The Gospel of Peter
The Akhmim Fragment / Estimated Range of Dating: 70-160 C.E.
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Introduction and Text
Chapter 7:25 Then, the Jews and the elders and priests, knowing what evil they had done to themselves, began to mourn and say, “Curse our sins. The judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near.”
Such a gospel was referred to by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, in 190 A.D.; Origen, historian, in 253 A.D.; Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in 300 A.D.; Theodoret in 455 in his Religious History said that the Nazarenes used The Gospel According to Peter; and Justin Martyr includes the Memoirs of Peter in his “Apostolic Memoirs.” Thus scholars have always recognized that such a document existed long ago, although its whereabouts and fate were a mystery until the discovery at Akhmim.
Commenting in the Journal of Theological Studies on Justin Martyr’s ancient testimony and this present document, D.H. Stanton wrote: “The conclusion with which we are confronted is that The Gospel of Peter once held a place of honor, comparable to that assigned to the Four Gospels, perhaps even higher than some of them…”
Discovered in a monk’s grave in 1886, the Gospel of Peter is a fragmentary gospel, meaning that we do not have the complete text. What was discovered in that grave was a codex of 9 pages complete, which seems to indicate that the writer was copying a text which had already been fragmented. Simon Peter is supposedly the author of this text and that is why it became known as the Gospel of Peter.
While there was some initial debate as to the date of GPeter, the scholarly consensus by 1925 almost unanimously agreed that this was a later gospel and that it could not have been written before the second half of the second century. This position held for almost fifty years before the debate raged up again over the introduction of two fragments found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. The larger of the two fragments reversed the order of events in the passion narrative making Joseph of Aramathea’s request to Pilate come before the execution! The significance of this lies with the similarity to the order in Peter 2:1-3, which has the same order.
The following translation of the Akhmim fragment is based on the Greek text printed in M.G. Mara’s Évangile de Pierre. Although unusual, the traditional textual divisions are followed: verse numbers increase continuously without regard to chapter divisions.
F. F. Bruce writes (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 93):
The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, ‘remained silent, as though he felt no pain’, and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he ‘was taken up’, as though he – or at least his soul or spiritual self – was ‘assumed’ direct from the cross to the presence of God. (We shall see an echo of this idea in the Qur’an.) Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.
Apart from its docetic tendency, the most striking feature of the narrative is its complete exoneration of Pilate from alll responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate is here well on the way to the goal of canonisation which he was to attain in the Coptic Church. He withdraws from the trial after washing his hands, and Herod Antipas takes over from him, assuming the responsibility which, in Luke’s passion narrative, he declined to accept. Roman soldiers play no part until they are sent by Pilate, at the request of the Jewish authorities, to provide the guard at the tomb of Jesus. The villians of the piece throughout are ‘the Jews’ – more particularly, the chief priests and the scribes. It is they who condemn Jesus to death and abuse him; it is they who crucify him and share out his clothes among themselves.
In The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown maintains that the Gospel of Peter is dependent on the canonical gospels by oral remembrance of the gospels spoken in churches. The opinion that the Gospel of Peter is dependent upon the canonical gospels directly is also a common one.
Ron Cameron argues that the Gospel of Peter is independent of the canonical four (The Other Gospels, pp. 77-8):
Identification of the sources of the Gospel of Peter is a matter of considerable debate. However, the language used to portray the passion provides a clue to the use of sources, the character of the tradition, and the date of composition. Analysis reveals that the passion narrative of the Gospel of Peter has been composed on the basis of references to the Jewish scriptures. The Gospel of Peter thus stands squarely in the tradition of exegetical interpretation of the Bible. Its sources of the passion narrative is oral tradition, understood in the light of scripture, interpreted within the wisdom movement. This accords with what we know of the confessions of the earliest believers in Jesus: in the beginning, belief in the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was simply the conviction that all this took place “according to the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-5). In utilizing scriptural references to compose the work, the Gospel of Peter shows no knowledge of the special material distinctive to each of the four gospels now in the New Testament. The developed apologetic technique typical of the Gospel of Matthew and of Justin (a church writer who lived in the middle of the second century), which seeks to demonstrate a correspondence between so-called prophetic “predictions” in the scriptures and their “fulfillments” in the fate of Jesus, is lacking. The use of quotation formulas to introduce scriptural citations is also absent.
