Simon Peter and Cephas: Two Persons and One Fiction?


Differences in how Simon called Peter and Cephas are described and positioned in the text indicate that these were different characters. They are however linked by what appears as an extraordinary coincidence, each apparently having the same nickname or title meaning ‘stone’, in different languages. This has led some commentators to assert that the gospel Simon and Paul’s Cephas must, notwithstanding other evidence, be the same.

What has thus far been overlooked is that Greek and Aramaic vary in their use of sounds and corresponding letters, such that the title of the High Priest Joseph (קיפא) and the word for stone in Aramaic (כיפא) may be rendered in Greek in the same way. This is because Greek has only one letter kappa for the Aramaic letters qoph and kaph and the varying sounds these letters represent.

It is established that Paul interacted with persons of high standing and it is more likely that the individuals he called Cephas were members of Joseph’s titled family than someone with a nickname meaning stone. The mistake in translation may have been made by the author of Mark, looking in Paul’s letters for confirmation of characters in his source narrative.

This understanding removes the element of unlikely coincidence; neither Simon (wrongly) called Peter nor Cephas had the nickname – and only the latter had a title.

The representation of Peter and Cephas as distinct persons is well established in literature going back to the early second century Epistula Apostolorum which names these two as separate individuals among the eleven apostles remaining, after excluding the traitor Judas. But some recent writers have regarded these names as simply linguistic equivalents in Greek and Aramaic for the same person, represented in the gospels, Acts and two of the letters attributed to Paul (Saul), Galatians and I Corinthians.

In this article, I will be comparing the different positions taken by Bart Ehrman1 and Dale Allison.2 In the course of the analysis I will offer a critical insight, related to the difficulties in transliterating from Greek to Aramaic, which both these writers have missed. This leads to a resolution of difficulties and apparent contradictions – and an indication of how the narratives that embody these may well have arisen.

It needs to be stated, though it does not affect the essential argument here, that both Ehrman and Allison operate within a perspective which has a number of, mostly implicit, core assumptions. They take it for granted that Christianity arose in Judea, following the death of Jesus, that this involved a ‘primitive’ Christian community based in Jerusalem and that James and Cephas were leading figures in it. Both refer to Simon Peter and Cephas as ‘Christian leaders’.

My understanding is that there was, in the early first century, a dispersed following of zealous Jews, who were in the New Testament called Nazarenes. While operating within the framework of Judaism, this group had some views and practices which differed from those of the Jewish establishment. Paul was accused of being a member (Acts 24.5) and the term was also applied to Jesus.3

Following the death of Jesus, the character identified as Simon in the gospels continued as a leading figure among the Nazarenes. There was a degree of competition, with Simon’s group drawing away supporters from followers of John (the baptiser) (Jn. 1.35-42) and expanding his influence among other Nazarene Jews (Acts 10.32-43).

A number of parallels suggest that the term ‘Essene’ may have been another way of describing the same dispersed organisation. It may also be that the term Ebionite (poor one) was subsequently applied to the successors to the Nazarenes.

Paul (Saul) participated in a persecution of Nazarene Jews, sought to join the group which revered Jesus and was then at least partially rebuffed. Paul embarked on an unsuccessful mission to promote among Jews a new version of Judaism, shorn of the requirement for circumcision and many food restrictions. He turned his attention to Gentiles in the diaspora, disregarded a dispensation approved by Jewish leaders for rules to be followed by Gentile God-fearers, was subsequently disciplined for teaching against Jewish Law and was then attacked and effectively driven from Judea.

Christianity initially developed within the gatherings that Paul set up, over a period between about CE 50 and CE 70. During this process, some elements of Jewish Law were abandoned. The influence of pagan beliefs among Paul’s followers led to Jesus being incorporated as a dying and resurrecting godman. A ritual meal was adopted which may have had both Jewish and pagan origins.

The sect adopted the name Christianoi, ‘followers or slaves of Christ’, that had perhaps at first been applied to them in a derogatory sense.4

In Judea, meanwhile, the Nazarenes went on being Jews, revering their fallen leader, just as others had revered John. What Paul describes as the ‘churches of Christ of Judea that are in Christ’ (Gal 1.22; 1 Thess. 2.14) were also gatherings (ekklesiae), but of Nazarene Jews following a Jewish messiah. It is not accurate to describe as ‘Christian’ either Simon, who confronted King Agrippa 1 around CE 40, or Cephas, who in CE 60 is described as standing alongside his fellow Jewish leader, James.

It should be noted that the foregoing is just a summary, that I take a critical approach and that I draw and moderate my conclusions on the balance of probability.

There is certainly scope for a debate on the presumptions which writers have made. My focus here, however, is on the narrow issue of whether Cephas and Simon called Peter were one or two characters.

Throughout the gospels and Acts there is only one point, at Jn. 1.42, where Cephas is mentioned as the Aramaic original for the Greek name Petros (Пετρος). The author of John, writing in Greek, has Jesus ascribing the name to his follower, Simon, ‘You are to be called Cephas, which is translated Peter (Petros)’. This explains the name Peter as a direct translation from an Aramaic word meaning stone.

