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Cephas and Peter in the Writings of Paul (Who Knew Them)

In my previous post I gave the evidence that in the early church there were writers who maintained that Cephas and Peter were *not* the same person, despite what is explicitly said in John 1:42.  As some readers have noted to me, that differentiation *may* have been driven by a very clear and certain reason: in Galatians 2 Paul confronts “Cephas” and blasts him for not understanding the Gospel.  Could there have been a major rift between the two most important apostles of early Christianity?  Surely they were more unified than *that*!  Well, if Cephas was not the same person as Peter, it is a much, much smaller problem.  So maybe that is what was driving early Christians to claim there were in fact two figures, the apostle Peter and the other person Cephas.

That post came from a scholarly article I wrote on the topic many years ago.  I’ve decided not to give the entire article here – it gets increasingly technical and rather, uh, boring to general readers.  But I will give here, below, one of the most important parts, where I begin to argue that there is good evidence in Paul’s own writings that Paul, who knew Peter, talks about him as being someone other than Cephas.


I have already shown that it cannot be argued, as one might be inclined to do otherwise, that this tradition (that Peter and Cephas were two different people) derives simply from the ignorance of Christians who did not realize that ”Kephas• and”Petros• are translational equivalents.

The most common view concerning the origin of this tradition is that it derives from an apologetic concern, namely to show that the person whom Paul opposed in Antioch was not the other great apostle of the early church, Peter, but an apostle of much lower standing, Cephas, one of the seventy.  There is a good deal to be said for this view, given the circumstance that several of our sources state explicitly that Paul did in fact confront this otherwise unknown person in Antioch.  At the same time, none of the sources that draws this distinction actually makes anything of it — i.e. none of them uses it for any explicit apologetic ends.  Furthermore, it should be noted that in several of the representatives of this view, including our earliest, the Epistula Apostolorum, Cephas is not one of the seventy at all but is a member of Jesus’ original twelve disciples.

For these reasons, a simpler explanation for the tradition should perhaps be considered at greater length:  it may have derived from …

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Was Cephas Peter? The Rest of the Argument
Lecture at Fresno City College



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  December 14, 2016

    Might it also be possible, Dr. Ehrman, that Peter was known by the Semitic nom-de-guerre Cephas when amongst his Semitic-speaking Jewish brethren in Jerusalem, while he was known by the Greek nom-de-guerre Peter when with his Greek-speaking Jewish brethren in, say for example, Antioch? (Similar to how Paul was “Saul” in Jerusalem, but “Paul” around the Aegean)

    That could explain why Paul calls him Cephas when referring to his role as a “Pillar” of the Jerusalem Church, and “Peter” when referring to his role as a missionary to the “circumcised” — the implication being that Peter is on a mission to the Greek-speaking Jews. The readers of Paul’s letters may have already understood this distinction. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter was sent on the mission to the Greek-speaking Jews because, of all the disciples, Peter may actually have had the most adequate working knowledge of Greek. Hmmm…that gives me an idea…

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      Possibly — but it was in Antioch, e.g., that Paul had a confrontation with “Cephas”

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 15, 2016

        True, but I’m talking specifically in the case of Gal. 2:7-9. In the case of Paul’s confrontation with “Cephas” in Antioch (2:11-14), notice that said confrontation is over Peter’s hypocrisy of eating with the Gentiles when Jewish Christians weren’t around, but suddenly becoming observant when Jewish Christians arrived, thus signally his Jewishness to his Jewish brethren, and, in Paul’s mind, betraying the atmosphere of inclusiveness that Paul had struggled to created between the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities. By calling Peter “Cephas” it is almost as if Paul is throwing Peter’s Jewishness in his face. Hence, this supports my original conjecture.

  2. TWood
    TWood  December 14, 2016

    1. Let’s assume Cephas is not Peter, then how do we know Paul ever met Peter?

    2. Do you think the John in Gal is the son of Zebedee?

    3. Doesn’t Paul’s mentioning of Cephas 1st in 1 Cor 15:5 seem to make him too important not to be Peter there?

    4. Is James in 1 Cor 15:7 the same one in Gal (lord’s brother)?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  December 14, 2016

    And just to make things more confusing, we’re told Peter’s real name is Simon, and Peter is just his nickname.

