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