܗ ܠܥܕܬܝ ܘܬܪܥܐ ܕܫܝܘܠ ܠܐ ܢܚܣܢܘܢܗ

Matthew 16:18 Latin alphabet transcription of the Syriac consonants and vowel marks read left to right as English:
ʾp ʾnʾ ʾmr ʾnʾ lk dʾnt hw kʾpʾ wʿl hdʾ kʾpʾ ʾbnyh lʿdty wtrʿʾ dshywl lʾ nḥsnwnh



Various Possible Reconstructions

The problem here is that we can’t know, and don’t need to know, exactly the original conversation. There are any number of variables.

(1) Jesus could have said you are Kepha but on this kepha I will build my church with the disciples simply understanding from context that “this kepha” is another rock, his confession. This is the preferred answer as the simplest and most context driven.

(2) Jesus could have spoken in Greek – he certainly knew Greek as an artisan living near Sepphoris.

(3) Jesus could have thrown in the Hebrew word Tsur, common in the Old Testament expressions such as “the LORD is my rock” – or even mixed a partial Hebrew Bible verse into his statement.

(4) Jesus could have patted a nearby bedrock with his hand or motioned with eye or finger in the statement, we don’t know what visual signals were included. Or even as much as a raised eyebrow. In effect this is going back to suggestion (1) above, simply context.

Matthew writing Matthew’s words.

So the real issue is this, that Matthew is writing some years later to provide one of the two Jewish witnesses required by the Law of Moses to the life of Christ. His audience is Greek speaking Jews. Ultimately we are reading Matthew’s witness and Matthew’s words not Christ’s. If Matthew has chosen to depict this simultaneous praise and slight straightening for Peter in this form, then this is the form Matthew intended.

It also has to be read as part of the whole Jesus-Peter interaction in this chapter which comes to a conclusion with an overstep by Peter and a rebuke by Jesus in 16:22-23.

The issue of what Matthew intends comes up there too. Does Matthew intend the reader to think that Jesus is really calling Peter Satan? Or is the Satan internal, the temptation itching in our Lord’s own ear?

Finally, one further comment: Despite the Syriac having the same word for rock twice in the same verse, historically it did not lead all readers of the Syriac Peshitta to assume that Peter himself was the rock, any more than readers of other languages with only one word for rock. People are able even without knowing that the Greek has two words able to discern the change in the sentence and see the surrounding context.

The context goes outside Matthew too. Not least since the name Cephas does not retain a good ring from the incidents where the name Cephas is used instead of Petros elsewhere in the New Testament. His Aramaic name seems to be associated with the conservative Peter who did the wrong thing in Galatians, and later also the Judaizing faction in Corinth. For that reason alone we can see that Matthew 16:18 in any language is not establishing Peter as, for example, Pope.

Nor would he have wanted it to be so.

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