Peter - rock

The word pun that Jesus makes in Matthew 16:18 in Greek (using similar words for “Peter” and “rock”: πετρος and πετρα) is lost in most languages (such as in English) but is naturally preserved in some languages, such as French (Pierre and pierre), Portuguese (Pedro and pedra), Italian (Pietro and pietra), Latin (Petrus and petram), Corsican (Petru and petra), Modern Greek (Πέτρος and πέτρα), and — to a lesser degree — in Spanish (Pedro and piedra) and in Romanian (Petru and piatră).

Despite the similarity between the words in those languages, readers might not automatically catch the word play, as Carlo Buzzetti (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 308ff. ) explains for Italian (click here to read more)

“In many languages it is not possible to repeat the same word, because the equivalent of Petros has become a personal name, while the equivalent of petra is a common noun, the gender of which may be different from that of the equivalent of Petros. The Italian linguistic situation seems at first sight to be very similar to the Greek: to translate Petrospetra we can use Pietropietra. But unfortunately this conveys a different meaning to the average Italian reader: first, because Pietro is now not a new nickname, but a common traditional personal name; and second, because pietra is a feminine noun similar in form to Pietro, but carrying no suggestion that the two have the same meaning. Indeed, Pietro, like ‘Peter’ and most personal names, carries no meaning at all for the average reader or speaker.

“The common language translators felt that it was possible to make the identification between Petros and petra explicit, and at the same time exploit the similarity between the two words. We thus translated: tu sei Pietro e su di te, come su una pietra, io costruirò la mia comunità [in the original Common Language Version: Chiesa] (‘you are Peter and on you, as on a rock, I will build my community [originally: ‘Church’]. Our te (‘you’) connected Pietro and pietra. while our come (‘as’) expressed the fact that the connection was based on an image. In this way we suggested the meaning of Pietro.”

Like the Peshitta translation in Syriac Aramaic (Classical Syriac) with the term ܟܹܐܦܵܐ (kēpā), the Neo-Aramaic languages of Assyrian and Chaldean use terms for both “Peter” and “rock” (and “Cephas”) that are identical (ܟܹܐܦܵܐ and كِيپَا, both pronounced kēpā) so the word pun is preserved in those translations as well. (Source: Ken Bunge)

See also Cephas and this lectionary in The Christian Century.

Building the Church (image)

Painting by Wang Suda 王肅達 (1910-1963),
Copyright by the Catholic University Peking, China

Text under painting translated from Literary Chinese into English:

Establishing the Church
You are the rock, on this I will establish my Church

Image taken from Chinese Christian Posters . For more information on the “Ars Sacra Pekinensis” school of art, see this article , for other artworks of that school in TIPs, see here.


Following is a Armenian Orthodox icon of Peter (found in the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha, Azerbaijan).

Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )

Following is a hand colored stencil print on momigami of Peter by Sadao Watanabe (1970):

Image taken with permission from the SadaoHanga Catalogue where you can find many more images and information about Sadao Watanabe. For other images of Sadao Watanabe art works in TIPs, see here.

In Finnish Sign Language it is translated with the sign signifying “key” (referring to Matthew 16:19). (Source: Tarja Sandholm)

“Peter” or “Cephas” in Finnish Sign Language (source )

In Swiss-German Sign Language it is translated with the sign for “rock,” referring to the meaning of the Greek word for “Peter.”

“Peter” in Swiss-German Sign Language, source: DSGS-Lexikon biblischer Begriffe , © CGG Schweiz

See also Peter – rock.

Learn more on Bible Odyssey: Peter .


The Greek that is often translated as “church” in English is translated into Avaric as imanl’urazul ahlu: “the community of believers” or “the believing people.”

