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Gospel of Peter
In the early history of Christianity, the Gospel of Peter had formerly been a prominent passion narrative, before it was suppressed and considered lost. It was known from hearsay, especially in a letter from Serapion, Bishop of Antioch in 190 - 203, who found upon examining it that "most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour," but that some might encourage its hearers to fall into the Docetist heresy.
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 ("heretical") 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 840 and 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 2nd century, for when it was condemned by Serapion upon inspection at Rhossos, ca. 190 — 203, the Rhossos community had already been using it in liturgy. Origen, who died before 251, refers to the Gospel of Peter. and so does Eusebius of Caesarea. 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 Pope Gelasius I's Decretum Gelasianum, 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) reports that the Jewish Christian sect of the Nazarenes used "the gospel called 'according to Peter.'"
Like some of the books in the accepted New Testament canon, it is pseudepigraphical; in other words, it bears the name of a supposed author who did not actually compose the text:
- "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.
This was a common Jewish and Christian convention for lending weight to a text; thus, though the writer identifies himself as Simon Peter in the first person singular, this is improbable. But this gospel may be the oldest extant writing produced and circulated under the authority of the apostle Peter.
The author may have written independently of the synoptic Gospels, (the conclusion reached by Ron Cameron and others); he may have, directly or indirectly used the Q Gospel, a source also employed by the authors of Luke and Matthew, but applying to his borrowings a theology that was later unacceptable to the developing mainstream Christianity. Or, as Raymond Brown and other scholars find, he may have been acquainted with the synoptic gospels and even with the Gospel of John.
Some characteristics of Peter suggest a place early in an oral tradition. To be specific, the developed apologetic technique 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 Tanakh and their detailed fulfillments in the fate of Jesus, is quite lacking. A credible assessment of Peter as dependant on the synoptic gospels needs to account for this consistent omission of any reference to the fulfillments 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 promote 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.
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 were uncovered at Oxyrhynchus and published in 1972.
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; Joseph (of Arimathea, which place is not mentioned) was 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 as "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (:46) is given in Peter "And the Lord cried out, saying, My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me. And when he had said it he was taken up" the euphemism for "he gave up the ghost" being doubtless part of the fears of the text's supposed Docetism. The account in Peter tells that the supposed writer and other disciples hid because they were searched for on suspicion of plotting to set fire to the temple. The centurion who kept watch at the tomb is given the name Petronius. Most importantly, the Resurrection and Ascension are not separate events but occur on the same day.
Details of the sealing of the tomb, requested of Pilate by the elders of the Jewish community, elaborates upon Matthew xxviii: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."
the Resurrection and Ascension are described in detail:
- "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."
From this last trope, John Dominic Crossan (1988) has asserted that Peter contains a "Cross Gospel" — a primitive death-and-resurrection story— and that similar texts were used by all four canonical gospels.
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 anti-semitism; Pontius Pilate is exonerated of all responsibility for the Crucifixion, the onus laid upon the scribes and Jews.
- 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 Fransisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
- Gospel of Peter (Greek text)
- High resolution images of P.Cair. 10759, the Akhmim codex
- Gospel of Peter several translations and commentaries, and references from Serapion
- Gospels.net: Gospel of Peter: additional information
- The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge :Peter the Apostle: III.1
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