Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Petrine Fact, Part 5: Peter’s New Name

From Jimmy Akin:

Continued from Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew (Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308)

Edited/Expanded Friday evening; see new material in blue below.

"So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Petros)" (John 1:42).

All four Gospels tell us that Simon bar-Jona was renamed Cephas, or Petros (i.e., Peter), by Jesus himself (Matthew 16:18, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14, John 1:42). Cephas is a Grecized transliteration of kepha, an Aramaic word for rock. (Well, technically, since I'm writing in English, "kepha" and "cephas" are both English transliterations, one from Aramaic and one from a Grecized transliteration of Aramaic, but let's not get bogged down.) Thus, Cephas in John 1:42 above points to the likely original form of the name, Kepha, as given by Jesus, who would have spoken Aramaic with his disciples.

(Incidentally, this is as good a point as any for a disclaimer to the effect that I am neither a student of language nor learned in ancient texts. In this post I'm reliant on a number of works that need to be sourced. I'll try to come back in the next few days and re-edit to credit sources. In the meantime, comments, queries and corrections are all welcome. As always, when a non-expert is synthesizing technical material, mistakes are possible. Further updates may be forthcoming on the basis of such feedback.)

Cephas is the form of Peter's name used by Paul throughout 1 Corinthians (1:12, 3:22, 9:5, 15:5), including the credal formula of 15:5, suggesting that this Grecized form of Kepha was used very early among Greek-speaking Christians, possibly before Petros, the name by which Peter is most often identified in the New Testament. In Galatians Paul uses both Cephas (Gal 1:18, 2:9-14) and Petros (Gal 2:7-8), apparently interchangeably. As John 1:42 indicates, Petros is the Greek equivalent of Cephas.

Peter's original name, Simon, doesn't entirely disappear. In the Gospels Jesus himself continues to use Simon most of the time (Matt 17:25, Mark 14:37, Luke 22:31, John 21:15), though not always (Luke 22:34), and others use Simon at least occasionally (Luke 24:34). But the Evangelists almost never refer to Peter simply as Simon, except very early on. He is either "Simon called Petros" or "Simon Petros" (particularly in John), or else simply Petros.

In Acts, Luke only calls him Petros, except when relating how the men from Cornelius, sent by the angel, come seeking "Simon called Petros." The angel in Peter's vision addresses him as Petros (Acts 10:1-18). The only other echo of Simon in Acts comes from James, at the Jerusalem Council, who uses the form Simeon, a more Semitic form of the name. This form is also attested in the opening of 2 Peter, where it is conjoined with Peter: "Simeon Petros, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ"; 1 Peter begins simply, "Petros, an apostle of Jesus Christ."

Paul never uses Simon, only Cephas or Petros. From this, and from the prevalence of Petros in the Gospels and Acts, it seems clear that Peter's new name was well established and widely used in the first-century church.

This bestowal of a new name is unique in the New Testament. Mark's Gospel mentions that the other two disciples of Jesus' inner circle, James and John, received the collective nickname Boanerges, "Sons of Thunder." But that lone mention is the only time this sobriquet is ever heard from; we never read, for example, that "Jesus took with him Peter and the Sons of Thunder" or any such thing. They are sometimes referred to collectively as the sons of Zebedee, but never the Sons of Thunder. Nor is there any mention of "James Son of Thunder" or "John Son of Thunder." James is never called anything but James, nor John anything but John.

Likewise, the popular notion that Jesus changed Saul's name to Paul is a misconception. Like many of his peers, Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen in a Hellenized world, had simply acquired more than one name. The shift in Acts from Saul to Paul is merely the narrator's way of transitioning literarily from the story of Saul's Pharisaical Jewish origins to his better-known identity as the great apostle to the Gentiles. Symbolic, certainly, but there is no indication of a name change. The story of Paul's conversion is related three times in Acts (once by Luke, twice by Paul), with no indication that Jesus ever called Saul anything but "Saul, Saul" (cf. Acts 9, 22 and 26). Then, at a certain point, Luke simply tells us that Saul was "also called Paul" (Acts 13:9), and goes from there. There is no parallel to the significance of Peter's new name, especially as we find it expounded in Matthew 16, where it is part of a solemn commission speech.

In fact, the closest parallels in scripture to Peter's new name are found in the Old Testament, particularly in the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Israel, who all receive new names from God in passages with notable parallels to Matthew 16, as we will see.

Among other things, Jesus' choice of Peter's new name is in a way as paradoxical as the choice of Abraham ("father of a multitude") for a childless old man. This is very different, probably, from the nickname "Sons of Thunder," which likely reflects an assessment of the personalities or dispositions of the sons of Zebedee (possibly as seen in Luke 9:54). It is easy to feel that Kepha/Cephas/Petros is hardly illustrative of Peter's personality in the same way.

On the contrary, Peter is well known as a man of shifting extremes — impetuous, unsteady, at turns fervent and foolish, faithful and fearful, promising the greatest fidelity, then failing most spectacularly — anything but rock-like, however nuanced or glossed the notion of rockness might be. As we will see, then, "Rock" seems to be primarily indicative of Jesus' intention for the role he would give to Peter, rather than any attributes Peter possessed in himself.

Further heightening the drama of Peter's name change is the apparent novelty in contemporary usage of Aramaic Kepha and Greek Petros as a given name. In subsequent Christian usage Peter became a popular name thanks to its apostolic namesake, but when Simon bar-Jona was first called that, it was apparently unheard of. (This point isn't definitive; there is one apparent instance of Aramaic Kepha as a name in a legal document from the 5th century BC, and others might be discovered.)

Aramaic kepha is cognate to Hebrew keph, a rare word found only in Jeremiah 4:29 and Job 30:6, where it has the sense of mountain crags or rocky terrain. In both texts keph is translated petra (cognate to petros) in the Greek Old Testament translation, the Septuagint.

