Together Again – Peter and Cephas

Every Bible student and Sunday School participant knows that Peter and Cephas are one and the same. He is more commonly referred to as Peter, but he was sometimes called Cephas. This is not only the conventional wisdom of church goers, but of New Testament scholars. Some online skeptics, however, backed by the occasional outlier scholar, argue that that Peter and Cephas were two different people that came to be merged into one figure somewhere along the way.

The two-people theory rests largely on the fact that a few second and third century sources affirmed it and the vagueness with which the two names are used by Paul. As to the former, the fact that a few post-canonical sources interpreted these passages in a particular way should not be dismissed out of hand, but also is far from the end of the inquiry. It seems likely that the few early sources who accepted a distinction between Peter and Cephas were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to “clear” Peter of the unflattering depiction of him in Galatians 2, where he backslides and refuses to eat with the Gentile Christians. Moreover, earlier sources – from the first century in fact -- equate Peter with Cephas. First there is John 1:42, “He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” Second, at 1 Clement 5.4 and 47.3, the author(s) of 1 Clement equate Peter with Cephas. Thus, the sources affirming Peter as Cephas are much earlier and more likely to have had information on the issue at hand, than the few second and third century sources to the contrary.

As for the vagueness of Paul’s references, the supposed indications that Paul viewed Peter and Cephas as two different people are unconvincing. The most prominent passage that uses the names Peter and Cephas is from Galatians 2, where Paul is making his case to the pillars of the Jerusalem Church. It is just after this passage were Cephas travels to Antioch and behaves – in Paul’s opinion – hypocritically towards the Gentile Christians.

But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor-- the very thing I also was eager to do.

A fair question presents itself: If Peter and Cephas are the same, why does Paul refer to them by different names in the same passage?

The answer is that New Testament authors – along with their non-Christian peers – often changed up the names of the people about whom they were writing. In an article on this issue, Dale Allison provided a number of examples of such a practice:

Ancient writers, who in this were no different from modern writers, frequently used synonyms to avoid certain types of repetition, including the repetition of proper names. In the Testament of Jacob, the hero is sometimes “Jacob,” sometimes “Israel,” sometimes “Jacob-Israel,” even in the same paragraph. In Jos. Asen 22:2, the narrator informs us: “And Jacob heard about Joseph his son, and Israel went to Egypt….” … So too Mark 14:37: He [Jesus] came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter: “Simon, are you asleep?” Compare Luke 22:31-34: “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you…” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison, and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you Peter, the cock will not crow ….” Note also that in Acts, Peter is sometimes called “Peter,” other times “Simon Peter,” sometimes “Simon,” and once “Simeon,” while John Mark is usually “John Mark,” but once just “Mark” and another time just “John.”

Allison, Peter and Cephas, One and the Same, JBL, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn 1992), 491-92.

The same phenomenon of avoiding repetition is the likely explanation for Paul’s varied use of “Christ,” “Jesus,” and “Jesus Christ” in Romans 8:9-11. Oher passages and Paul show the same tendency.

While this does not necessarily prove that Paul refers to the same man when he uses Peter and Cephas, but it does mean that the opposite inference is equally unnecessary. Paul may indeed mean the same person even though he shifts from using “Peter” to using “Cephas.”

At this point in our inquiry, we have established that the two earliest sources that use both Peter and Cephas are referring to the same person. We have also established that Paul’s shift from Peter to Cephas in the same passage does not establish that he is discussing two different men. In my opinion, this would be enough for the reasonable historian to conclude that Peter is sometimes referred to as Cephas. But there is more.

First, going back to John 1:42, we see that there is a linguistic relationship between the names Peter and Cephas. Both are translated, “stone” or “rock.” Peter (petros) is Greek for “stone” or “boulder.” Cephas (cheoas) is a Greek rendering of the Aramaic word for “stone” or “rock.” Peter could have been known as Peter among more Hellenized circles and Cephas among more Hebrew circles.

Second, Paul reports that Jesus appeared to Cephas before the other apostles. 1 Cor. 15:5. This correlates with Luke’s report that Jesus appeared to “Simon” before the other apostles. Luke 24:34.

Third, Acts provides varied evidence supporting the view that Peter and Cephas are the same man. Though Acts describes the early Church and its leaders at various stages, he makes no mention of a Cephas. Perhaps more important is that Paul’s reference to Cephas as a joint “pillar” along with James and John appears to correlate with Acts’ depiction of Peter’s close relationship with John. All three are depicted as the leaders of the Jerusalem Church.

Fourth, Paul describes Peter and Cephas as “apostles” with a ministry to the circumcision.