All of this suggests that the Gospel of Peter is an independent witness of gospel traditions. Its earliest possible date of composition would be in the middle of the first century, when passion narratives first began to be compiled. The latest possible date would be in the second half of the second century, shortly before this gospel was used by the Christians at Rhossus and the copy discovered at Oxyrhynchus was made. It is well known that the passion narrative which Mark used originally circulated independently of his gospel; the Gospel of John demonstrates that different versions of this early passion narrative were in circulation. It is possible that the Gospel of Peter used a source similar to that preserved independently in Mark and John. The basic stories underlying the accounts of the epiphany and the empty tomb are form critically discrete and probably very old. In fact, these stories are closely related to certain legendary accounts and apologetic fragments that intrude into the gospel of the New Testament (Matt. 27:51-54, 62-66; 28:2-4; Mark 9:2-8 and parallels). The Gospel of Peter’s exoneration of Pilate, the Roman procurator who had Jesus killed, and the accompanying anti-Jewish polemica are secondary additions to these primitive narratives, imported from a situation in which the Jesus movement was beginning to define itself in opposition to other Jewish communities.
Form criticism and redaction criticism indicate that the Gospel of Peter was dependent upon a number of sources, but it is quite possible that the document as we have it antedates the four gospels of the New Testament and may have served as a source for their respective authors. The Gospel of Peter was probably composed in the second half of the first century, most likely in western Syria. As such, it is the oldest extant writing produced and circulated under the authority of the apostle Peter. The creation of a passion and resurrection narrative was the product of a communitiy of believers who understood the ultimate activity of God to have taken place in their own time, when the powers of unrighteousness and death were conquered by God’s definitive act of raising the dead. Accordingly, the fate of Jesus is interpreted, in the hindsight of scripture, as God’s vindication of the suffering righteous one.
J.D. Crossan is most famous for his reconstruction of a Cross Gospel preserved in the Gospel of Peter that served as the basis for the passion narrative in all four canonical gospels. Crossan has set forward this thesis briefly in Four Other Gospels as well as in his book The Cross that Spoke.
Koester has criticized this hypothesis for several reasons: the Gospel of Peter has been preserved mostly in one late manuscript, making certainty about the text difficult; Crossan seems to underestimate the role of oral tradition and assigns all the gospel materials to earlier noncanonical sources; finally, appearance stories cannot have been present in the passion narrative because they are independent of each other in the canonical gospels (Ancient Christian Gospels, pp. 219-20). Koester reaches slightly different conclusions about the passion narrative behind Peter (op. cit., p.240): “The Gospel of Peter, as a whole, is not dependent upon any of the canonical gospels. It is a composition which is analogous to the Gospels of Mark and John. All three writings, independently of each other, use an older passion narrative which is based upon an exegetical traidition that was still alive when these gospels were composed, and to which the Gospel of Matthew also had access. All five gospels under consideration, Mark, John, and Peter, as well as Matthew and Luke, concluded their gospels with narratives of the appearnces of Jesus on the basis of different epiphany stories that were told in different contexts. However, fragments of the epiphany story of Jesus being raised from the tomb, which the Gospel of Peter has preserved in its entirety, were employed in different literary contexts in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.”
Origen (253 a.d.), in commenting on Matthew 10:17, says: “But, proceeding on the tradition that is recorded in the Gospel according to Peter or in the Book of James, they say that there are certain brothers of Jesus, the sons of Joseph by a former wife, who lived with him before Mary.”
Eusebius (H. E., iii., 3, 2) says. “As to that work, however, which is ascribed to him, called The Acts, and The Gospel according to Peter, and that called The Preaching and the Revelations of Peter, we know nothing of their being handed down as Catholic writings; since neither among the ancient nor the ecclesiastical writers of our own day has there been one that has appealed to testimony taken from them.” And in H. E., iii., 25, 6 sq., he includes the Gospel of Peter among the forged heretical gospels-” those that are adduced by the heretics under the name of the apostles, … of which no one of those writers in the ecclesiastical succession has condescended to make any mention in his works; and, indeed, the character of the style itself is very different from that of the apostles; and the sentiments, and the purport of those things that are advanced in them, deviating as far as possible from sound orthodoxy, evidently proves they are the fictions of heretical men; whence they are not only to be ranked among the spurious writings, but are to be rejected as altogether absurd and impious.” It is, however, uncertain whether Eusebius himself was acquainted with the Gospel of Peter.
Theodoret (c. 455), in his Religious History, ii., 2, says that the Nazarenes used “the gospel called `according to Peter.'” Later references in Western literature, e.g., Jerome, De vir. ill., i., and the Decretum Gelasianum, condemning the book, are based upon the judgement of Eusebius, and not upon direct knowledge (cf Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlLit, I Th, p 11.
