The Letter of Peter to Philip is one of the most brilliant works in Gnostic literature. In this Letter, we will see a post-resurrection discussion between Jesus and His disciples, explaining the necessity of enlightenment and escaping the physical world.
This account can be located in two Coptic manuscripts, Codex VIII of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and Codex Tchacos. The oldest account is in Codex Tchacos, which is likely late third-century to the early fourth-century. The original writing would have probably been at the end of the second-century with some argumentation for an early third-century origin. The title of the Letter was originally titled “The Letter of Peter Which He Sent to Philip,” but most follow the condensed title found in Codex Tchacos “The Letter of Peter to Philip.”1
The purpose of this article is to point out the deep-rooted theology in this Letter of origins and salvation within a Gnostic framework.
The Opening of the Letter
The writer started by claiming to be Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, writing to his fellow apostle Philip. Peter wanted to invite Philip to meet with him and the other apostles on the Mount of Olives to inform him of the order they received from Jesus on preaching salvation to the world. It would appear that Philip was not with the others during the events of Matthew 28 and Acts 1. Peter said this,
“You were separate from us, and you did not come together to know how we should organize ourselves in order that we might tell the good news.”
Philip received the Letter from Peter and agreed to meet him and the apostles. They met on the Mount of Olives to recapture the first setting from before. This, once more, coincides with the scenes of Matthew 24-25, Matthew 28, and Acts 1. This is why the Letter reads:
“The place where they once gathered with the blessed Christ when he was in the body.”
The reason I have included Matthew 24-25 is that Peter references the time when Jesus was “in the body.” This would seem to place some of this event to the Olivet Discourse. This is also an indicator from the start that this is a Gnostic origin. This may seem confusing to the leader later because Peter speaks of a bodily resurrection. But I will explain the dilemma later. At this point, Peter was reminiscing of a time when Jesus was still in a body.
The Prayer of the Apostles
The prayer addresses the Father three times and associates him with the power of light. These are the words of the prayer,
“Father, Father, Father of light, who possesses the incorruptible, hear us just as you have taken pleasure in your holy Child Jesus Christ. For he became an illuminator in the darkness for us.”
The disciples prayed a second time, but this time, it was addressed to the Son. Take careful note of the prayer:
“Son of life, Son of immortality, who is in the light, Christ of immortality, our Redeemer, give us power, for they seek to kill us!”
As they were praying, the voice of Jesus responded with a great light appearing on the mountain, saying,
“Listen to my words that I may speak to you. Why are you asking me? I am Jesus Christ who is with you forever.”
It should be noted that the disciples were asking for power to be given to them, and Jesus is wondering why they are asking for it again. At this time, Acts 1:8 had already taken place, and Jesus told them, “you will receive power…” The apostles responded by inquiring of six things:
- They wanted to know how the deficiency of the aeons and their Pleroma took place
- How were they detained in the dwelling place
- How did they get to that place
- In what way would they leave that place
- How do they have the authority of boldness
- And why do the powers fight against them
Jesus responds in almost a frustrated manner. He tells them that he already sent them out as witnesses of him (perhaps Acts 1:8) but that he would repeat the instructions. In this circumstance, the teaching is very different from what Luke addressed in his Second Letter to Theophilus (Acts). Jesus answers the first question by stating that the deficiency of the aeons is due to the “foolishness of the Mother.”
For those who read my article on the Gospel of Judas, this is the layout of their belief in what John Turner calls “the supreme triad” (The Father, Mother, and Child).2 The teaching goes as such: The Father is the infinite, invisible spirit that transcends all realms. The Mother (Barbelo) is “the projected self-reflection” of the Father. The Child, also called Autogenes (the pre-existing Christ), meaning “self-generated,” is produced from Barbelo either spontaneously or from a spark of the Father’s light. The Autogenes creates other beings known as luminaries and aeons.
Let’s define some terms. The aeons are divine beings who inhabit the Pleroma. Jesus was one of the great aeons, and the Holy Spirit was an aeon who followed the decrees of Jesus. Many of the aeons in Gnosticism are angelic in nature. The Pleroma is the Gnostic version of heaven. It comes from the Greek word πλήρωμα, which means “fullness.” It’s a word used at times in the New Testament. Colossians 2:9 states of Jesus, “In him, the whole fulness (pleroma) of deity dwells bodily.” Paul is saying, the totality of the godhead has become embodied in human form, and believers have, therefore, “come to fulness of life in him.”
The first question was regarding the deficiency of the aeons and their Pleroma. Jesus answered this question by informing them that the Mother wanted to raise up aeons without the Father’s will. Jesus referred to this as the “foolishness of the Mother.” When she spoke, the Arrogant One (presumably Satan) followed. She left behind a section, and the Arrogant One took hold of it, and it became deficient. He placed powers and rulers over it.
