First, a history of interpretation is in order. In Catholic thought, it is Peter himself who is the rock, and the institution built upon that rock is the Roman Church. Eastern Orthodoxy offers a similar understanding, but insists that the institution built upon Peter is the Orthodox Church.
Protestantism has argued from at least as far back as the Reformation that the rock is not Peter the person, but rather his statement that Yeshua is the Messiah and Son of the Living G-d (Matthew 16:16). This position expands the institution beyond one particular denomination and identifies the “ἐκκλησία” as the Universal Body of Believers.
Biblicists have maintained that given the practice of the Septuagint (LXX) translators to render the Hebrew words קָהָל and קְהִלָּה with the Greek ἐκκλησία, a more faithful translation of the latter would be to anchor it to the historical understanding of the Hebrew terms as meaning “Israel,” i.e. an entity which had been in existence long before Matthew 16 was penned… centuries before. As Koine Greek does not have verbal tense, the future tense does not need to be assumed in the verb, and it can properly be read as an ongoing action begun at some moment in the distant past.
Possibly giving weight to this understanding, besides the sheer linguistic sense that it makes, is the rabbinical midrash suggesting that Avraham had been told by HaShem:
“You are the rock upon which I will build the universe.”
Dwight Pryor conveyed the above statement at a conference of the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies in Jerusalem. These positions all have their proponents and adherents… but today, another angle (new to me, but apparently in the air for over 20 years now) was pointed out to me. Dr. Roy Blizzard posted the following statement with regard to Yeshua’s debated oracle:
“… you all need to keep on mind that this statement was made in HEBREW…NOT Greek. In Hebrew it is Kahal…or congregation, however…after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls many scholars in Israel believe it was Edah, which means witnessing body. It could have been either but I tend to lean toward Edah…from lehaid, to witness or to tell.” (italics added)
Upon reading this, I turned immediately to a codex reportedly copied from a manuscript dated to 165 CE, i.e. the Khabouris Codex. What I found there aligns with Dr. Blizzard’s statement. The word so often translated “church” is actually the Aramaic equivalent to עֵדָה (edah) — ܥܕܬܝ. It is important to note that this word is also translated by the Greek ἐκκλησία in LXX.
The preceding verb, generally rendered “I will build…,” appears in a language which does not have verbal tense (it is verbal-aspect-intensive), so all it communicates is imperfectiveness (incomplete action, or even ongoing action). Besides the futuristic rendering, other possible understandings of the imperfect aspect expressed in the form ܐܒܢܝܗ would be “I am building” or “I have been building.” Given this insight, we might better translate Yeshua’s response:
“I also say to you that you are Kefa, and upon this rock[-solid statement], I have been building my Body of Witnesses….”
This shift does not move us a great distance from the Protestant reading, but it does remove the problematic word “church” (derived from the Latin “circus”).
The appeal of this rendering is that it is Gentile-inclusive without being anti-Semitic, maintaining the Bible’s incontrovertible Israel-centricity in affirming the same understanding of the Olive Tree held by the Apostle Sha’ul (Paul). The confirmation found in the Peshitta (Khabouris Codex), an ancient witness, establishes that this view could not be deemed a wretched NDU (new doctrinal understanding). It seems to dodge all the usual bullets and harmonize the text in view with the Whole Counsel of Scripture. Baruch HaShem!