Magomed-Kamil Gimbatov and Yakov Testelets (in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 434ff. ) talk about the genesis of this term (click or tap here to read more):

“The word ‘Church’ presents particular difficulties, as we might expect when we think that even many Christians do not understand it correctly. When people today say ‘church,’ they often mean a particular building, or an organization consisting chiefly of clergy (priests and monks). It is even harder to find a word or combination of words which adequately translates the meaning for people unfamiliar with Christianity. Surprisingly, the Greek word ekklesia, indicating in the classical language ‘an assembly of the people,’ ‘a gathering of citizens,’ has come into Avar and other Dagestani languages in the form kilisa. This, like the word qanch (‘cross’), is an ancient borrowing, presumably from the time before the arrival of Islam, when Dagestan came under the influence of neighboring Christian states. In modern usage, however, this word indicates a place of Christian worship. Thus it is completely inappropriate as a translation of its New Testament ancestor ekklesia.

“We were obliged to look at various words which are closer to the meaning of the Greek. Some of these words are dandel’i (‘meeting’), danderussin (‘assembly’), the Arabic-derived mazhlis (‘meeting, conference’), zhama’at (‘society, community’), ahlu (‘race, people, family, group of people united by a common goal or interest’, as in the Arabic phrase ahlu-l-kitab ‘people of the Book’ or ‘people of the Scriptures’), which describes both Jews and Christians, and ummat (‘people, tribe’). In Islamic theology the phrase ‘Mohammed’s ummat’ means the universal community of Muslims, the Muslim world, in the same way as the Christian world is known as ‘Isa’s ummat.’ None of these descriptions on their own, without explanation, can be used to translate the word ‘Church’ in the New Testament. Thus, after long consideration, we adopted the phrase imanl’urazul ahlu, meaning ‘the community of believers,’ ‘the believing people,’ This translation corresponds closely to New Testament teaching about the Church.

“It is interesting that the same word ahlu with the meaning ‘tribe, community’ has been used by translators for different reasons in the introduction to the Gospel of Luke in order to translate the expression in the original Greek pepleroforemenon en hemin pragmaton (πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων), which the Russian Synodal translation renders ‘about the events well-known amongst us’ (Luke 1:1). The expression ‘amongst us’ cannot be translated literally into Avar, but has to be rendered ‘among our people’; and here the same term was used as for the word ‘church’, literally ‘among our tribe, community (ahlu).'”

In Kamo “church” is fang-balla (“owners of writing-people”) when referring to the church community and “house of writing-people” when referring to a church building. David Frank explains: “In Kamo culture, Christianity was associated with writing, so Christianity is called balla, which they say means ‘people who write.’ Christianity is balla, and Christians are called fang-balla, which means ‘owners of Christianity.’ That is the term that is used for the church, in the sense of people, rather than a building. In Philemon 1:1b-2a, Paul says he is writing ‘To our friend and fellow worker Philemon, and to the church (fang-balla ‘owners of Christianity) that meet in your house.’ The word fang “owner’ is very productive in the Kamo language. A disciple is an ‘owner of learning,’ an apostle is an ‘owner of sending,’ a believer is an ‘owner of truth,’ a hypocrite is an ‘owner of seeing eyes.’ The expression ‘house of writing-people’ is used in Matthew 16:18, which reads in Kamo, ‘And so I tell you Peter, you are a rock, and on top of this rock foundation I will build my house of writing-people, and never even death will not be able to overcome it.” (See also Peter – rock)

In Bacama there also is a differentiation between the building (vɨnə hiutə: “house of prayer”) and the community (ji-kottə: “followers”) (source: David Frank in this blog post ).