There are in contrast over 200 references to the name Peter over the whole of the New Testament. In the letters attributed to Paul, the position is reversed. Cephas5 is referred to eight times, as against only two references to Peter occurring in one sentence in Galatians.

Bart Ehrman has outlined the history and the case for Peter and Cephas being different persons.6 Some of the sources, like the Epistula Apostolorum, place both characters among the apostles, while others distinguish Cephas as being among the seventy sent out as emissaries as described in Lk. 10.1-12.

Ehrman notes that Paul also writes as if Cephas were not one of the apostles, for example at 1 Cor. 15.5 where it is stated that “he (Jesus) appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve …”. Similarly, at 1 Cor. 9.5, Cephas is separately mentioned and so is apparently not one of the ‘rest of the apostles’ (besides Paul) or one of the ‘brothers of the Lord’. The passage reads in full, ‘Do we not have the right to take along a wife (sister as wife), as do the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

In the passage in Galatians, where the name Peter is mentioned in close proximity with Cephas, Paul likewise appears to have been referring to two separate characters:

But, on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter [was] for the circumcised – for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me for the Gentiles – and, recognising the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

Gal. 2.7-9

Ehrman argues that it is hard to explain why the author might have chosen to call his character Peter by a different name in a succeeding sentence, without alerting his readers that he had in mind the same person.

Cephas and Peter, as potential equivalents, were not usual Aramaic or Greek given names but could conceivably have been either nicknames or titles. Dale Allison notes that Petros is not recorded as a Greek name in pre-Christian times. There are likewise few if any reliable earlier references to the Aramaic Cephas as a given name or nickname, deriving from the letters kaph and peh.7 Allison argues that it would be an unlikely coincidence for two such significant and contemporary characters to have had previously unknown or extremely rare surnames or nicknames, both with the same sense. On this main basis, coupled with the association that is made at Jn. 1.42, he concludes that they were in actuality one and the same8.

Allison explains the name Peter as a translation made for Greek-speaking Christians, for a nickname that, as related in the gospel of Mark, had been bestowed upon Jesus’ close follower, Simon.

The author of Mark, while writing in Greek, was able to quote and give translations for a number of Aramaic words, phrases and sentences.9 But no Aramaic original is offered for the name, Petros. Following other precedents, the text of Mk. 3.16 should, with words surmised as missing in brackets, have run as follows, ‘And he appointed the twelve and he gave the name [Cephas, which being translated is] Peter to Simon …’.

Matthew closely follows Mark, as at many other points in the narrative, and so also omits an explanation for the nickname Peter. His list of the apostles begins, “These are the names of the twelve apostles, first Simon who is called Peter …” (Mt. 10.2).

It may be that Matthew was first written in Aramaic, before being translated into Greek.10 This explains how Aramaic quotes given in Mark, including a possible reference to Cephas, were lost. These would have appeared, as the author of Matthew copied from and translated Mark as his source, with both the Greek text and the quotes being rendered in Aramaic, as duplications. So, what would have become mere repetitions of text were in consequence eliminated. No one then felt the need to reinstate the missing quotes, when Matthew was later put into Greek.

In the Greek Matthew, which is what is now available, the author provides an explanation later in the narrative, in words attributed to Jesus, ‘And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros, meaning stone) and, upon this rock (Petra), I will build my church’ (Mt. 16.18).

There is, as previously noted, in the whole of the New Testament only one place where Jesus’ companion is directly described as having a nickname, deriving from the Aramaic for stone. This is in the gospel of John. If such a designation were unexceptional and common knowledge, then the overall lack of such references is surprising. John’s contribution, because it is both unique and later in the sequence in which the gospels were written, reads as an effort to try to make sense of the situation.

There is a further issue surrounding the name Peter, in Paul’s letters.

The name occurs just in one short passage, at Gal. 2.8, which I have highlighted in the quote above in italics. It can be seen that the text, as a whole, reads well without this verse and, indeed, better because the clumsy, apparent backwards, reference by Peter among the three to himself is now eliminated. The passage provides a justification, which a later editor might have wanted to provide, for Paul in respect of his claim to preach a ‘gospel for the uncircumcised’. Some analysts see Gal 2.8 as an interpolation, not original to Paul.

If this is a valid interpretation, then Ehrman’s position would appear to be weakened. There would no longer be a case that Peter and Cephas must be different characters on the grounds that Paul would not have referred to one character successively and in different ways without explanation. Paul is, on this alternative understanding, referring only to Cephas – and not to anyone by the name, Peter.

This would however also be troubling. If there were originally no references to Peter in Paul’s letters, it places all the weight, for Paul having interacted with the gospel Simon, on the eight references to Cephas. It places on these references the burden of proof that Simon was given a nickname in Aramaic, and then in Greek, that meant stone.