    But would Jesus have given him such a nickname if he had another disciple with a name that meant the same thing?

    And Jesus wouldn’t be using New Testament Greek, would he? If he did in fact want to make the point that this disciple of his would be the rock upon which his church was built, he would have used an Aramaic word (perhaps not Cephas, which I see doesn’t necessarily mean rock, per se, you’d know more about that). Even if he knew the Greek word, it wouldn’t be a word he’d employ in this context.

    Obviously some of the stories about Peter are later additions, to justify later developments. Simon–Peter–Cephas–that guy–became the central organizing figure in early Christianity. Paul may have ultimately proven to be the best evangelist, the best theologian, but he was not a great unifier or administrator, based on what we know of him. They would want to believe Jesus saw this potential in him, and entirely possibly he did, but Jesus was not trying to found a new church, and he believed God and the Son of Man would be the organizing powers of the Kingdom. The man we call Peter is reported to have had many failures, to have been berated by Jesus, to have denied him three times. I always found it odd that Jesus would choose him when most of the stories about Peter before the crucifixion are about how he failed to understand Jesus, and failed to do what Jesus asked of him.

    What makes this even weirder is that Paul’s original name was Saul. So Simon and Saul became Peter and Paul. Well, that strong ‘p’ sound does have a certain appeal–sibilants don’t seem appropriate, somehow–people prefer the names that sound better, stronger, more straightforward. I personally never trust a Starfleet captain who doesn’t have hard consonants in his or her name. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      THe idea is that Jesus gave one person the nickname, and a later follower had the same nickname.

  4. Avatar
    bbcamerican  December 14, 2016

    Now I’m intrigued. I was originally on the “fabricated bifurcation” end, and now you present an interesting linguistic argument that seems to run counter to my original opinion. Now, I’m stumped! Staying tuned for “the exciting conclusion” in your next post (hopefully!).

  5. Avatar
    jhague  December 14, 2016

    “James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars”

    Why is Cephas listed as a pillar? Is he listed as a leader of the church any where else? We know that Peter was one of the leaders of the church yet he is not listed as a “pillar.” Does this make sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      The argument is that what we “know” about Peter is not true about Peter, but is true about Cephas. He was the leader. Peter was the missionary.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 16, 2016

        So John and Peter were members of the 12 disciples. Peter was the missionary to the Jews. James, Cephas and John were the leaders of the Jerusalem church (James and Cephas coming into the group later), and all of them including Peter were apostles?

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 14, 2016

    “Paul speaks as if Cephas were not Peter because in fact he was not. If this view seems too far-fetched for modern sensibilities, it can at least serve to explain the genesis and perpetuation of the tradition we have sketched.”

    You’ve lost me here! Not because you’re saying they were two different men – my understanding is that you believed that was the case when you wrote this, and you’ve subsequently changed your mind. What I don’t understand is your concluding sentence here. If you didn’t expect modern people to accept the “fact” that Cephas and Peter were different men, how could you expect them to understand that “fact” as explaining the tradition? (Maybe you didn’t mean to include your fellow scholars among the moderns who wouldn’t accept the “fact”?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      I’m afraid you misunderstood me. Probably because I was being too subtle! Or at least unclear. I’m saying that even if people today can’t bring themselves to accept that Cephas and Peter were different people based on the evidence that seems to emerge from studying what Paul has to say about them, at the least this evidence can explain why *ancient* readers thought they were two different people.

  7. Avatar
    Tony  December 14, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman

    I believe verse 9 clarifies the issue. By comparing the job description assigned to “Peter” in verses 7 and 8 with the job description for “Cephas” in verse 9 we note those to be identical. Here is Galatians 2:7-9:

    “7 On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised”.

    On that basis I consider it probable that Peter and Cephas are one and the same in Galatians.

    Why do you think the Gospel writers decided to make Cephas one of the twelve disciples – while in 1 Cor 15:5 he distinctly is not part of “the twelve”?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      Cephas wasn’t one of the twelve. Peter was.

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 15, 2016

        Thanks! So the Peter of the Gospels is not the Cephas in Paul’s letters. Is this a consensus NT scholarly opinion?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 15, 2016

          Ha! Almost *no* one thinks that! My article was mapping out the smallest minority position imaginable!

