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The Rock of the New Testament

by P. Milward, S.J.


This article, by Fr. Milward, is an in-depth study of the text of Matt. 16:17-19, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church."

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, February 1963

The text of Matt. 16:17-19 is central to the argument of the fundamental treatise De ecclesia, but it is no less central to the meaning of the New Testament as a whole. It is never explicitly alluded to elsewhere in the New Testament, nor is it included in the parallel passages of Mark and Luke; and yet the echoes of Christ's words to St. Peter resound everywhere. These echoes are especially audible in the metaphor of rock-foundation and building, which is developed by the three apostles, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John, in the light of their respective experience of Christ. These three apostles may be regarded as the three main columns supporting the weight of the New Testament; and so, by comparing their uses of this foundation-metaphor, we can gain some glimpse of the underlying unity of the apostolic writings. Thus we may see how the very structure of these writings is providentially patterned on the constitution of the Church, as founded on the Rock of Peter.

I. "Thou Art Peter"

Promise of the Name

In order to understand the relationship between St. Peter and Christ, we cannot do better than begin with the Gospel of St. John, who was more intimately associated with both than was any other of the apostles. This Gospel provides a clearer portrait of St. Peter than any of the Synoptic Gospels, even though, as it has been said, these Gospels belong to the "Petrine" division of the New Testament, while that of St. Mark, in particular, is the faithful record of St. Peter's teaching at Rome.1

From the beginning of his Gospel, St. John describes what was for himself and St. Peter their initial experience of Christ, deliberately it seems, under the form of a parallel. He himself first learns of Christ under the image of "the Lamb of God," and first hears from Him the words of invitation, "Come and see." St. Peter, on the other hand, is first introduced to Christ under the title of Messias, or Christ, and the first words he hears from Him contain the promise of his new name: "You shall be called Cephas," or Peter.

This cannot yet be termed St. Peter's central experience of Christ, since the words of Christ refer not to the present, but to the future. Yet it has importance as a beginning, the pale light of dawn preceding the glorious day of the Lord. He hears the first words of Christ, spoken personally to himself; and they enter into and transform all his subsequent experience, until he realizes their full significance in the light of Pentecost. These words are all the more important in that they express a name, a new name specially conferred on him by Christ, a name of power signifying and effecting a divine mission, which, however, is to be actualized not in the immediate present, but in the undetermined future.

One can hardly over-emphasize the importance of a name to the Jewish mind. It appears on almost every page of the Bible, and often in a somewhat disconcerting fashion to our Western minds.2 It is not, therefore, out of place to ask what significance this new name would have had for St. Peter, as a devout Jew. This was certainly no merely abstract significance, such as a philosopher might draw from a study of the various properties of rocks and stones. Rather, he must have considered it in the light of its symbolism in the Sacred Scriptures.

The roots of this symbolism reach back to the time when Moses, on two recorded occasions (in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20), struck the rock with his rod in the desert and brought forth living water to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Later generations of Jews loved to dwell on the deep mystical significance of this rock; and in it they came to see a symbol of Yahweh Himself, Whom they were accustomed to invoke as "Rock of Israel." Their meditations we can read for ourselves in the pages of the Psalms and of Isaias.3 The final development of this interpretation is to be found in the New Testament itself, in a famous passage of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians: "They drank from the spiritual rock which followed them—the rock was Christ" (I Cor. 10:4). This is also perhaps the thought behind Our Lord's own parable of the house built on a rock, which is the climax of His Sermon on the Mount.

When, therefore, St. Peter first heard his new name from the lips of Christ, he must have wondered with exceedingly great wonder. But as he entered more deeply into the meaning of this fundamental Jewish symbol, his wonder must have increased the more. Its significance does not end with the rock in the desert: that is only a beginning. Rather, it continues to follow the Israelites (as St. Paul himself indicates in the passage already quoted) through the desert and into the Land of Promise. Especially in the time of King David it reappears as the rock of Mount Sion, which is to serve as the foundation for a Temple to the Lord.

This contrast between the rock in the desert and the rock of the Temple appears strikingly in a symbolic vision of the prophet Zacharias, who is shown a rough, unhewn stone and hears that the Lord will Himself carve it into shape for His new Temple (Zach. 3:9). With this passage we may associate the earlier allusions in Ps. 117 and in the first part of Isaias (8:14 and 28:16) to the stone, which is rejected by the builders and becomes the principal cornerstone of the whole building. A similar idea occurs in the Book of Daniel, where the prophet sees a stone detached from a mountain and itself growing into a mighty mountain which covers the entire face of the earth (Dan. 2:34).

Finally, as the glorious climax of all this imagery, there is the culminating vision in the Book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet beholds the new Temple of Jerusalem, built upon Mount Sion, from the right side of which flows a river for the salvation of all creatures (Ez. 48:9). And in this vision we return to the beginning of this symbolism, to the rock, which Moses struck with his rod to bring forth a river of living water, as a figure of the future.

How much of all this symbolism (and the above account is by no means exhaustive) would have come to St. Peter's mind, when he first heard his new name from the mouth of Christ, no one can say. Perhaps St. Peter himself might have been at a loss for an answer, had we been able to question him immediately afterwards. To the Hebrew mind the meanings of names were not so much a matter of clear reasoning, as of confused association.

Rather, as he grew in understanding and daily experience of Christ, and above all after he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, St. Peter would have found all the elements of this complex symbolism emerging into the light of his consciousness. Nor is this emergence merely a matter of private conjecture: we can see it for ourselves in the pages of the New Testament, especially in the sermons and epistles of St. Peter.4 But before going so far ahead, it is necessary first to study the development of St. Peter's experience previous to Pentecost—that is, within the limits of the Four Gospels.