At the core of Mark, is an adapted Jewish narrative, indicating that Jesus had a key character Simon who accompanied him on a mission ending in a confrontation with the Roman and Jewish authorities. This person is paralleled by a similar character Simon, in Antiquities, who challenged King Herod Agrippa I (Antiquities 19 vii.4), and by Simon early in Acts described as doing very much the same (Acts 12.1-17).

If the Cephas described in Paul’s letters is not this same Simon, then there is little evidence that the Jewish outlaw11 Simon went on to participate in Paul’s enterprise in generating a distinctive (later, described as Christian) sect.

Acts provides no record of an encounter, involving both Paul and Simon called Peter, before the latter was driven into exile, after clashes with the Jewish authorities and the Herodian King Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12.17). Later in Jerusalem, there is a Simeon, also at one point named as Peter, though attributed with a mission to the uncircumcised (Acts 15.7,) and not to Jews, as specified in Galatians 2.8.

The portrayal in Acts in this way introduces some confusion. The Simeon, who later advised James, appears to have been a different character from the Simon who earlier in Acts is depicted as a Torah-abiding, Nazarene Jew (Acts 2.46; 3.1; 5.1-10). If this were not the case, then it would have to be presumed that Simon had found conditions safe enough to return from exile to Jerusalem.

Outside of the letters, there is thus also a lack of reliable support for a Simon (called Peter) who could been the person (called Cephas) with whom Paul was abrasively engaged at Antioch.

The references to Cephas in 1 Corinthians and Galatians raise serious problems.

If it were widely known that Cephas was the nickname for Jesus’ follower Simon, why are there no pointers to such an association, apart from the one at Jn. 1.42? This is in a context where Simon features in the gospel narratives as the second most prominent character, after Jesus. Why then the apparent reluctance throughout the bulk of the gospels to name this Simon as Cephas?

A further major concern arises from the fact that Paul had been operating for a time in Judea. While writing in Greek, Paul also spoke and understood Aramaic (Acts 22.1-2; 26.14). There is no reason why he would not have translated an Aramaic name, meaning stone, into its equivalent in Greek (the language in which he was writing) for his Greek-speaking Gentile followers in the gatherings (ekklesiae) he was setting up in the diaspora.

On all eight occasions, the name is written simply as Cephas. If it were understood that Cephas meant stone in Aramaic, that it was the nickname for Simon and that this follower of Jesus was generally known as Petros in Greek-speaking circles, then Paul should surely have written Petros. The evidence suggests that an equivalence between the names Cephas and Peter (Petros) was not widely known in Paul’s time, when Simon was actually Paul’s contemporary.

It is also odd that Paul provides, in none of his quotes, a given name for Cephas. As already noted, this was not a common name, but a nickname or title. Cephas would also have had an everyday name, used separately or in combination as, for example, Judas Cephas or Simon Cephas.

Paul would certainly have known the given name of a person with whom he describes himself as interacting at Antioch. It is hard to see why he might have failed to provide this, in order to clarify matters for his readers. It is possible that he did provide a given name, in at least some of the quotes, but that this has been subsequently lost in subsequent copying or editing.

Although there are no explicit associations, from the time that Paul was writing, between Petros and Cephas, Dale Allison argues from a number of parallels that these characters were one and the same. While mistakenly, as I have indicated, stating that both were Christians, Allison also refers to Simon, called Peter, and Cephas as Jews. His case, reproduced here in italics, is made in the form of a list of bullet points:

Both men were married

This is a very weak association which cannot be taken as at all indicative, given the cultural expectation at the time that all mature Jewish men would be married.

Both were of ‘fickle character’

There are a number of strong characters in the New Testament narratives and considerable scope for interpreting how these individuals were separately represented. This point is therefore hardly definitive and a matter of Allison’s perception.

Jesus is described as appearing to Cephas and to Peter first

A first encounter is not something that marks either of these men out. There are several accounts describing Jesus as making a first appearance to different individuals and groups following the crucifixion: Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20.14), the ‘Servant of the High Priest’ or James, if the prior encounter with the Servant is not to be taken as significant (Jerome, On Illustrious Men 2, quoting Gospel of the Hebrews), Cleopas (Lk.24.18), Simon (Lk. 24.34), Cephas or alternatively James, if the representation in Corinthians is taken as an amalgamation of two lists, (1 Cor. 15.5-9), the eleven remaining disciples (Mt 28.17).

This level of variation is indicative of conflicting sources and also a degree of confusion. Luke’s Simon is not qualified as Simon called Peter. He may or may not have been the companion of someone called Cleopas. It is unclear from the text whether he was on the road or among the eleven back in Jerusalem. It is not clear how this relates, if at all, to Cephas.

The various accounts thus do not agree on who was involved in a putative first encounter with Jesus or show that it was the same person going by different names.

Both were Jews and ‘prominent’ leaders of the ‘primitive Jerusalem community’

It may be granted that both men were Jews, married, strong characters and leading figures; nothing here out of the ordinary. But the reference to a Jerusalem community points to evidence which contradicts Allison’s position. Both may at some stage have been based in Jerusalem. But the contexts in which they operated were different.

