“I Had One Joke!”

In this post there are no major doctrinal issues at stake, no deeply serious questions of faith or understanding, but rather just one of those odd little things that caught my eye and started taking up my intellectual (and maybe a little spiritual) bandwidth. It’s a train of thought concerning our first Pope—the recipient of the keys to the Kingdom (Mt 16:19), Simon son of John [Simon filius Iohanna; Σίμων ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωάννου] (Jn 1:42)—and Jesus’ sense of humor.

Let’s start with a review of a few scenes as they are rendered in English (here by the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, but the points I want to make carry across to all popular English translations):

Mk. 3:16 – So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter);

Mt. 14:28-30 – [As Jesus was walking on the water,] Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” [Jesus] said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Mt. 16:18 – And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Alright, so that’s all pretty straight-forward and familiar, right? No big deal, just a little name change… but, well, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I mean, the guy has a name; his name is Simon. You might think that Jesus wanted to differentiate between the two Simons in his crew but then he didn’t go to any effort to rename either James. What’s so special about Simon son of John and why call him “Peter” of all things?

It’s a nickname! The key is in the phrase from Mt. 16:18, “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”, which doesn’t really make any sense in English but it does in Greek:

“…ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν…”
…hoti su ei Petros, kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian…

And there you have it—”…you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church…”. For whatever reason, when we translated “petra” we only transliterated (and anglicized) “Petros” and, consequently, lost the little wordplay had going there.

But wait, there’s more!

If we go all the way back to the beginning, we’ll note that Jesus started calling Simon “Rock” from the first moment they met—so that Petros/petra thing had a set-up that Jesus put into play from day one. Now take another look at Mt. 14:28-30 and realize that what’s doing the sinking isn’t “Peter”, it’s “Rock.” I’m not saying it’s enough to get a stand-up spot on the Tonight Show or anything but, come on, it’s a little funny. Even more so when you consider that “Rock” isn’t exactly the most flattering nickname and that there are several places when Simon the Rock can be seen as, well, kind of dense.

While it’s just a minor bit with a long lead-in, I can’t help but imagine Jesus’ frustration over this slip in translation –

“I had ONE joke!”

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3 thoughts on ““I Had One Joke!”

  1. Actually, I like to think Jesus had quite a sense of humor. Not the belly laugh kind, more like a wise and witty grandmother. For instance (paraphrasing), “It’s not what goes into your mouth that makes you filthy, it’s what comes out of it.”

    Then there’s the “I-know-I-am-but-what-are-you” moment of Matthew 27:11.

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    1. Oh, I’m with you — He did have more than the one joke but I think the length of the set-up on Peter/Rock puts it at a whole other level. And really, it’s just about how severely we botched the whole thing up in translation — and least the one-liners mostly still make sense.

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