A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Matthew 16:18-19: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church". (Douay)

I note from The Pope Blog that the passage in Matthew 16:18-19 is rendered in Latin as Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. This is the passage upon which the Roman church relies for its doctrine of apostolic succession. The theological point at issue, of course, turns on the fact that the name "Peter" means "rock" -- so the claim is that Christ was going to build his church on Peter.

The Greek very clearly gives the lie to this claim so I am pleasantly surprised that the Latin preserves the distinction found in the Greek. According to my Chambers-Murray Latin dictionary, "Petrus" is unknown as a word in Latin but "Petra" ("petram" in the quote above as "petra" is there used in the accusative case) is a known word. And it means exactly what it means in Greek: "a rock, a crag". My Abbott-Smith Greek Lexicon gives the Greek meaning of the same word as "a rock, i.e. a mass of live rock as distinct from "petros", a detached stone or boulder". And "petros" is of course also the name translated from the Greek into English as "Peter". The full passage in Greek is: "ou ei petros kai epi tautee tee petra oikodomeeso mou teen ekkleesian"

So both the Greek and the Latin say that Christ was going to build his church on a rock-mass but only the Greek makes clear that Peter was no such thing. Peter ("petros") was more a pebble than a rock-mass. So it would appear that Christ -- with his usual love of parables -- was referring to himself as being the rock-mass upon which his movement would be founded rather than it being founded on a small stone ("petros") such as one of his disciples.

And I guess I should note in passing that "ekkleesian" does not really mean "church" or even "congregation". It means "called-out-ones" -- showing that Christ here, as always, was looking towards the Heavenly Kingdom rather than this world.

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