In also referencing the two men as ‘outstanding leaders’ of ‘earliest Christianity’, Allison makes clear that he sees the group of Nazarene Jews led by Simon and attending the Temple in Jerusalem as somehow proto-Christians. This is notwithstanding that there is, at the very least, a plausible case that Christianity developed later and elsewhere, substantially at Paul’s instigation and that, if Simon and his followers had held anything like the views or followed anything like the practices of Paul’s Christians, they would instead have been barred from the Temple and from synagogues.

The point for present purposes, however, is not precisely what a specific Nazarene community was (an association of Jews, I would suggest) but how the two characters related to it. Simon called Peter is, I would agree, depicted in a variety of sources as a leading member. These indicate that Simon was the leader of a fundamentalist Jewish gathering (ekklesia) with practices including property-sharing, ritual cold bathing and communal meals.

But Cephas appears alongside the Jewish leader James (Gal. 2. 9) and as a person accountable to James (Gal.2.11-13), dealing with Paul’s (ultimately recognised as) Torah-offending gathering (ekklesia) at Antioch. Whilst also Jewish, he had a demonstrably different role.

The Nazarenes, described as ‘holy ones’ or ‘the poor’, possibly from their practice of communal ownership, looked up to James who in turn supported them (Gal 2.10). However, as leaders, Simon Peter and Cephas were in different categories, one among radical Jewish gatherings (ekklesiae) and the other among a Jewish establishment. Neither were part of the movement established by Paul.

There is nothing whatever to suggest that Cephas was a member of the Nazarenes, a conclusion amplified by a consideration of Allison’s next – and most misguided and inaccurate – of his identifications:

Both men were associated with James and John

The point here is not merely that the names James and John were common at the time and so should not be identified from different sources without corroboration. It is that detail and context make it very clear that there were two groups of distinct and very different characters, as represented in the first part of Acts and then in Galatians and, in the case of James, the second part of Acts.

Allison argues that Peter is separately associated with John and James in Acts and that this is just as Cephas is described as one of the ‘pillars’ of authority/reputation, James and Cephas and John (Gal 2.9). He fails to mention that Peter is frequently associated with both John and James, as sons of Zebedee, in the gospels (eg at Mk 1.19, 3.17 and 9.2 onwards) and is likewise referenced early in Acts together with John and James (Acts 1.13). Why James is thereafter lost from the association is made clear later on, when it is recorded that King Herod (Agrippa I) ‘killed James the brother of John’ with the sword (Acts 12.2).

Herod Agrippa was King of Judea from CE 41 – 44. James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, must therefore have been killed relatively early on, around CE 43.

At the time that Paul was writing his letter to the Galatians, in the early CE 50s, and complaining about Cephas and James (Gal. 2.1-10), the other James who was the son of Zebedee had been dead for a decade or more. Furthermore, the James with whom he was then dealing was a very different person from the fisherman James who had, together with his brother John, been part of an expeditionary force led down from Galilee against the Romans (Mk.1.16-20, 10.32-37).

James, one of the ‘pillars’ referred to by Paul, was a senior figure among Jews in Jerusalem, in a position to adjudicate on the rules that Gentile God-fearers should follow (Acts 15.12-21) and able to discipline Paul for teaching Jews among the Gentiles that they need not follow Jewish Law (Acts 21.18-36). This James, according to Eusebius, quoting Hegesippus, was sufficiently prominent to have performed the duties of High Priest, on the Day of Atonement, possibly through the office of deputy/temple captain (Ecc Hist 2.23, 6). It should be noted that, because of these and other characteristics, this James could likewise not have been the brother of the rebel Jesus12.

James the son of Zebedee and James, one of the ‘pillars’ in Jewish society, were most definitely not the same person. The trio of Simon called Peter, John and James the sons of Zebedee, in the gospels and Acts, were therefore not the same as ‘James and Cephas and John’ recorded by Paul in his letter to the Galatians.

The available textual evidence thus strongly negates Allison’s position. There were two characters, largely separated in time, with the forename James/ Yaqob

Both men participated in the ‘Gentile mission’

Leaving aside the presumption that Cephas and Simon called Peter were canvassing something akin to a Christian perspective (see note on this above), the question is whether both were appealing to Gentiles and in the same way. The evidence of the gospels and Acts is that Simon called Peter was or had become leader of an expansionary Jewish group that took followers of John (the baptiser) and later recruited from other groups of ‘holy ones’ and God-fearers (Acts 9.32-10.48). As described in Galatians, Paul claims that he had been given the freedom to convey the message of monotheism among Gentiles, leaving the ‘pillars’ of Cephas and James and John to ‘go to’ the circumcised. This must be seen in the context of an alternative presentation where James, along with other Jewish elders, first provided the framework in which Paul and his fellows should operate among Gentiles (Acts 15.13-21), then attempted to monitor this (Gal. 2.11-14) and then finally subjected Paul to a hearing, judgement and punishment for breaking Jewish Law (Acts 21.18-26).