Bestowal of the Name

Returning to the Gospel of St. John, it is a notable characteristic of the Evangelist that he never relates an incident or saying in isolation from the whole; but every thought or phrase is interconnected by a variety of echo and resonance. In this way he indicates the connection between St. Peter's first introduction to Christ and his next appearance in the Gospel at the end of the sixth chapter after the crucial sermon on the Bread of Life.

On the previous occasion, St. Peter had been introduced to Christ through the words of his brother Andrew, "We have found the Messias"; and a little later he had heard Nathaniel's confession, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel." Now, in reply to the question of Christ, "Will you also go away?" St. Peter answers for all the apostles: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; for we have believed and have known that you are the Christ, the Holy One of God." These words of St. Peter are at once a recognition that the words of Christ are the waters of life flowing from the rock of Israel, and an assertion of what the apostles have always believed, that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God.

Here we find a certain difference of approach between the Gospel of St. John and that of St. Matthew. For it is St. John's explicit purpose, stated in the conclusion of his Gospel, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God"; and in view of this purpose he shows how from the very beginning the apostles grew in this belief. The first stage of this growth is indicated in the words of Nathaniel—though the apostles must only have had a confused idea of their meaning at the time; and it is confirmed for them by the miracle of Cana, when "the disciples believed in Him." Later on, it is this belief, further developed through their daily intimacy with Christ, which enables them to persevere in His following after the test of His "hard saying" at Capernaum. Here the words of St. Peter express not only his own faith, but also that of the other apostles, and refer not only to their present disposition, but also to what they have admitted all along.

For St. Matthew, on the other hand, this faith, likewise expressed in the words of St. Peter, though on a different occasion, appears as the climax of a long period of preparation. Simon is indeed called Peter from the beginning, when he receives his vocation from Christ by the Lake of Galilee; but he is significantly called Peter, not by Christ, but by the Evangelist. Later on, the word "rock" is first used by Christ in the concluding parable of the Sermon on the Mount, where its place in the context of the whole Gospel makes its ulterior reference quite clear. Thereafter, Christ begins to draw His disciples away from the multitude, warning them against the leaven of the Pharisees and insisting with increasing force on the importance of faith in Himself. This insistence on faith is particularly prominent, first, in His double miracle of multiplying the loaves and fishes, and then, with special application to St. Peter, in His walking on the waters.5

The climax of all this preparation has an appearance of inevitability, when Christ puts the question at Caesarea Philippi, "Whom do men say that I am?" He seems only to be waiting for St. Peter's reply, in order to make the solemn declaration which stands at the center of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church." Yet the reply of St. Peter does not seem so very different from the words he had previously spoken at Capernaum.

At Caesarea Philippi, however, the words of St. Peter contain a meaning, which does not appear in his former declaration at Capernaum. Then he was speaking in the name of the other apostles, and reasserting the faith, which they had possessed from the beginning. But now he utters a simple declaration, whose deeper meaning is revealed in the response of Christ: "It is not flesh and blood, it is my Father in heaven who has revealed this to you." As, therefore, the Father has revealed the name of Christ to St. Peter, so it is now the turn of the Son to reveal the further significance of the name of Peter—not merely as rock, but specifically as that rock on which He intends to build His Church.

Here, if anywhere, would seem to be St. Peter's central experience of Christ, where in return for his naming of Christ he receives his own name of Peter. In his first meeting with Christ, according to the account of St. John, he had only received his name in promise: "Thou shalt be called Peter." But now he is called Peter in the present: "Thou art Peter."

Nevertheless, in what immediately follows, our minds are directed away from the present to the future, when Christ continues: "And on this rock I shall build my Church." Nor is the reason for this future tense difficult to discover. We have only to read a little further in the same Chapter Sixteen, to see how St. Peter is as yet conspicuously lacking in supernatural strength. In objecting to Christ's Prophecy of His coming Passion, he draws upon himself the terrible rebuke: "Get behind me, Satan; you are a scandal to me, for you taste not the things of God, but the things of men." This is indeed a striking contrast with what has gone before—no less, in fact, than the contrast between firm rock and shifting sand.

Testing Of The Name

It is one of the many problems of New Testament criticism, why these words of Christ to St. Peter, if they are really so important, are recorded by only one Evangelist. Both St. Mark and St. Luke record the actual incident at Caesarea Philippi (though St. Luke does not mention the place); but neither include in their account the declaration of Christ in response to St. Peter's confession. This gap, in fact, has proved a rock of scandal to many generations of Protestants in the past.

One may perhaps explain the gap in St. Mark's Gospel by the fact, well attested in ancient tradition, of his having been the faithful interpreter of St. Peter at Rome; and for this reason he has omitted whatever might redound to his master's glory—reflecting instead the rock-like humility of St. Peter. But this explanation does not apply to the Gospel of St. Luke, whose whole character leads him, as we see time and again in both the Gospel and the Acts, to minimize the human defects and to emphasize the good qualities of the apostles.6

But once we turn our attention from this particular incident to the Gospel of St. Luke as a whole, the reason should be evident. Here we cannot help noticing the emphasis he places, in contradistinction to the other Evangelists, on the ideas of prayer, sacrifice and salvation. This is why from earliest times he has been accorded the symbol of the sacrificial ox from among the four animals of Ezekiel's vision.7 Because of this emphasis, St. Luke adopts a different presentation of St. Peter from that of St. Matthew. Whereas the other Evangelist sees in St. Peter the foundation-stone of the Church, St. Luke prefers to regard him in closer relation with the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

In this Gospel, and in no other, we find certain words of Christ to St. Peter, similar in meaning to those which St. Matthew records at Caesarea Philippi, but spoken on a later occasion, at the Last Supper: "I have prayed for you that your faith fail not; and you, being once converted, confirm your brethren." There are here two points of particular interest. The first is that these words of Christ, as in St. Luke's previous account of the incident at Caesarea Philippi, begin with the mention of prayer. The other is that they reveal a more personal emphasis than the words recorded by St. Matthew.

