Gospel of Peter

Gospel of Peter

The "Gospel of Peter" was a prominent passion narrative in the early history of Christianity, but over time passed out of common usage. Only fragments survive. The surviving text is notable for ascribing responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus to Herod Antipas rather than to Pontius Pilate and for representing the true Cross as miraculously capable of speech.

Historical references

In modern times it is known from early quotations, especially from a reference by Eusebius. [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/peter-references.htmlDead link|date=September 2008] to a letter publicly circulated by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch in 190–203, who had found upon examining it that "most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour," but that some parts might encourage its hearers to fall into the Docetist heresy. Serapion's rebuttal of the "Gospel of Peter" is otherwise lost.

Origen of Alexandria too mentions [cite book |author=Origen of Alexandria |title=Origen's Commentary on Matthew in Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume IX |accessdate=2008-09-18 |chapter=The Brethren of Jesus |chapterurl=http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xvi.ii.iii.xvii.html] that the "Gospel of Peter", together with "the book of James", was the source for the story, which later became Church doctrine,Fact|date=September 2008 that the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph "by a former wife who had lived with him before Mary":

"They [of Nazareth] thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or "The Book of James," that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee," might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her."

It is strange that Origen includes the "Gospel Of Peter" with "The Book of James", as no version of the "Gospel Of Peter" has been found which contains any narrative of the birth or infancy of Jesus or his mother. It is quite possible that Origen was referring to another "Gospel Of Peter" which perhaps is evidenced by two papyrus fragments from Oxyrhynchus, both in the Ashmolean Museum: P.Oxy 4009 and P.Oxy 2949. However, these two fragments also give no support to the identification of this work with "The Book of James", also called "Protevangelium of James"; this work and the "Gospel Of Peter" should be kept quite distinct, with the "Gospel Of Peter" a source only on the Passion narrative.


In 1886, when it was first recovered by a French archaeologist, Urbain Bouriant, from an 8th or 9th-century manuscript that had been respectfully buried with an Egyptian monk, the fragmentary "Gospel of Peter" (now in the Cairo Museum) was the first non-canonical gospel to have been rediscovered, preserved in the dry sand of Egypt. Publication, delayed until 1892, occasioned intense interest. From the passion sequence that is preserved, it is clear that the gospel was a narrative gospel, but whether a complete narrative similar to the canonical gospels or simply a Passion cannot be said. Two other papyrus fragments from Oxyrhyncus (P.Oxy 4009 and P.Oxy. 2949) dating to the 2nd or early 3rd century, have turned up since. They are possibly but not conclusively from the "Gospel of Peter", and would suggest, if they belonged, that the text was more than just a passion narrative. These small fragments both seem to give first person accounts of discussions between Jesus and Peter in situations prior to the Passion week.

To date it is one of four early extracanonical narrative gospels, which exist only in fragmentary form: this "Gospel of Peter", the Egerton Gospel, and the very fragmentary Oxyrhynchus Gospels (P.Oxy. 840 and P.Oxy. 1224).


While scholars debate as to whether this text is dependent upon the canonical gospels or to what extent it contains an independent witness of the earliest Christian traditions, they generally agree on a date 'in the second half of the 2nd century' [Foster(2007), p325] . This is assuming it is the text condemned by Serapion upon inspection at Rhossos, circa 70–160. The Rhossos community had already been using it in their liturgy.

Later Western references, which condemn the work, such as Jerome, ("Of famous men" i: "the books, of which one is entitled his Acts, another his Gospel, a third his Preaching, a fourth his Revelation, a fifth his Judgment are rejected as apocryphal") and "Decretum Gelasianum," traditionally connected to Pope Gelasius I, are apparently based upon the judgment of Eusebius, not upon a direct knowledge of the text. In the 5th century, Theodoret ("Religious History" ii.2) mistakenly reports that the Jewish Christian sect of the Nazoraeans used "the gospel called 'according to Peter.'" All other references to the Jewish Christian group show that their single gospel was in fact the Gospel of the Nazoraeans.