In summary, Simon Peter is depicted as leader of a zealous Jewish group, chiefly finding adherents from other such groups and possibly also God-fearers. Cephas was a Jewish figure, apparently monitoring Paul’s activities with Gentiles. So, in these roles, they were Jews encountering Gentiles in distinctive ways and for different reasons.

Both knew Paul personally.

Cephas is certainly described in Galatians as interacting with Paul. But the situation in respect of Simon is less clear, as it is set out in Acts. There is no reference to any interaction between Paul and Simon called Peter, in the short period after Paul stopped persecuting followers of Jesus/Nazarene Jews and before Simon was driven into exile as a consequence of his conflict with Herod Agrippa 1.

The ‘Peter’ who makes an appearance much later in Acts, also referred to as Simeon, appears to have been a different character, and therefore a different Simon, assisting James (Acts 15.6-14). This would suggest that a mistaken identification of this character with the earlier Simon, called Peter, may have infiltrated the text through a scribal alteration13.

Both were ‘itinerant’ missionaries

Again, setting aside implicit assumptions, this is not very illuminating. It is necessary with any group to promote and to recruit, for it to continue to exist. It would appear, as already noted, that the zealous Jew Simon called Peter did just this. As described in Acts, he canvassed among Jews and God-fearers in Judea. To this extent, he could be described as having been ‘itinerant’ and a Jewish missionary.

But Cephas, by contrast, is cast both as a Jewish figure of some standing in Jerusalem, and as someone for a time checking out Paul’s activities at Antioch. He was acting as an envoy, so hardly itinerant, and he was operating in a different location from Simon. As accountable to James, his brief would have been, not so much to promote Judaism but to ensure that God-fearers in the diaspora kept to their prescribed rules.

Neither were Christian missionaries, that is apologists for a religion that had yet to be created.

Both are described as coming into conflict with ‘Jerusalem Christians’ over eating with the uncircumcised

This is an assertion which embodies a highly contentious association, already implicit in some of Allison’s other points. As I have pointed out, considerations of chronology and the reported continuing participation of the Nazarenes in Temple worship (Acts 2.46, 3.1) rule out these Jews as even a nascent Christian group. What Allison is pointing to here is textual cross-referencing in Acts. The work was written, possibly by the author of Luke, with an awareness of Paul’s letters and crafted to serve a purpose.

In Galatians, Cephas is described as drawing back from eating with Gentiles, after being alerted by representatives from James (Gal 2, 9.12)). In the context of the dispensation made by James (Acts 15.13-29), setting out what rules (an adaptation of the Noahide law) should be applied to Gentile God-fearers in the diaspora, it may be that Cephas was a representative, part of whose role was to see that this was done. Paul’s challenge to this dispensation, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile, and not like Jews, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’, is made on the basis of Paul’s perception that Cephas had himself been breaking the rules (Gal 2.14).

It is worth noting that the presumptions in Paul’s remarks perfectly reflect the reality of the situation. Cephas was acting as a Jew, with at least some attempted authority, to induce aspirational Gentiles (thus God-fearers) to comply with a framework for living within Jewish Law.

The prohibition in question was actually not against commensality, but against eating certain non-kosher foods. So it may be that Cephas had not, either deliberately or carelessly, broken any rules. But the risk of doing so inadvertently would have been greater, while eating at the same table as Gentiles.

Acts attempts a resolution by having Peter experience a vison of a tablecloth lowered from heaven with all kinds of creatures which he is ordered by a voice to kill and eat. The message is that all foods are clean, if cleansed by God (Acts 10.9-16).

It is improbable that the zealous Simon called Peter, about to be driven into exile by Herod Agrippa 1, would have been swayed firstly into taking such a position and then secondly into persuading his fellow Nazarene Jews also to adopt it. The purpose of Acts here is to seek, via a literary device, to minimise the gulf that was about to open up between Paul’s followers and the Nazarene Jews.

It is however likely that the author of Acts, like others later, was assuming an identification between Cephas and Simon Peter. Hence, the generation of the heavenly table cloth fiction for Peter, to counter what had actually been related in Paul’s account in Galatians in relation to Cephas.

Ironically, the likelihood is that neither Cephas nor Simon would have embraced Paul’s adaptation of Jewish Law. This makes them not the same people but just observant Jews living and acting at different points in time.

The name of both characters means ‘rock’.

Some of Allison’s points, so far considered, add little to the argument. Others have proved, on examination, to run counter to his case. Allison also makes serious factual mistakes, for example in identifying the zealot Galilean James son of Zebedee with the senior priestly ‘pillar’ James, who was passing judgement on Paul in Jerusalem long after the first James was reported to be dead.

I come now to what is apparently Allison’s strong point, that the two characters shared an unusual and, at the time, otherwise unique title, albeit rendered in different languages, Aramaic and Greek. This is, as Allison indicated, a coincidence that ‘stretches credulity’, if these characters were not one and the same.

Against this must be weighed the narrative in Galatians, written as if these were separate individuals, and other puzzling circumstances. These include the paucity of references to the name Cephas and the fact that Paul, writing in Greek for his primarily Greek-speaking, Gentile audience, failed to translate the name into its Greek equivalent, as he did for the vast majority of other Aramaic words. That is, assuming it did have a Greek equivalent, as Petros.