Harnack (Texte und Untersuchungen, ix, 2, 2d ed, p 76) gives the following list of new traits contained in the Petrine account of the history of the Passion and burial:
1. Herod was the judge who condemned Jesus, and to him application had to be made for the body.
2. The Jews, Herod, and the judges would not wash their hands, and Pilate then raised the sitting.
3. Joseph was the friend of Pilate (sec. 2).
4. Joseph begged for the body before the crucifixion, and Pilate sent for permission from Herod.
5. The soldiers “pushed him as they ran,” and their speech (sec. 3).
6. The mockery of the soldiers.
7. Mocking speech.
8. “As though having no pain” (sec. 4).
9. “Having placed his garments before him.”
10. One of the malefactors blamed the multitude, and his speech.
11. The legs of either the malefactor or Jesus were not broken, in order that he might die in torment.
12. The gall and vinegar (sec. 5).
13. In the darkness many went about with lamps, and fell down.
14. The cry, “My power, my power.”
15. The fact that when he had so cried Christ was taken up.
16. Mention of the nails in the hands at the taking down from the cross (sec. 6).
17. The earthquake when the body touched the ground.
18. The joy of the Jews when the sun shone again.
19. Joseph “had seen all the good things” that the Lord had done.
20. Joseph washed the body.
21. The cries of woe of the Jews and their leaders over their sins, and their expectation of the judgement on Jerusalem (sec. 7).
22. The disciples remained in concealment, full of grief, and fasted and wept till the Sabbath.
23. They were searched for as malefactors and as anxious to burn the temple.
24. The name of the centurion of the watch-Petronius (sec. 8).
25. The centurion, the soldiers, and the elders rolled up the stone.
26. The elders also watched at the grave.
27. Seven seals were placed on the stone.
28. A tent pitched for the watch.
29. The gathering of the multitude on the morning of the Sabbath to view the sealed grave (sec. 9).
The whole narrative of the resurrection is so different from that of the canonical gospels that it would be useless to go into details; but it is important to notice the prominence assigned to Mary Magdalene, and:
1. That the women fled from the grave and did not see the Lord (sec. 12).
2. That there is no account of any appearance of Christ for the first eight days after his death (sec. 13).
3. That the disciples, along with the rest of those who had taken part in the feast, returned home to Galilee on the seventh day of unleavened bread.
4. That they were then sad, and wept.
5. That the first appearance of Jesus must have taken place on the Lake of Gennesaret, either to Peter alone, or to Peter, Andrew, and Levi (Matthew), while fishing.
(1) [. . .] but none of t[he] Jews washed their hands, neither Herod nor [o]ne of his judges. A[nd] since they did [not] want to wash, Pilate sto[o]d up. (2) Then, Herod the king ordered that the Lord be taken away, saying to them, “Do what I ordered you to do to him.”
(3) Joseph, the friend of Pilate and the Lord, was there. And knowing that they were about to crucify him, he went to Pilate and requested the body of the Lord for burial. (4) And sending to Herod, Pilate requested the body.
(5) And Herod said, “Brother Pilate, even if nobody had requested him, we would have buried him because the Sabbath is coming on. For it is written in the law, “Do not let the sun go down on the one who is being executed.'” And he delivered him to the people before the day of unleavened bread, their feast.
(6) Then, taking the Lord and running around him, they pushed him and said, “Let us push the son of God since we control his freedom.” (7) And they put a purple robe around him and sat him down on the seat of judgment, saying, “Judge justly, king of Israel!” (8) And someone who was carrying a crown of thorns put it on the head of the Lord. (9) And others who were standing around spat in his eyes and others struck his cheeks. Others pierced him and some of them scourged him, saying, “Let us honor the son of God with this honor!”
(10) And they brought along two criminals and crucified the Lord in between them. But he kept silent as though he had no pain. (11) And when they set the cross upright they wrote on it, “This is the king of Israel.” (12) And after they had put his clothes in front of him, they divided them and cast lots for them.
(13) Then, one of these criminals reprimanded them, saying, “We have suffered this way because of the wicked things we did, but he, the one who is the savior of humanity, what wrong has he done to you?” (14) And being angry at him, they ordered that the criminal’s legs not be broken so that he would die being tortured.
(15) Then, it was midday and darkness covered all of Judea. And they became afraid because the sun was no longer shining and he was still alive. <For> it is written for them, “Do not let the sun go down on the one who is being executed.”
(16) And one of them said, “Make him drink bile with vinegar.” And after mixing it, they made him drink. (17) And they fulfilled everything and brought their sins to completion on their heads. (18) Many people were walking around with lamps because they thought it was night <and> they were tripping.
(19) And the Lord cried out, saying, “My power, my power, you have forsaken me.” And after saying this, he was taken up. (20) And at that same hour, the veil of the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two.