When combined, the correlation in the descriptions of Peter and Cephas from the New Testament is powerful confirmation that we are correct in concluding that they are one and the same. Allison provides this helpful list (which I paraphrase):

  • His name means rock.

  • The Lord appeared to him first among the apostles.

  • He was a Jew prominent in the Jerusalem Church.

  • He was associated with John and James.

  • He participated in the Gentile mission, though called to the circumcision.

  • He was married.

  • He was of “fickle” character.

  • He knew Paul personally.

  • He was an itenary

The argument that they were two different people has little to comend it and plenty to refute it. Given the early witness that Peter and Cephas are the same, as well as the identity of person demonstrated in different parts of the New Testament, the best explanation of the facts is that Peter and Cephas were one and the same.


Anonymous said…
I agree that Peter and Cephas are the same person. But what do you say about the claim there were 12 disciples? See here. And what do you say to my answer to that specific question in these words:

E.P. Sanders wrote about this very problem in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, (Penguin Press, 1993), which I devoured. His discussion of the twelve disciples is on pages 118-122. After surveying the problem he wrote: "It is not the case that Jesus had just twelve disciples." "The most probable explanation is that Jesus himself used the term symbolically, and that it was remembered as a symbolic number, even though the precise number of close disciples may have varied." What was this number symbolic of? It was used, claims Sanders, "in order to indicate that his mission was to all Israel" since Israel was composed of twelve tribes.

And this was but one of the problems that got me thinking about the nature of symbolism among ancient superstitious people. There were clearly more than six kinds things created in the creation accounts. The different types of things created were made to fit inside the the symbolic numbering of seven days (with one day of rest). On and on it went, until I questioned the historical claims in the Bible themselves, like the temple curtain torn in two at Jesus' death, or the virgin birth and even the symbolic nature of a resurrection of Jesus himself.

To add to what I just wrote, Conrad Hyers says: “In the modern world numbers have become almost completely secularized, but in antiquity they could function as significant vehicles of meaning and power. It was important to associate the right numbers with one’s life and activity and to avoid the wrong numbers.” [cf. The Meaning of Creation, p. 79]. “The symbolic meaning of the number seven and of seven days harks back to the lunar calendar which in Mesopotamia had quite early been divided into four phases of seven days each, followed by the three day disappearance of the moon, thus equaling thirty days.” (p. 76). “The symbolism of the number of seven was also reinforced in antiquity by association with the seven visible planetary bodies, which had become important in Mesopotamian astrology.... Seven has the numerological meaning of wholeness, plenitude, and completeness. This symbolism is derived, in part, from the combination of the three major zones of the cosmos as seen vertically (heaven, earth, underworld) and the four quarters and directions of the cosmos as seen horizontally. Both the numbers three and four in themselves often function as symbols of totality, but a greater totality results from the combination of vertical and horizontal planes. Thus the number seven (adding three and four) and the number twelve (multiplying them) are recurrent biblical symbols of fullness and perfection: seven golden candlesticks, seven spirits, seven words of praise, seven eunuchs, seven churches, the seventh year, the forty-ninth year, the seventy elders, forgiveness seventy times seven, etc.” (p. 76-77; cf. also Daniel 9:24).

According to C. Cassuto’s A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Vol. 1 [Jerusalem Magnes Press, 1992] the Genesis account is highly structured using the symbolic numbers three, seven, and ten. For instance, the first verse contains 7 Hebrew words, the second verse has 14 Hebrew words (twice 7) and the first section of Genesis is divided into seven sections. This symbolism is undeniable since we see in Genesis one there are at least nine creative acts squeezed into God’s six day work week: 1) light, 2) firmament, 3) land, 4) vegetation, 5) sun, moon & stars; 6) birds; 7) fish; 8) animals; and 9) humans.

Therefore any literalistic reading of the Bible according to inerrantist thinking falls on the rocks of the ancient conception of symbolism, and it's hard to distinguish what is symbolic and what isn't. I myself see so much of it in the Bible, that I deny the Bible reports actual events in all of the crucial places. This is a major problem for the inerrantist.
Layman said…
Actually, it is because -- in part -- they attributed such importance to numbers in ancient times that there likely was a group known as "the Twelve" during Jesus' ministry. Choosing twelve disciples as symbolic of the twelve tribes fits into Jesus' establishing a new kingdom of God.

Were they they same twelve throughout his ministry? Perhaps not. I think it possible that some exited and others entered the group over a three year ministry. The value given to the number meant that if one left or was diminished then another would be elevated. I think this explains why Paul refers to "the Twelve" even though Judas was dead at the time he wrote. The group was known as the Twelve but the membership was somewhat fluid. In Acts, Luke tells us that the early Church was quick to replace Judas so the inner circle would number Twelve again. I blogged a bit on this here.