In 16th-century Classical Nahuatl, a transliteration from Spanish (Santa Yglesia or Santa Iglesia) is typically used rather than a translation, making the concept take on a personified meaning. Ottman (p. 169) explains: “The church building, or more precisely the church complex with its associated patio, has a Nahuatl name in common usage — generally teopan, something like ‘god-place,’ in contradistinction to teocalli, ‘god-house,’ applied to a prehispanic temple — but the abstract sense is always Santa Iglesia, a Spanish proper name like ‘Dios’ or ‘Santa María’, and like ‘Santa María’ often called ‘our mother.’ As a personified ‘mother,’ in the European tradition as well as in Nahuatl, She instructs Her children or chastises them; as Bride of Christ, She both longs for Her heavenly rest and bears witness to it, in the ‘always-already’ of eschatological time; as successor to the Synagogue, the blindfolded, broken-sceptred elder sister who accompanies Her in painting and sculpture, She represents the triumphant rule of truth. ‘The Church’ can mean the clerical hierarchy; it can also, or simultaneously, mean the assembly of the faithful. It dispenses grace to its members, living and dead, yet it is also enriched by them, living and dead, existing not only on earth but in purgatory and in heaven.”

In Lisu the building (“church”) is called “house of prayer” (source: Arrington 2020, p. 196) whereas in Highland Totonac the community is referred as “those who gather together” (source: Hermann Aschmann in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 171ff. ), in Huehuetla Tepehua as “those who gather together who have confidence in Christ” (source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.), in Uma as “Christian people” (source: Uma Back Translation), in Kankanaey as “the congregation of God’s people” (source: Kankanaey Back Translation), and in Tagbanwa as “you whom God separated-out as his people because of your being-united/tied-together with Jesus Christ” (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation).

In American Sign Language, “church” (as in the community of believers) is made up of the combination of the signs for “Jesus-into-heart” (signifying a believer), followed by the sign for “group.” (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)

“Church” in American Sign Language, source: Deaf Harbor

While British Sign Language also uses a sign that focuses on a group of people believing in Jesus (see here ), another sign that it uses combines the signs for “ringing the (church) bells” and a “group of people.” (Source: Anna Smith)

“Church” in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)

Learn more on Bible Odyssey: Ekklesia .

complete verse (Matthew 16:18)

Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 16:18:

  • Uma: “So, that is why you (sing.) are called/named Petrus–its meaning, ‘stone.’ And on top of this foundation-stone I build my house–meaning, I gather all people who believe in me. All the power/authority of evil-spirits is not able/strong enough to defeat them.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Na, I say this to you, Petros. You are like a rock/stone, and on this rock/stone I will build my prayer-house, the meaning of my prayer-house is the people who follow me. They will not be defeated by the leader of demons.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Therefore I title you, Peter, that is, a rock, and like a rock is what I will establish my church on, that is to say, the people who believe in me. And even the power of death will not be able to defeat them.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “And as for me, I say that you (sing.) are Pedro, its meaning, stone. This stone is that-on-which-I-will-build my-church (Ilo. loan iglesia) which is all those who believe in me, and the power of death, it can not defeat them.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Therefore this is what I will say to you (sing.). Your name which is Pedro, it means, rock/stone. Well on this rock which is bedrock I will make-the-foundation of what I will build which is like a house, by which I mean the total-number of those who believe-in and trust-in/rely-on me. These people of mine whom I will establish/set-up, they really won’t be defeated by Satanas, no matter what he wants/plans to do to them.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “I tell you now, that you are named Peter which means to say that like a stone is firm no one can move you. You are the first believer now before all the other people who believe in me afterwards. And concerning all who believe in me, they will conquer the death which comes.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

first person pronoun referring to God

Like a number of other East Asian languages, Japanese uses a complex system of honorifics, i.e. a system where a number of different levels of politeness are expressed in language via words, word forms or grammatical constructs. These can range from addressing someone or referring to someone with contempt (very informal) to expressing the highest level of reference (as used in addressing or referring to God) or any number of levels in-between.

One way Japanese show different degree of politeness is through the choice of a first person singular and plural pronoun (“I” and “we” and its various forms) as shown here in the widely-used Japanese Shinkaiyaku (新改訳) Bible of 2017. The most commonly used watashi/watakushi (私) is typically used when the speaker is humble and asking for help.

In these verses, where God / Jesus is referring to himself, watashi is also used but instead of the kanji writing system (私) the syllabary hiragana (わたし) is used to distinguish God from others.

