With the Pope visiting Israel, we hear the unusual Hebrew translation for pope - afifyor (or apifyor) אפיפיור. What is the origin of the word?
It appears once in the Talmud, in Avoda Zara 11a, in a story describing Onkelos the convert, and how the Emperor (his uncle) sent Roman soldiers to arrest him. However, Onkelos was able to convert them as well, by presenting arguments to them. One the arguments was the following:
אמר להו אימא לכו מילתא בעלמא ניפיורא נקט נורא קמי (א)פיפיורא (א)פיפיורא לדוכסא דוכסא להגמונא הגמונא לקומא קומא מי נקט נורא מקמי אינשי אמרי ליה לא אמר להו הקב"ה נקט נורא קמי ישראל דכתיב (שמות יג) וה' הולך לפניהם יומם וגו'Onkelos was demonstrating God's "humility" as compared with the Roman leader's pride.
He said to them: 'Let me tell you just an ordinary thing: [In a procession] the torchlighter carries the light in front of the afifior, the afifior in front of the leader, the leader in front of the governor, the governor in front of the chief officer; but does the chief officer carry the light in front of the people [that follow]?' 'No!' they replied. Said he: 'Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, does carry the light before Israel, for Scripture says. "And the Lord went before them … in a pillar of fire to give them light" (Shmot 13:21)
From this story we can see that afifyor had no religious standing, but was a type of dignitary or high official (so explain both the Arukh and Rashi). This Aramaic word is generally assumed to come from Greek. Krauss says that it derives from the Greek papias - which Ben Yehuda explains as "torch bearer", Klein as "keeper or janitor of the palace" and Steinsaltz as "the official responsible for the gates". (This book says that the Greek noun papias means "porter, conductor or guide".)
Even-Shoshan says that perhaps the word derives from the Greek epiphoros. I couldn't find an exact match for that word, but I do see that epiphero and phoros can mean "carrier" or "bearer". This would fit Jastrow's definition of apifior as "litter carrier, chief lecticarius" (see my post on apiryon for a description of this position). Phoros can also refer to a tribute or tax, so maybe the word describes someone who collects or receives tribute.
Kohut in the Arukh Hashalem quotes the Maharif (Rabbi Yaakov Feraji Mahmah?) as saying that afifyor derives from the Greek purphoros - meaning "torch bearer".
Kohut then goes on to mention the Christian Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf, who in his important Talmudic dictionary says that afifyor means "Papa, Pontifex Romanus" - i.e. the Pope. Kohut correctly points out that this was clearly not the meaning in the Talmudic passage. But by Medieval times (see examples here), this was the term Jews used to refer to the Catholic Pope.
Why was this obscure word chosen? Ben Yehuda offers a few suggestions.
It may have been due to a similarity to the Greek title "papas" (father) for the Pope, or a longer title: "papas hiereus" - chief priest or "papas hieros" - holy father. (Even Shoshan's transliteration papas ieros seems to perhaps be in error.)
He quotes Berliner as claiming that the word comes from "avi pior" - Father (avi אבי in Hebrew) and Pior (Peter in Italian, the first pope). Similarly, Meir Wiener, in his German translation of Emek HaBacha says that afifyor comes from "epi Pior" - after (epi in Greek) and Pior (Peter) - the Pope is Peter's successor.
The question still remains - why use this unusual word, instead of a direct translation? Ben Yehuda suggests that the Jews were avoiding saying the Pope's title ("papa") directly (the Pope generally wasn't such a good friend of the Jews). I'm sure that the Jews living in those times could never have imagined that the Pope would be hosted by a Jewish state, and that the visit of the afifyor would be the top of the news...