I have recently finished republishing a series of posts from years ago that explored the tradition that Peter and Cephas were in fact two different people. Anyone who is not interested in the Bible would care, of course, but then again, no one like that would be on the blog! For those who are both interested and familiar with the New Testament, the idea is unusual and odd – a bit of a bombshell, actually, since it is normally assumed that these are two names for the same disciple of Jesus, Simon son of Jonah, nicknamed “Cephas” (an Aramaic term that means “rock”) by Jesus. When the term “Rock” was translated into Greek by later story tellers, they simply used the Greek term “Petros,” which gets transliterated into English as “Peter.”
No problem, right?
Well for 99.99% of the readers of the NT over the centuries, right. No problem. But for roughly .01% of us there is a problem, as I have outlined in the previous posts. I showed that there was in fact an early Christian tradition – not the dominant tradition, but one that went on in written sources for centuries (even though even most scholars haven’t known it) — that there were in fact two prominent Christians with the same nickname, one in Aramaic and the other in Greek, one of them one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and the other someone who converted to the faith after his death.
I also showed that there are grounds for thinking this. Even though John 1:42 explicitly identifies Cephas and Peter as the same person, the much earlier writer Paul, the only surviving author who actually knew Peter, or Cephas, or both, seems to indicate they were separate people. He doesn’t actually SAY so, but that appears to be the implications of what he does say, when he speaks of them both in the same breath.
And so I concluded that maybe they were in fact two different people.
When I published these posts on Cephas and Peter years ago, I promised I would then explain why I had doubts about whether my view was correct. For some reason I never got to that post, and periodically blog readers have reminded me and asked: what do you think now? So, well, I need to say!
The posts were based on an article that I published in academic journal (over 30 years ago now!): “Cephas and Peter,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 109 (1990) pp. 463-74). When the article came out, I had lots of friends come up to me at professional conferences to ask me if I really meant it (!). Yup, I did. But what now?
Actually, I’m not so sure. Either way. Dale Allison wrote a vigorous refutation of the article (I think it was also in the Journal of Biblical Literature, but I don’t remember) and he and I disagreed on a number of points. But his most obvious objection is one that has always stuck in my head, and was stuck in there even while writing the article. It may kill the thesis, or it may not: but it does render it difficult.
It is this. Very simply: Cephas/Peter was (virtually) not a name or nickname until Jesus gave it to his disciple Simon. How likely is it that in early Christianity there would be TWO people with the same previously unknown nickname, one in Aramaic speaking circles and the other in Greek?
Let me provide a bit of background. The most important NT reference on the issue is Matthew 16:18, a hugely important passage not just for Matthew’s Gospel (it is found nowhere else in the NT) but also for the history of Christianity. It was a central point of dispute between Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation. My beloved professor of Church history at Princeton Theological Seminary – the most erudite scholar I’ve ever known — Karlfried Froehlich, wrote his PhD dissertation on the history of the interpretation of the verse (in Germany).
Here’s the context. As in the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond that some people think he is John the Baptist come back from the dead, or Elijah, or another of the prophets. He then asks who they think he is and Simon replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds that this truth has not been revealed to Simon by “flesh and blood” but by God the Father himself, and then Jesus renames him: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
It seems like a fairly straightforward statement. Peter is the rock and on this rock Jesus will build his church. But the verse is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Jesus uses two different but related words for “rock”: “You are Petros and upon this petra I will build my church.” Why does Jesus change words and what does that signify?
Catholics had long insisted that Peter was the first pope and that the church was built on the “rock” of the papacy (I’m putting it in highly simplified terms here). Protestants pointed out that the words are different and that the church was not build on Peter himself (Petros) but on the words he had just spoken (the divinity of Christ), as shown by the change in words.
It’s a complicated issue on a number of levels, and I won’t give a detailed study here, obviously; but I will say this. The two words mean different things. A “petros” is a small stone, a pebble; a “petra” is a large crag, an enormous rock. You cannot build a large structure on a stone but you can build it on a foundation rock. The problem is that Jesus could not nickname Simon “Petra” (massive stone) because in Greek Petra is feminine. And so he uses the masculine word that is closely related: “You are (masculine) Petros and on this (large crag feminine) Petra I will build my church.”
Brief grammatical point: In Greek, every single noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Sometimes the gender of the noun is based on the gender of the thing it represents (“boy” is masculine; “widow’ is feminine); but most of the time nouns are not obviously one gender or another, and so they are just randomly given masculine, feminine, or neuter genders because every none has to have one (the Greek word “word” is masculine; “road” is feminine; “work” is neuter).
And so if Jesus wanted to name Peter something connected with “foundation stone” he had to give him a masculine name. Petros (masculine) then, is meant to be the name form based on petra (crag). But what did Jesus mean? Was the church built on the disciple Peter (the first pope) or on his confession (the fact that Jesus is the Son of God)? Well, are you Catholic or Protestant? 😊
And here’s a further complication. If Jesus renamed Peter “Rock” he would have done so in his native language, Aramaic, not Greek. And Aramaic does not have two similar sounding words for “rock.” So Jesus would have said “You are Cephas, and upon this cephas I will build my church.” Only when the tradition got translated into Greek were two different words used (where the feminine Petra could not used as the name of a man).
Hence the problem. The name Cephas never occurs (in any surviving evidence) as a nickname prior to the Christian tradition. So what are the chances that TWO of Jesus’ followers (out of the 60 million people in the empire at the time) would be the only ones with this name and both given it within years of each other?
On the other hand, maybe a Greek speaking Christian, say a decade or so after Jesus’ death, was given the same nickname (Greek Petros) as one of Jesus’ followers because he was the “rock” of his own community. We know that later Christians gave their children this name. And there is one clear instance of a slave named Petros before our period (slaves were often given nicknames as names: “Useful” “Happy” etc.). So possibly it was used of someone other than Cephas in a different context, possibly modeled on Cephas?
It’s possible. Most scholars think it’s improbable. OK, highly improbable. Me? I’m not sure, either way.