There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Peter was first in authority among the apostles. Although St. Peter never called himself “pope” in Scripture, he did indeed have a special apostolic primacy and jurisdiction. The Scriptural evidence for this is substantial and explicit.
Of the Twelve Apostles, St. Peter is by far the one mentioned most often in Scripture. He appears 195 times. The next most often mentioned Apostle was St. John, who is named 29 times. St. James the Greater is mentioned 19 times, St. Philip 15, and the numbers dwindle rapidly for the others.
Among other things, we see that when the Twelve Apostles are listed by name (Mt 10:2–5; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:14–17; and Acts 1:13), St. Peter’s name is always first- and Judas Iscariot is always listed dead last. Far more commonly, though, the New Testament refers to simply “Peter and the Twelve,” as if to say that the tempestuous fisherman signified in himself the unity of the whole apostolic college. Peter was the one who generally spoke for the apostles (Mt 18:21, Mark 8:29, Luke 12:41, John 6:68–69), and he figured in many of the most dramatic scenes (Mt 14:28–32, Mt 17:24–27, Mark 10:23–28). St. Peter is the lone Apostle Christ calls out of the boat to walk on water (Mt 1:28–29). Christ preaches the Gospel to the crowds from St. Peter’s fishing boat (Luke 5:3). It is Peter’s faith that will strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32) and Peter is given Christ’s flock to shepherd (John 21:17). It was to Simon Peter first among the Apostles that God first revealed the Resurrection (Mark 16:7), and the risen Christ appeared to him first (Luke 24:34).
If Christ did make Peter primate, he should be seen acting in that capacity in theInfant Church, after Christ’s Ascension. An examination of the Acts of the Apostles shows that Peter always appears in that position of primacy which our Lord assigned t o him. Peter heads the meeting that elects Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:13–26). On Pentecost it was he who first preaches to the crowds (). On Pentecost it was he who first preaches to the crowds ( 40), and receives the first converts (Acts 2:41). He works the first healing in the Church age (Acts 3:6–7). He inflicts the first punishment (Acts 5:1–11), and excommunicates the first heretic (Acts 8:18–23). He makes the first apostolic visitation of the Churches (Acts 9:32). It is to Peter that the revelation comes that Gentiles are to be baptized and accepted as Christians (Acts 10:46–48). He leads the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and announces the first dogmatic decision which still binds us today- comparedwith James” decision which was merely disciplinary (Acts 15:7–11). Despite having received Christ’s revelation directly, Paul went to Jerusalem to confer with St. Peter and have his teachings confirmed by him (Gal. 2:2).
UPON THIS ROCK
When he first saw Simon, “Jesus looked at him, and said: “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter)”” (John 1:42). The word Cephas is merely the transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha into Greek. Later, after Peter and the other disciples had been with Christ for some time, they went to Caesarea Philippi, where Peter made his profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). Jesus told him that this truth was specially revealed to him, and then He solemnly reiterated: “And I tell you, you are Peter” (Mt 16:18). To this was added the promise that the Church would be founded, in some way, on Peter (Mt 16:18). The startling thing was that- aside from the single time that Abraham is called a “rock” (Hebrew: Tsur; Aramaic: Kepha) in Isaiah 51:1–2 -in the Old Testament only God was called a rock. The word rock was not used as a proper name in the ancient world. If you wer e to turn toa companion and say, “From now on your name is Asparagus,” people would wonder: Why Asparagus? What is the meaning of it? What does it signify? Indeed, why call Simon the fisherman “Rock”? Christ was not given to meaningless gestures, and neit her were the Jews as a whole when it came to names. Giving a new name meant that the status of the person was changed, as when Abram’s name was changed to Abraham (Gen.17:5), Jacob’s to Israel (Gen. 32:28), Eliakim’s to Joakim (2 Kgs. 23:34), or the names of the four Hebrew youths- Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 1:6–7). But no Jew had ever been called “Rock.” The Jews would give other names taken from nature, such as Barak “lightning,” (Judg. 4:6), Deborah (“bee,” Gen. 35:8), and Rachel (“ewe,” Gen. 29:16), but never “Rock.” In the New Testament James and John were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “Sons of Thunder,” by Christ, but that was never regularly used in place of their original names, and it certainly was not given as a new name. But in the case of Simon-bar-Jonah, his new name Kephas (Greek: Petros) definitely replaced the old.
