Gospel of Peter

PETER, GOSPEL OF. Eusebius (Hist. VI. 12) quotes a fragment from Serapion of Antioch (c. a.d. 200), relating how, to settle a dispute in the church at Rhossus, Serapion authorized the use of the book, but without himself reading it. Later he did obtain and read it, to find that although much was sound there were also alien accretions. He specifically mentions its Docetic connections. Eusebius himself elsewhere condemns it as heretical (Hist. III. 3. 2; III. 25). The work is mentioned by Origen, but patristic evidence is meager. Evidently it never circulated widely, and Serapion’s condemnation was effective. Theodoret’s statement that it was used by the Nazarenes is highly dubious.

The Akhmim fragment.

Nothing more was known of the document until the discovery of a fragment in 1886 in a tomb at Akhmim in Egypt. It contains an account of the Passion, the earliest non-canonical account extant, beginning with Pilate’s washing of his hands (implied by the opening words, “of the Jews none washed his hands”) and going on to relate the mockery, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, and a highly original VS of the Resurrection. The tomb is sealed with seven seals and a guard mounted, but toward dawn on the Lord’s day the soldiers see the heavens open and two men descend. The stone rolls away of its own accord, and they enter the tomb. The guards arouse the centurion and the elders present, and they all see three men come out, with a cross following. Their immense stature is esp. mentioned. Reporting to Pilate, the elders urgently entreat him to command the guard to silence: “it is better for us to incur the greatest sin before God than fall into the hands of the Jewish people and be stoned.” After the story of the women at the tomb, the fragment ends: “But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea; and there was with us Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord....” According to Maurer (NTAp. I. 179) the ornament at the beginning and end of the text shows that the scribe who copied it knew no more.

Characteristics.

The salient characteristics of the book are its anti-Jewish bias, and the writer’s evident desire to exonerate Pilate from responsibility. It is the Jews who are responsible, Herod who gives the order for the crucifixion, and Joseph’s request for the body of Jesus is referred by Pilate to Herod. Even in the face of the resurrection they have witnessed, the Jews persist in their obdurate hostility. Pilate, in contrast, washes his hands of the whole affair, and the only part he plays is to provide a guard for the tomb (and incidentally impartial witnesses for the Resurrection).

Another feature is the presence of Docetic traits: Jesus on the cross is silent, as if He felt no pain; the cry of dereliction is altered. Such traits, however, are by no means so prominent as to justify describing the work as Gnostic without qualification. Rather, the author’s intention was “to propagate a Docetic Christology within the Church from which he had not yet parted company” (Swete).

The narrative is clearly that of the canonical gospels, but with additional material; signs of dependence are unmistakable; Herod and the penitent thief are from Luke, the hand-washing and the guard at the tomb from Matthew, the crurifragium (apparently misunderstood) and the disciples’ departure to the sea from John. There is, however, room for difference of opinion as to whether the author used the gospels themselves, or a harmony like that of Tatian. A further problem is that of the relation to this document of a fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter found with it.

Bibliography

ANT 90ff.; NTAp, I, 179ff.; Finlay, Byways in Early Christian Literature (1923), 79ff.

See also

  • Apocryphal New Testament