(Source: S. E. Doi, see also S. E. Doi in Journal of Translation, 18/2022, p. 37ff. )

See also pronoun for “God”.

Translation commentary on Matthew 16:18

And I tell you translates a strongly emphatic transitional formula; New Jerusalem Bible renders “So I now say to you”; New English Bible “And I say this to you”; Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch “Therefore I say to you.”

You are Peter, and on this rock … is translated in Good News Translation as “Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation….” As RSV’s footnotes indicate, there is a wordplay in Greek between Peter (Greek Petros) and rock (Greek petra). Although the wordplay is clear enough in Greek, it would have been even more obvious in Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke. As can be seen from the transliteration of the Greek words, the masculine derivative form Petros (Peter) has a different ending from the root word petra, which is feminine and means rock. Aramaic, however, would not distinguish between masculine and feminine forms, so that the result would be “You are kefa, and on this kefa I will build….” Some translations attempt to make this equation explicit: “You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock…” (New English Bible), “you are Peter—the man whose name means a rock—on this rock…” (Barclay), and “you are Peter the rock, and it is on this rock…” (Phillips). Some interpreters have attempted to avoid the evident meaning of the text by assuming that rock refers either to Peter’s confession or to his faith, since both “confession” and “faith” are feminine nouns in Greek, as is the word rock. Different interpretations will inevitably arise regarding the implications of Jesus’ statement, but the text is clear in what it says, and it must be translated in this light.

A good translation of I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock depends on this play on words. I tell you, you are Peter will sound strange indeed if the wordplay that follows is not made clear. Putting the information in a footnote will not be sufficient except for quite skilled readers. As a result, most translators do something similar to Phillips (cited above) or Good News Translation.

Although the verb build may be used in a literal sense of constructing a physical structure (7.24), it is not used in that sense here, for church means “congregation,” “people,” “assembly,” or, more specifically, “community of believers,” without reference to a physical building. Except for the appearance of church in 18.17, the noun is not used elsewhere in any of the Gospels.

Church, “community,” and “group” are all singular forms. Jesus is referring to the institution he will found. To say “I will create believers around you,” for example, will not convey this.

There are therefore three problems the translator has to solve in on this rock I will build my church: 1) church means the community of believers; 2) build is used figuratively; 3) rock must be retained because of the play on words. Some translators have rendered the whole verse as a simile: “in the same way that a building can be built on a rock (foundation), so I will make you the support for the community of those who believe in me” or “I will develop around you the group of those who follow me, just like a building is constructed on a rock foundation.” A less cumbersome rendering would be “when I create my community of believers, you are the rock that will be the foundation.”

And the powers of death shall not prevail against it (New English Bible “and the powers of death shall never conquer it”) is translated “and not even death will ever be able to overcome it” by Good News Translation. A more literal rendering is given by New International Version: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Actually “Hades” of New International Version is not a translation but rather a transliteration of a Greek word which has “place of the dead” as its primary meaning (see 11.23 for the only other occurrence of the word in Matthew). Here the picture is that of a “gate” through which one enters the “world of the dead,” from which there is no return. Therefore “world of the dead” becomes equivalent to “death,” while “gate” symbolizes the power that death has over its victims. An excellent Old Testament example which parallels the usage here is found in Isaiah 38.10, where Hezekiah complains that the little time he has to live will be dominated by the fact of his impending death: “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol (meaning ‘world of the dead’) for the rest of my years.” The powers of death (Good News Translation “death”) represent humanity’s last and most feared enemy, but Jesus affirms that his community of faith need not fear its awesome power: “no enemy shall be able to destroy it, not even death” (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch). Also good is “not even death is powerful enough to destroy (or, defeat) it.”

It, of course, refers to church. The text must not seem to say that death is not strong enough to defeat believers; the idea is that death is not strong enough to defeat the community of believers that Jesus is going to create.

Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Stine, Philip C. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1988. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .