“You are Peter” in Jesus’ language of Aramaic

by Steve Ray on December 1, 2016

In Caesarea Philippi, the site where Jesus renamed Simon as “Peter” or Kepha (Matt 16:13-20), it is interesting to know what Jesus REALLY said. I thought you would find this interesting.

So, what did it sound like at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus renamed Simon and made him the rock of the Church: “And I tell you, you are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18)? Compare this with John 1:42. (Even though the auto link here says it means Peter, it should say “means rock”.)

You know of course, that Jesus did not speak English. If most of us heard Him speak those words today we would have no clue what He was saying. Jesus spoke Aramaic and that language is still alive in very small communities in the Middle East.

Aramaic sm.jpgWhat you see written to the right is Syriac Aramaic as written by my friend Efrem Nissan in Bethlehem. He is a Syrian Orthodox Christian. (Click on the text for a larger image.)

Now, not only can you see the script — which is close to what would have been written in the time of Jesus — but you can listen to it as well. I took this short video clip of Efrem reading the words you see written here. He read them on our pilgrimage. Listen for the word “kepha” twice. Kepha is the word “rock” in Aramaic.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike March 5, 2008 at 9:46 PM

Very cool. The theological commentary on The Passion DVD states that Kephas and Caiaphas both mean rock. The priest makes the point that the Scripture uses a play on words (or, in this case, a play on names) to point out the contrast between the Old Testament high priest, Caiaphas, and the New Covenant high priest (Peter). Obviously, Jesus is the High Priest, but it is clear in Scripture that he appointed Peter to lead His church. This contrast between Kephas and Caiaphas provides more support for the Catholic understanding of papacy. However, I have not been able to corroborate this from any of my online research. Does anyone have a resource to point me to verify this?

K March 10, 2008 at 2:29 AM

Thank you for this and your other articles on the “one holy Catholic and apostolic church” I have been struggling with my Catholic faith for a while now, feeling pulled in other directions. After reading your studies, I am learning new things and understanding better what it means to be Catholic.

Jim April 2, 2008 at 4:56 PM

An interesting point that Mike made. I would love to agree with his conclusion. ZIt may be that the Lord intended this to be a play on words involving Caiaphas. It certainly would not be the first time that he used this technique.

I guess it depends on when during Jesus’ ministry that the events of Matt 16 occurred. The high priest was a one-year term. This wouldn’t mean much if Caiaphas was not HP at the time.

Darla April 4, 2008 at 5:55 PM

Thank you so much — I feel so blessed to have heard that in the language Jesus said it in. Thanks be to God for you and your friend.

yunwiya April 8, 2008 at 8:02 PM

this is so cool. I loved viewing the script in Jesus language and hearing it. One time I heard the “our father” in the language Jesus spoke…now THAT was something…and so is this.

thank you steve..

Denis Egan August 23, 2009 at 1:50 PM

For what it is worth, my recollection of the Latin version of this sentence is ” Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam”. The name “Peter” is based on the word “rock” (petram). The sentence reads “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church”.

GPecoraro April 24, 2013 at 2:01 PM

It is also interesting, and essential, to note that cephas (or kephas) means “head.” Example: cephalosporin or electro-encephalogram. Thus Jesus made Peter the HEAD of the Church.

De Maria April 25, 2013 at 4:09 PM

GPecoraro April 24, 2013 at 2:01 PM
It is also interesting, and essential, to note that cephas (or kephas) means “head.” Example: cephalosporin or electro-encephalogram. Thus Jesus made Peter the HEAD of the Church.

THAT is very cool! I’ll be using that in my apologetical discussions frequently.

Sincerely,

De Maria

dmw April 26, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Your folk etymology is absolutely wrong. Peter’s Aramaic name, Kephas, is transliterated into Greek as ?????. The Greek word for ‘head’ is ??????. You are confused because in English transliterations of Greek we typically use ‘e’ to represent both the Greek letters eta and epsilon.

dmw April 26, 2013 at 1:39 PM

Well, it seems it didn’t render the Greek font…so… ‘Kephas’ is spelled kappa, eta, phi, alpha, sigma. The Greek for ‘head’ (Gk. kephale) is spelled kappa, epsilon, phi, alpha, lambda, eta.

De Maria April 26, 2013 at 4:04 PM

Hello dmw,

What do you think is the Greek etymology of the word, kephale (i.e. head)? Do you think it might possibly be related to kepha (stone)?

Does not the skull, the main part of the head, resemble a stone?

Here is what one expert thinks:
According to Jacob Michael the word Kepha “is etymologically connected to the Greek word kephale, which means “head” – as in Eph. 5:23, where Christ is the “head” (kephale) of the Church.” Similarly an encephalogram is a picture of the head/brain. And an autocephalous church is one that leads itself.
http://www.freewebs.com/orthodoxcatholic/supremacy.html

It seems rather obvious to the rest of us that kepha and keyhole are related. But perhaps you could shed more light upon what you see as our error?

