In the Mass readings today one of my favourite passages came up as the Gospel reading. Coming from the Gospel of John, it reads:
“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).”
~ John 1:35-42
In this passage we see that Christ named Simon ‘Cephas’ (pronounced with a hard ‘C’ – ‘Kephas’), an Aramaic word which means simply ‘Rock’. This is the first time in recorded semitic history that anyone was given the name ‘rock’ (apart from possibly two instances where the name ‘Cephas’ or something etymologically similar may have existed in Aramaic, though not in proper Hebrew). As everybody knows who reads the Bible attentively, when God changes somebody’s name, it represents an extremely significant event, as though God is pointing with neon signs to a particular person as though to say “hold on to your hats, this here is significant for salvation history.” This happened with Abram and Jacob whose names became Abraham and Israel respectively, and this ‘re-naming’ was intended clearly to be a reflection of salvific history (or the ‘human story’ as God reads it through the Christic mystery). Now, obviously Catholics believe that in the person of Simon, Christ established his Church in a peculiar way, making Simon ‘rock’ so that ‘Peter’ (which means rock in Greek) is being pointed out by God, set apart (literally consecrated) by him and renamed to indicate something significant in the course of salvific history. Catholics believe that this is where Christ gave us the gift of the Papacy; the gift which provides the Church the possibility and insurance of formal orthodoxy and visible unity, and the gift of a hierarchy which reflects the fullness of the Trinitarian mystery ecclesiologically (See, for example, St. Thomas in the Contra Errores Graecorum).
Obviously the doctrine of the Papacy is a divisive one, and is not accepted by non-Catholic Christians (at least typically). Often the arguments which surround the seminal text of Matthew 16:15-19 involve grammatical distinctions (I should add: illegitimate distinctions) between the masculine form of Petros and the Feminine form of Petra – often an old protestant apologetic line of reasoning goes that petros represents something like a ‘little pebble’ whereas Petra represents a ‘great boulder’ so that what Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel could be read like this: “You are Peter (a small pebble), and on this Petra (great boulder – i.e., the statement of faith Simon-Peter just made) I will build my Church.” The fact that this is an illegitimate way to translate Koine Greek notwithstanding, I think we need to get behind the Greek and go straight back to the word in Aramaic, since Jesus said this in Aramaic, and Matthew is only trying to record in Greek what Jesus said.
In Greek the noun for ‘rock’ is feminine, and thus the only way for the word-play in Aramaic to work in Greek is to make Simon’s name the same Greek word ‘Peter’, but conjugate it in the masculine instead of the feminine, since he was a man (thus, Petros rather than Petra). By and large protestant scholars have come to recognize that this exegetical move, of making a distinction in the Greek between Petros and Petra, and arguing that Petra refers not to Peter but to Peter’s confession of faith, is illegitimate given what we know about the Greek Language. Ionic Greek poetry later uses these two conjugations to make a kind of connoted distinction between them less than three times in all of history, but the Biblical Greek is Koine Greek, not Ionic Greek, and therefore to apply the connotation of a different Greek to Koine Greek where it obviously didn’t exist in Koine is illegitimate – it would be like implying that since in middle English the word ‘girl’ could often mean a young boy, that we in modern English could be interpreted as meaning that (this point is made by Marc Bonocore, a Catholic apologist and Theologian).
However, I think the appropriate Catholic exegetical approach to Matthew 16 is the same as Augustine’s. One has to first recognize that the Scriptures are multi-vocal (speak at the same time on different levels) and then realize that in this passage Christ isn’t calling either (meaning either-or) Peter or his confession of faith the ‘rock’, but rather calling both of them ‘rock’ in respective senses. Nevertheless, the literal and most immediate reading of the text is clearly that Jesus is changing Simons name to ‘Rock’, and this of itself is significant. Moreover, there is a way to bypass this whole debate about whether Peter was only being named Peter because of his confession of faith or not, by looking deeper into the Scriptures – the answer is right there in the Gospel of John. Clearly this episode at the beginning of the Gospel is intended to show the first time Christ ever met with Simon.
Moreover, what the Gospel of John does is shows us that Christ was not speaking in Greek when he named peter ‘Rock’, but was speaking in Aramaic. This explains why Paul often called Peter ‘Cephas’ even when writing in Greek (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:22, 9:5, 15:5; Galatians 1:8, 2:9, 2:11, 2:14). In Aramaic, there is NO conjugation-distinction between the masculine or feminine nouns here because in both cases the noun is in neuter form. Christ, if we translated him literally, said to Simon “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church”. The conjugation-distinction which exists in the Greek only exists because when Matthew translated from the Aramaic saying to the Greek saying, he had to work around the fact that the Greek noun was conjugated in the feminine. Moreover, take another look at the following verses in the Gospel of John –
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
moments later Nathanael says the very same thing of Christ that Peter does in Matthew 16 – that he is the Messiah the Son of God. What is Jesus’ response to Nathanael? He doesn’t say anything about a ‘rock’. However, when he meets Simon, before Simon even speaks a word to him, Jesus tells him right away about God’s plans for him – he says “you are simon, son of John, and you will be called Cephas”.
Finally, somebody might object that this passage in John shouldn’t be understood to reflect the actual literal first meeting of Christ and Simon, since the Gospel of John is notoriously rife with chronological problems which lead exegetes to conclude that the Johannine narrative is informed by theme more than by history. However, setting aside other chronological problems for the moment, I feel inclined to agree with Thomas Aquinas, along with the preponderant majority of the Church Fathers, with respect to this passage. See, for example, Aquinas’ “Cantena Aurea” which is just his compilation of the Church Father’s commentaries on the Gospels passage by passage. When it comes to this passage, it is clear that the Fathers understood (see, Cantena Aurea, verses 41-51, pages 69-74, particularly John Chrysostom and Augustine) this to be chronologically prior to Christ calling the Apostles later – and this encounter which bewildered these future apostles also helps explain why, when they saw him again and he said “follow me” they were willing to do so. They had already met him, and had been unable to get him off their minds – and when Christ presented himself before them again and invited them to follow him, they were compelled by something (a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about Christ) to follow him wherever he would lead them.
Therefore, Christ named Simon ‘Cephas’ meaning rock independently of his statement of faith.