(21) And then, they pulled the nails out of the hands of the Lord and set him on the ground. And the whole ground shook and great fear came over them. (22) Then, the sun shone <again> and it was found to be the ninth hour. (23) So, the Jews rejoiced and gave his body to Joseph that he might bury it, since he had seen the great things he had done.
(24) Taking the Lord, he washed him and wrapped him in linen and took him to his own tomb which is called the garden of Joseph.
(25) Then, the Jews and the elders and priests, knowing what evil they had done to themselves, began to mourn and say, “Curse our sins. The judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near.”
(26) At the time, I was grieving with my friends. We were hurting and could not understand what had happened. For we were being sought by them as criminals and as people who wanted to burn the temple. (27) We fasted about all these things and sat grieving and crying day and night until the Sabbath.
(28) Then, the scribes and Pharisees and elders gathered together when they heard that all the people were grumbling and mourning, saying, “If these great signs took place at his death, see how righteous he was.”
(29) The elders were afraid and went to Pilate, urging him and saying, (30) “Give us soldiers so that we can guard the tomb for three d[ays], and prevent his disciples from coming and stealing him and causing the people to claim that he was raised from the dead and make trouble for us.”
(31) Then, Pilate gave them the centurion Petronius with soldiers to guard the tomb. And the elders and scribes went with them to the tomb. (32) And after they had rolled a great stone into place with the centurions and soldiers, everyone there stood at the entrance of the tomb. (33) They put seven seals on it and set up a tent to keep watch.
(34) When the Sabbath morning dawned, a crowd came from Jerusalem and the surrounding area that they might see that the tomb had been sealed. (35) But during the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, while the soldiers were stationed in pairs to keep watch, a great voice came from heaven. (36) And they saw the hea[v]ens open and two men descend from there, having a great radiance and approaching the tomb. (37) Then, the same stone which had been put in the entrance rolled away from it and gave way partially. And the tomb was opened and both young men went in.
(38) Then, seeing this, these soldiers woke up the centurions and elders, for they themselves were all there to keep watch. (39) And while they were describing what they had seen, again they saw three men coming out from the tomb, two supporting the other and a cross following them. (40) The heads of the two reached up to the heavens and the head of the one they were leading by the hand went beyond the heavens. (41) And they heard a voice from heaven saying, “Did you preach to those who sleep?”
(42) Obediently, there was heard from the cross, “Yes.”
(43) They then determined with each other to go and reveal these things to Pilate. (44) While they were still considering these things, the heavens opened again and a man appeared, descending and going into the tomb. (45) When those around the centurion that night saw these things, they hurried to Pilate after being sent from the tomb they were guarding. And they explained everything they had seen, being extremely anxious and saying, “Truly, this was the son of God!”
(46) When Pilate replied, he said, “I am clean from the blood of the son of God, this was considered by you.”
(47) Then everybody urged him and made him promise to command the centurion and the soldiers not to tell what they had seen. (48) “For it is better for us,” they said, “to be guilty of this great sin before God and not to fall into the hands of the people of Judea and be stoned.” (49) So Pilate ordered the centurion and the soldiers not to talk.
(50) Since Mary Magdalene, the disciple of the Lord, was afraid of the Jews who were inflamed with anger, she had not done what women usually do at the tombs of those who have died and are loved by them. At the dawn of the Lord’s day, however, (51) she took her friends with her and went to the tomb where he had been put. (52) And they were afraid that the Jews might see. They said, “Even if we were not able to weep and mourn on the day he was crucified, let us now do these things at his tomb. (53) But who will roll away the stone which was placed in the entrance for us, so that we can to go in to him and do the things we should? (54) For the stone is great and we are afraid that someone might see us. And if we cannot go in, let us put what we brought in his memory at the entrance. Let us weep and mourn until we get to our houses.”
(55) When they arrived, they found that the tomb had been opened. And going in, they stooped over and there was a beautiful man sitting <in> the middle of the tomb and he had an extremely bright robe wrapped around him. Whoever he was, he said to them, (56) “Why did you come? Whom are you seeking? Is it not the one who was crucified? He has risen and gone out. If you do not believe, however, bend down and look there at the place he lay because he is not there. For he has risen and gone out there, where he was sent.”
(57) Then, the terrified women fled.
(58) It was the last day of the feast of the unleavened bread and many people were going out, returning to their houses since the festival was over. (59) But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, were weeping and grieving, and although everyone was mourning because of what had happened, each departed for his own house. (60) But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew took our nets and went out to the sea. And with us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord [. . .]
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