Sincerely,

De Maria

De Maria April 26, 2013 at 4:06 PM

Lol! That should read:
It seems rather obvious to the rest of us that kepha and kephale are related. But perhaps you could shed more light upon what you see as our error?

B January 13, 2019 at 5:49 PM

Early church fathers all disagree and say that the rock is Jesus Himself or the God in whom peter places his faith (peter has shown great faith in being amongst the first to recognise Jesus as the Christ). Thus it's not about peter so much as it is about Jesus and who He is and His reason for coming to earth. Scripture collaborates this in various other places. 1 peter 2:6-8 calls Jesé the chief corner stone upon which the church is built. See also Matthew 7:24-29, psalm 81:31, Ephesians 2:20.

STEVE RAY HERE: This comment is allowed for educational purposes. It shows how utterly ignorant some people can be. To make a comment like this about the Fathers demonstrates that someone has never read them. Maybe a few quotations out of context but certainly not having ever read the Fathers in their context. I would suggest this gentleman read my book Upon This Rock.

John Fembup March 4, 2020 at 8:47 PM

I don't remember exactly when I first read this passage but I was much younger. Here's what I think for what it's worth.

It seemed to me then – and still does, now – that Jesus was comparing two things, as though to set them apart – not bringing two things together as though to equate them. Peter was over there. Jesus was over here. The play on words did not equate, but contrasted the human (Peter) with the divine (Jesus the Christ). The rock on which Jesus would build his church is not Peter, but is the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

In this passage Peter confessed the same fact. Jesus responded that human insight had not revealed this to [him], but my father who is in heaven. It's an important and inspired confession precisely because Christ Jesus is the rock on which the church stands. Is there a more central fact than that about our faith?

Besides, if Jesus meant to build his church on Peter, why would Jesus have suffered crucifixion? Yes, Peter was also crucified but much later. It still doesn't make logical sense to me to think that Jesus at Caesarea Philippi meant to equate Peter to the great rock of our faith. Instead it seems to me more logical that Jesus would build his church on the fact that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Just my opinion.

STEVE RAY HERE: John, I can tell you’re a good man with an honest heart and mind. Thanks for posting on my blog and sharing your thoughts. What you explain above is exactly what I used to think to when I was a Baptist. It is a classical protestant way of explaining away the early church understood Matthew 16.

Jesus told Peter he was going to be the rock the first time he met him in John 1–42.

I have done a lot of work on this and written two books about it but I don’t have time to reproduce it here. However, if you’re really interested in the Catholic position and how I explain this I have a talk on YouTube Entitled Peter: the rock. Let me know what you think about it.
https://youtu.be/0HY0PQ4Zuag

John Fembup March 4, 2020 at 8:53 PM

PS – I do not mean to argue that Jesus did not appoint Peter to lead his early church. I think that notion is clearly supported by other passages in scripture. I simply think it's not logical to suppose Jesus meant to build his church on a human personality rather than his own divine person.

STEVE RAY HERE: God DID build a church upon his only son, but there is a flawed rationality that it has to be either/or. Either Jesus or Peter. When you take the whole scripture in context the major foundation of course is Jesus but Jesus appoints Peter and appoints an office to be in charge of the church when he goes to heaven to prepare a place for us. Paul says Jesus is the foundation but we also know that the office of Peter is also a rock that the church is built on. It’s both-and not either-or.

Here is my talk on that topic which I hope will help understand explain the historical and Catholic position. https://youtu.be/0HY0PQ4Zuag

John Fembup March 5, 2020 at 6:15 PM

Steve, I watched your video and am very impressed. That is a terrific defense of the faith and I congratulate you. Next, I should state that I am Catholic. I was raised in a protestant church, like you, and converted to Catholicism as an adult, understanding what I was doing. I'm just talking here about something that does not make full sense to me.

Martin Luther argued against the selling of indulgences but he did not intend to split the church. I argue for the view that the rock on which the church is built is the awesome fact of Jesus' identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God. I do not mean to create dissension any more than (I think) Luther did. I'm seeking greater understanding.

In direct response to your talk in Australia, I suggest that the immense rock formation at the base of Mt Hermon actually supports the notion that in Matthew, Jesus was contrasting Peter with something greater than Peter – namely, a much larger rock, an unimaginably greater rock, that being the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

Suppose Peter did not exist. The identity of Christ would remain as the rock on which the church stands. But if we suppose Christ did not exist, there would be no basis for the church, nor salvation, nor even God – Christ and God being one. We would then have nothing. So it is still difficult for me to believe that God sent Jesus to us, to teach and suffer on the cross, in order to found a church based on Peter.

I accept that Peter was the leader of the early church. I accept the one holy and apostolic Catholic church with an unbroken line of leadership from Peter forward. But I do believe that the rock – the bedrock – of our faith is the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Thanks again for sharing the video.

Deus te amat – and so do I.

STEVE RAY HERE: I sent a lengthy response to your email address.

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