The Arrogant One
The Arrogant One is given different names in various writings. In the Apocryphon of John, the demiurge arrogantly declares that he has made the world by himself:
“Now the archon [“ruler”] who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas [“fool”], and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance, which is in him. For he said, ‘I am God, and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”3
His arrogance leads him and his angels to create mortal bodies. Jesus (the Child), came down to disguise himself in a mortal body to teach mortal men how to escape the body and return to the immortal state. This heroic act would undo the “foolishness of the Mother” and bring “salvation” to humanity.
Jesus Outsmarts the Arrogant One
Jesus gives great detail to the disciples as to how this took place. He disguised himself by conversing with a man and getting his permission to use his mortal body. Jesus said,
“I spoke with him who belongs to me, and he hearkened to me just as you too who harkened today. And I gave him authority in order that he might enter into the inheritance of his fatherhood.”
It would appear that Jesus spoke with a human about needing his body for the purpose of salvation and then made eternal promises for him to comply with this grand plan. Jesus came into the world undercover so that the Arrogant One and his followers would not detect him. He blended in with the rest of humanity.
Jesus tells them that they will learn how to remove the corruptible nature just as he did and become illuminators among mortal men. In a way, this is Jesus commissioning his disciples to be lights to a darkened world. When they learn to escape mortality, they will pass this teaching on to others. Jesus then informs them that the powers in the world will resist them because they have the secret to escaping mortality. These statements answered all six of the Apostles’ questions.
The Fight Against the Inner Man
A voice was heard by the Apostles instructing them on how to fight against these powers. The answer was short and straightforward, “fight against the inner man.” It goes back to denying any human passion. The more physical desire that is denied, the more enlightened one becomes.
The next section is extraordinary. There’s an element of repeat to Matthew 28:20. Jesus said,
“I am with you forever, as I previously said to you when I was in the body.”
The next event is a repeat of Acts 1:9-11. Jesus was taken up to heaven, and lightning was flashing all around. The Apostles gave thanks for the revelation they received and returned to Jerusalem. Peter recognized that suffering was ahead of them in their future, and suddenly, a voice came from heaven saying,
“I have told you many times: it is necessary for you to suffer. It is necessary that they bring you to synagogues and governors so that you will suffer.”
This statement appears to be a spinoff of Matthew 10:18. Once more, these Gnostic texts copy and change elements of the original four Gospel accounts. This writer appears to borrow from Luke and Acts more so than the other New Testament accounts. The account ends with more conflating of Acts and how the Apostles instructed salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ’s name. They speak of how the Holy Spirit came and filled them, becoming the great illuminator on behalf of Christ.
In conclusion, the Apostles went out and proclaimed the good news that Jesus shared with them. They came together in fellowship and greeted each other, saying, “Amen.” They departed from Jerusalem and went throughout the known world, preaching in the power of Jesus, in peace. This Letter, though fascinating, should be rejected based on the four criteria of a canonical text:
1. The Divine attributes of God- The teaching of creation and the fall is inconsistent with the whole of scripture. It is also inconsistent with God’s sovereignty. In the account, the Mother was able to create without the Father’s will. In the canonical texts, nothing takes place outside of God’s sovereign hand.
2. Traced to the Apostles- There are no historical records of this text being associated with any of the Apostles. Peter had been executed many years before this account. The Apostles’ traceable accounts (canonical texts) demonstrate that Philip was there with Jesus in the first meeting after the resurrection and at His ascension.
3. Corporate reception of the Churches- There is no mention amongst the Church Fathers of this account. It disappeared for over 1500 years.
4. Intrinsic Reliability- Concerning the other Gnostic accounts, the theology is inconsistent. There are statements of the Apostles healing multitudes. If the goal is to leave the body, why would healing the corrupted body be necessary? Death is a way of escape; leaving people in their broken states is one step closer to salvation.
Due to these criteria, this account should be rejected as canonical. It should be studied for informative and historical purposes. There is great value to this Letter when dealing with the interpretational side of Gnostic theology.
-Dr. Stephen Boyce
- Marvin, Meyer; Robinson, James M. (2009). The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 585
- Turner, John D. (1992), “Gnosticism and Platonism: The Platonizing Sethian texts from Nag Hammadi in their Relation to Later Platonic Literature”, in Wallis, Richard T.; Bregman, Jay (eds.), Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, SUNY Press, ISBN 0-7914-1338-1, archived from the original on 2007-06-22.
- Apocryphon of John,” translation by Frederik Wisse in The Nag Hammadi Library.