          • Avatar
            Tony  December 15, 2016

            Great! Does that mean you’ve become sympathetic to the minority Mythicism hypothesis as well?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 16, 2016

            I’m not sure I follow. What are you seeing as the link between the Cephas/Peter issue and the question of whether Jesus lived?

  8. Avatar
    Jason  December 14, 2016

    How would the apparent disdain of Jesus for things Helenestic and Paul’s sense of importance of his “ministry to the uncircumcised” have influenced the use of either of the translational equivalents in Paul’s epistles and the Mark/M/L/Q sources?

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 15, 2016

    I think you indicated at the beginning of this thread that you leaned, at the time you wrote this article, toward the view that Cephas and Peter were two individuals, while you now believe they were one. What changed your mind?

    Also, when I first became engrossed in reading the Bible, the sect with which I was involved spoke of the Jerusalem Conference mentioned in Acts and Galatians as the Council of 50 AD, as though it had the force of later ecumenical councils. Do you believe it was a formal gathering of apostles to establish binding precedent, or an informal meeting between leaders of the Jerusalem community and Paul and Barnabas to work out their particular differences over how to approach Gentiles with the gospel?

    Finally, early in Acts, Peter has a vision and an enounter with a Roman centurion that leaves the impression that God has designated him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, though Paul claims in Galatians that Peter was known as the apostle to the Jews and Paul apostle to the Gentiles. What puzzles me about that is that the author of Acts seems to know much more about Paul than he does about Peter and, presumably, wanted to present Paul in the best light possible. Why would he have denied Paul the exclusive title, “Apostle to the Gentiles?”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      1. I’ll try to say something that in a post soon. 2. No it was not a formal council like, say, the Council of Nicea. Nothing like it. 3. The author of Acts wanted to show that there was firm and certain continuity between Paul’s message and the message of the apostles before him, and the story about Peter and Cornelius (along with the Conference in Jerusalem in Act 15) achieves this end.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 16, 2016

        Thank you.
        I’m listening to Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ (one of my very favorite Christmas pieces!) and it occurred to me that I, and other followers, I guess, would like to know what the life of a child in Nazareth would really have been like from 4 BCE to 9 CE, i.e. about the first 12 years of Jesus’s life. Is there enough evidence available to create a likely profile?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2016

          I’m afraid it has to be based on lots and lots of educated guess work, since we have no direct evidence.

  10. Avatar
    wostraub  December 15, 2016

    “But Saul, who was also called Paul …”

    Thank you for another very interesting article, Dr. Ehrman. I can’t help but think that the Peter/Cephas issue is another example of plausible excuse-making. As you noted, if Peter and Cephas were indeed the same person, then there was a problem concerning unity in the early church. Well, we just can’t have that, so they were different people. Another example is the “James brother of Jesus” ossuary found back in 2003. Although James and Jesus were common names, Christians immediately claimed they were “the” James and Jesus. It seems that whatever suits one’s thinking works just fine, as long as it’s plausible and can’t be unproven.

  11. Avatar
    Tony  December 15, 2016

    Here is another mystery. Paul never mentions Cephas (or Peter) in his letter to the Romans. Yet Christian church tradition seems to think Peter was the founder of the church in Rome.

    Based on Galatians Cephas/Peter would preach to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. The Roman church members were Gentile God-fearers – but Paul had never been near that church!

    Is there any consensus within secular scholarship as to how this could be explained?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2016

      Most scholars think that the church was started by someone other than Peter or Paul (since in Paul’s letter ot the Christians in Rome he indicates he had never been there, and he greets 26 people in the church there, but doesn’t mention Peter.) Those who think Peter went there tend to think that was after the church was started.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  December 16, 2016

    “I’m not sure I follow. What are you seeing as the link between the Cephas/Peter issue and the question of whether Jesus lived?”
    No link whatsoever. Except they’re both minority opinions, ( the Mythicism one on whether Jesus lived).

    I think Cephas=Peter. Seems I share the majority opinion on that one. Not so much with the historical Jesus question where, as I’m sure you gathered, I favor the minority opinion.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2016

      I don’t think that if one minority opinion is right it is evidence that another minority opinion is. They are unrelated issues. (And I no longer hold the Cephas and Peter were two different persons)

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 18, 2016

        They are unrelated and I regret having made an observation which led to a misunderstanding.

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