In the Gospel, Punctuation Makes All the Difference.

But He turned, and said unto Peter, “Get thee behind Me, Satan: thou art an offence unto Me”


Talk about a slightly awkward moment!

How did Peter recover from this “dressing down”  from his boss?

In today’s idiom I suppose we would say that this is the passage where Our Lord “read the riot act” to St. Peter.

If I was standing in St Peter’s shoes at the time, I think I would have simply melted into a little quivering blue puddle of shame.

And I think we all know how much St. Peter loved our Lord. For heaven’s sake, Peter had just made his extraordinary confession,

Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

We know that Peter is on the impulsive side. He leaps out of boats to walk on the water to Our Lord. He is quick to cut the ear off of Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas, when they came to arrest Jesus.

Image result for which apostle cut off the ear

Our Lord knew perfectly well how much Peter loved him. And, even more, Our Lord had just said after Peter’s confession,

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

I’ve heard of managers and bosses that are perhaps a bit, shall we say,  “mercurial,” but “Get thee behind me, Satan” just seems a little “over the top” doesn’t it?

Related image

But maybe St. Peter, although rebuked, did not take the words of Our Lord in this sense. Can they be understood in any other?

Well, as readers of this blog probably know, whenever one has trouble with Scripture, help is not far off, a trusty resource is available with most of the answers, and it is called the Catena Aurea (the “Golden Chain”). And this is nothing other than St. Thomas Aquinas’ own compilation of the writings of all the Fathers, Doctors, Saints and exegetes who had anything interesting to say about every passage in the four Gospels!

Image result for Catena aurea

Now what does the Catena Aurea have to say about this mysterious passage? Is Our Lord really angry with St. Peter to the extent that he calls him by the name of everybody’s worst enemy?

Well among the various commentators on this passage is one of my favorites, St Hillary! And this is what he says:

The Lord, knowing the suggestion of the craft of the devil, says to Peter, “Get thee behind me;” that is, that he should follow the example of His [Our Lord’s] passion; but to him by whom this expression was suggested, He turns and says, “Satan, thou art an offence unto me.” For we cannot suppose that the name of Satan, and the sin of being an offence, would be imputed to Peter after those so great declarations of blessedness and power that had been granted him.

There! Isn’t that fantastic?

In other words, we have an issue of grammar and syntax here ripe for the teeming and alert intellects of Greek and Latin students everywhere!

Is the epithet “Satan” in apposition to “Get thee behind me”? Or is it the direct address (vocative Case) of a person who is not present (e.g. is our Lord apostrophizing?) Or perhaps Satan is present unseen to everyone but Our Lord? For as St. Hillary says, it was surely by Satan’s suggestion that Peter said what he did.

Our Lord, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep, is ever gentle and courteous. He is ever temperate and moderate in his speech. He is never one to utter an unfit or overly harsh word.

He says to Peter, “Get behind me.” That is, “Get behind and follow me, for you too must lay down your life, suffer and die and rise just as I”

And then He addresses Satan whose temporary kingdom and reign will shortly be overturned,

“Satan, thou art an offense to me!”

which is actually sort of an understatement. Even here Our Lord does not speak with undue harshness to the one who represents the greatest obstacle in his mission.

The early manuscripts of Sacred Scripture do not contain punctuation. Thus St. Hillary’s account of this passage is possible.

Peter, come behind Me and follow Me. Satan thou art an offense to me!

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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16 Responses to In the Gospel, Punctuation Makes All the Difference.

  1. petranchmom says:

    Agreed! That is fantastic. Thank you for doing this blog. You are a master at instruction and stirring thoughts. First, you take a provocative line from scripture; then you share how you research the wisdom of the Church to interpret this line; then you select St. Hillary’s interpretation, which is possible and truly unique (at least to me it is for I have never heard a homily given in such a way). Extraordinary! God bless you, Stephanie, and your wonderful family.

  2. Angela Lessard says:

    Wouldn’t it be vocative in either case?

  3. marklangley says:

    Yes, that is right, at least according to my own un-celebrated and un-heralded knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.

