rabbinic background on PETRA

Randall Buth ButhFam at compuserve.com
Fri Sep 28 08:55:01 EDT 2001

shalom Greek list, 

Offlist, I had promised Jack Kilmon some background on PETRA, and I'm 
including the list because of probable mutual interest.

re: Greek word petra in Jewish culture and Hebrew.

a midrashic connection (see below) between rock and avraham is recorded 
in several rabbinic Hebrew sources. This makes its way into the Aramaic 
targumim, as well, being discussed at least at Num 23.9 in the palestinian 
targum tradition (Fragment Targum, Neofiti, and Pseudo-Jonathan, all 3): 
"[MT 'for from the head of the rocks (tsurim) I see him'] I see these
going on in the merit [zexut] of their righteous fathers who are like the 
mountains, [Aramaic: turayya] Avraham, YitsHaq and Yaacov ..." 
Likewise at Is 51.1 "look to the rock [tsur] from which you were hewn" 
rabbinic commentators explained this as Avraham. (see Ibn Ezra, Rada"q.)
Where is this coming from?

Most impressive linguistically is the Hebrew midrashic tradition with its
of GREEK loanwords, not an infrequent occurrence in mishnaic Hebrew 
and talmudic Aramaic. 

Yalqut shimoni records the following Hebrew parables and midrash at 
Num 23.9:

"to what does he [i.e. Balaam--RB] resemble? 
[cf. Matthew's introductions to some parables]
to a man who came to cut down the tree. 
Someone who is not an 
expert cuts off the branches, each and every one, and gets tired. 
and the clever man uncovers the roots and cuts. thus that same 
wicked man [ie=bil`am--RB] said 'what? will I curse every 
tribe? hey, I am going to their roots and cutting.' He got tired 
and found them difficult. That is why (the scripture) is recorded:
"and from the head of rocks". These are the fathers. "and from 
the hills I will gaze". These are the mothers. ... Another
interpretation. "and from the head of rocks I see him" I see 
those who preceded the creation of the world. (consider--)
A parable of a king who was looking to build. 
He would dig and go down 
and was looking to lay a QEMELIOS ("foundation", Greek 
loanword in Hebrew, written in Hebrew characters, of course) and 
was only finding watery swanp. Likewise in many places, he could only 
go on and dig in another place. (finally) He was finding down below 
a PETRA ("bedrock" Greek loanword in Hebrew, feminine singular.) 
He said, 'here I will build'. 
So he laid the QEMELIOS and built. 
So it is with the Holy One, blessed be He, 
He was looking to create the world and was sitting and looking at 
the generation of Enosh and the generation of the flood. 
He said, 'How can I create the world, with these wicked people 
arising and angering me?'
When he looked ahead and saw Avraham who was to arise 
he said, 'hey, I've found a PETRA (feminine noun) to build on and
to found the world.' Thus he called Avraham "tsur" as it is said, 
"Look to the rock [tsur] from which you were hewn"(Is 51.1) 
and Israel he called rocks [tsurim](Num 23.9). 

In Babata Greek documents of DSS you will find a Nabatean Arab city 
mentioned several times, named Petra (PETRA and PETRAIOS "Petran").

You will also find the following Jewish names of interest:

Tosephta Demai 1.9 (tannaitic, pre-200): "and the market of Petros".

Bereshit Rabba 94 (also quoted in the later anthology Yalqut shimoni): 
     "Rabbi bar Qappara (a student of Yehuda ha-nasi, collector of the
bar Qappara is called a tanna,) and Rabbi Yose ben Petros 
(also mentioned in talmud yerushalmi) said to each other . . ." 
[This Petros would be mid-2nd century, perhaps born in the generation after

the BarKosiba/BarKochba revolt--RB] 

The above should open up a bit of the ancient Jewish midrashic world and 
it relevance to NT studies. At a minimum it helps appreciate a potnetially 
richer cultural background to the petros/petra saying in Matthew.
(By the way, it may be that in the Greek diaspora, where 'Petros' was a 
word "stone" and not a name and Shimon was as common among Jews as 
John in English, Shim`on Peter preferred 'Kefa' [Aramaic: stone].)

Why is this impressive linguistically? Because of all places for the
Hebrew to attest the loanword PETRA, it is in a very similar cultural 
context to our story in Matthew 16. As is always the case, there are four 
logical options. 
1. Matthew/Jesus build on oral midrashic traditions. (a variant of #3)
2. Rabbinic midrashic sources borrow from Christian sources. 
3. Both Matthew/Jesus and rabbinic midrashic schools use 
   cultural/linguistic material about petra/petros that was common to both.

4. Each independently created the petros/petra material. 

While certainly is impossible, the name PETROS already attested for  
Jews in early (tannaitic, 2nd century) rabbinic sources at a time of 
church/synagoue hostilities suggests that number 2 is less probable and 1, 

3 or 4 more probable. 
(Though of more drastic measure, we don't find many crusader kids named 
SalaH ad-din, nor 7-8th century Christians named AHmed.)
David Bivin has written on petra/petros in www.JerusalemPerspective.com.

And of course, the above has relevance for "king" parables, and general 
wisdom about building houses and foundations. 

Randall Buth

More information about the B-Greek mailing list