The Gospel of Peter

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Though several Church Fathers had quoted this gospel, no text existed until 1886-7. At that time, French scholars who were working on an archeological dig in Egypt discovered a codex in a grave in Akhmin, 60 miles north of Nag Hammadi. The manuscript itself dated back to the 8th or 9th century. It was buried with an Egyptian monk. This Gospel was one of four texts contained in the codex. Some scholars have speculated that the French might not have been all that interested in Biblical criticism at the time, so they had no idea/interest in what they had discovered. As a result, it took six years before the Gospel of Peter would be published. (Others maintain that they found so many amazing things that it took them six years to get through all of it!)

After a flurry of informational articles, scholars' interest in this gospel languished. It wasn't until the 1980's that they began looking at its potential significance. A few argued that the four canonical gospels were literarily dependent on the Gospel of Peter. That certainly got everyone's attention. Not too many would hold to that claim today, but would argue instead that the Gospel of Peter was obviously dependent on the four canonical gospels. None of the earliest Church Fathers mention anything about this gospel (which argues for a later date). The few references made by later writers have not been particularly definitive.

The Gospel of Peter, as we have it today, is clearly in narrative form. But it is unknown whether it was a complete narrative or if it only focused on the Passion of Jesus. The beginning is obviously missing, so the text begins abruptly at the point where Pilate is washing his hands after Jesus' trial. It points out that none of the Jews who were present did likewise, nor did Herod. When Pilate rose up (and presumably left the room), Herod commanded that the soldiers take Jesus "and do whatever I command you to do to him." In this Gospel, it is Herod, not Pilate, who gives the order for Jesus' execution, which pretty much exonerates Pilate from bearing any responsibility.

Another major point from this gospel is the claim that Joseph (though his home town of Arimathea is not mentioned) and Pilate were acquainted with each other. Joseph asked for permission to bury the body before they had even crucified Jesus. Pilate had to check with Herod to get permission, which Herod granted because he wanted to be obedient to the law that stated, "the sun should not set upon one who has been put to death."

The moments prior to crucifixion include sessions of mocking, clothing him in purple, and crowning him with thorns. They sat him on the seat of judgment. They spat on him and pricked him with reeds. Some whipped him, all the while taunting, "With this honor, let us honor the Son of God." (It is not clear who is doing this. Are these the Jews who were present with Pilate and Herod or are these the soldiers who are at Herod's command? If "they" refers to the Jews, they would most likely be the reigning Sanhedrin.)

The crucifixion itself is described in great detail. Like the synoptic accounts, Jesus is crucified between two malefactors. Jesus, however, held his peace, "as though he had no pain." When they raised the cross, they wrote, "This is the king of Israel," as an inscription. Scholars believe this was simply meant as an explanation for the event; yet, of course, the irony is that it provided an unknowing witness to the messianic status of Jesus. The Gospel of Peter gives no additional information as to how Jesus was affixed to the cross. Scholars think the mechanisms were so well known that further information was unnecessary.

The "malefactors" speak out on Jesus' behalf. No additional information is given about why they were also being crucified. Their own admission of guilt again highlights Jesus' innocence. They ask what possible wrongdoing could be Jesus guilty of committing. In the process, they proclaim him to be the "Savior of men." The crowd responds by declaring that the one who spoke out should suffer longer (by not having his legs broken).

At noon darkness came over Judea. People were very afraid, not because of the strange phenomenon, but because it was written that "the sun must not set on him that has been put to death." The irony couldn't be greater. The people were concerned with the minutiae of Scripture, but had no trouble mocking and killing the Son of God. Some were so confused about the time that they walked around with lamps, thinking it was nighttime. When Jesus cried out from the cross, he said, "My power; my power. You have forsaken me." Immediately after he had spoken, the Gospel of Peter claimed Jesus "was taken up," which might have been understood to mean that Jesus hadn't really died. Previously, another line had mentioned that Jesus "felt no pain." This sounded suspiciously like Docetism to the early Church, and was probably one of the main reasons the Gospel was deemed to be heretical. The disparaging term ended the discussion for the early Church, but today, scholars are less certain what "Docetism" really meant. A lot seemed to hinge on whether or not the author accepted the notion of Incarnation, i.e., Jesus was born in the flesh and fully human. The Gospel of Peter does not suggest that Jesus wasn't human or that he didn't suffer; this gospel claims he suffered heroically.

At this point, the body was given to Joseph to bury and the elders and chief priests began serious soul-searching "perceiving what evil they had done to themselves." They began to lament their sins for "judgment has drawn nigh" and they perceived the "end of Jerusalem." Here, Peter adds a personal note telling the reader that he and the remaining disciples hid, not because they were in any way disloyal to Jesus, but because they were suspected of plotting to destroy the temple by fire.

While the disciples gathered to mourn and pray, the elders and chief priests went into action. They knew that the people recognized the righteousness of Jesus based on the mighty signs that had come to pass (the darkness, the earthquake, and the tearing of the curtain). They wanted to post guards over his tomb because they were afraid the disciples would come and steal his body and then claim that he "had risen from the dead." Pilate gave them Petronius, the centurion, and his soldiers to watch over the tomb. After rolling the stone across the door of the sepulcher, they sealed the tomb with seven seals.

It was in the middle of the following night that a great voice from heaven spoke, followed by the opening of the heavens. Two men descended and approached the tomb. Without them touching it, the stone rolled away, whereupon the two men entered the tomb. By this time, the soldiers had awakened the centurion and any one else who was nearby. They all witnessed three men coming out of the tomb. Two were supporting the third. The heads of the two men reached all the way to heaven. They were followed by the cross, itself.

A voice from heaven then asked the cross if it had "preached to them that sleep." The cross replied in the affirmative. (The idea of a talking and "floating" cross has also raised questions about the possible influence of Gnosticism throughout this Gospel. Those studies continue. And while a talking cross sounds rather implausible, scholars ask whether it is that much different from a stone that rolls on its own accord or an earth that trembles on cue.) The soldiers weighed their options. When the heavens opened for a second time and the height of the third figure surpassed the other two, the soldiers fled their posts and hurried to tell Pilate all that they had witnessed. They declared, "Truly, he was the Son of God." At this point, Pilate reminded them that he had washed his hands of the whole incident and that Jesus' blood was on their hands. Then they begged Pilate to say nothing about what they had told him for fear that the Jews would stone them. Pilate agreed to be silent.

After this, the text is very similar to Mark's ending. The women come to the tomb at dawn in order to weep and lament, as was their custom for the death of a friend. Mary Magdalene is introduced as a disciple of Jesus and the leader of the group. They worried about the stone that had been placed in the opening and wondered how they would be able to move it. Worst case, they all decided they would stay outside the tomb if need be, and do their laments regardless of who might see them or what danger might befall them. Their delay in coming to the tomb, then, seems to be based on fear of the Jews and not on any Sabbath restrictions.

As they approached, they found the tomb already open, and peering inside, they saw a young man, who asked why they had come. "Whom do you seek? Him that was crucified? He is risen and gone." He invited them to look inside to check for themselves, but the women "feared and fled." There is no command to tell the other disciples and no report that they did so.

In the final scene, the feast is over; the disciples were going home weeping and grieving "for that which had come to pass." Peter and his brother "took their nets and went to the sea and Levi…"

Here the document ends – in the middle of a sentence. Scholars aren't certain who Levi is – maybe the tax collector mentioned in Mark 2:14-15. In any event, scholars can only guess at what was lost. Perhaps the text would have recorded the early morning breakfast found in the Fourth Gospel. But it is purely speculative.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha