Here I give my last supporting arguments that Cephas may have been someone other than Peter, despite widespread assumptions and views that go back at least to the time of the New Testament, e.g., John 1:42, where they are explicitly identified as one and the same! But were they?
It’s an intriguing question rarely asked. Below is the final bit of my article on the topic, written for a scholarly audience but obviously with a view toward what non-scholars would be interested in. At the end I provide a summary and draw out the implications.
In the next post I will discuss whether now — all these years later, when I’m older and wiser (or at least older) — I still buy the argument. (!)
What now of Paul’s other references to Cephas? Here the one thing that cannot be overlooked is that, taken at least on face value, they appear to stand somewhat at odds with what we “know” about Peter’s role in the early Christian church, at least as Paul describes it in Galatians. There Paul states explicitly that Peter was entrusted with the “apostolate to the circumcised,” just as he himself had been given the apostolate to the uncircumcised (Gal 2:8). This must mean that as Paul was committed to evangelizing Gentiles, Peter was committed to evangelizing Jews (whether in Palestine or abroad). This makes Paul’s other references to Cephas curious indeed, if in fact they are to be taken as references to Peter.
Consider first the situation, puzzling as it has proved for interpreters over the ages, that occurred in Antioch: the confrontation of Paul and Cephas. Whatever the precise nature of the dispute, and whether it was Paul or Cephas who got the better of the argument, it is perfectly clear from what Paul tells us that Cephas was in Antioch associating with Christians who had been converted from paganism. Why he was doing so Paul does not say. But in any case it seems to be an unusual thing to do for someone who was dedicated to evangelizing non-Christian Jews. Why is he not in the Jewish mission field rather than among Gentile churches? I doubt whether we will ever have a fully satisfactory answer to the question, but I cannot help but note that if in fact this person is not the one entrusted with the apostolate to the circumcised, there is no problem as to why he is not doing what he had been appointed to do.
Somewhat less persuasive, but nonetheless worthy of note, is Cephas’s possible relationship with the converted pagans who comprised the church in Corinth. Whether Cephas had actually visited Corinth, of course, has been hotly debated. Here it is not necessary to delve into all the problems associated with the party slogans of 1 Corinthians 1:12 and 3:22, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ.” It is enough to note that of the three Christian leaders mentioned here, two of them, Paul and Apollos, had clearly ministered among these converted pagans. To my mind, there is no compelling reason to doubt that the third had as well. The Corinthians certainly seem to know something about Cephas’s activities. So much can be assumed on the basis of 1 Cor 9:5, in which Paul does not appear to be giving his readers new information about Cephas but rather to be presupposing that they already knew that he was accompanied on his journeys with his wife. Had he made a stop among the Corinthian congregation? If so, it must have been an influential visit, if indeed some members of the congregation are claiming a personal allegiance to him as a leader or teacher over the one who established their church. But if this is the case, it is again puzzling that the one thing Paul says about the ministry of Peter is that it focused on evangelizing non-Christian Jews, while every time he mentions Cephas it is in association with converts from paganism.
The tradition that Cephas and Peter were two different persons is both very ancient and remarkably persistent. The tradition is explicitly attested in the early second century, and may well have been derived from our earliest sources for the life and work of the apostles, the NT documents themselves. Using these writings, an early Christian could have concluded that among Jesus’ followers were two with similar epithets: Cephas, one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem, and the disciple Peter, later an evangelist among the Jews.
What, though, about the historical question: Was Cephas Peter?
I’ll address that question briefly in the next post
None of the witnesses that deal with the issue from the second century down to the Middle Ages can be construed, of course, as primary evidence, one way or the other. But in point of fact there is only one primary witness: the Apostle Paul, the only writer from antiquity whom we know beyond reasonable doubt to have been personally acquainted with Cephas. Paul’s testimony must be construed as prima facie evidence, and cannot be discounted because of what is said in later sources, written by those who did not know Cephas, or by general improbabilities that may seem to attend to the case. And while it may be unfortunate that Paul did not explicitly differentiate between Cephas and Peter, he could hardly have been expected to do so, any more than he could have been expected to state that James, one of the two other Jerusalem ”pillars,” was not the son of Zebedee. All the same, we can no longer afford to overlook the peculiar results of this study. When Paul mentions Cephas, he apparently does not mean Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus.
The implications of this conclusion will be obvious to anyone who has worked at any length with the NT materials. For those who have not, we can simply mention the following:
1) Paul would not have gone to Jerusalem, three years after his “conversion” (Gal 2:18-20), in order to learn more about the life of Jesus from one of his closest disciples, Peter. Instead, he would have gone to confer with Cephas, a leader of the Jerusalem church, perhaps concerning missionary strategy.
(2) Peter may not have even been present at the Jerusalem conference in which Paul’s Gentile mission was approved and sanctioned (Gal 2:1-10).
(3) No longer would we know if Peter was accompanied by his wife on his missionary journeys (1 Cor 9:5), nor whether he visited Corinth.
(4) The confrontation at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) would not have been between Peter and Paul, i.e. between Jesus’ closest disciple and his most avid apostle. It would have been between a Jerusalem and a Pauline form of Christianity, pure and simple.
(5) Finally, there would remain no NT evidence of Peter’s presence in Antioch, where tradition ascribes to him the first bishopric.