The differences in role and character, which emerge from an analysis of Allison’s other points, are also indicative that the two characters were separate. The evidence (on balance) that Simon had ceased to be active, at the time that Paul was engaged in a dialogue with Cephas, is also detrimental to Allison’s argument.

So, how can the strong case for the distinctiveness of Simon called Peter and Cephas be reconciled with the implausibility of both having an unusual title, in different languages, which appears equivalent? Some further examination is clearly needed, to see whether there is an explanation which could remove the element of unlikely coincidence and explain more of the evidence.

A starting point is provided by the fact that the author of Mark, writing later in time, should have had available to him copies of Paul’s letters. This is as well as sources for the passion narrative, a collection of quotes attributed to Jesus and Jewish Old Testament writings from which to draw inspiration.

Galatians and I Corinthians were indeed available as sources for the title Cephas, the use of which was not otherwise widespread in the Greek in which the gospels and Acts were written. Analysis of language and thematic parallels confirms, not only that Mark could have drawn, but that he did draw from Paul’s letters.14 It is likely therefore that he would have encountered the character named Cephas in reading Galatians and I Corinthians.

Unlike Petros (Πέτρος), which is a word written in Greek meaning stone, Kephas (Κηϕας) is a transliteration into Greek from Aramaic. In order, the letters are: kappa, eta, phi, alpha and sigma.

In deciding what the original Aramaic for this word may have been, consideration has to be given to the differences between languages, including the fact that neither language separately represented all the sounds that could be made. Written Aramaic also lacked vowels, though sometimes a vowel was represented by a consonant used as a vowel-carrier (mater lectionis).

Aramaic has two separate letters, qoph and kaph, recognising and representing different sounds. But Greek speakers were not in practice using the sound represented by the Aramaic letter qoph, which is slightly more guttural, coming from the back of the throat. As a consequence, Greek has only one letter kappa to represent both the letters and sounds represented by qoph and kaph.

The name Kephas used in Galatians and I Corinthians may have been originally represented in Aramaic by the letters kaph and peh, followed by a soundless aleph, or by kaph, yodh (as a vowel carrier) and aleph. This is as כפא and כיפא, reading from right to left. There would have been no Aramaic letter in the place occupied by sigma, added in Greek to give the word a masculine case. Both versions mean stone.

Kephas could, however, equally have been represented by the letters qoph, peh and aleph or by qoph, yodh, peh and aleph (קפא and קיפא).

Originating in this way, from the use of a qoph rather than a kaph, Kephas (or Kaiphas with a different choice of Greek vowels) is the short version of the family title of the Jewish High Priest at the time, known to us through the gospels and the work of Josephus (Antiquities 18 ii.2, iv.3) as Joseph Caiaphas.15 The alternative representations of this version (קפא and קיפא) are found in names scratched on the sides of ossuaries, in what is likely to have been the family tomb of the High Priest Joseph.16

There are therefore two possibilities for the origin of the name Kephas (in Greek) in Paul’s letters. One is that there was someone (of some significance) called ‘stone’ and the other is that there were one or more persons designated with the title קפא or קיפא, that is the title of the High Priest Joseph’s family, with whom Paul was interacting.

Kephas could have been a title, rather than a nickname meaning stone. As such, as the title of Joseph’s family, it would mean that that Paul was dealing with a person (or persons) of some consequence.

This realisation opens the way to understanding how two distinctive characters, described with differing roles and attributes, came to have improbably coincident names, in the languages that were in use at the time. Paul is described in Galatians and I Corinthians as interacting with someone who could have been a member of the High Priest Joseph’s family. This member, or these members,17 carried the family title קפא or קיפא which transliterates equally well as Kephas/Cephas (Κηϕας), or as Kaiphas/Caiphas (Καιϕας), but which has no literal equivalent.

Paul would certainly have been aware of Joseph Caiaphas, who had only recently served as High Priest and who had been in office for an unusually long time. There is also a strong chance that other members of the family existed and were among Paul’s contemporaries.18 If so, Paul would have known who they were and would likely have interacted with them. He certainly did have a predilection for moving in high circles 19.

This understanding of the situation is consistent with the way the languages in use at the time interacted and were interpreted. It is more plausible than a projected association between Paul and an individual whose nickname, presumed as meaning ‘stone’, is incongruous, unexplained and largely unreported

The Simon recorded in Mark as part of the group that went to Jerusalem to challenge the Roman and Jewish authorities, could not realistically have been a member of the High Priest’s family. So, this Simon would not have held the family title.

But it is plausible that there were other influential members of the family, playing a part in Jewish life in Jerusalem, besides the former High Priest Joseph. The way Aramaic was reproduced in Greek provides strong testimony that the Cephas, who interacted with Paul, was one of them.

