The Acts of Peter

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Many scholars think these Acts of Peter were among the first of the apocryphal books. There is, however, no way to know that for sure. The Latin manuscripts dating to the sixth century have 44 chapters. The book is roughly 2,750 lines — fifty lines less than the canonical Acts. The portions we have may be about the length of St. Mark's Gospel, and about 1,000 lines may be missing. There are surviving versions in both Greek and Coptic. They don't always agree.

In these Acts, Peter performs many miracles – everything from making dogs and infants talk to the resurrection of both people and smoked fish. Rome is the primary setting. It is from these stories that we have corroborating information about the tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down. Because the martyrdom was well-preserved in separate Greek, Coptic, and various other fragments, Peter's martyrdom was part of ancient tradition long before the Acts of Peter were discovered.

His martyrdom was connected with another major theme, namely, women who refuse sexual relations upon conversion. When these women were married to powerful and influential men, retribution was swift and eventually fatal. One woman's story involved Peter's own daughter, who was paralyzed in order to thwart a potential suitor. When people complained, Peter reversed the paralysis, but then returned her to the paralytic state so her chastity could be maintained.

It was Eusebius (ca 263-339 CE) who declared that The Acts of Peter were heretical. This was affirmed in the Gelasian Decree, which was attributed to Pope Gelasius I, the bishop of Rome from 492-96CE. This decree has several sections. One is devoted to listing the heretical apocryphal books; another reiterates the 26 canonical books of the New Testament.

The majority of the chapters in the Acts of Peter, however, describe the contest between Simon Magus, the one working on behalf of Satan, and Peter, the one working on behalf of Christ. So let's consider the story of Simon Magnus. We read about a Simon in Acts 8. There he is a Samaritan and a sorcerer. He is described in Acts as someone "to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God." (Acts 8:10) Nonetheless, when Philip came to town and began teaching about Jesus Christ, the people started following Philip. Simon also heard Philip's teaching and was baptized. Whether he truly believed or was simply enamored with Philip's healing skills can be argued both ways.

When word got back to Jerusalem, the church sent Peter and John to Samaria. This is when it gets interesting. Peter and John laid hands on believers who then received the Holy Ghost. This impressed Simon to no end. He wanted to be able to do that and offered Peter money for the power. Peter rebuked him soundly for such thinking and warned of dire consequences that would befall him. This request – the desire to exchange material goods for spiritual powers – would become known as the sin of simony. After Peter's rebuke, Simon repented and apparently went on his way.

The story is expanded in the Acts of Peter. Apparently Simon believed he was God in human form. Now, to be fair, there are various portrayals of Simon throughout the Apocryphal writings, but we will confine our search to the Acts of Peter. Some scholars argue that Simon Magnus in the Acts of Peter might not even be the Simon of Acts. Again, there is no way to confirm this either way. Most scholars, however, do believe he was one and the same.

In the Acts of Peter, Simon is living in the home of Marcellus, a Senator who believed in him. This bothered the Christian brothers who thought highly of Marcellus and thought he had been bewitched by Simon. So they approached Peter with the idea of fighting Simon. Eventually, Peter went to the house of Marcellus. He saw a dog there that was bound with a great chain. He went to the dog and unchained him, at which point the dog asked what Peter wanted him to do. Peter told him to go inside and talk to Simon. The people could hear the dog talking inside.

After seeing this, Marcellus came out and threw himself at Peter's feet, confessing his sins. Peter prayed that the Lord would forgive his sins and embraced him. In the middle of this, Peter noticed a man in the crowd who had an "evil spirit." When the man was identified, he threw himself against a wall. Peter prayed for him. Nonetheless, the evil spirit in the man tormented him and caused him to break a statue of Caesar with his bare hands. Marcellus and the others were appalled. Apparently one just didn't break statues of Caesar without serious repercussions. Concerned for their well-being, Peter sprinkled water upon the stones and restored the statue. Obviously, Marcellus and all those outside became true believers immediately.

In the meantime, Simon told the dog to go back outside and tell Peter that he wasn't there. The dog came back out and delivered Simon's message. Then the dog told Peter its vision, namely, that he would have a great contest with Simon so that all who had been deceived by him would turn to the faith. With this, the dog lay at Peter's feet and "gave up the ghost." The people were amazed. Turning, Peter saw a herring hung in a nearby window. He took that herring and said if people would see it swimming, they would surely believe that the one Peter preached was true. He then cast it into a bath, and the herring began to swim – for a very long time so that many people were able to come by and see it. Many followed Peter and believed in the Lord, including Marcellus.

But eventually, Marcellus had to go back to his house where Simon was still staying. When he saw Simon sitting in his house dining, he cursed him, beat him, and had his servants throw him out. Simon sought out Peter to challenge him for believing in a man who was a Jew and a carpenter's son.

Instead of going out to meet Simon, Peter sent a woman with a suckling child. He told the woman not to say anything, but to let the child do the talking. The seven-month old child spoke in a man's voice and told Simon he was abhorred of God, among other things, and suggested he leave Rome at his earliest convenience. Simon was also struck dumb and had little choice but to depart. One might think that would have ended the matter, but Simon continued to do much mischief, which included stealing from widows and other vulnerable people. Not long after, he showed up again, and he and Peter went head to head, doing many miracles, oftentimes to a draw.

Simon, however, was not satisfied with a draw because he realized people were falling away from him, so he told them that on the morrow he would go up to his Father. Well, the next day a ton of people gathered to see him flying. Peter had a vision that he would do this. Simon did, indeed, begin flying. Peter prayed that Jesus would decide the matter and that the man would fall from the heights and be disabled. Simon did fall and broke his leg in three places. People stoned him, and that was the end of Simon.

The Acts also talk about the death of Peter who had been doing a lot of preaching in Rome. Many of Agrippa's concubines were listening and were captivated by his teachings on chastity. It wasn't long before they were refusing relations with Agrippa. He was very angry, but didn't take any action against Peter. Then the wife of Caesar's friend also withdrew herself from her husband, Albinus. Her name was Xanthippe. Several worried Christians convinced Peter to leave Rome for a while, which he did. But then he had a vision in which the Lord asked him why he was leaving Rome because he would be crucified there. So Peter returned rejoicing and glorifying the Lord. He was bound before Agrippa, who commanded him to be crucified on an accusation of godlessness.

Peter was willing to die and prayed for the soul of his accusers. He begged the executioners to crucify him with his head downward. It was done. Marcellus was the one who took him down from the cross with his own hands and washed him in milk and wine, who wrapped and perfumed (embalmed) his body, placed it in a coffin of marble, and laid it in his own tomb. When Nero learned that Paul had been crucified, he was furious with Agrippa because he had been planning a more torturous ending for Peter as payback for all the servants who had abandoned him when they converted. However, Nero had a vision one night that warned him against persecuting any of those who had become servants of Christ. This was so unsettling to Nero that he abstained from harming anyone else.

"And thenceforth the brethren were rejoicing with one mind and exulting in the Lord, glorifying the God and Savior of our Lord Jesus Christ with the Holy Ghost, unto whom be glory, world without end. Amen."

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha