I do a lot of desultory reading. I have a library of books, probably several thousand items, and I love dipping in, as and when, time allows and by reading finding out why I bought so many. Few do not repay their investment – in my own eyes.
I saw today a comment by an author concerning the great divide opened up by way of a small debatable interpretation of a gospel passage – the one where Jesus says in reply to one of Simon Peter’s remarks “Upon this rock I will build my Church”.
An almighty divide indeed – one which separates quite gapingly the Roman Catholic Denomination from the Anglican and Protestant ones; because Roman Catholics tend to agree in saying that The Rock here in Jesus’ words is Simon Peter himself – hence the emergence of the seat of St Peter in Rome whereon The Pope sits.
The Protestants almost to a person are agreed in saying that The Rock is Jesus himself and so is not to be though to be Simon Peter. A massive and foundational schism indeed.
Nearly 500 years of history in Europe has been based largely on this difference of interpretation; on this tiny bit of New Testament text.
The author of the book which I was dipping into said the following about this tiny bit of Koine Greek text. (He was a Protestant by the way).
The problem coalesces around two Greek words; these words being “petros” and “petra” (πέτρᾳ and Πέτρος). The first, ‘petra’ denotes a massy rock, such as would be suited to become a building stone; the second ‘petros’ denotes a pebble-like rock. It is also Peter’s name (Petros). Both ‘petra’ and ‘petros’ denote these terms in the ordinary usage of the times.
The Greek text when it uses “petros” and with an uppercase P is naming Simon Peter (aka “Cephas” – a word which I believe also means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, the common workaday language of many of the people in the region in those days). It is easy to see where the bones of contention rest here – did Jesus say or mean as a metaphor a large boudler or else did he mean in fact Simon Peter – he could not have meant both together for several good reasons.
Of course there is the reason of the received Biblical text, which I believe on best authority carries the word ‘petra’ i.e. a large boulder, and does not read ‘Petros’ or ‘petros’. (This may all sound a bit nerdy and specialised but the consequnces at stake are pretty enormous)
For my money the strongest reason is in the gospel stories themselves; because Simon Peter just does not measure up to the task of Christ Jesus placing so much upon him as for him to be made The Rock of The Church. Of all the 12 apostles (if you include Matthias and remit Judas) Simon Peter is at once the most devoted to Our Lord (or perhaps equal with St John in this?) but he is also, almost because of the same fiery love and devotion and that mercurial temperament he carries, the most volatile and the most vaccilating in resolve and courage and in lack of sheer staying power, whenever the going is geting hot.
Besides his thrice denial and Peter needing consequently Jesus’ post Resurrectional three times reinstatement of himself into The Great Commission Jesus has pledged to his team; there are the eipsodes of misplaced enthusiasm on the water and Peter walking with Jesus there; and again there is that ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’ moment of rebuke by Christ to Peter when Peter misconstrues utterly the trajectory of Jesus’s Incarnate mission.
Even after Pentecost and The Ascension Peter is a waverer and vaccilates before the old ways of the Christian Jews, whom St Paul sorts out and also sets Peter straight in his approach, as the story is given in The Book of Acts. Simon Peter is not the stuff of Rock; not even after the Lord has departed earth to His Father’s side, and the apostles have become the earthly leaders of the budding Church and are at their most galvanised and confident and active.
The psychological makeup of Simon Peter as the gospels give it to us is the best proof Jesus would not have laid such a weight upon him.
There is of course the theological argument which is also pretty convincing. Jesus several times recites, and refers his recitals self-evidently to his own self, instances in The Old Testament wherein is mentioned as a symbolic metaphor ‘the stone which the builders rejected having become the Cornerstone of the building’. Clearly this Cornerstone is Jesus and is not Simon Peter.
Jesus I believe never refers to this Cornerstone metaphor but excepting when he is talking of it as being a figure for his own self and his own mission on earth. No-one else but Jesus can be the Cornerstone of the Chuch (the ‘building’) – that too surely is self-evident. Peter cannot be the person upon which The Church as a universal edifice is to be built. Jesus is nominated almost ubiquitously by New Testament writers and by Early Christians as being The Head of The Church. St Paul tells us we are the body of the Church; its members and parts, all governed by Jesus who is the head.
Now a Cornerstone is not a Head, but these tow diverse metaphors are commonplace and separate metaphors which aim to depict Jesus’s place in regard to His worshippers; he is both Head in the Body metaphor and Cornerstone in the building metaphor; both depicting the Church and His and our places in it.
And so we have the lingusitic argument; the psychological argument about Simon Peter; and the theological argument; all of them pointing emphatically just one way only – towards Jesus being referring to himself when he says; “On this Rock I will build my Church”. The case is just about as tight as any that can be gotten.
The One Man able to stand and hold the weight and presure of a Church Universal on his shoulders is Jesus. His own character as this is portrayed in the Gospels is remarkably and emphatically up to the job; and no-one else’s is up to it; now or ever. Jesus is the person who was true and good even to the death; contented to suffer great pains and humiliations distress and griefs, selflessly for our sakes, who are not of the stuff able to do so for ourselves.
Just a little desultory read and a mental note made of the masive historical and theological import of a small textual quibble on the Koine Greek words ‘petra’ and ‘petros’. I love my books; they are gifts from Our Lord; and he gives us all good things, sometimes for our pleasure and joy and sometimes for our reproof and correction. Thank you Jesus for my books.