In this text St. Luke speaks, not of "founding the Church"— a metaphor whose full significance would have been lost on the minds of his Gentile readers; but of "confirming the brethren"__ a phrase which expresses the personal approach of the Greek mind in general and of St. Luke's mind in particular. Moreover, the Evangelist does not use the traditional Jewish symbol of a rock, but speaks in a more open and direct manner.

Another resemblance between this text of St. Luke and that of St. Matthew is that here also we have a striking contrast between the divine commission and the human weakness of St. Peter. In this case, the words of Christ are followed immediately by His prophecy of the triple denial: "I say to you. Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, till you thrice deny that you know me." As then in St. Matthew's Gospel, so too in that of St. Luke, our minds are directed from the words of Christ in the present towards their future fulfillment.

St. Matthew does not indeed indicate very clearly what this future event is to be, unless he means to refer us to the final words of his Gospel: "Go and teach all nations . . . And I shall be with you all days." But St. Luke restricts our attention, in a more concrete and human way, to his account of St. Peter's denial during the Passion of Christ. And, in fact, his account is the most moving of all the Gospels, including even that of St. John; for it culminates in an important detail which he alone records: "The Lord turning looked on Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, as he had said: Before the cock crows you shall deny me thrice. And Peter, going out, wept bitterly."

Here, in St. Peter's sight of the suffering Christ and in his consequent tears of repentance) St. Luke lays bare, as it were, the rock of his deep faith in Christ—by means of a significant triple repetition of the name of Peter. And from the point of view of this Gospel, this experience is hardly less central to the life and teaching of St. Peter than was the earlier one recorded by St. Matthew.

Confirmation Of The Name

In order to enter more fully into the mind of St. Peter during the events of the Passion and Resurrection, we must now return to the Gospel of St. John, whose narrative is, on the whole, fuller and more vivid than those of the other Evangelists. Especially in his account of the Last Supper, St. Peter figures very prominently. But, strangely enough, when he comes to describe the triple denial, St. John makes no mention of the tears of repentance. The reason is that, whereas the other Evangelists place the central experience of St. Peter either before or during the Passion, the gaze of St. John looks beyond to the Resurrection. Hence all that concerns St. Peter in his account of the Passion he has written mainly with a view towards the final outcome.

Already in the words of Christ to St. Peter at the Last Supper we can detect a certain movement of thought on two occasions which directs our attention forward, as though in an appeal for confidence. First, when He comes to wash St. Peter's feet, Christ says: "What I do you know not now, but you shall know hereafter." Later on, at the beginning of His final discourse, to St. Peter's question, "Whither are you going?" He replies: "Whither I go you cannot follow me now, but you shall follow me hereafter." It is, moreover, in close connection with this latter statement that Christ makes His prophecy of the triple denial—as though to forearm St. Peter against the despair of Judas.

In his actual description of the triple denial, St. John seems remarkably matter-of-fact and, unlike the other Evangelists, he makes no mention of St. Peter's repentance. One might say that he assumes this knowledge in his readers from the other Gospels; but in that case there was no need for him to have mentioned the denial at all, since this is sufficiently described in the other Gospels as well. But he has an ulterior purpose for including the denial; and this is not merely to add certain particular details from his personal knowledge, but rather to prepare for an event, which he has already clearly foreshadowed in his account of the Last Supper.

This is the event described at length in Chapter Twenty-one which is both an appendix and the clue to the whole Gospel—in much the same way as St. Ignatius' Contemplation for Obtaining Love is placed outside the four weeks of the Exercises, as their culmination and logical conclusion. Here St. Peter retracts his triple denial of fear by means of a triple confession of love, and so is reinstated in his position as prince of the apostles and shepherd of the faithful under Christ.8

Coming as it does so soon after the events of the Passion, and illuminated by the new light of the Resurrection, this added experience must have made an exceedingly deep impression on St. Peter's mind; and it is, no doubt, the intention of the Evangelist to impress the minds of his readers in the same manner. For the incident reveals, not only the personal repentance of St. Peter (as portrayed by St. Luke in his account of the denial), but also the mercy and fidelity of Christ. This strongly reminds us of St. John's words at the beginning of his Gospel: "And we have seen His glory, as of the Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth," that is, of mercy and fidelity.

This different presentation of St. Peter in the Fourth Gospel is connected by St. John with a different metaphor: not now that of a rock on which the Church is built, but that of a shepherd who looks after his sheep. It is a metaphor whose roots are no less deeply fixed in the Old Testament, and which seems particularly favored by St. John himself, who first looked on Christ as "the Lamb of God." We have not, then, very far to seek in his Gospel for other passages, which throw light on this one.

Two other passages are especially worthy of attention. First and foremost is the parable of the Good Shepherd, which is one of the two parables recorded by St. John alone, and which occupies almost the whole of Chapter Ten. In it Christ identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. Later on, in His final discourse, Christ alludes indirectly to this theme when He tells His disciples: "The hour is coming when each of you will be scattered to his own, and will leave me alone." For these words are an implicit quotation from the Prophecy of Zacharias, which is given explicitly by the other Evangelists: "Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" (Zach. 13:7).

Thus, up to the time of the Passion all the disciples, including St. Peter, are represented as the sheep of Christ. But now, after His Resurrection, He invests St. Peter with the title of shepherd, as it were identifying Himself with His disciple. Nor is this bestowal of honor succeeded, as on former occasions, by any sharp rebuke, but on the contrary, by the prophecy of a passion similar to that of the Master Himself.