Identifying Cephas in this way, on the basis of language, provides an important step forward. But it does only address one half of the issue. What now has to be explained is how someone, called Simon in the gospels, could have been attributed a nickname (meaning stone) that just happened to transliterate into Greek in the same way as the title of members of the High Priest’s family. This is not likely and, I suggest, not the case, given that a better explanation is available.

It is known that the author of Mark used Paul’s letters as a source of material for his gospel. He would have been particularly interested in finding references in these letters to characters associated with Jesus. He would indeed have expected that Paul, as an early founder of Christianity, would have sought out and worked with any surviving followers of Jesus.

Central among these in Mark’s narrative is Simon, who played a key part in the confrontation with the Roman and Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. There are however no direct references to anyone called Simon in Paul’s letters.

What Mark did was find was a number of references which provide a title, Kephas (Κηϕας), while missing (at least, as the text of the letters now appears) a forename. The title itself clearly has Aramaic origins.

The early gospel writer could well have been hampered in deciding what these origins were. In none of several references in Mark, is the Jewish High Priest mentioned by name20. This suggests that the author was unaware who at the time this should have been. Without access to an account of Jewish history, still to be provided by Josephus,21 he may have had no source to help him. Later gospel writers were able to identify the High Priest as Joseph, called Caiaphas by Josephus and represented in Aramaic by either by קיפא or קפא.

The author of Mark decided that Kephas must have been transliterated from כפא meaning ‘stone’, failing to recognise that it could equally have come from the similar-sounding קפא, representing the title of the High Priest.

He also decided that the references to Kephas provided evidence of what he already believed to be the case, that Paul was involved with the Simon who featured in Mark’s own source narrative.

Simon, it should be noted, was one of the most common Jewish forenames in use at the time.22 It is possible that Mark was helped to his conclusion by a direct reference (now no longer available) that he had to a character, possible one of several with the title Kephas, who also had the forename Simon.

Having decided that Kephas meant stone and that this applied to his gospel character, he incorporated this into his text.

In this text, written in Greek, Jesus was given to assign the nickname Petros to Simon.

Mark then did, what Paul did not do, thereafter use Petros for his character Simon, as implicitly a translation of Κηϕας.

The reason that Paul himself did not provide a translation of this word of Aramaic origin, is now no longer puzzling, but clear. There is no translation of the Aramaic word קפא, which could be represented either as Κηϕας or Καιϕας, because it is a title with no known or obvious origin.

The new sect generated by Paul and his followers rapidly became popular in the diaspora among Gentile converts and so did the story that went with it. At some point, as the later gospels and Acts were written, it may have been realised that the author of Mark had made a mistake. But, by this time, there was nothing that could be done about it.

Simon, identified as Petros, had become a popular figure among the emerging sect’s followers. He was imbedded in the narrative. There was no way that he could easily be turned back into plain Simon, or Simon the outlaw (bariona), leader of a Jewish ekklesia in Judea.

Nor would there have been the motivation to do this, since part of the reason for adopting ‘Simon Peter’ into the story was to provide a bridge into the Jewish community in Judea that had in fact rejected and driven out Paul.

How does the analysis, which I have offered, stand up against the understandings of Ehrman and Allison? There is firstly no longer an issue over the name Cephas in Paul’s letters. It was a title which could not be translated. So, Paul kept the original Aramaic and transliterated it as Cephas (Kηϕφς).

Secondly, there is a clear explanation, which fits with the evidence, for how the nickname Cephas arose as the basis for ‘Simon Peter’, that is as a misunderstanding of this same title by the author of Mark. Thirdly, the improbabilities are removed. There is no longer the coincidence, identified by Allison as stretching credulity, of different characters happening to have the same previously unknown names, in different languages but with the same sense. There were two characters who might or might not have had the same, very common forename. But neither had a nickname or title that applied to the other.

Paul was not furthermore, on this interpretation, operating in the context of two people whose names happened to transliterate into Greek in the same way. Paul interacted, if at all, with a supporter of Jesus known simply as Simon (or possibly Simon the outlaw) and with a member, or members, of the High Priest Joseph’s family who carried the title Cephas.

I have suggested that the author of Mark misinterpreted this title, as transliterated by Paul into Greek, and then imported it into his story for a character who (in so far as he was historical) did not have it. So, there was never a situation of two characters with the same nickname or title, whether in the same or in different languages. There was just one title held by right and then this same title misapplied in entirely different circumstances.

This then is why there is a dearth of references connecting the Greek name Petros (Peter) with the Aramaic word Kephas for ‘stone’. The connection is made explicitly only once, and belatedly, by the author of John.

Ehrman was correct in identifying Cephas and Peter as two persons. But both he and Allison were operating under a presumption which, though false, was understandable given what is provided in Mark. The false presumption was that the title or nickname Cephas originated from the Aramaic for stone.

My conclusion is that there is evidence both for the militant Nazarene leader Simon, attested in Acts (Acts 12.1-17) and by Josephus (Antiquities 19 vii.4), in confrontation with Herod Agrippa 1, and also for Cephas/Kephas as a titled member of a Jewish family interacting with Paul. It may also be that this same Simon and Jesus were together members of the same Jewish group of Nazarenes that so troubled the Roman and Jewish authorities.