The "Gospel of Peter" explicitly claims to be the work of the apostle Peter::"And I with my companions was grieved; and being wounded in mind we hid ourselves:" —"GoP", 7.:"But I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea;" — "GoP", 14.It was a common convention that an apostle's name would be given to a text to give the work greater authority. [cite book
last = Strobel
first = Lee
authorlink = Lee Strobel
title = The Case for Christ
publisher = Zondervan
location = Grand Rapids, Michigan
date = 1998
pages = 27
isbn = 0-310-22655-4
] The gospel is widely thought to date from after Peter's death and thus to be pseudepigraphical (bearing the name of an author who did not actually compose the text). But this gospel may be the oldest extant writing produced and circulated under the authority of the apostle Peter.


Though there are parallels with the three synoptic gospels, "Peter" does not use any of the material unique to "Matthew" or unique to "Luke", leading to two differing conclusions.
*Ron Cameron and others conclude that the author may have written independently of the synoptic Gospels and may have directly or indirectly used the Q Gospel, a hypothetical source also employed by the authors of "Luke" and "Matthew", but applying to his borrowings a theology (including docetism) that was unacceptable to the developing mainstream Christianity. A consequence of this is the potential existence of a Passion Narrative (John Dominic Crossan calls this a "Cross Gospel"), a source text that formed the basis of the passion narratives in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, as well as in Peter.
*Raymond E. Brown and others find that the author may have been acquainted with the synoptic gospels and even with the "Gospel of John"; Brown ("The Death of the Messiah") even suggests that the author's source in the canonic gospels was transmitted orally, through readings in the churches, i.e that the text is based on what the author "remembers" about the other gospels, together with his own embellishments.

Some characteristics of "Peter" suggest a place earlier in the oral tradition. To be specific, the developed apologetic technique that is typical of the final edition of the "Gospel of Matthew" and of Justin Martyr, which seek to demonstrate a correspondence between prophetic predictions in the Old Testament and their detailed fulfilments in the fate of Jesus, is quite lacking in "Peter". A credible assessment of "Peter" as dependent on the synoptic gospels needs to account for this consistent omission of any reference to the fulfilments of prophecy.

Eusebius wrote that Serapion of Antioch had found no objections to the gospel being used in the churches of Western Syria (e.g. by the community at Rhossus), but feared that it might have the side effect of promoting docetic Christology. Certainly the text avers that Christ on the cross "remained silent, as though he felt no pain" and his death is paraphrased as a direct assumption ("... and he was taken up"). Geoff Trowbridge finds, however, that this passage agrees with the expected silence of the "suffering servant" in "Isaiah" 53:7, and therefore is not in itself a docetic statement [http://www.maplenet.net/~trowbridge/gospet.htm] .

It is strange that Origen includes the "Gospel Of Peter" with the "The Book of James", as no version of the "Gospel Of Peter" has been found which contains birth or infancy of Jesus or his mother. It is quite possible that he was referring to another "Gospel Of Peter" which perhaps is evidenced by two papyrus fragments: P.Oxy 4009 and P.Oxy 2949. However, these two fragments also give no support to the identification of this work with the "The Book of James", also called "Protevangelium of James". This work and the "Gospel Of Peter" should be kept quite distinct, with the "Gospel Of Peter" a source only on the Passion narrative.

Some have argued more recently that the Gospel of Peter preserves genuine traditions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It is like other Apocrypha, which were formerly thought to be entirely fanciful but in the light of more recent manuscript discoveries may be seen to be derived from historical fact. The excerpts may be seen to show knowledge of the true facts as preserved in the monasteries, with some embellishments, and with some retention of the surface statements in order to maintain the centrality of Jesus. Supporting evidence can be obtained by means of the pesher technique.


As far as currently known, the gospel is preserved in three fragments. In 1886 an 8th century text was discovered, with other manuscripts, in a monk's grave in the modern Egyptian city of Akhmim (sixty miles north of Nag Hammadi). Later, two small 6th century papyri that may belong to "Peter" were uncovered at Oxyrhynchus and published in 1972.


Secure that other scholars were preparing critical and scholarly editions, J. Rendel Harris (1852–1941) decided to introduce it to the public in "A Popular Account of the Newly-Recovered Gospel of Peter." He opens with a description of its discovery, offering his opinions regarding its date and original language. Classifying the work as a Docetic gospel, Harris defines the community in which it arose as well as its use during the Patristic age. He translates the fragment and then proceeds to discuss the sources behind it. Harris is convinced that the author borrowed from the canonical accounts, and he lists other literature that may have incorporated the "Gospel of Peter", with special emphasis on the "Diatessaron".