In order to realize the deep significance, which St. John attaches to this prophecy, we must notice its connection with three other passages of his Gospel. The words of Christ to St. Peter recall His previous description of Himself as the Good Shepherd, who "lays down His life for His sheep"; and these words are re-echoed in the tenser atmosphere of the final discourse: "Greater love than this no man has, than that he lay down his life for his friends." Moreover, St. John's own comment which follows the prophecy is exactly paralleled by a similar comment which occurs just before the Passion, when Christ speaks to the crowd of His coming exaltation: "Now He said this, by what death He was to die."

On this occasion, therefore, in making St. Peter the shepherd of His sheep in response to the triple confession of love, and in going on to prophesy the future death of the shepherd for his sheep, Christ is in a real sense identifying Himself with St. Peter and indicating unmistakably His vicar on earth.9

Manifestation Of The Name

Nevertheless, St. John's presentation of St. Peter does not end at this point. In a sense, there is something strangely inconsequential and unsatisfactory about the whole Gospel, leaving us as it does in suspense concerning the future fate of both apostles. It is unfinished, and St. John frankly admits the fact in the concluding words of his last chapter.

Nor is it otherwise in the other Gospels. Matthew, indeed, concludes with the final promise of Christ to the disciples, "I will be with you all days even to the consummation of the world"; but the apparent finality of these words fades away when we reflect that he has told us nothing further of St. Peter after his tears of repentance at the Passion. St. Mark is not much more satisfying; though he at least records a solitary mention of St. Peter made by one of the angels after the Resurrection. It is only St. Luke who records the special appearance of Christ to St. Peter on the morning of the Resurrection, presumably as a pendant to his account of St. Peter's repentance; but this is no more than a passing reference coming at the end of his long description of Christ's appearance to the disciples on the way to Emmaus.

The reason for this inconsequential character of the Gospels is not difficult to find. It lies in their very scope, which is confined to an account of the earthly life of Christ. Inevitably, they have to point beyond themselves for a fully unified vision of Christ Himself. And nowhere does this forward tendency appear more clearly than in the Gospel.10

We have seen how, in order to emphasize the position of St. Peter as shepherd of Christ's flock, St. John looks beyond the Passion to the Resurrection. But now we find that his gaze extends even beyond the Resurrection itself, considered in its earthly manifestation. This forward gaze is particularly noticeable in the final discourse, when Christ refers repeatedly to His coming "departure," but leaves His words applicable to both the Passion and the Ascension. For both events are joined in the single idea of "exaltation," and both lead to the mission of the Holy Spirit— in the one case, at the moment of Christ's death on the Cross, and in the other, on the occasion of Pentecost.

It is in this context that we meet an expression whose purport is very similar to that which we noticed in the words of Christ to St. Peter at the Last Supper. Only now it is addressed to all the apostles, as it were by an extension of the privilege which had originally been granted to St. Peter alone:11 "I have still many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will teach you all truth." In the same way, if we wish to understand the life of Christ, and especially through the mirror of St. Peter's experience of Christ, we must proceed beyond the limited accounts of the Four Gospels and consider the effects of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

"And when the Paraclete comes, Whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth Who proceeds from the Father, He shall give testimony of me; and you shall give testimony, because you have been with me from the beginning."

II. "On This Rock I Will Build My Church"

The Rock Revealed By The Holy Spirit

In proceeding from the Gospels to the account of Pentecost in Acts 2, we go not so much beyond them in time, as deeper into their eternal meaning. In a sense, we may be said to pass from the darkness of the letter to the light of the Spirit—in the sense of St. Paul's words to the Corinthians: "Henceforth we know no man according to the flesh; and if we have known Christ according to the flesh, now we know Him so no longer. If then there be in Christ a new creature, the old things have passed away, and all things are made new" (II Cor. 5:16). So, too, Christ Himself told His disciples in His final discourse at the Last Supper: "These things have I spoken to you, abiding with you; but the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatever I have told you" (John 14:25-26).

We are not, however, left to our blind conjectures concerning the nature of this light, least of all as it shone for St. Peter over his mind and past experience. One might even say that the whole of the first part of the Acts is a detailed record of the manifestations of this light through the words and actions of St. Peter. These words must, therefore, form the first object of our present investigation, not indeed exhaustively—that would be impossible within the narrow compass of an article—but in so far as they serve to illuminate the meaning of St. Peter's name.

In the second chapter of Acts, we notice scarcely any interval between the coming of the Holy Spirit on the assembled apostles and His first utterance through the mouth of St. Peter to the crowd of Jews outside. Here at last we recognize the full meaning of the name of Peter, not only as a word affecting the ear, but as a reality profoundly influencing the life of man. He appears now no longer in his former timidity, afraid to confess Christ before the Jews, nor yet as one whose imprudent zeal sends him headlong into temptation; but as one whose mind and heart are founded in faith and love upon the rock of Christ. From now on his actions are inspired with the Spirit of Christ, and his words are the words of Christ, which return now to his memory with a clarity of understanding he had never previously experienced. We no longer see him striving for pre-eminence among the other apostles: he has no need to do so, for he speaks now with the authority of Christ Himself, so that even his adversaries are amazed (Acts 4:13).12 Above all, his speech is entirely centered on Christ: he gives constant witness to Him, not merely as one remembered from the recent past, but as one whose abiding presence has been revealed by the light of the Holy Spirit:

This Jesus God has raised up, of whom we are all witnesses. Exalted, therefore, to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and has poured Him forth whom you both see and hear (Acts 2:34).

Here we recognize more closely than ever St. Peter's fundamental experience of Christ, in virtue of which he can be called, in the full sense of the title, the rock upon which the Church is built. It is a title, which belongs to St. Peter par excellence, yet which he also shares in descending measure with the other apostles, of whom he is the acknowledged representative before Christ; for upon them also is the Church founded, according to the combined testimony of St. Paul (Eph. 2:20) and St. John (Apoc. 21:14). The name belongs to St. Peter, and through him to the apostles, by reason of that inseparable union with Christ, the true rock of Israel, which was confirmed in him and in them by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Nor is this experience, which St. Peter shares with St. John and the other apostles, essentially different from that which St. Paul was later to receive on his way to Damascus—the experience of Christ exalted in glory and seated at the right hand of His Father. Only in accidentals is there a difference, both as to the actual experience and as to the consequent witness of these apostles, on account of the variety of their individual backgrounds.

