“You’re a brick, Peter”

August 9th, 2020
by Chris

I keep seeing debates about Matthew 16:18-19 in various locations, always on the basis that someone who is Catholic is trying to say that these verses prove beyond doubt the primacy of the Catholic Church. To remind you, those verses say “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Many years ago, I found to my delight that Jesus was making a pun when he said this. I got there via the French “Tu es Pierre, et sur ce pierre je batirai mon eglise”, and wondered about the original. In the Greek original, the words of verse 18 are “kago de soi lego hoiti sy ei petros kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian”. Note “petros” and “petra” – these are both forms of the same word, and the different endings are purely because they are used as different parts of speech in Greek, whereas French and English don’t have case endings. I was more delighted to find that in Aramaic, which is no doubt the language Jesus was speaking in, both words are “cephas”, which was definitely a name by which Peter was known, so it was definitely a pun whether he was speaking Greek or Aramaic – or even Latin, because the pun works in Latin as well. I liked Jesus even more, knowing he was at least on one occasion a punster.

The thing is, Peter always seemed to me a most unlikely person to be given authority over all the other disciples (and that isn’t what the passage says in any event). He is portrayed in the gospels as being – well, slow on the uptake would be a polite way to put it. Granted, Paul describes him as one of the pillars of the early church, the others being James and John (and I note not only that there’s no indication that Peter was at the time even “primus inter pares”, but also that he was still being slow on the uptake with respect to food…

Casting around for some way of translating into English such that the pun was still there, however, I encountered something interesting. I considered “Rocky” initially. Jesus talks elsewhere of building a house on rock, a solid foundation, and that would be a natural link. However, he also talks of spreading seed on rocky ground, where it doesn’t germinate well – and that, to me, encapsulates much of the character of Peter as presented in the gospels. He’s very solid, but telling him things doesn’t always bear fruit. “You’re a rock” isn’t a commendation of your intellectual acuity, let’s face it.

I also considered a more common building material where I live, brick. Again, you can say that someone “is a brick” indicating that they’re solid and dependable – but you can also say that they’re “thick as a brick”, and that meaning might just creep into the first for those with keen ears.

I don’t know whether the same kind of dual meaning attached to such words in the koine Greek or Aramaic of the first century (and we have no native speakers to ask these days), but, to me, the passage says rather forcibly that Jesus is underlining that the dunce among his disciples is also foundational for them.

But what of verse 19? Catholics want to say that only Peter (and his successors) have the keys to the kingdom and the ability to bind or loose. But that’s not what the passage says; the fact that Peter has that power is by no means exclusive of the other disciples also having that power. One can, indeed, look back at Jesus’ words to his disciples earlier in his ministry and deduce that they all had that power and maybe had “had ears to hear” already, and it may be that Jesus was underlining the fact that yes, the most dense among them (rocky, brick-like) also had power.

Yes, even Peter. And even the Catholic Church. Not, however, to the exclusion of anyone else – after all, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the disciples in Acts 2.

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