Thursday, January 3, 2013

"Cephas / Peter" - What's in a Name?

I was honored to pen today's LIFE Runners devotion.  I chose to reflect upon how John's Gospel relates Jesus’ first meeting with Peter, “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas,’ which is translated Peter” (Jn.1:32).

When I was in college I had a conversation with an evangelist visiting the Baptist Student Union.  (I attended a Bible study sponsored by the BSU.)  This evangelist shared with me how Catholics such as myself had misunderstood Jesus’ words to the Apostle Simon (Peter) in Matthew 16; Jesus was not, as Catholics believed, making Simon the head of His Church on earth (the first Pope).  

He assured me that if I were to study Jesus’ words in Greek, the language of the New Testament, I would be forced to abandon the Catholic position. He elaborated: After Simon had confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said, “you are Peter [Petros in Greek, meaning “pebble”], and on this rock [petra, Greek for “massive stone”] I will build my church” (Matthew 16:17-18; NIV). The gentleman explained that Simon-Peter was not designated by Jesus as “the Rock” on which the Church would be built; the truth was exactly the opposite! Simon the man was a Petros, an insignificant little pebble. His confession that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” on the other hand, was the Petra, or “Rock” upon which the Church would rise. He challenged me to study the Greek for myself.

I eventually did, and it turns out that he was greatly mistaken. [1] The reason that Matthew’s Gospel, in Greek, uses two different words (Petros and petra) is surprisingly simple. Anyone who studied French or Spanish in high school will undoubtedly remember that these languages have masculine and feminine nouns; you can tell which gender a given word is by checking the word ending. The same holds true in Greek. “Petra,” or “massive rock,” is a feminine noun and thus has a feminine ending. It would have been improper to give the name to Simon; when applied to him the ending had to be changed, and thus we see “Petros” instead of “petra.”  Now “Petros” just happened to be an already existing word, which in ancient Greek poetry was used to denote “pebble.” By the time of Jesus, however, “Petros” had lost this restrictive meaning and could be used interchangeably with “petra” to denote a “massive rock.”[2]

Thus far I have been discussing Jesus’ words as found in the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel. We have to remember, though, that Jesus would not have spoken those words in Greek. The everyday speech of a Palestinian Jew was Aramaic. (Hebrew was spoken but reserved for religious ceremony.) Jesus’ use of Aramaic is attested to in the gospels. We hear it in the Our Father – “Abba” is Aramaic, not Hebrew or Greek. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry from the cross in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (Matthew 27:46). So when Jesus made His statement to Simon He would not have used the Greek word “Petros,” but the Aramaic “Kepha;” and “Kepha” can only mean “massive stone.”
This is the word we saw Jesus use in the verse from today’s Gospel with which I started this post, “'you will be called Cephas,’ which is translated Peter” (Jn.1:32). Cephas is simply the Greek spelling of the Aramaic word Kepha.[3]  Paul always referred to Simon as “Cephas” (see 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:22, 9:5, and Galatians 2:9, 11, 14). 

Now all these linguistic gymnastics are only meant to bring out the true meaning of Jesus’ words to Simon. He promised a weak, rash man that he would be transformed by grace into the unique foundation of His Church. Some believers still have difficulty accepting this, objecting that Christ is the true Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4). And to this objection Simon-Peter, the current pope, and the Catholic Church would all answer “Amen!” Simon could become the rock on whom the Church is built only because Christ is the Rock on whom Simon-Peter stands. Simon being allowed to share in Christ’s “Rock-ness” is not without precedent: We human beings are allowed to share in God’s act of creating new lives; our participation does not mean that we supplant Him as the Creator. If I am a good teacher it is only because of the One Teacher (Matthew 23:10); if someone is wise it is because of the One Who is Wisdom. And if Simon became a Rock (Kepha/ Cephas/ Peter) for the Church, it is only because Christ made him so. To recognize someone as a parent, or wise, or a good teacher, is not a denial of God the Father or Christ’s fullness and neither is calling Peter the Rock. We are only echoing the Lord; He was the One Who renamed Simon! 

You can read my next post on the papacy, where I look at the passage of Peter's office to others, here.

[1]Scott Hahn presents the findings of Herman Ridderbos, R.T. France, W.F. Albright, Gerhard Maier, and Donald Carson in his audiocassette Holy Father: The Pope (St. Joseph’s Communications), the transcript of which is available at < ~vgg/rc/aplgtc/hahn/m4/pp.html>.

A more in-depth look at the scholarship on Jesus’ words to Simon, can be found in Butler, Scott; Norman Dalgren, & David Hess (Eds.), Jesus, Peter & the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Santa Barbara, California: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997) For example:

Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1968) is cited, “Petros himself is the petra, not just his faith or his confession…The idea of the Reformers that He is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable” (p.31);

Craig Blomberg, a Baptist scholar and Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary says, “Peter’s name (Petros) and the word ‘rock’ (petra) makes sense only if Peter is the rock and if Jesus is about to explain the significance of this identification” (p.32);

R.T. France, a renowned Anglican scholar, in his The Gospel According to Matthew (1985) wrote that, “The feminine word for rock, petra, is necessarily changed to the masculine petros (stone) to give a man’s name, but the word-play is unmistakable (and in Aramaic would be even more so, as the same form kepha would occur in both places)…it is to Peter, not to his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied. And it is of course a matter of historic fact that Peter was the acknowledged leader of the group of disciples, and of the developing church in its early years” (p.36).

[2] James Akin in Surprised By Truth. Patrick Madrid ed. Basilica Press, San Diego. p.68

[3] The technical term for this is transliteration.

No comments:

Post a Comment