From Cephas to Peter?

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to Josh asking if I thought Cephas and Peter were not the same, this is a fanciful think-aloud session, tossing Paul’s references and the Gospel of Mark around, to speculate how and why Cephas (Aramaic) may have been changed to Peter (Greek) . . . .

Paul in Galatians speaks of Cephas, James and John being leaders in the Jerusalem church. And, to state the bleeding obvious, it was not necessary for Paul to turn Cephas into its Greek form, Peter, for his Greek reading audience.

Paul also criticizes these 3, especially Cephas, for their Judaizing theology.

Let’s start with this as the earliest evidence of the names of the 3 leaders of “Christianity” or whatever it was called then in Judea.

Let’s think of Mark being the first written gospel, and its author knowing about these 3, Cephas, James and John.

Accept that Mark is, like Paul, writing a polemic against Cephas, James and John for similar reasons. But his polemic is a parable, or allegorical narrative.

A major part of his theme will be to attack the Jerusalem church’s leadership. He will portray the apostles as the stony ground of the Parable of the Sower. Why stony ground? Why not? The main leader he is attacking is Cephas, Aramaic meaning “stone”. Perfect. It’s going to work well. Easy.

But most of his Greek-speaking audience won’t get it. They don’t know that Cephas is Aramaic for stone. It is only a parable, so he can change the name to its Greek form, Peter, which his audience will get. And by including James and John as his lead companions, it won’t be hard for them to know he’s really attacking the Jerusalem triumvirate, that Peter is the stand-in for Cephas.

The message will be more pointed, too, if the name is an appointed name-change from Jesus.

But the gospel narrative took hold. Not all continued to understand it as a parable. And given the passing of Cephas, James and John (and of Jerusalem itself — 70 ce — or even 135 ce?), and given the revisions of the gospel narrative, not only by Matthew, John and Luke but also by the noncanonical authors who produced the Gospel of Peter and others, Peter stuck as the name of the lead apostle — in particular among the descendants of those who stood against the Judaistic wing of Christianity. Although with the gospel revisions they no longer recognized Peter, James and John as originally representing that “heretical” branch.

Cephas still lingered in other circles, however. The second century Epistula Apostolorum (Epistle of the Apostles) even listed Cephas and Peter as different apostles. It was the number Twelve that was originally the significant fact, and most of the names were filled in later with inevitable variations as happens in the development of such stories.

Just a thought. Idle speculation.

But the thought has the advantage of working with the chronological sequence of the textual evidence and a coherent interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.

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Neil Godfrey

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