Aramaic kepha is more widely used than its Hebrew cognate. In fact, it can be used to translate any of the common Hebrew words for rock: sela‘ and tsûr (both usually rendered in the Greek Septuagint as petra) as well as ’eben, a stone (usually rendered lithos in Greek).

A word of explanation may be helpful here. As the above suggests, there is a broad distinction in both Hebrew and Greek between words that often mean something like solid rock, bedrock, rocky terrain, cliff wall, etc., and words that mean usually indicate a stone or piece of rock on some moveable scale: a boulder, a precious gem, a thrown rock, a shaped stone, etc. Sela‘ and tsûr in Hebrew (often used in parallel), and petra in Greek, are "rock solid" language, while Hebrew ’eben and Greek lithos are of the smaller and more mobile type.

The above I take to be fairly noncontroversial; but two other words, one Greek and one Aramaic, are sometimes controverted particularly in discussions about Peter. Greek petros and Aramaic kepha are asserted by some non-Catholics to mean more or less the same as lithos or ’eben, a movable stone in contradistinction to petra or tsûr, solid rock. (One sometimes encounters the claim that Aramaic shua‘, cognate to Hebrew tsûr, is the rock-solid equivalent of petra.)

It is true that kepha can mean a stone, boulder or small rock, and is accordingly used in Aramaic texts to translate Hebrew ’eben in the same passages where the Greek has lithos. Aramaic also has another word, ’evna, that is cognate to Hebrew ’eben, and may often have a similar meaning. But ’evna is uncommon, leaving kepha, apparently, to pick up the slack.

However, kepha is also used in Aramaic texts to translate Hebrew sela‘ and tsûr where the latter indicate solid rock. The usual Greek translation in these cases is petra, indicating that kepha and petra can function more or less synonymously.

For example, the water-giving rock (sela‘) struck by Moses in the wilderness (Num 20:8-11), the rock (sela‘) on which the psalmist stands securely (Psalm 40:2), and the prophet's "shadow of a great rock (sela‘) in a weary land" (Isaiah 32:2) are all rendered kepha in Aramaic targums (Targum Okelos, Targum Jerusalem). Other targums attest kepha for tsûr in such texts as Deuteronomy 32:4 and Isaiah 17:10, where rock is used metaphorically for God himself (i.e., solid rock).

Significantly, discoveries in Qumran targums have found pre-Christian evidence for kepha referring to rocky mountain summits or crags (sela‘) in Job 39:1,28 and 1 Enoch 89:29. I am not aware of any corresponding evidence of Aramaic shua‘ (cognate of Hebrew tsûr) attested prior to medieval Aramaic texts; it may be that the word was not even available in Jesus' day.

For each of the above passages, wherever the Aramaic uses kepha for sela‘ or tsûr, the Greek Septuagint translation is petra (except where rock metaphors are lost in translation, e.g., Isa 32:2). Petra is the usual word for rock in the Septuagint, and also appears a number of times in the New Testament. The masculine form, petros, is virtually unknown in either, except as Peter's name in the New Testament.

In the Attic Greek of classical poetry, petros is sometimes used in the sense of a stone or movable rock, perhaps more or less synonymously with lithos, in contradistinction to petra. In the common Koine Greek of biblical literature, this distinction is virtually unknown. As a rule, when the Greek biblical texts want to reference a movable stone, they use lithos, not petros. This rule is not, however, quite without exception: A single Greek Old Testament book, 2 Maccabees, offers two instances of petros referring to thrown stones (2 Macc 1:16 and 4:41).

On the other hand, petra need not always mean massive rock over against lithos (or petros) in biblical Greek. In Isaiah 8:14 in the Septuagint, and again in Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:8, both apparently drawing on the Septuagint, we read of "a stone (lithos) that will make men stumble and a rock (petra) that will make them fall." Lithos and petra are thus used in parallel, not opposition, referring to a stone capable of being tripped over.

Kepha is even more flexible. It can be used equivalently to lithos (a stone) or to petra in the sense of rock mass. It is sometimes argued (I don't know) that the Aramaic word ’evna (like its Hebrew cognate ’eben) has the sense of a stone, and that shua‘ has the sense of massive rock, but at any rate kepha, like the English word rock, seems to run the gamut of meaning, and no specific sense can be insisted on in advance.

As with Aramaic kepha and Greek petra/petros, the Hebrew words sela‘ and tsûr are not used in the Old Testament as Hebrew personal names (though there seems to have been a Canaanite or two named Sur; see Num 25:15 and 1 Chron 8:30). Both tsûr and sela‘ are, however, metaphorically applied to God himself so frequently, particularly in Psalms and Isaiah, that "Rock" almost becomes a sort of divine title: "the Rock," "our Rock," "my Rock," "the Rock of Israel," "the Rock of your refuge," etc. (e.g., Deut 32:4,15-18,31, 2 Sam 22:2,32,47, Psa 18:2,31,46, Isa 17:10).

Such rock language seems to have been exclusive to God; we never read that David or Moses was a rock, etc. It may be the link between rock language and God was generally considered too close to comfortably apply such language to men, whether as a name or as a metaphor.

But this rule, too, is not without exception. There is a rabbinic tradition that may well have gone back to Jesus' day, describing one man as a rock: Abraham. Based on Isaiah 51:1-2 ("look to the rock (tsûr) from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged; Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you"), a number of Talmudic and midrashic texts, the earliest of which go back to the mid-second century, interpreted Abraham as the "rock" from which God's people were hewn.

What is the significance of Jesus renaming Simon Kepha or Cephas? In what sense is Peter a rock? It is time at last to turn to Matthew 16.

More to come.

Continued from Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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