Monday, July 8, 2013

While International SBL has already begun, I still have more notes to share on the conference Peter in Earliest Christianity, held by the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins at Edinburgh University.

There were several very good papers on the first day of the conference (I already wrote a brief note about a paper given by Larry Hurtado), but the one I found most interesting was given by Prof. Margaret Williams (Edinburgh). Her paper, entitled "The Nomenclature of Peter - A Brief Enquiry," examined the three names of the Apostle: Simon, Peter, and bar Jonah.

Simon. Noting that Shimon was by far the most common male name among Jews at the time, owing to the popularity of Shimon Maccabee, we can assume that Simon's family was patriotic.  Additionally, if we add the others of the Maccabean family (Judas, John and perhaps Joseph), the names associated with the Hasmonean dynasty might make up 40% of all male names.  You can imagine then, how many 'Judas son of John son of Judas' or 'John son of Judas son of Simon' there were. The assumption that Simon was the name given to Simon Peter by his parents, according to Williams, is a near certainty.

Bar Jonah.  Simon's patronymic name is either 'bar Jonah' (Matt 16:17) or 'bar John' (John 1:42; 21:15).  While John is much more common, given the affinity for Hasmonean names, Prof. Williams argues that bar Jonah is more likely.  In the Galilee, still quite distinct from the south, the emphasis on Hasmonean names was less and the name Jonah was used a little more often.  Add to that the likelihood that the name would change over time from Jonah to John rather than the reverse, and one can assume that the earlier reading is the correct one.  It is important to note that with a more unusual name patronymic name, it is likely that there was not another with the name Simon bar Jonah in the fishing village of Bethsaida, and so he may not have required a nickname to distinguish himself.

Peter.  Peter (also Kepha and Cephas), of course, means 'rock.' Williams, with several points of justification, is quite confident that this supernomen was actually assigned to Simon by Jesus (note that this is not the same as believing that Jesus assigned any sort of papal commission to Simon).  It was very common for Jews at the time to adopt Aramaic nicknames, given the confusion due to so few Jewish names.  These Aramaic names could easily be translated or transliterated into Greco-Roman names in the concern of integration.  Life changes often brought about a supernomen; joining a regiment, a household or religious conversion could bring about such a change.  One reason that we can be confident that Peter's name was given to him is because the three closest to Jesus have experienced this transition.  Along with Peter, James and John were designated boanerges, sons of thunder.  Finally, it is important to note that 'rock' is attested to as a nickname in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin, so it is not a problem to imagine this as a likely nickname.

It was a very interesting overview of the onomastic issues surrounding Peter.  While it seems at first to simply confirm much of what we find in the Gospel account (aside from the confusion regarding 'bar Jonah' or 'bar John'), Dr. Williams provided an excellent overview of the context and the issues and practices of names, patronyms and supernomens.  

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