Why this counts against a "literalistic" reading is undemonstrated by your comment. The symbolism here seems to count for a literalistic reading and explains the motivation for keeping the number at Twelve rather than towards. . . . what your alternative is is not entirely clear.

Of course, there might be times when symbolism may point towards taking something more loosely than "literalistically," but I always think we should strive to understand the context and intent of the author rather than cram meanings into particular loaded terms whose meaning is not entirely clear.

J.P. Meier explores the issue of "the Twelve" in Volume 3 of his A Marginal Jew series.
Anonymous said…
Of course, with the symbolism that we see in the Bible I am skeptical that there were even 12 tribes of Israel!
Anonymous said…
And why shouldn't I be skeptical about the so-called twelve tribes of Israel? The numbers in ancient times were so important it had to be twelve.

In Genesis 49 Jacob/Israel blesses his twelve named sons, and it says: "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel..." However, they were not yet tribes!

Now according to Exodus there was the passage of about 430 years. That is a long long time to be enslaved. And it would also appear even from the conservative dating on the "books of Moses" that many of the events had occurred long before their exodus out of Egypt. We're talking about a society of people who did not yet have a historical consciousness like you and I do. They had a mythic consciousness about their origins, as did every single ancient society including Rome. Genesis 1-11 is the most blatant of this in the Bible, but we see it in bits and pieces throughout.

How could they keep records of who were in the tribes? How did they know their were really 12 sons? But 12 is such a powerful symbolic number there had to be twelve, just like there had to be twelve apostles.
Layman said…
"Of course, with the symbolism that we see in the Bible I am skeptical that there were even 12 tribes of Israel!"

I think you are missing the point. Whether you are skeptical or not tells us nothing about Jewish belief during the time of Jesus. Are you saying that Jews in the time of Jesus did not believe there were twelve tribes?
Layman said…
"And why shouldn't I be skeptical about the so-called twelve tribes of Israel? The numbers in ancient times were so important it had to be twelve."

Like the Twelve Tribes of the Persians? And the Twelve Tribes of the Greeks? And the Twelve Tribes of the Samaritans? And the Twelve Tribes of the Romans?
Oh, and the Twelve Colonies of the Americas?

Why not Seven Tribes? Or Three? Can you give me a number of tribes that there could have been that would not have carried any symbolic reference?
none said…
I've studied this topic very little, but isn't it kind of obvious that Jesus had more than twelve disciples? Afterall, he sent out the 72 in Luke 10:1. John 6:60-66 reports that many of his disciples -- not just the twelve -- began to grumble at His teachings and that: "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." In John 8:31-32 Jesus is speaking to a crowd and says that they are His disciples if they follow His teachings.

Anyway, the Gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus had many disciples -- many more than twelve -- but as layman points out, there were twelve that represented the twelve tribes of Israel, and which signified the restoration of Israel. Jesus, not being numbered among the twelve, acted as king of the twelve, just as God was king over the twelve tribes previously.

I think the reference to numbers being secularized in modern culture is an important point. It means that people in modernity believe that something is either symbolic or literal and that it cannot be both. This wasn't the case in the ancient world: People acted in certain ways -- appointing twelve disciples, for example -- precisely because it symbolized something.
Anonymous said…
I don't know why not just three or seven tribes? Maybe 12 was considered a fuller number when it can to a "nation." Was there really a conquest by the 12 tribes of Israel?

William Dever, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Clearly, from our discussion the conquest model is ruled out. The founders of the Iron I villagers do not appear to have been newcomers to Palestine, much less settlers displacing Canaanites in the urban centers by military force. The few sites actually destroyed ca. 1200 B.C. were destroyed either by the Philistines, or by unknown agents; and none is resettled within a reasonable time by people who could be implicated in the destruction, or could otherwise be identified as “Israelites.”

“The peasants’ revolt (or “internal conquest”) model seems more compatible with current archaeological data and theory than any other. This model presumes that the early Israelite movement was made up of various dissident elements of late bronze age Canaanite society, mostly dispossessed peasant farmers, who colonized new areas in the hinterland and there adopted a less stratified social order better suited to an agrarian economy. [From “Archaeology and the Israelite Conquest,”].

This is science, and science disconfirms the Exodus.

