Peter

An invitation in last year’s post on Simon —that the ‘double name of the Jewish Simon or Symeon Peter, the first Pope’ be considered by ‘a possible future contributor bearing the second part of the name’—is taken up here despite the present writer’s relation to an archangel, not the rock of the church. With Simon Peter (Simōn Petros) we are at a seminal moment in Christian onomastics, a confluence of linguistically Greek and Semitic names in one man, himself undergoing religious conversion. His double name underlies one of the most discussed passages in the gospels, in which the name ‘Peter’ gained a path to popularity essentially by fiat. Published volumes of LGPN attest no Petroi before the Imperial period, with most in the third century or later. The new volume on the Near East will add no fewer than 181, but our apostle is the earliest attested bearer of the name in the book, and without doubt the cause of this later flowering of his second name. We should not ignore cognate names, like Petrōn in Sicily of the sixth century BCE and Petraios in classical Athens, but Peter remains one of the more dramatic examples of the birth of an onomastic fashion.

            Simon already bore a sort of double name, with a Hellenic pedigree but also serving to render the Hebrew Shim‘on (see last year’s post on Simon). But he took on a more explicit alias: Jesus, in words probably once delivered in Aramaic, reported only in Matthew 16:17–18, blesses his follower, ‘Simon bar Iona’ (i.e. ‘son of Jonah’), affirming, ‘You are Peter (“rock”, petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church (ekklēsia).’ Further light comes from John 1:42, where, at the first meeting of Simon and Jesus, the latter pronounces, ‘You will be called Kēphas—which is translated Peter (or, “rock”, petros).’ The Fourth Gospel also makes clear that Simon did not already bear this name. Kēphas is not a biblical name, but an Aramaic version appears among the fifth-century BCE papyri from Elephantine, home to a Jewish community. That it augmented rather than replaced Simon is shown when Jesus, well into their acquaintance, calls out ‘Simon’ to a man whom the narrator calls ‘Peter’ (Mark 14:37).

            Kēphas would have been more familiar in contemporary Galilee as an Aramaic common noun (‘rock’) than a personal name (so too its Greek doublet), and was probably given on this occasion to make a particular point based on the meaning of the noun. Ancient commentators wondered about a relation of Kēphas to Greek ‘head’ (kephalē) reflecting Peter’s chief-apostleship, but it is now generally seen to transliterate the Aramaic. The epithet may have continued imagery of the cornerstone from the Psalm citation in the Parable of the Tenants (e.g.  Mark 12:10–11), and been modelled on re-namings of other foundational figures, especially Abram to Abraham, a patriarch also linked with rocks (Isaiah 51:1–2; Matthew 3:9).

            Simon would not be the last, in the pages of LGPN, to bear Peter in a double name. A sign of the times is the inversion of Greek and Semitic in the names of two early Byzantine Christians from the Near East: Peter alias Apselamos and Peter alias Barsymēs. Peter was now acceptable, even attractive as a given name; some bearers chose to carry on other names traditional in the region, perhaps in fact for distinction among the countless other Peters. The name’s later fate is well-known: across Christian Europe it ranked among the most popular, and, after its introduction to England by the Normans, various reflexes of Piers (not Peter, absent before the 14th century) won broad currency as both names and surnames; its fortunes suffered from post-Reformation animus against our apostle’s successors but were boosted by the hero of James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan.

 

Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, who as a researcher for the forthcoming LGPN VI assembled many of those 181 Petroi. 

marble relief scultpure of a man sitting holding a cloth