Extract from concluding chapter, ‘Who was Cephas?’

James, a towering force in Acts and strongly featured in other sources, could not have been and was not the brother of a man who gathered up a force to confront the Romans. He might have had a brother called Jesus. This was, as Yeshua, a common, Aramaic name. But this could not have been the same person as the rebel leader Jesus.

The reasons for this conclusion are manifold; chiefly that James was a prominent Jew from a priestly family, who had a responsibility for Gentile God-fearers and the authority to discipline Saul and who, at some time, had acted as High Priest. No one could have been in or persisted in such a position, had he been the brother of a rebel who had taken an armed group up against the Romans, only to be captured and crucified. On the contrary, as Acts makes clear, James went unscathed through periods of persecution during which dissidents suffered. James was not, at this stage, one of them.

But he did, the evidence suggests, have brothers. Which brings me to my next conclusion. If James could not have been the brother of a rebel Jesus, then neither could any of the brothers that James himself may have had.

There are four brothers assigned to Jesus in Mark and Matthew, named as James, Joses/Joseph, Judas and Simon. These brothers are given to take little or no part in the action in the gospel narratives. This suggests that the gospel authors did not have good information on the family of Jesus.

There are however indications as to where the names originated. A medieval lexicon lists James ‘the bishop and apostle’, Simon, Thaddeus (Judas) and Joseph as the children of Mary and Cleopas. John’s gospel, correctly read, has Mary and Klopas as the parents of Jesus. Taken together, this is evidence of a family which, if it included someone called Jesus as well as James, was not the family of the gospel Jesus.

Other references indicate that James did indeed act as a ‘bishop’, not then a Christian office, in looking after the interests of Jews in Jerusalem, and was succeeded by his brother Simon, and then at intervals by other relatives. So, this is another conclusion. There was a high-ranking, titled priestly line, including James, who probably (like most Jews) sided against the Romans in the uprising. The Romans, however, came to regard this particular branch of ‘royal’ stock as threatening and tracked down and executed an aged Simon, among others.

Early Christian writers did not conjure up a group of brothers from nowhere. They found a group which probably included a Jesus, though not the same Jesus, existing at an appropriate time. The borrowed brothers included James, together with his brother Simon, and were depicted as the children of Mary and Klopas.

A welter of confusion, some perhaps inadvertent, surrounds the next character. This is the person portrayed in the narrative as chief aide/commander and companion to the rebel Jesus. He is referred to, early on in Mark, as Simon. Then, after Jesus has been given to assign him what is ostensibly a nickname, he becomes Peter or Simon Peter.

As written in the Greek text, the name is Petros which means stone. The implication here is that this should have come from the Aramaic, since this is the language that characters in the gospels would have been speaking. The Aramaic for stone, Kp, transliterates into Greek as Kephas/Kaiphas. This is also how the family name/title of the High Priest Joseph is rendered, though from Qp, a different Aramaic base. In Greek, one letter kappa represents both the Aramaic letters kaph (k) and qoph (q).

I have made the case that the convergence of names is an unlikely coincidence. It is more probable that the name Simon Petros (Peter), based on Aramaic Simon Kephas, arose from confusion with a character who was entitled to have the High Priest’s family name. This character was thus probably called Simon Kephas (Qp). With this the origin, and the assumed origin of Kephas from Aramaic Kp a misconception, the name Petros lacks a valid foundation.

The question, whether or not Kephas and ‘Peter’ were separate characters, is thus based on a false presumption. There were two separate characters, one called Simon and with maybe the nickname bariona (meaning outlaw) and another, also called Simon and with the title Kephas/Kaiphas (Qp), likely to have been shared with others. Neither of these was at the time identified by the Aramaic word Kephas (Kp) or by the Greek word Petros for stone. There is no alternative explanation than this that better fits with the textual evidence, provided in Galatians and Acts, and by the epigraphic evidence, provided by the High Priest Joseph’s family tomb.

Simon, as a key follower of Jesus, could have been an historical character. But Peter (Petros) as such never did exist.

Like the gospels, Saul’s letters survive in forms that have over time been highly edited. In two of these, I Corinthians and Galatians, there are clear indications that Saul was interacting with persons of high standing among Jews, including at least one with the title Kephas/Kaiphas, held by the family of the High Priest Joseph. The text (Galatians 2, 7-9) differentiates between a person, referred to retrospectively and identified as Peter, who associated with circumcised Jews, and another character Kephas who held Saul to account. The name Peter here refers to the same individual who was called Simon initially in the synoptic gospels, and who was then later wrongly identified as Simon Peter in these gospels and also in the gospel of John. I have suggested that this individual would have been described as Simon, if at all, originally in Saul’s letters and that Galatians was subsequently edited to harmonise with the other accounts.