One of the chief characteristics of the work is its alleged Anti-Judaism, and consequently Pontius Pilate is exonerated of all responsibility for the Crucifixion, the onus being laid upon Herod (Herod was a gentile) the scribes and other Jews, who pointedly do not "wash their hands" like Pilate. However, the "Gospel of Peter" was condemned as heretical after the time of Eusebius, for its alleged docetic elements. Other elements which may have led to its condemnation are its more supernatural embellishments, including astronomically tall angels, the descent into Hell, and the fact that the Cross of Christ itself is portrayed as floating out of the tomb and uttering the word "yea" in response to a heavenly voice.The opening leaves of the text are lost, so the Passion begins abruptly with the trial of Jesus before Pilate, after Pilate has washed his hands, and closes with its unusual and detailed version of the watch set over the tomb and the resurrection. The "Gospel of Peter" is more detailed in its account of the events after the Crucifixion than any of the canonical gospels, and it varies from the canonical accounts in numerous details: Herod gives the order for the execution, not Pilate, who is exonerated; Joseph (of Arimathea, which place is not mentioned) has been acquainted with Pilate; in the darkness that accompanied the crucifixion, "many went about with lamps, supposing that it was night, and fell down".

Christ's cry from the cross, in "Matthew" given as "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" which "Matthew" explains as meaning "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" is reported in "Peter" as "My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me". Immediately after, "Peter" states that "when he had said it he was taken up", suggesting that Jesus did not actually die. This, together with the claim that on the cross Jesus "remained silent, as though he felt no pain", has led many early Christians to accuse the text of docetism. The account in "Peter" tells that the supposed writer and other disciples hid because they were being sought on suspicion of plotting to set fire to the temple, and totally rejects any possibility of their disloyalty.

The Roman soldiers are described as flagellating Jesus, mocking him, planning who would get Jesus' clothes, and deliberately wanting Jesus to die a more painful death and so not breaking his legs. The centurion who kept watch at the tomb is given the name Petronius. Details of the sealing of the tomb, requested of Pilate by the elders of the Jewish community, elaborates upon "Matthew" 28:66 "So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch:" saying instead :"And Pilate gave them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to guard the tomb. And with them came elders and scribes to the sepulchre, and having rolled a great stone together with the centurion and the soldiers, they all together who were there set it at the door of the sepulchre; and they affixed seven seals, and they pitched a tent there and guarded it. And early in the morning as the sabbath. was drawing on, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region round about, that they might see the sepulchre that was sealed."

Most importantly, the Resurrection and Ascension, which are described in detail, are not treated as separate events, but occur on the same day::"9.And in the night in which the Lord's day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend from thence with great light and approach the tomb. And that stone which was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.":"10. When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders; for they too were hard by keeping guard. And, as they declared what things they had seen, again they see three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, Thou hast preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yea."

The text is unusual at this point in describing the Cross itself as speaking, and even floating out of the tomb, which has led some scholars to suspect it of gnostic sympathies. The text then proceeds to follow the "Gospel of Mark", ending at the short ending (where the women flee the empty tomb in fear), and adding on an extra scene set during the feast of unleavened bread, where the disciples leave Jerusalem, and ends, like the short ending, without Jesus being physically seen or explicitly resurrected.


*Foster,P, (2007), 'The Gospel of Peter', Exp.Times, Vol.118,No.7,p318-325.
*J. Rendel Harris, "A Popular Account of the Newly-Recovered Gospel of Peter"
*John Dominic Crossan, "The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative." San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

ee also

*Apocalypse of Peter
*Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter
*Biblical canon

External links

* [http://www-user.uni-bremen.de/~wie/texteapo/GPeter-Greek.html "Gospel of Peter" (Greek text)]
* [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/gospelpeter.html Early Christian Writings:] "Gospel of Peter": several translations and commentaries, and three Patristic references
* [http://gospels.net/additional/peteradditional.html Gospels.net: "Gospel of Peter": additional information]
* [http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc08/htm/ii.xiv.ii.htm "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge" :] Peter the Apostle: III.1
* [http://www.maplenet.net/~trowbridge/gospet.htm Geoff Trowbrige, "The Gospel of Peter"]
* [http://www.pesherofchrist.infinitesoulutions.com/The_Other_Gospels/Gospel_of_Peter.html Barbara Thiering's interpretation of the "Gospel of Peter"]

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