The gospel narrative and Acts in these respects do reflect an underlying historical reality.

It is, however, my conclusion that there was no character at the time designated as ‘Simon Peter’. That name, I suggest, arises from a mistake made by the author of Mark, either directly or through using an earlier source.

So, Bart Ehrman was right, though for reasons that he might not have anticipated. There were two characters, just as he has argued. But there was, courtesy of the author of Mark, also one fiction. The person described as Peter, who has been an iconic figure in the gospel narrative for almost two millennia, as such never did exist.

Peter Cresswell (16 06 2023)


1 Bart D Ehrman, ‘Cephas and Peter’, JBL 109/3 (1990), pp. 463-474.

2 Dale C Allison Jr, ‘Peter and Cephas: One and the Same’, JBL 111/3 (1992), pp.489-495.

3 This is how the term was first applied in referencing Jesus, at Mk 1.24, 10.47 and 16.6. The author of Matthew writes of ‘Nazarene’ as meaning ‘from Nazareth’ (Mt 2.23), so disassociating Jesus from the radical Jewish sect. However, in copying Mark, at Mt 3.13, he fails to mention Nazareth as Jesus’ place of origin. It seems therefore that the reference to Nazareth at Mk 1.9 is not original but a later editorial harmonisation with Matthew’s position. See Peter Cresswell, The Invention of Jesus (London, Watkins Publishing: 2013) pp. 146-163.

4 David G Horrell, ‘The label Χριστιανός: 1 Peter 4.16 and the Formation of Christian Identity’, JBL 126/2 (2007) pp. 361-381.

5 While this is the customary English usage, Kephas better reflects how the name appears in Greek.

6 Ehrman, ‘Cephas and Peter’.

7 Joseph A Fitzmyer, ‘Aramaic Kepha’ and Peter’s Name in the New Testament’, in To Advance the Gospel, (New York, Crossroad, 1981), pp.112-124.

8 Allison, ’Peter and Cephas: ‘One and the Same’.

9 Examples can be found at Mk 3.17; 5.41; 7.34; 10.46; 14.36; 15.22; 15.34.

10 Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.39. 15-16).

11 The term ‘bariona’ applied to Simon (Mt 16.17) appears as a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic term for an outlaw, applied also to Jewish zealots in the uprising against Roman occupation. This fits with some of Simon’s attributes, conveyed in different sources, and is therefore to be preferred to the somewhat strained interpretations of either ‘son of Jonah’ or ‘son of John’.

12 See also discussion of the role of James in Peter Cresswell, Who was Cephas? (Glastonbury: Blue Cedar Print Works Publishing, 2022), pp. 43-53, 86-89.

13 There is a further discussion of this in Peter Cresswell ,Who was Cephas?, pp 24-27.

14 Thomas P Nelligan, The Quest for Mark’s Sources: An Exploration of the Case for Mark’s Use of First Corinthians (Oregon: Pickwick, 2015); Richard Carrier, ‘Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles, online (25 10 2019); Mar Perez i Diaz, Mark, a Pauline Theologian (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020).

15 It is possible that Caiphas is an abbreviation of Caiaphas, or alternatively that the longer version arose though misunderstanding yodh as a separately sounded letter, when it was acting as a carrier indicating a vowel. According to this alternative understanding, there would, in actuality, at the time have been only one version.

16 Zvi Greenhut,’Discovery of the Caiaphas Family Tomb’, Jerusalem Perspective, 4/4&5 (1991), pp.6-12. Ronny Reich, ‘Ossuary Inscriptions from the Caiaphas Tomb’, Jerusalem Perspective, 4/4&5 (1991), pp.13-22.

17 In Paul’s letters, Galatians and I Corinthians, the title is given without the associated forename which the individual concerned would have had.

18 Jews at the time tended to have large families. Josephus records that Ananus, who may have been Joseph’s father-in-law (Jn 18.13) had five sons, all of whom like Ananus, served as High Priest (Antiquities 20 ix.1). Josephus is less forthcoming in listing or describing characters lower in the hierarchy. It can be expected that there were other male members of Joseph’s family, playing a part, even though the historian may have failed to describe them.

19 Paul was familiar with characters like Herod Agrippa II and Bernice who visited him at Caesarea (Acts 25.13-27; 26.1-32). He sent greetings to the family of Aristobulus and to his ‘kinsman’ Herodion (little Herod) (Rom 16.10-11). Manaen, described as the foster brother of Herod Antipas, was among the founders of Saul’s community at Antioch (Acts 13.1).

20 There are five references to ‘the High Priest’ at the time, between Mark 14.53 and 14.67, none of them by name.

21 There are two references to the High Priest Joseph Caiaphas in Antiquities of the Jews published by Josephus in CE 94. But a first version of Mark is believed by many scholars to have been written earlier than this, perhaps between CE 74 and 84 in the immediate aftermath of the Jewish uprising.

22 Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, part 1 330BCE-200CE (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002).