A loving wife of an unbelieving Protestant husband asked me to explain to her husband that Jesus renamed Simon as Peter and how that relates to Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. So in simple terms I gave it a simple (though a bit long) explanation. I hope it helps you as well.
Let’s give this a whirl for your husband’s sake. We know Aramaic was the daily language of the Jews in Judea after their return from their exile to Babylon in 586 BC. Jesus, though he obviously knew Hebrew and probably Greek, primarily spoke Aramaic.
“Greek took over as the language of government, literature, and commerce, but Aramaic remained the language of the common people in Palestine until the Arab Muslim conquest.”
“As Aramaic was spoken commonly in Palestine during the New Testament times, Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic (Matt 26:73). Fragments of Aramaic appear, for example, in Matt 16:17; Mark 5:41, 7:34, 14:36, 15:34; John 1:42; and Acts 1:19. The Gospel stories were probably first transmitted orally in Aramaic, although only the Gospel of Matthew is reported to have been written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic.” (CBD, “Aramaic”)
When under extreme pain on the crucifixion Jesus said, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” These are Aramaic words.
“According to Matthew 27:45–50…” says the Evangelical Bible Knowledge Commentary, “…near the end of this period of time, Jesus could bear the separation no longer and cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? These Aramaic words mean, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (a quotation of Ps. 22:1).”
Here we have clear biblical evidence that when Jesus spoke, even under the emotional terror of the crucifixion, he spoke in Aramaic. This is just common knowledge and undisputed by anyone who knows New Testament history.
Matthew had to translate his original Aramaic/Hebrew text or the dialog of Jesus into Greek and since Greek had feminine and masculine nouns—and rock was the feminine petra, he had to translate the word differently since a 200-pound fisherman could not go around with a feminine name like Petra. In the translation, Matthew made the Aramaic name Kepha — Petros—petra with a masculine ending.
Where do we first find the word Kepha used in the Gospels? It is in St. John 1:42 when Jesus first meets Simon. We so naturally think of him as Simon Peter that we think he had that name all along. However, when Jesus first met him he was simply Simon. But Jesus said, “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42 (ESV)) The English Standard Version (ESV) is the new favorite translation among Protestants.
In the footnote to the word Peter it says, “Cephas and Peter are from the word for rock in Aramaic and Greek, respectively.” It must be emphasized that Cephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha which means rock. Cephas (Kepha) and Peter are not different names. They are merely the same name, Rock, in two different languages, Aramaic and Greek, respectively. Cephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha. This name was appropriately given to Peter near Caesarea Philippi. The water that flowed from the massive rock there was the source of the Jordan River.
Jesus says “You shall be called Cephas.“ When will Simon be called Cephas? Do we see any other later place in Scripture where he will be given that name since Jesus already predicted it will happen?
Yes, of course, in Matthew 16:18. Jesus speaking in the vernacular Aramaic (established earlier in this e-mail) he said to Simon, “You are kepha and on this kepha I will build my church.” In English Bibles, which are two languages beyond the original Aramaic, we read Peter where we lose the original Aramaic word parallel.
Protestants often use this sequence of languages and details of translation to obfuscate the text and confuse people. They use this obfuscation to deny what Jesus was actually saying about the Catholic Church has always taught.
Jesus, not quoting the Old Testament, here uses Aramaic, not Hebrew, and so uses the only Aramaic word that would serve his purpose. In view of the background of verse 19, … one must dismiss as confessional interpretation any attempt to see this rock as meaning the faith, or the messianic confession, of Peter. To deny the pre-eminent position of Peter among the disciples or in the early Christian community is a denial of the evidence.… The interest in Peter’s failures and vacillations does not detract from this pre-eminence; rather, it emphasizes it. Had Peter been a lesser figure his behavior would have been of far less consequence (cf. Gal 2:11ff.)” (W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1971], 195).
“David Hill, Presbyterian minister and senior lecturer of biblical studies, University of Sheffield, writes, “It is on Peter himself, the confessor of his Messiah-ship, that Jesus will build the Church.… Attempts to interpret the ‘rock’ as something other than Peter in person (e.g., his faith, the truth revealed to him) are due to Protestant bias and introduce to the statement a degree of subtlety which is highly unlikely” (The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972], 261). For more information on this point, see James T. Shotwell and Louise Ropes Loomis, The See of Peter [1927; reprint, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991], especially 23–24).
“Name changes held great weight in Eastern cultures. Abraham’s name change from Abram (father) to Abraham (father of nations) is a prime example. It signified a change of status or mission. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon to Rock. Jesus is making it obvious that something important is taking place; Peter’s status has changed for all time, and, as with Abraham, this change would have a continuing impact on the new covenant community.
The fisherman was now the steward of a kingdom. Fundamentalists may object, “Only Christ can be the rock.” However, the same figures of speech can be applied to more than one person in Scripture. In one illustration, Jesus is called the cornerstone, not the foundation, while the apostles are called the foundation (see Rev 21:14).
“God is called rock in Deuteronomy 32:4, and the name is now given to Peter, who shares in God’s rock-ness. Jesus is the one with the keys (Rev 3:7), but the keys are delegated to Peter. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but Peter is also given the responsibility of shepherd (Jn 21:15–17). The apostles were to share in the authority and work of Christ.” (The Infallibility of the Church [London: John Murray, 1914], 338). (Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, Modern Apologetics Library (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).
And one must realize that in biblical terms a change of names is of earth-shattering importance. Abram received his new name Abraham when he received a new covenant and became the father of all those who believe by faith (Romans 4:11). Jacob was renamed Israel when the covenant was renewed and he became the father of the 12 tribes. We cannot assume that the change of Simon‘s name to Cephas—Peter—was any less significant in the eyes of Jesus. Jesus knew that this name change marked a huge statement of importance, change of status, and position.
But quite the opposite. If Paul intended to diminish Peters’ authority he would have referred to him merely as Simon, his given name. But instead, he emphasized Peter’s position and authority by referring to him as Cephas—the Rock! Here Paul uses the Greek transliteration of the very word Jesus spoke at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:18). Peter was the authority but unhappily not living up to his own authoritative teaching regarding the salvation of Gentiles equally with Jews.
As a Baptist, I had to learn all this the hard way. I went to Israel and studied the location where Jesus said these words in the Gospel of Matthew, and studied in detail the Jewish context and background to this text and in short, I became a Catholic.
If anyone really wants to understand this whole Biblical passage I would suggest they read my book Upon this Rock, Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church.