The Rock In St. Peter's Sermons

We have now to trace the development of this central experience in the teachings of St. Peter, which show many hidden connections with the teachings of St. Paul and St. John; and so, through their rich variety, we may arrive at a deeper understanding both of the experience itself and of the perfect harmony of the New Testament.

If we turn to the sermons of St. Peter as recorded in Acts, we notice two facts deserving of special attention. One is St. Peter's constant emphasis on the glory of Christ, who is seated at the right hand of His Father and who has received from His Father a name above all earthly names, the name of salvation for all men.13 This is the vision which, as we have suggested, principally constitutes St. Peter as the rock on which Christ has chosen to build His Church. The second fact concerns the elaboration of this vision, not, as we might expect, in terms of the earthly life of Christ, but by recourse to the Old Testament, showing how Christ is the fulfillment of all the prophecies.

In his choice of prophecies, it is interesting to see how St. Peter turns instinctively to the Psalms—a preference we may easily understand, considering that St. Peter, unlike St. Paul, was not deeply learned in the Scriptures, but was familiar with that part chiefly employed in the liturgical prayer of the synagogue.14 Moreover, among the Psalms it is noteworthy that St. Peter prefers those texts which he had heard from the lips of Christ Himself, and which had therefore come to assume a deeper meaning for him.

That this is no mere conjecture, we may gather by comparing the sermons of St. Peter in Acts with the Gospel of St. Mark, which records his later discourses at Rome. It is a characteristic of this Gospel, as contrasted with that of St. Matthew, that Scriptural quotations are extremely scarce, whether owing to the defective memory of the preacher or in consideration of the minds of his hearers. There is, however, a striking exception to this rule in the twelfth chapter, which deals with Christ's disputes with the Pharisees in the Temple shortly before His Passion. Here occur no less than two quotations from the Psalms and three from the Pentateuch; and they are given not as accidental, but as substantial to the narrative of the chapter.15 Now if we turn from the Gospel to the sermons of St. Peter, we find both quotations from the Psalms reappearing, as well as one of those from the Pentateuch.

It would take too long to examine in detail St. Peter's use of each of these quotations, interesting though the examination would be. For our present purpose it is sufficient to consider his use of one of them, which is of special importance. This occurs in the course of his sermon before the Sanhedrin, at the climax of which he proclaims the glory of Christ and establishes the connection between Christ and the rock of Israel: "Here is the stone which has been rejected by you the builders, and has now become the head of the corner" (Acts 4:11). The quotation is taken from Ps. 117, the Hallel or Psalm of thanksgiving, which Our Lord had used in the Temple as the conclusion of His impressive parable of the unjust dressers of the vineyard. In St. Mark's Gospel, the parable itself closes with the words: "What then will the Lord of the vineyard do? He will come and punish those dressers, and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9). And in the parallel passage of St. Matthew's Gospel Christ adds: "The kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation that bears fruit. He who falls upon that stone shall be broken, and he upon whom it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder" (Matt. 21:43)— where there is a further allusion to the prophecy of Daniel 2:34.

Thus, in St. Peter's use of this quotation from Ps. 117, we see, already, as it were in germ, the subsequent extension of the Gospel from the Jews to the Gentiles, in fulfillment of Christ's parting injunction at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Going, therefore, teach all nations . . . and behold, I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20).

The Rock In St. Paul's Epistles

For the further development of this idea, therefore, it is not inappropriate to leave St. Peter for a time and turn to St. Paul, as the Apostle of the Gentiles. For the movement initiated by St. Peter, when he baptized Cornelius at Caesarea, was carried through on a much larger scale by the missionary activity of St. Paul; and in passing from the one to the other we are not surprised to find a fundamental continuity of thought, in spite of their differences of character.16

St. Paul, indeed, insists in his Epistles (Gal. 1:11; II Cor. 12:11) that he owes his Gospel to no man, not even to the great apostles, but solely to the divine revelation which he received from heaven. Yet even where he emphasizes this fact most strongly, in his Epistle to the Galatians, he also mentions that three years after his conversion he spent fifteen days in Jerusalem conferring with St. Peter, and saw no other apostle that time except St. James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:18-19).

What St. Paul discussed with St. Peter on this occasion, we cannot know with certainty, but it is a safe conjecture that he learnt fuller details concerning the life and teaching of Christ. Better than any conjecture, however, we can see the effects of these discussions not long afterwards in St. Paul's first sermons at Antioch in Pisidia, where his ideas are strikingly similar to those in St. Peter's sermons. Only in the concluding words of this sermon is there a glimpse of what is to become a fundamental theme of Pauline theology. "Through Him forgiveness of sins is preached to you, and from all the things from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses: in Him every one who believes is justified" (Acts 13:38).

This idea is also at the basis of St. Paul's resistance to St. Peter's conduct at Antioch (Gal. 2:16); with the result that when St. Peter stands up to express his opinion at the subsequent17 Council of Jerusalem, his words seem an echo of St. Paul (Acts 15:10-11) —as it were, in exchange for the teaching he had previously communicated to the latter during their fortnight's conversation together.

Neither in his first sermon, however, nor later in any of his Epistles, does St. Paul make use of St. Peter's quotation from Ps. 117; though other Psalms used by St. Peter, notably Ps. 15 in proof of the Resurrection, are later adopted by St. Paul both in the Acts and in his Epistles. It almost seems as if he regarded Ps. 117 as somehow the private property of St. Peter and so treated it according to the principle he enunciates in Rom. 15:20: "…lest I should build upon another man's foundation."

All the same, the image of the rock-foundation of the Church is by no means absent from the writings of St. Paul; and his development of this image shows a marked continuity with relation to its previous exposition by St. Peter. Already, in his account of his presence at the Council of Jerusalem in Gal. 2, St. Paul speaks of "James and Peter and John, who seemed to be pillars," where he apparently extends the character of St. Peter as foundation to others of the apostles. Later on, in I Cor. 3:11, he seems to limit the image of foundation to Christ alone: "For other foundation can no man lay, but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus." But in Eph. 2:20 he again extends the image to all the apostles alike, when he speaks of the Christians "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone." The problem, therefore, arises: how are we to explain such a varying use of the image of foundation, which he refers now to Christ alone, now to some of the apostles, now to them all together, but never apparently to St. Peter alone?

In answering this problem, it is useful to consider St. Paul's use of two other Scriptural texts referring to the corner-stone, which he significantly takes not from Ps. 117, but from two places in Isaias, Is. 8:14 and 28:16. The first of these texts appears in his Epistle to the Romans, where the context is about the mystery of Israel. The Jews, he says, rejected Christ because He was a stumbling-block to their exclusive national aspirations; and so "they stumbled over the stone of offense. As it is written: Behold I lay in Sion a stumbling-stone and a rock of scandal, and whoever believes in Him shall not be confounded" (Rom. 9:32). St. Paul is here quoting very freely, as if from memory, so that the first passage of Isaias becomes strangely mixed up with the second; but from the second he omits the important word "cornerstone," as though reserving its use for a more appropriate occasion.

This occasion comes when he arrives in Rome, and from there writes his Epistle to the Ephesians, in which he speaks not now of the Jews who have rejected Christ, but of the Christians who have accepted Him. Christ appears, therefore, no longer as the stone of offense, but as the chief cornerstone of the building whose foundation consists of the apostles and prophets; and it is in Him that "all the building, being framed together, grows up into a holy Temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:21). Christ, then, remains unique as the chief cornerstone of the building; but with Him all the apostles are associated as the stones of foundation, in that their faith in Him serves as a sure basis for the faith of all other Christians, whose knowledge of Christ derives from the witness of His Disciples.

It still seems strange, however, that St. Paul makes no explicit mention of St. Peter in connection with this obvious image of the rock-foundation. He may well have considered the connection sufficiently obvious for the Ephesians, without introducing a digression into the general thought of his Epistle. But for us who raise this question it should be sufficient answer to compare these two Epistles of St. Paul with the First Epistle of St. Peter.

The Rock In St. Peter's First Epistle

The First Epistle of St. Peter, addressed to the Christians of "Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia," is interesting for its unmistakable dependence on the two Epistles of St. Paul considered above.18 This dependence is most clear in the case of Romans, which shows almost fifty significant parallels of thought and expression, and hardly less so in the case of Ephesians, which shows about half that number.

In this Epistle St. Peter proceeds from the thought of the grace of baptism in Jesus Christ to the Pauline idea, which we have just noticed in Eph. 2, of growth in Christ unto salvation. Then, once he has established the connection of growth with the image of a building, in continuation of St. Paul's idea, what does he do but revert, as though by instinct, to his favorite quotation from Ps. 117; and he makes use of it not once, but twice, in the same passage— which deserves quoting in full:

Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen and made honorable by God, be you also as living stones, built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore is it said in Scripture: Behold I lay in Sion a chief cornerstone, elect and precious; and whoever believes in Him shall not be confounded. To you then who believe is honour; but to those who believe not, the stone which the builders rejected, the same is made the head of the corner, a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal, to those who stumble at the word and do not believe Him in whom they are placed (I Pet. 2:4-8).

In this important passage there are several points of interest. In the first place, to expand the idea of Christ as the stone rejected by the builders in Ps. 117, St. Peter makes use of both the quotations from Isaias, which St. Paul had used in his two Epistles, but without mixing them up as St. Paul had done in his Epistle to the Romans. He clearly distinguishes between Is. 28 as applying to the Christians—which St. Paul by misquoting had applied to the Jews—and Is. 8 as referring to the Jews. Further, he affirms in unmistakable terms (as St. Paul had also done in I Cor. 3:11) that it is Christ who is the true foundation-stone of the Church, the living stone upon whom the faithful are laid, to become in turn living stones through their faith in Him. Finally, there is a significant development in St. Peter's interpretation of this Psalm; for in his previous sermon he had made reference only to Christ, whereas now, some thirty years later, he presents Christ more fully in His relation to the Church, as the chief cornerstone of the whole building.

We may now compare this Epistle more exactly with the two Epistles of St. Paul, so as to appreciate how much of its development is due to the rich thought of the Apostle of the Gentiles, to whose wisdom St. Peter himself pays tribute in his Second Epistle (3:15).

The actual idea of the Church as a building is not indeed original to St. Paul, who may well have received it from St. Peter, even as St. Peter had received it in person from the mouth of Christ. His own preferred image for the Church is rather the more dynamic image of a body, the Body of Christ; and this image he develops along with that of a building in his two Epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians." On the other hand, it is significant that St. Peter, while he borrows widely from both these Epistles, refrains entirely from employing this favorite image of St. Paul, preferring to keep to his own chosen image of the rock and the building. This expands far more fully than St. Paul does, and in such a way that his second chapter may be regarded as one of the pinnacles of the New Testament.