  4. Brian D Kelly says:

    Thank you, Mark. Excellent explanation. Thank you St. Hilary. Still, even though Satana is in the vocative, the rebuke is followed by “thou savorest not the things that are of God, but of men.” This would seem to be directed at Peter, rather than Satan, for Satan doesn’t savor things of men, but incites them to begin with. Too, I do not have the Greek text at hand, but perhaps in the Greek Satan is not spelled with a capital S. yes, it is in the Vulgate. My point being that satan means “adversary,” and that, in this text, Peter was speaking as an adversary.

    • marklangley says:

      Thank you Brian. I did grab my Greek and Latin side by side New Testament and I see that the editors did not capitalize Satan in either translation. But I guess, I was under the impression that the original texts might have been written in all caps (e.g. the Hebrew texts). But nonetheless, while I agree that the passage “thou savorest not the things that are of God, but of men” is directed at Peter, I still do not see that this would exclude the possibility that Jesus is sort of addressing Peter- then turning to Satan – then turning back to Peter…

      Does this seem to much of a stretch here to save the interpretation 🙂

  5. Stephen Garland says:

    It would be a blessing to receive a rebuke from Jesus if one is influenced by satan. Why try and sugar coat it?

  6. marklangley says:

    Well I agree that it would be a blessing to be rebuked by Jesus. But I just can’t see Him pulling out all the rhetorical stops to do this. I mean doesn’t it seem too harsh given that Peter was speaking out of an overabundance of affection and perhaps a mistaken view of how Jesus was to accomplish His mission? (i.e. perhaps he still thought that Jesus would establish an earthly reign?)

    • Stephen Garland says:

      Thanks for your reply Mark. The consequences of sin are more harsh (and even diabolical without the sacrifice of Jesus). Peter had an important mission and needed a strong correction.

  7. Doug says:

    Mr. Langley, IMO Jesus was nipping in the bud the ‘warm and fuzzy Jesus’ Christianity we often see now.
    And you’re correct about the rebuke of Jesus, at least according to a wise man. Pr 9:8; 27:5; Ec 7:5

    • polylogism says:

      Far be it from us to implicate St. Hilary, the “Hammer of the Arians,” in the “warm fuzzy” Christianity we see now. Rather, let us in devotion and humility join St. Thomas in turning a docile ear to the Holy Man.

      • Doug says:

        Poly, it’s a fact that the oldest mss. of the NT contain no punctuation OR lower case OR word spacing. [It’s called uncial script.] To illustrate, here’s part of what I just wrote, as John might have penned it: ITSAFACTTHATTHEOLDESTMSSOFTHENT
        The apparatus we take for granted hadn’t been invented yet. [It never was, in the case of Hebrew.] So any word division and such in a modern translation has to be done by the translator. We know the Bible writers acted via inspiration of holy spirit [2Tim 3:16], but later translators and commentators did not. So a discussion of “satan” vs. “Satan” may have sincere proponents for each.
        In this case, though, all we need is a basic knowledge of Hebrew, which is the origin of the word “satan”. Any scholar will tell us that it’s first an ordinary word meaning “resister” or “opposer”. Certainly it can be applied to the one who opposed Yahweh’s purpose for mankind from the beginning. [Gen ch. 3] Likewise, that one slandered God when he implied that humans would do better by following him instead. “Then the snake said to the woman, ‘No! You will not die!'” [Gen 3:4 NJB] The Greek “diabolos” means “liar” or “slanderer”, so now we have our “Satan the Devil”, commonly called. Please note the wording at John 8:44.
        Was Peter a satan at the moment being discussed? Yes. Was Satan present? He need not have been; Jesus’ rebuke applies fully to Peter.
        I am interested in religion, history, the Bible and of course salvation via Jesus. I’ve read Hilary and find him interesting, but I’m not obligated to take what he says at face value. Especially here, where his view involves re-thinking Peter’s role in the Gospels and worry [it seems] about ‘vocative cases’ in Latin. Peter’s comment was motivated by a natural desire for his good friend and leader to be spared any unpleasantness. He was wrong, and got the needed ‘trustworthy blow from a friend’. [Pr 27:5,6 ibid.]

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