Is Peter the Rock?

(   Austin TX July 2001)

The discussion which takes place between Jesus and Peter at Matthew 16:13-19 encompasses one of the most controversial and history-defining passages in the entire Bible: It is the supposed foundation for the papal claim to apostolic succession down through the arduous and painful history of mankind in the Christian era.

The papal presumption here, of course, is that Peter was the intended "rock" upon which Christ's congregation would be built. This presumption is confidently inferred by 6-foot-high letters encircling the interior of the Vatican Basilica's massive central dome, declaring in Latin Christ's words to Peter at verse 18: "TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM ET PORTAE INFERI NON PRAEVALEBUNT ADVERSUM EAM." (English: You are Peter and upon this rockmass I will build my congregation and the gates of (Hades) will not overpower it.)

Swirling insistently around this statement and its context, this grand question of the Christian era persists for many: Was Christ conferring upon Peter papal authority over his (Christ's) congregation?

The following items of related interest may prove helpful to those attempting to resolve this ages-old historical controversy for themselves:

First, it would be clarifying to appreciate the importance of the physical context of the conversation between Jesus and Peter: Assumptions must be made, however, it is reasonable to assume that they were face-to-face and gesturing appropriately, such that, had we been there, (as the disciples were) intended meaning would have been obvious: Jesus was either pointing to himself or to Peter when he said: "and upon this rockmass..."

With this in mind, it is noteworthy that those present during this conversation did NOT subsequently regard Peter as the one whom Christ was pointing to: The disciples shortly thereafter, by clear inferential default, did NOT acknowledge Peter as the "rock" by simple virtue of the fact that their constant disputing among themselves regarding who was the greatest certainly reduced Peter to unequivocal peership. (e.g., Mark 9:33-35; Luke 22:24-26)

Paul, although not present during the conversation, certainly acquired sufficient subsequent familiarity with those who were present to assess the matter accurately: His assessment? Christ is the "rockmass." (1 Corinthians 10:4) (Interestingly, while Paul and Peter were both present in Syrian Antioch, Paul publicly upbraided Peter for a certain indiscretion. (Galatians 2:11-14) One doesn't do that to the pope!)

Most significantly Peter (lui meme!) c 30 years later, acknowledged Christ as the "rockmass." (1 Peter 2:4-8)

- Augustine, one of the Church's early heavy-weight interpreters of this matter, though at first ascribing the designation of "rockmass" to Peter, later recanted on this position. (see: Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, page 296, re Matthew 16:18, footnote; see also: The Fathers of the Church-Saint Augustine-The Retractions, Book I, page 90)

- It must be aknowledged that, had the supposed "pointee" been anybody else but Peter, (e.g., James, Philip, Bartholomew, etc.) the controversy would likely not have arisen, there being an incorrect supposition among many early translators and interpreters that Peter's name (Greek: petroV) and "rockmass" (Greek: petra) meant the same thing. (Aha! Mystic confirmation!) They do NOT mean the same thing. Nevertheless, early and imprecise translations of the Bible (e.g., King James and Douay-Rheims) did not make a distinction. Thus "mystic language" interpretation contributed further to the unfounded awarding of Peter with the papal miter.

- And finally, objectively separating oneself from the controversy certainly helps to clarify the issue at hand. For example, are not Christians (nominal and otherwise) "Christians"?! (as opposed to, e.g., "Cephans," or "Peterians," etc...?)