Now if this is the case, then the number 12 was chosen to represent their whole nation. Did the Jews in Jesus' day believe the Bible as recorded? Probably. But this would be no more different than a Roman believing in Romulus and Remus, of the Greeks beliving in the mythical stories of Zeus and Posidon, to varying degrees.
Layman said…
"This is science, and science disconfirms the Exodus."

The peasant revolt model is science? I thought Dever was a historian. Other historians have more faith in the Exodus accounts.

But the crux of the matter was your attempt to discount the idea that Jesus had an inner circle of twelve disciples based on the symbology argument. But in your last paragraph you concede the point that Jesus and his followers and his contemporaries likely did believe in the Twelve Tribes. So the fact remains that Jesus likely did have an inner circle of Twelve and yes that number has symbolic significance. But the fact that it had symbolic significance makes it more likely accurate that Jesus chose Twelve disciples for his inner circle. So your entire off hand argument against taking anything "literalistically" in the Bible because of the importance of symbols stands unsupported and, in fact, countered by your own admissions.
Anonymous said…
Archaeology is science, and that's what Dever and many others have concluded (even more radical conclusions have been generated from the evidence).

But the crux of the matter isn't what Jesus and the gospel writers believed about the 12 tribes of Israel. The crux of the matter is their whole basis for believing in the symbolic meaning of numbers, both in the time of the origin of the nation of Israel, and with Jesus. It was based in superstitious and pre-scientific thinking.

Even if there weren't 12 tribes of Israel, the followers of Jesus still thought Jesus had started a new "nation" or kingdom, and the origins of new kingdoms demanded the number 12. The number of disciples was symbolic either way. And this leads me to conclude there weren't 12 disciples at all. Who knows how many there were? We'll never know.
Layman said…

I agree that archeology is a useful tool of human inquiry. Call it a soft science if you want. But I don't mindlessly equate it with chemistry or physics.

But the crux of the matter isn't what Jesus and the gospel writers believed about the 12 tribes of Israel. The crux of the matter is their whole basis for believing in the symbolic meaning of numbers, both in the time of the origin of the nation of Israel, and with Jesus. It was based in superstitious and pre-scientific thinking.

The crux of the matter, on my blog, is the issue raised in the particular blog entry you are supposedly responding to. It is not a forum for you to raise whatever issue you want and it especially is not your forum for raising an issue, getting swatted down, retreating to another issue, getting swatted down again, and so on and so forth until you think you've found a "winning" issue.

So to sum up:

Peter and Cephas were the same guy.

Jesus likely had an inner circle of Twelve disciples, though its membership may have been somewhat fluid. Simply saying, "those people were superstitious" isn't a rejoinder to the evidence, which is early and diverse.

You doubt there were Twelve tribes of Israel because any number can have symbolic meaning attached to it. Even if true, it is irrelevant to the Peter/Cephas issue or whether Jesus had an inner group of Twelve disciples.

Lots of scholars, though not all, think the Biblical story of the Exodus is way off. This too is irrelevant to the Peter/Cephas issue or whether Jesus had an inner group of Twelve disciples. It also is pretty irrelevant to whether there were at some point in Israel's history, Twelve distinct subgroups within that people.

Can we move on now?
Anonymous said…
Can we move on now?


I know that discussions like this are never ending. I state how I see things. That's all I can do. For me it's all about seeing things differently. It's not about more and more knowledge. It's about viewing what we know in a different light. Again, thanks for letting me share how I see things.

I must share how I see things on a host of topics before I hit pay dirt where you'll at least consider how I see everything differently than you do. And when that critical junction happens, if it happens at all, you'll see how I see things and maybe it'll make some sense. No one sees things differently in bits and pieces. But before you can see the whole, you must also see the bits and pieces in a different light.

I don't know what you know, and you don't know what I know. But how we view that which we know is the difference that makes all the difference.

Until next time, take care, and Merry Christmas.
Alex Dalton said…

The problem is that you're being a Steven Carr. Please don't do that. Please? What does it mean to be a Steven Carr? Its when you use every topical blog as a springboard for your infinite list of reasons why you don't like Christianity. Just stay on topic. Is that so much to ask? All of the other ways you want to express yourself can be done on your own blog. I say this to you, not to patronize, but because I think you're a reasonable and understanding person.

If people come to another person's blog and they're interested in seeing discussion in the comments about the particular topic of the body of the blog (like myself), its just immediately and aesthetically off-putting to have to wade through a month's catch of fresh red herrings (which I'm now contributing to). And it never fails that blogs that Steven Carr frequents always have this problem. Your first sign is that there's anywhere from 10-20 comments usually right on the day the blog went up.

Anyway, I think you get the point. I'm just asking, can you please consider how others feel and try to restrain yourself in this regard?


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