In comparing the thought of St. Peter with that of St. Paul, two main points leap to our attention. The first consists, as we have just seen, in the different image by which each apostle chooses to present the supernatural reality of the Church. St. Paul, being the Apostle of the Gentiles, is led to adopt the more universal image of the human body—remembering, no doubt, his initial experience of Christ, whom he saw glorious as the Head in heaven, yet still suffering in His members on earth. St. Peter, on the other hand, as Apostle of the Circumcision, and also in memory of Christ's words to him at Caesarea Philippi, prefers the characteristically Jewish image of a building with its foundation—and not merely any building, but a spiritual temple for the offering of spiritual sacrifices perfectly acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

The second difference is even more striking, since it is one not only of degree (for St. Paul also uses the image of a building), but also of kind. On the one hand, St. Paul speaks of himself not only as the Apostle, but also as the Doctor of the Gentiles (I Tim. 2:7, II Tim. 1:11). He even boasts in I Cor. 1:14 that he himself does not ordinarily baptize, but attends to the ministry of teaching, whether before or after baptism. His special talent, it would seem, is not so much pastoral as doctrinal.20 St. Peter, however, devotes his main attention in his Epistle to the regeneration effected by baptism, almost as if it were a post-baptismal instruction.21 He also concludes on a note which is hardly to be heard in the Epistles of St. Paul) when he reveals himself as a shepherd feeding his sheep and exhorting the elders of the Church to do likewise; and he presents Christ, not now as a living stone for the foundation of a spiritual temple, but as the prince of shepherds.

If, moreover, we extend these comparisons to the Epistles to the Hebrews, it is interesting to notice that in both these points of difference the thought of St. Peter is closer to this Epistle than that of St. Paul. In the first place) the idea of a spiritual temple with its spiritual sacrifice is at the very heart of this Epistle. Moreover, the Greek word which St. Peter uses in speaking of Christ as shepherd, "archipoimen" (I Pet. 5:4), is a neologism apparently formed by St. Peter himself from the analogy of the common word for high priest, "archiereus," no doubt in view of Christ's relation to himself and to the other apostles. Now in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is often described as "archiereus" —it is, in fact, the keyword of the Epistle: and in the epilogue this title is significantly replaced by "ton poimena ton probaton ton megan," as it were a conscious translation of St. Peter's neologism (Heb. 13:20).

The Rock In St. John's Gospel

This image of the shepherd, which occurs twice in St. Peter's Epistle (I Pet. 2:25 and 5:4) and once in the Epistle to the Hebrews, appears as a fundamental concept in the Gospel of St. John. Hence, for the further development of St. Peter's thought, we may leave St. Paul for a time and return once again to St. John.

In his presentation of St. Peter, St. John emphasizes, as we have seen, not so much the idea of the rock on which the Church is founded, but rather the complementary idea of a shepherd guiding and feeding his sheep. He shows how St. Peter is constituted in consideration of his union with Christ through faith (6:69) and charity (21:15); while Christ is Himself the Good Shepherd. And so, just as in His parable Christ had characterized the Good Shepherd as laying down His life for His sheep, so in choosing St. Peter to represent Him in this office after His ascension, he also added the prophecy of his future martyrdom. Similarly, St. Peter draws a close connection in his Epistle between the office of Christ as prince of shepherds and the fact of His passion. He also speaks of himself at this point as "witness of the sufferings of Christ" (I Pet. 5:1), and he concludes his Epistle with the significant doxology; "Now the God of all grace. Who has called us to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little, will Himself perfect you and confirm you and establish (themeliosei) you; to Him be glory and empire for ever and ever" (I Pet. 5:10)—where there is an evident allusion to the rock of foundation, laid not on earth but in heaven, in the risen glory of Christ.22

There is yet another and deeper connection between this Epistle and the writings of St. John, both Gospel and Apocalypse. For the image of the rock on which the Church is built is by no means alien to the deeply Jewish mentality of St. John—even if it does not appear so openly in his Gospel as in that of St. Matthew. In the first place, it is in his Gospel that the name of Peter is conferred by Christ on Simon, as it were a preliminary christening after the baptism of John in water—not yet in reality, but only in promise. Soon afterwards, St. John shows his idea of the rock, or rather of the Church built on the rock, in relation to, if not in identity with, the Body of Christ, St. Paul's favorite image for the Church. For on the occasion of Christ's words to the Jews, "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will rebuild it," he adds his own interpretation: "Now He said this concerning the Temple of His Body" (John 2:21).

Now a similar interpretation occurs in Chapter Seven when Christ promises the water of everlasting life (as He had previously done to the Samaritan woman in Chapter Four) and alludes to a prophecy of Scripture: "Living waters shall flow from within Him."23 Here St. John adds an explanation, which has special importance in the whole structure of his Gospel: "Now He said this concerning the Holy Spirit, whom they should receive who believed in Him" (John 7:39). For these words look forward to Pentecost, when for the first time living water will flow from the rock of the Church and the Head will be glorified in His Body.

But within the limits of St. John's Gospel, these two interpretations direct our attention to that event on Calvary, which is its emotional climax. This is when the soldier pierces the side of Christ with his lance, and there flows forth a stream of blood and water. It is on this occasion that St. John first appends his personal witness, as distinct from that of the Baptist and of Christ Himself, and so indicates his own central experience of Christ. For in the stream of blood and water he recognizes the river of life proceeding from the true Temple of God not made by human hands, the Holy Spirit issuing from the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world.

The Rock In St. John's Apocalypse

St. John links this conclusion of Christ's earthly life with the beginning of his Apocalypse, in which his past experience of Christ's first coming is completed by his future vision of the second coming. For as he emphasizes in his Gospel the significance of the pierced side with a reference to Zacharias' prophecy, "They shall look upon Him whom they pierced" (John 19:37), so in the first chapter of his Apocalypse he returns to this quotation and applies it to the second coming of Christ in glory: "Behold, He comes with the clouds, and every eye shall see Him, and they also that pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth shall lament over Him" (Apoc. 1:7).

