My recent bulletin letters have addressed questions Protestants commonly ask regarding prayer to saints. This topic led one parishioner to email me about another discussion she had regarding the importance of St. Peter.
We remember that Simon first identified Jesus as the Christ. Jesus, in response, said: “So I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Simon received a new name, Peter, which means “rock.” In so doing, he establishes him as a foundation for the Church.
In objecting to Jesus’ statement, some Protestants correctly point out that the Greek word for Peter, ‘petros,’ means ‘little rock’ or ’pebble.’ Later in the scripture Christ switches to a slightly different Greek word, ‘petra,’ which simply means rock. This leads some Protestants to incorrectly conclude that the final part of Jesus’ statement does not refer to Peter. Thus they suggest that the translation should read: “So I say to you, you are Petros (pebble), and upon this petra (rock) I will build my church…” Thus the scripture would be talking about two different rocks, one little (Peter) and one large.
This false interpretation is clearly problematic for many reasons. First, it does not make sense contextually. If it is interpreted this way, then the text becomes incoherent. We know who the ‘Petros’ is, but there is no explanation of who (or what) the ‘petra’ is. Protestants will suggest that it might be Jesus; the text, however, neither says nor alludes to this. Quite the contrary, Christ begins by addressing Peter and he ends by addressing Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” There is nothing to indicate that Jesus suddenly began speaking about himself.
Why then does scripture use ‘petros-little rock’ for Peter and then subsequently ‘petrarock?’ The explanation is simply a matter of grammar. In Greek, as in many languages, there is the need for gender agreement in words. For example, in Spanish, if we are speaking about a tall woman, we would use the word ‘alta’ – e.g. una mujer alta. If we were speaking about a tall man, we would use the adjective ‘alto’ – e.g. un hombre alto.
Though less common, this is also evident in English. For example, people might argue about whether or not Jim Caviezel is a good actor, but no one argues about whether or not he is a good actress. Actor and actress are two examples of the few words in English that are gender specific.
Just as in the examples above, so too in Greek. In Greek. ‘Petros’ is masculine, and therefore used for Peter. ‘Petras’ is feminine, and therefore not used. In both cases, though, Christ is clearly speaking of the same rock.
However, next week, we will see an even more direct response to this objection.
Praised be Jesus Christ in his Saints! Now and forever!