I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19)

 

 

Simon Peter and Cephas 

 


                   

   
                        
(c) Copyright 2004

         Joseph Francis Alward    

                     

 

The Bible tells us that Jesus gave the name Cephas to the apostle Simon, and that a
certain Cephas was the first person visited by Jesus following his resurrection.  This article rebuts the skeptical claim that there were two different Cephas's.

 

 

    

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(Unedited notes added to bottom of article on May 16, 2004)

 

Simon Was Named Cephas by Jesus

 

 

Before I present the evidence showing that there were not two different Cephas's, I will make a comment about two important Greek words--petros and petra--which will appear in a Matthean passage I will discuss later. 

 

According to Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1981, Volume 4, page 76), "Petros denotes a piece of a rock, a detached stone or boulder, in contrast to petra, a mass of rock."

 

In the Matthean passage below, the author evidently puts a simple pun in the mouth of Jesus, by having Jesus call Simon, "Petros," and then declare that he was the petra upon which Jesus would build his church.  In other words, Matthew has Jesus say Simon was to be given a name that meant "rock," because he was to be a rock in a figurative sense.

 

Simon Peter1 (Greek, Simon Petros) answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona…I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (Greek, Petros) and upon this rock (Greek, petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:15-19)

 

Traditional belief held that Jesus spoke Aramaic, an ancient Semitic dialect.  This is important because the Aramaic word for rock is "kephas," so it would have been natural for the readers, writers, and believers of that time to assume that Jesus might not actually have said "Petros," but instead said "Cephas."  Indeed, we see below that in the Johannine tradition, Jesus announces that Simon was to be called Cephas:

 

The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, "We have found the Messiah."  And he brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas".  (John 1:42)

 

Now, let's show that Simon Peter was the first of the apostles visited by Jesus after his resurrection.

 

Cephas Was First Visited

 

Paul makes it clear that Jesus appeared to a person named "Cephas" before he appeared to the apostles:

 

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve.  (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

 

Was this "Cephas" Simon Peter, or was it some other Cephas?  The Lukan passage below strongly suggests that they are the same person:

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon."  (Luke 24:33-34)



If we assume that Luke knew that Jesus gave Simon the name "Cephas," Luke also would have known that his readers would understand that the apostles in Luke 24:33 said, in effect, that "the Lord has risen and has appeared to Cephas."

 

Now, if it were true that this Cephas was not the same as the Cephas who was honored by being paid the first post-resurrection visit by Jesus, wouldn't Luke have explained this to his readers? The fact that he didn't is strong evidence that there was no need for an explanation, for Luke was aware of only one Cephas, and that was the Simon who was named Simon Peter (Cephas) by Jesus. 

 

 

A Contrary View


Some skeptics argue that if Simon Peter really were the first apostle visited by Peter after Jesus' resurrection, Peter would have had "bragging rights" and would have used them in his fight for supremacy over the other apostles. The argument goes something like this:

 

Paul says that he often defied Simon Peter: "I withstood him to his face," (Galatians 2:11).  If Simon Peter really was the Cephas to whom Jesus appeared before he appeared to the apostles, one would think that Simon would have "lorded over" Paul in their confrontations.  However, in all their disputes over matters of the faith and the fortunes of the new "church," there's no record of Peter mentioning the first appearance.  This is strong evidence, the skeptics say, that Simon Peter was not the same Cephas described by Paul, the one who was honored by being the first to whom Jesus appeared, and thus there must have been two Cephas's.

 

This argument doesn't stand up because Simon Peter also didn't mention the far more consequential fact that Jesus had named him the rock upon which Jesus' church would be based, and gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Certainly, if Simon wouldn't mention the rock and keys meeting with Jesus in his own defense, then it shouldn't surprise anyone that he didn't mention the less important first appearance. 

 

Notes:  The following is a slightly edited copy of a post sent by me to an errancy discussion forum on May 16, 2004:

 

 

Let me now show the two passages in the Bible which make it clear that Simon did not have the name Simon Peter until he met with Jesus, and that the naming was not a change, but a nicknaming.  Here is the first of the two passages:

 

The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, "We have found the Messiah."  And he brought him to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas".  (John 1:42)

 

In the passage above, note that Simon—not Simon Peter—is given the additional name, Cephas.  The word cephas in Aramaic means "the rock," so we see below that Jesus is saying that Simon from now on will be known as Simon the Rock.  We have to look elsewhere to understand why Jesus chose the particular nickname "Cephas" for Simon.  We find what we need in the Matthean passage:

 

Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona…I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:15-19)

 

The Greek words actually used above for Peter and rock were Petros for Peter, and petra for rock.  According to Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (1981, Volume 4, page 76), "Petros denotes a piece of a rock, a detached stone or boulder, in contrast to petra, a mass of rock."  The author evidently has Jesus use petros-petra word play by having him call Simon, "Petros," and then declare that he was the petra upon which Jesus would build his church.  In other words, Matthew has Jesus say Simon was to be given a name that meant "rock," because he was to be a rock in a figurative sense, the foundation on which Jesus' church would be built.  Thus, we see that Matthean author has Jesus do the same thing that the Johannine author had Jesus do:  they each had Jesus give the nickname "Simon the Rock" to Simon.

 

Skeptics may object and say that Simon was already known as Simon Peter, or just Peter, before the nicknaming, but that's extraordinarily unlikely, for having Jesus give a name to Simon that he already had would certainly have made Jesus seem either silly or not omniscient, or both. Thus, it seems clear that the author of this passage wanted his readers to understand that the "Simon" in Matthew 16:16 wouldn't have the second name, "Peter," until Jesus gives it to him two verses later.  Note also that Matthew doesn't have Jesus greet Simon as Simon Peter, but as Simon Barjona; this stands as additional evidence that Simon was not Simon Peter until after Jesus gave him the nickname, Peter.

 

In conclusion, we see that there was no Simon Peter whose name was changed.  It was Simon, not a Simon Peter, who was a given by Jesus an additional name--"the rock," a nickname that made Simon the foundation—the rock of foundation--of Jesus' church.  Simon the Rock, Simon Peter, Simon Cephas, or just plain Cephas, or just plain Peter, were all the same person, depending on the tradition and whom you asked in the first century.   

 

Finally, I come to the question about priority asked at the top of this post.  Which version has priority?  The one that uses the word Peter to describe the person, or the one that uses Cephas?  The answer to this question has already been given above.  Neither has "priority."  The King James Version was based on a tradition in which Simon's nickname was Petros, the Greek word for "the rock," while the Revised Standard Version was based on a tradition in which Cephas, the Aramaic word for "the rock," was used in reference to Simon.

 

In conclusion, we see that the Simon, Simon Peter, Simon Cephas, Cephas, Petros, and Peter were all one and the same person:  Simon the Rock, the rock on which Jesus' church would be founded.

 

By the way, Simon the Rock is not the same person as Simon the Zealot, also known as Simon the Caananite.

 

 

 

Footnotes

 

1.  Did the author of Verse 16 want his readers to believe that Simon already had the second name, Peter (Petros), before the author had Jesus in Verse 19 announce that Simon would be called Peter?   That hardly seems likely, for giving a name to Simon that he already had would certainly have made Jesus seem either silly or not omniscient, or both. Thus, it seems clear that the author of this passage wanted his readers to understand that the "Simon" in Verse 16 won't have the second name, "Peter," until Jesus gives it to him two verses later.