The character Kephas, I have argued, was a member of the High Priest Joseph’s family and (what makes the confusion that did then occur so seductive) would as such have been fully named as Simon Kephas. Other members of the family would also have carried the same title. So, Saul in his several references to Kephas may have been referring to more than one person.  

As recorded in Acts, the first Simon was driven into exile after clashes with the Jewish authorities and King Herod Agrippa I. Another character later appears, assisting James. This is Simon/Simeon who is the brother of James and distinct, despite some editorial glosses, from the first Simon who features in the gospels and also initially in Acts.

That James and his brothers had a title, indicating that they were part of a priestly family of some standing, is confirmed by other details from a variety of sources. James had carried out the duties of High Priest on the Day of Atonement, according to Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius, and so must have been standing in as deputy. This is because he is not among the listed High Priests from this time, whose names are known.

James was part of a group of Jewish elders who could specify what was required of Gentile God-fearers. He had the authority to discipline Saul. His brothers and descendants were among those acting as overseers, looking after Jews, in the aftermath of the failed uprising.

Family titles were unusual among Jews. But James and his family had the title Klopas, Qlp, similar to that of the High Priest Joseph, Kaiphas or Kephas, Qyp. The two families were operating at the same time and at the same place, in Jerusalem. This could be a coincidence. But I have argued that it is on balance more probable that there was one family, with one title. The name discrepancy (yet another mistake by early Christian writers and editors) arose initially because the letter yodh could be represented by a vertical line, looking much like a lamadh. So, Kaiaphas or Kaiphas, Qyp, became Klopas, Qlp, in mis-transliteration.

This conclusion, not an assertion of truth but a judgment made on the balance of probability, may clarify some other matters. Simon, as brother of James, is then also a member of the High Priest’s family. He is, as such, Simon Kephas. He is known to be the assistant of James. He may then well be the Kephas who confronted Saul, in that capacity. He may thus have been the source for the confusion that created a fiction, the nickname ‘Peter’.

If the identification of Klopas and Kephas as variants is right, then something is now known of the High Priest Joseph’s family. It also helps explain the high standing of James. It makes it possible to understand the retribution the Romans later meted out to relatives of James. Joseph cooperated for years with the Roman prefect Pilate until, after a culminating atrocity against the Samaritans, Pilate was sacked and Joseph went with him. If Joseph had sons, these were thereafter passed over among those selected for the office of High Priest .

The next generation, whether or not from this family or from another priestly family of similar high standing, was not in the same type of relationship with the Romans. This would account for a switch from the toleration that James had enjoyed to the subsequent active persecution of members of his family. Assumed Davidic status, useful in a family working with the Romans, would inevitably have been perceived as seditious and dangerous once that link was broken.

James was, by many accounts, a highly popular figure. He could not have been a member of the zealous group of Jews, which the gospels characterise the rebel Jesus as leading, for the same reasons that he could not have been a brother of this rebel leader. But it is possible and credible that the Nazarenes, like other Jews, looked up to him.

There is a passage in Antiquities by Josephus describing the stoning to death of a character called James (Jacob) about four years prior to the Jewish uprising. An examination of the text suggests that this was simply some other person with the same name, and that James, the Jewish elder and overseer (episkopos), was killed in the civil strife, involving fighting and stone throwing, that immediately preceded the uprising.

Discounting the contentious passage in Antiquities, Josephus has nothing to say about this latter James, even though he was an important figure. The historian may have maintained a judicious silence in order to shield other members of the family from being persecuted as part of a royal, Jewish, messianic line. The picture was then further obscured by Christian writers absorbing the Jewish James and his family into their story.

Some of what these writers did may have been the product of a propensity to make mistakes, coupled with inadequate access to reliable information. But some of the reconstruction was purposeful. This is shown, for example, in the agenda in Acts to make a serious conflict between a dissident sect and Jewish elders, including James, into a mild disagreement between colleagues in a (falsely portrayed) common enterprise. Eusebius likewise misrepresented Jewish administrators looking after Jews in Jerusalem, in the immediate aftermath of the uprising, as Christian officials. The purpose in both instances was to promote the idea of Christianity emerging in the mid first century among Jews, when in reality the religion had its origins some years later among Gentiles outside of Judea. 

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