LOOK AT THE SCENE
Not only was there significance in Simon being given a new and unusual name, but the place where Jesus solemnly conferred it upon Peter was also important. It happened when “Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi” (Mt 16:13), a city that Philip the Tetrarch built and named in honor of Caesar Augustus, who had died in A.D. 14. The city lay near cascades in the Jordan River and near a gigantic wall of rock, a wall about 200 feet high and 500 feet long, which is part of the southern foothills of Mount Hermon. The city no longer exists, but its ruins are near the small Arab town of Banias; and at the base of the rock wall may be found what is left of one of the springs that fed the Jordan. It was here that Jesus pointed to Simon and said: “You are Peter” (Mt 16:18).
WHO IS THE ROCK?
Now take a closer look at the key verse: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). To whom, or to what, does it refer? Since Simon’s new name of Peter itself means rock, the sentence could be rewritten as:”You are Rock and (not but) upon this very rock I will build my Church.” The play on words seems obvious, but commentators wishing to avoid what follows from this- namely the establishment of the papacy- have suggested that the word rock could not refer to Peter but must refer to his profession of faith or to Christ.
From the grammatical point of view, the phrase “this rock” must relate back to the closest noun. Peter’s profession of faith (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”) is two verses earlier, while his name, a proper noun, is in the immediately preceding clause.
The fact that Christ is elsewhere, called the cornerstone and the foundation (Eph. 2:20, I Cor. 3:11, I Pet. 2:4–8) does not disprove that here Peter is the foundation. Christ is naturally the principal and, since he will be returning to heaven, the invisible foundation of the Church that he will establish; but Peter is named by Him as the secondary and, because he and his successors will remain on earth, the visible foundation.
Christ is the Rock (Eph. 2:20; I Pet. 2:4–8), and so is Peter by participation (Jn 1:42; Mt 16:18); Christ has the keys (Rev. 1:18; 3:7), and so has Peter by participation (Mt 16:19); Christ is the Shepherd (Ezech. 34; Jn 10), and so is Peter by participation (Jn 21:15–17).
LOOK AT THE ARAMAIC
Opponents of the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18 sometimes argue that in the Greek text the name of the apostle is Petros, while “rock” is rendered as petra. They claim that the former refers to a small stone, while the latter refers to a massive rock; so, if Peter was meant to be the massive rock, why isn’t his name Petra?
Note that Christ did not speak to the disciples in Greek. He spoke Aramaic, the common language of Palestine at that time. In that language the word for rock is kepha, which is what Jesus called him in everyday speech (note that in John 1:42 he was told, “You will be called Cephas”). What Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 was: “You are Kepha, and upon this kephaI will build my Church.” When Matthew’s Gospel was translated from the original Aramaic to Greek, there arose a problem which did not confront the evangelist when he first composed his account of Christ’s life. In Aramaic the word kepha has the same ending whether it refers to a rock or is used as a man’s name. In Greek, though, the word for rock, petra, is feminine in gender. The translator could use it for the second appearance of kepha in the sentence, but not for the first because it would be inappropriate to give a man a feminine name. So he put a masculine ending on it, and hence Peter became Petros.
Furthermore, the premise of the argument against Peter being the rock is simply false. In first century Greek the words petros and petra were synonyms. They had previously possessed the meanings of “small stone” and “large rock” in some early Greek poetry, but by the first century this distinction was gone, as Protestant Bible scholars admit (see D. A. Carson’s remarks on this passage in theExpositor’s Bible Commentary).
Some of the effect of Christ’s play on words was lost when his statement was translated from the Aramaic into Greek, but that was the best that could be done in Greek. In English, like Aramaic, there is no problem with endings; so an English rendition could read: “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Consider another point: If the rock really did refer to Christ (as some claim, based on I Cor. 10:4: “and the Rock was Christ “- and this presumes, of course, that I Corinthians was written after Matthew’s Gospel), why did Matthew leave the passage as it was? In the original Aramaic, and in the English which is a closer parallel to it than is the Greek, the passage is clear enough. Matthew must have realized that his readers would conclude the obvious from “Rock . . . rock.”
Beyond the grammatical evidence, the structure of the narrative does not allow for a downplaying of Peter’s role in the Church. Look at the way Matthew 16:15–19 is structured:
Simon Peter answered and said: “Thou art the Christ,
. . . the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said:
“ . . . Thou art Peter,
“and upon this Rock I will build my Church . . .”
After Peter gives a confession about the identity of Jesus, the Lord does the same in return for Peter. Jesus does not say: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are an insignificant pebble and on this rock I will build my Church. . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is giving Peter a three-fold blessing, including the gift of the keys to the kingdom, not undermining his authority. To say that Jesus is downplaying Peter flies in the face of the context.