Have you ever wondered why the apostles often seemed to have more than one name?
Let’s take the apostle Peter, for example. He is sometimes in the Bible called Peter; he is sometimes called Simon; and he is sometimes called Cephas. All three names are used to refer to the same man, sometimes in close proximity to each other.
For instance, in the book of Galatians, Paul refers to Peter, as Peter in Galatians 2:7, 8. But he calls him Cephas in Galatians 1:13, and Galatians 2:11, 14. This is not the only time Paul calls Peter, Cephas. He does so as well in 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:22, 9:5 and 15:5. Why the different name?
And why is Peter called Simon in so many other places? In approximately 69 places in the New Testament, in the four Gospels and in Acts, the name Simon is used to identify Peter. (cf. Acts 11:13, etc.)
Peter is the name most often used (well over a hundred times) and is the name used by the apostle himself when penning his own epistles (cf. 1 Peter 1:1) though in his second epistle, he identifies himself as Simon Peter, or Simeon Peter, depending on the spelling. (2 Peter 1:1)
The answer has to do with languages, and perhaps something to do with the reason why God chose the period of time He did for the birth of the church and the initial preaching of the Gospel.
We are told that in many synagogues in Palestine, in the first century, Jewish children were taught to read, write and speak in at least three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It was also common for Jews to have names for each of these languages. In Peter’s case, Simon was his given Hebrew name, the name he grew up with. In John 1:42, when Simon meets Jesus, Jesus gives him a new nick-name: Cephas. Cephas is Aramaic for rock. The Greek equivalent to Cephas is Peter, which also means stone, or rock.
Paul, writing to the Galatians in the Greek language, naturally used the name Peter in some places. This was the name most of the Greek-speaking church would have known him by. However, in private conversation, with his friends, Peter, who was a native Aramaic speaker, most likely called himself Cephas. Thus Paul, when thinking about his close friend and brother, often thought of him as Cephas, the name by which he knew him best.
Though we often think of the apostles as “uneducated,” we should recognize that they were each multi-lingual individuals who could read and write fluently in several languages. This practiced ability was further supplemented by the miraculous gift of tongues which allowed them to preach and teach to a wide variety of individuals in that own individual’s native language. (cf. Acts 2:7-11)
It was God’s plan for His apostles to take the Gospel to the world, and the world all spoke different languages. It was thus necessary for the apostles to each be able to communicate effectively to a wide swath of people. When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews,” and “to those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law,” we should not overlook the lingual aspects of this approach. (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-21)
God wanted the Gospel presented to people where they were, in the place where they lived, in the language they were accustomed to speaking. This is why the books of the New Testament were so quickly translated into other languages soon after they were written, including Coptic and Latin. So that men could have the message taken to them.
This was God’s plan, and it is reflected in the Lord’s grand commission, commanding us to, “Go to all the world (Matthew 28:19).” One wonders how often modern Christians would prefer for the world to come to us?
If we meet a non-believer who is also not a native English speaker, would we prefer that they first learn English before we convert them, or are we willing to put forth the effort to learn their tongue so as to better teach them? Do we prefer potential converts to walk into the doors of our buildings, or are we willing to go out and meet them where they are? These are important questions to consider.
As we consider such questions, we might keep in mind the Apostle who was willing to address his epistles, in Greek, as Peter, even though to most of his friends, he normally went by Cephas.
The church of Christ is always willing to come and study with you, though we also invite you to come worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any question you would like answered or addressed, please share them with us.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.