Early Church Fathers
Introduction to the Gospel of Peter
The important fragment of which Mr. J. Armitage Robinson's translation here follows was discovered by the French Archaeological Mission, Cairo, in a grave (supposed to be a monk's) in an ancient cemetery at Akhmîm (Panopolis), in Upper Egypt, in 1886. It was published in 1892 under the care of M. Bouriant in vol. ix., fasc. i., of the Memoirs of the French Archaeological Mission at Cairo. The same parchment which contained this fragment also contained a fragment of the Revelation of Peter and a fragment of the Book of Enoch in Greek. The parchment codex is assigned to a date between the eighth and the twelfth century.
Before this discovery the following is all that was known of the Gospel of Peter: 1. Serapion, Bishop of Antioch 190-203, writing to the church at Rhossus, says (Eusebius, H. E., vi., 12, 2): "We, brethren, receive Peter and the other Apostles even as Christ; but the writings that go falsely by their names we, in our experience, reject, knowing that such things as these we never received. When I was with you I supposed you all to be attached to the right faith; and so without going through the gospel put forward under Peter's name, I said, `If this is all that makes your petty quarrel,1 why then let it be read.' But now that I have learned from information given me that their mind was lurking in some hole of heresy, I will make a point of coming to you again: so, brethren, expect me speedily. Knowing then, brethren, of what kind of heresy was Marcion-[Here follows a sentence where the text is faulty.]... From others who used this very gospel-I mean from the successors of those who started it, whom we call Docetae; for most of its ideas are of their school-from them, I say, I borrowed it, and was able to go through it, and to find that most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour, but some things were additions." From this we learn that a, Gospel of Peter was in use in the church of Rhossus in the end of the second century, but that controversy had arisen as to its character, which, on a careful examination, Serapion condemned.
2. 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."
3. 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.
4. 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).
This was all that was known of the Gospel of Peter till the publication of the Akhmim fragment The latter extends to about 174 stichi, counting 32 words to the stichus It begins in the middle of the history of the Passion, just after Pilate has washed his hands of all responsibility, and ends in the middle of a sentence, with the departure of the disciples into Galilee at the end of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, exactly a week after the crucifixion, the ostensible author, Peter, and Andrew, his brother, taking their nets and going to the sea; "and there was with us Levi the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord ... "
The accompanying Synoptical Table shows where the Petrine narrative agrees with and where it varies from those supplied by the canonical gospels Of that part of the Passion history which it narrates, it gives an account which follows the main lines of the canonical tradition, but with important variations in detail Of the events between the burial and the resurrection of our Lord, its account is much more ample and detailed than anything in the canonical tradition
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.
Moreover, according to section 13 (see sec. 5), the author puts the resurrection and ascension on the same day, or, rather, did not know of the latter as a separate event. He makes the angel say, "He is risen and gone away thither whence he was sent."
Whether the author used any other sources than the canonical gospels is a matter still in doubt. He is certainly influenced by views which are foreign to these gospels, and which are known from other quarters in early Christian literature. As between the Synoptists and the Fourth Gospel, the narrator is generally more closely akin both in matter and in manner to the Synoptists, but he agrees with the author of the Fourth Gospel in regard to the chronology of the crucifixion and several of the events at the cross, and in his general attitude towards the Jews and Pilate. With regard to the last two points, the Petrine Gospel seems to present a later and more exaggerated form of the tendency perceptible in the Johannine, and fully worked out in the Acts of Pilate, to blame the Jews and exculpate Pilate.
Of the new features in this fragment some are at least liable to a Docetic interpretation, e.g., the silence on the cross "as though he had no pain" (sec. 4), the cry, "My power, my power" (sec. 5), and "he was taken up" (sec. 5). This fact was recognised in subsequent times and condemned this gospel in the eye of the church. The date of the work is variously fixed by different scholars; Harnack assigns it to the first quarter of the second century, while Mr. Armitage Robinson and other scholars place it later.