Sunday, July 01, 2007

Petrine Primacy or Etymological Error?

Why did people start to think Peter was the head of the church?

The question that is the subject of this post is one that should be of interest to those who have heard the many claims of papal primacy. Scripture nowhere indicates or suggests that Peter was the head of the church. How then, could people have begun to think so?

Papal Invention Hypothesis

There is always the possibility that the motivation was simply self-serving. The alleged successor of St. Peter created a story that Peter was the head of the apostles, and used political connections in Rome to force the story on the rest of the church within the Roman empire. That may be the most likely and reasonable explanation.

But there is a way that the legend could come to be, and this way is much more interesting.

False Cognate Hypothesis

The Aramaic name for Peter is transliterated Cephas in our English Bibles, and that name is usually pronounced with a soft "c". Nevertheless, a more accurate transliteration calls for a hard "c" or K. Thus, a better transliteration is Kephas.

In Greek, the word for head is κεφαλη which would be transliterated to Kephaleh. It is easy to imagine that someone with no knowledge of Armaic might mistakenly think that Kephas was etymologically related to Kephaleh. Thus, a group of Christians for whom Latin was their first, Greek their second, and Aramaic an unknown language, might easily misunderstand the appellation of Peter as "Kephas" to mean that he had been made the head of the apostles.

This kind of false cognate mistake is not without precedent. It is on the basis of a similar false cognate (this time within a single language) that Moses is sometimes depicted in ancient images with horns. This was the result of mistaking Kaeren (horn) and Karan (to shine).

Likewise the legend that the forbidden fruit was an apple arose (apparently) from a confusion between the Latin word malus (apple) and malum (evil).

Hybrid Hypothesis

Another option, of course, is that an enterprising pope or papal advocate took advantage of the false cognate to bolster an argument in favor of Petrine primacy.

Conclusion - Further Study

So far this is just a hypothesis that struck me as I was reading through Scrivener. What would be interesting would be to see if there is any record of the false cognate argument actually being used. Although I think it is unlikely that any such argument would have survived to present, if it was ever committed to paper.


I recognize that there are various arguments for Petrine Primacy, but those are really quite aside. If Peter is assumed to be the head of the church, there are various passages that can be pressed into service to try to support that hypothesis. There is, however, no reason within Scripture to suppose that Peter was the head of the church.

I also recognize that there are various extrascriptural sources that assert Petrine Primacy. The problem is this: most (and probably all) of those are folks who wrote significantly after the fact, and at a time when the bishop of Rome had begun to play imperial politics.


Anonymous said...

Quite interesting post. It makes one want to do further research. What was the Scrivener text you were reading?

Turretinfan said...

Dear Godith,

Thanks. His "Contributions to the Criticism of the Greek New Testament." Scrivener himself doesn't discuss the topic in any way, he just kept referring to how this or that manuscript contained kephalia (often in red ink). Eventually, something clicked. I think its as good a theory as some of the others.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Turretinfan,

The reason why people treated Peter as the head of the Church is...he was the head of the Church :-) And I don't mean to export what that means in 2007 back to the first century. He was the head of the Church, as appointed by Christ in Mt. 16 (especially in light of Isa. 22); he was the one that God singled out for revealing the fact that the gospel must be preached to the Gentiles; he was the one who preached the Pentecost sermon; he was the one who took the initiative to replace Judas Iscariot; he was the one to whom Ananias and Sapphira brought their "gift"; he was the one who pronounced a death sentence upon them; he was one of two that the Sanhedrin repeatedly confronted (would they do this if he wasn't acknowledged as at least *a* leader?); he was the one imprisoned by Herod Agrippa; he was the one singled out for unique mention over and over; etc. In short (well, sort of), it's simply not credible to say that he wasn't the head of the Church.

Consequently I have to disagree with your claim that "Scripture nowhere indicates or suggests that Peter was the head of the church." Perhaps you'd like to qualify that in some fashion? Even if you won't, I will :-) According to you it doesn't. According to Protestants it doesn't. But I'm not sure why we should accept your account of the matter. You are, after all, hardly an objective observer (and I mean no offense when I say that). Nor for that matter is any Protestant, since it is the sine qua non of Protestantism to reject the papacy.

Peace be with you.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

With all due respect, that theory has been sufficiently refuted. Hence, I did not even bother to include it in the list.


Reginald de Piperno said...


With all due respect, Protestant objections to the papacy have been sufficiently refuted.

Peace be with you.

Reginald de Piperno said...


My last post was of course absurd. But my point was: refuted by whom? In whose judgment was it a refutation, and who says it was a sufficient one? And why should we listen to these people?

If it was "refuted" (as is most likely the case) by Protestants, for Protestants...well, that's fine as far as it goes. But that doesn't really tell us Catholics anything, beyond the fact that people who reject the papacy quite naturally dislike the idea that by his language Christ clearly meant to say that Peter was to be his steward.

The main thing I wished to point out, however, is that it is only with Protestant lenses on that the Bible can be read so as to deny Peter's position within the Church. The Catholic Church hasn't simply fabricated the whole thing, despite your objections to the contrary.

And that will be my last word on this topic for today, since it is pointless and rude to try and have the last word on another man's blog :-) If I have seemed rude today, I apologize. If you are an American, I hope you have a Happy Independence Day.

Peace be with you.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Reginald,

All I meant was that the refutation was sufficient for the purpose of this thread.

I have dealt with topic in parts on several other threads:

Here, responding to Dave Armstrong, Part I and Part II

Also, here, responding to GNRhead

Perhaps, at some future point, I'll try to round up all the arguments in a single post or targeted series.

Happy Independence Day to you too!