Word of the Week
August 27, 2022
Petra, Petros and Lithos: Identifying Rocks
“A stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone,” and, “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”.
1 Peter 2:7-8
Back in the Dark Ages (actually, 1973), I joined a Holy Land tour of Bible lands. We soaked in sights like the Sea of Galilee and the Garden Tomb. But one impression that stands out is the sheer number of rocks covering the landscape. Piles everywhere! A tour guide shared the legend that during the week of creation, the Lord sent out angels with huge bags of rocks to spread on the newly-formed earth. Two of these angels collided over Israel and dropped the whole bags right there!
Whenever Jesus talked about rocks, it was easy to see what He was describing. And there are plenty of references to rocks and stones in Scripture. In a land that specialized in stones, we should not be surprised that there were multiple words to describe those stones.
There are at least three words for “rock” or “stone” in the Greek New Testament, and we will be able to see things more clearly if we understand all three.
- Petra – “rock”
Petra appears 15 times in the New Testament, normally describing a large rock formation, rather than a single stone.
- You can build a house on a petra (Matthew 7:24-25).
- You can carve a tomb out of a petra (Matthew 27:60).
- You can find caves in a petra (Revelation 6:15-16).
- An earthquake can split open a petra (Matthew 27:51).
- Crops won’t grow on a petra (Luke 8:6, 13).
In times of danger, you could retreat to a refuge in the rocky crags of the Judean wilderness. Tourists today visit the red rock city of Petra in Jordan, a natural fortress embedded in the barren hills.
- Petros – “Peter, rock”
When Jesus first met Simon the brother of Andrew, He changed his name to Petros (the Greek equivalent of Cephas), explaining that it meant “rock” (John 1:42). And that was his name from that time on. The word petros occurs over 150 times in the New Testament, always as the name of the apostle, not as a description of rocks or stones.
- Lithos – “stone”
The word lithos appears 59 times in the New Testament, describing various kinds of stones. It is most often used for stones which have been shaped by human hands, rather than the kinds of rocks one would find lying around the countryside.
- You could use a big lithos to cover a tomb entrance (Matthew 27:60).
- Builders used large stones to construct the temple (Mark 13:1-2)
- The Ten Commandments were written on stones (2 Corinthians 3:7).
- Craftsmen carved idols from stones (Acts 17:29).
- Stones were used as a method of execution (John 8:59). In fact, the word for “stoning” is lithazō.
- Lithos is used for precious gems in Revelation 4:3; 17:4; 21:11, 19.
Physical rocks and stones are interesting, but I find myself encouraged by the verses that compare Jesus Christ to a stone.
The word petros is never used to describe Jesus, but 1 Corinthians 10:4 calls Him the “spiritual rock [petra] which followed” the Israelites in the wilderness. Just as water came from the rock to quench the thirst of the tribes, life-giving refreshment for the spirit comes from our Rock.
He is also the divine Lithos, explained in detail in 1 Peter 2:6-8.
He was the Stone rejected by the builders (Psalm 118:22). The Jewish leaders examined Him and rejected Him.
He was the Stumbling Stone (Isaiah 8:14). His own people tripped over him and fell because they refused to obey His word.
He was the precious Cornerstone, chosen specifically by the Father as the key to the temple He is building (Isaiah 28:16).
When you want to take refuge, go to the Rock!
In Greek as in English, synonyms sometimes overlap in meaning. That is the case here.
Petros usually means a large rock formation found in nature, while lithos usually refers to a smaller stone that can be lifted, often shaped by stonecutters. However, there are exceptions to this set of definitions, so you have to look at the context to be sure that you understand the words properly.
Since petros is not used to describe actual rocks in the New Testament, we have to look at earlier Greek sources to see how it is used. When you check classical Greek, you find that petros usually (but not always) describes smaller rocks that you can move, while petra usually (but not always) describes massive rocks built into the landscape. Again, check the context to be sure you have the right meaning.
Q – What about that passage in Matthew where Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church? Which words for “rock/stone” are used here? And does that help me understand the passage?
A – When Jesus says, “You are Peter,” He uses petros. And when He says, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” He uses petra. People have argued about this passage for two millennia, and we can’t answer all the questions here. But it is true that Christ shifted from one Greek word to another. I assume that He did so for a reason. Personally, I think that He did want to describe Peter as the smaller rock that would be used as building material, while He used petra to describe the foundation on which the church would be built. It is possible to develop arguments for other views, but this is a simple explanation that rests on the most common usage of the words and magnifies Christ as the cornerstone of the church (see Ephesians 2:20).
When I hit my thumb with a hammer, I don’t feel joy. Yet James tells me to “consider it all joy.” How can I do that? Next week we will examine a Greek word that sheds light on this command.
©Ezra Project 2022
There are not two words Πέτρος and πετρα. In Greek like most fully declined IE languages there is only one stem that determines the definition. For example, in Lithuanian, the word uola is fem. nom. sing. But if I use uolas in a nominative singular way everyone will notice it masculine, but still meaning rock but having a masculine use. You see the stem uol- means rock. The same applies in Greek. The stem πετρ- gives it the meaning large rock putting masculine endings on it means it will be used to for a masculine use like a man’s name or a throwing rock or war rock. Whereas if I add the feminine ending it will be used for a feminine use, like a place or fixed object.
In reality the dictionary/lexicon entries should only be the stem but normally they are the nominative singular (and for adjectives, masculine).
You have a point, and I agree that it would be technically more accurate to describe the variations in meaning on the basis of the stem.
Unfortunately, most of the people who use this Web site do not have access to the broader range of resources that you have available. Because of this, I find it best to base my explanations on the standard Greek lexicons, which treat words like petra and petros as separate words.
One way, we can say, “These two words mean such and such.” The other way, we can say, “The two endings added to the stem mean such and such.” I believe it’s possible to use either terminology to help people discern what the New Testament passages are saying. Thanks for your clarification!
I am not a scholar but let’s make this simple. Jesus used two words. Why? Two different meanings.
Simple is good! Two different words can sometimes have the same meaning – or at least meanings that are so close that it’s hard to tell the difference. But I think you’re right about this passage. Jesus purposely used two words because he wanted to communicate two different ideas.