In the rest of the Apocalypse Christ is represented, not in the form of His earthly life, but under various images, especially that of a Lamb. This is also a continuation of St. John's central experience on Calvary, which he connects with another prophecy from Jewish ritual: "You shall not break a bone of him" (John 19:36; Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12). On the other hand, the image of the Temple, which he uses in his Gospel, now seems to disappear; or rather, it is absorbed into his preferred image of the Lamb: "I saw no temple in it; for the Lord God almighty is its temple, and the Lamb" (Apoc. 21:22). Also, as the culminating vision of the whole Apocalypse, he presents the fully-grown Church as the bride of the Lamb, under the image of the heavenly Jerusalem (Apoc. 21:2, 10). He thus indicates the final development of the ideas of St. Peter and St. Paul, as we have hitherto traced them through the New Testament. For he shows the Church no longer as an unhewn rock, nor as a stone rejected by the builders, nor yet as a building in process of growth, but as a completed structure, as an ideal in heaven ready to descend to the earth at the end of time, arrayed as a bride for her Bridegroom.

In his description of the heavenly Jerusalem, St. John draws chiefly from the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the new Temple (Ez. 40-48), which he applies with enriched meaning to the Church of Christ as to His mystical Body. Thus he depicts the wall of the city with twelve doors for the twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Apoc. 21:14). Later on, within the city he describes the "river of living water, splendid as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb" (Apoc. 22:1; Ez. 47:1, 8). In this further image, he returns from the end to the beginning of the Apocalypse, and to the climax of his Gospel, and at the heart of the heavenly Jerusalem he reveals the glory which was hidden before in the darkness of Calvary, when the side of Christ, the true rock of Israel, was opened in the desert and poured forth a river of life for the salvation of the nations.

Thus, in the revelation of the Apocalypse, as the concluding book of the New Testament, we are brought back to the image of the rock, in its full spiritual meaning. It is not a hard, opaque substance, like the hearts of the Jews who rejected Christ and so stumbled against the rock of scandal—not so much Christ Himself, as their willful misunderstanding of Christ. But it is revealed through suffering, precisely the suffering inflicted by the Jews on Christ at the time of His passion; since from the Cross of His passion there springs the true source of life and the glorious light of His Resurrection.

In other words, we can only understand the meaning of Christ's words to St. Peter at Caesarea Philippi, "Thou art Peter," when we realize the significance of St. Peter's previous response, "Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God." And just as he utters these words not for himself alone, but for all the apostles, and through them for all the faithful who have been committed to his pastoral care, so we have to receive them not as they are echoed throughout the New Testament in the witness of the apostles and as they are realized in the daily life of the Church on earth—"until we all meet in the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13).


1 See C. Fouard, Saint Pierre (Paris, 1899), p. 255, and H. Feret, Connaissance biblique de Dieu (Paris, 1955), pp. 92, 184.

2 An outstanding example of this appears in R. Laurentin, "Traces d'allusions etymologiques en Luc I-II," Biblica, XXXVII (1956), 435-456 and XXXVIII (1957), 1-23.

3 Ps. 77, 104, 113; Is. 12:3, 44:2, 48:20; Wis., 11:4.

4 This is shown more fully in the second part of this article.

5 See the Abbot of Downside, "According to Matthew," in The Bridge, I (New York, 1955), 75-95, and L. Vaganay, Le Probleme Synoptique (Tournai, 1954), pp. 36, 170.

6 See A. H. Green-Armytage, Portrait of St. Luke (London, 1955).

7 Ez. 1:5-13, Apoc. 4:7; first explicitly applied to the four Evangelists by St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. iii, 11.

8 A favorite theme of St. Augustine, who reverts to it in Serm. 12 and 147, and In Joannem 47:2 and 123:5.

9 St. Augustine comments on this in Ser. 147: Quando voluit Dominus Jesus Christus, deseruit Petrum, et inventus est homo Petrus; quando autem placuit Domino Jesu Christo, implevit Petrum, et inventus est Petrus verax. Veracem Petrum petra fecerat; petra enim erat Christus.

10 Clement of Alexandria, as quoted by Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. vi, 14.

11 A similar extension of privilege may be seen in Matt. 18:18 as compared with 16:19.

12 See H. Feret, Pierre et Paul a Antioche et a Jerusalem (Paris, 1955), p. 87.

13 See L. Cerfaux, "Le titre Kyrios et la dignite royale de Jesus," in Recueil Cerfaux (Louvain, 1954), 3-188.

14 See R. Leconte, Les Epitres Catholiques (Paris, 1953), Introduction.

15 The quotations in order of appearance are: Ps. 117, Deut. 25:5, Exod. 3:2, Deut. 6:4, Ps. 109.

16 See H. Feret, op. cit., pp. 103 ff. and 122 ff.

17 The chronology of the Council of Jerusalem here followed is that defended convincingly by H. Feret, op. cit.

18 See G. Thils, L'enseignement de S. Pierre (Tournai, 1943), pp. 10 ff„ and U. Holzmeister, Comm. in Epp. SS. Petri et Judae (Paris, 1937), 112-116.

19 See R. A. Knox, St. Paul's Gospel (New York, 1951), p. 57: "He didn't like taking his metaphor from stones and mortar; they were dead things merely superimposed on one another, and St. Paul liked to think of Christian people as living things, growing out of one another."

20 This distinction recurs often in St. Paul's own writings, as in Rom. 12:7 and Eph. 4:11.

21 See J. Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, Ind., 1956), p. 168.

22 This reference to a heavenly foundation may also be noted in Eph. 3:17: "rooted and established in charity," and in Heb. 11:10: "a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God."

23 See H. Rahner, in Heart of the Saviour, Ed. J. Stierli (New York, 1958), pp. 29-35; and the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas (AAS, 1956), p. 310.

P. Milward, S.J.
St. Mary’s College
Tokyo, Japan

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