In 1886, the Gospel of Peter (henceforth GPet) was discovered by a French archaeologist named Urbain Bouriant. This discovery took place in the modern Egyptian city of Akhmim. This location is within ten miles of Nag Hammadi, which would later become one of the biggest discoveries of non-canonical documents almost 60 years later. The manuscript is dated anywhere from the 8th to 9th century given its style of writing. The manuscript was found in an archaeological excavation, buried in a tomb with an Egyptian Monk. Scholars differ as to whether or not the manuscript was buried at the same time as the Monk, or put into the tomb later. The paleographical analysis of the manuscript would demonstrate a later date of the manuscript than the age of the cemetery. However, it was not unusual for someone in those days to be buried with one of their favorite books.
The fragment consists of 14 sections that are broken down into 60 verses. The surviving narrative begins with the trial of Jesus before Herod and Pilate. Its content covers Jesus’ trial, death, burial, and resurrection. Some scholars have considered the writing to be heretical and some have labeled it historically inaccurate. Serapion (190–203 AD) had this to say about the GPet,
“Most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour, but that some parts might encourage its hearers to fall into the heresy of Docetism.1
The heresy of Docetism is a Gnostic teaching about the physical body of Jesus. They believed Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm, or of real but celestial substance, and therefore His sufferings were only apparent. The reason some have associated this book for Docetism is because of the statement made about Jesus while on the cross in verse 10,
“But He remained silent, as having no pain.”2
I do not see the book as heretical as much as I see it as historically inaccurate. This assessment is given with the understanding that we do not have the rest of the writing. It was damaged and lost in history. We do know that the book of 2 Clement quoted from it preserving three additional verses. 2 Clement states,
2 Clem 5:2-4 “For the Lord saith, Ye shall be as lambs in the midst of wolves. But Peter answered and said unto Him, What then, if the wolves should tear the lambs? Jesus said unto Peter, Let not the lambs fear the wolves after they are dead; and ye also, fear ye not them that kill you and are not able to do anything to you; but fear Him that after ye are dead hath power over soul and body, to cast them into the Gehenna of fire.”
It must be stated that 2 Clement is also considered a forgery as compared to 1 Clement. Eusebius connected 1 Clement to Clement himself. However, he had this to say about 2 Clement,
“We must know that there is also a second Epistle of Clement. But we do not regard it as being equally notable with the former, since we know of none of the ancients that have made use of it.”3
The evidence would also point to the GPet as being a forgery. The writer claims to be Peter midway through the fragment (indirectly) and at the very end of the fragment (directly). When I translated my own version of the manuscript, I was taken back when I came to verse 26 and saw the first person pronoun “I” (ἐγώ). It is not common for the canonical Gospel writers to use the first person in referencing themselves in the narrative. John often referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and Matthew avoided himself in the narrative almost altogether. By the end of the fragment in verse 60, the text reads,
“But I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother, having taken our nets, departed out to the sea…”
This assertion is very unlikely given the fact that most scholars date this Gospel account to the early second-century. This would make the GPet a pseudepigraphical writing; which simply means the writing bears the name of an author who did not compose the text. Bart Ehrman dates the writing to the early second-century considering it to have been compiled based on oral traditions about Jesus, independent of the canonical Gospels.4 Others such as Raymond Brown agree with the assessment that the original author was writing the narrative from his recollection of the teachings rather than copying an earlier manuscript. He theorized the idea that the text is based on what the author remembers about the other Gospels, together with his own personal features.5 Based on comparisons and wording, I would agree with both Ehrman and Brown on this assertion.
Major Differences from the Canonical Gospels
One of the striking features that can be seen throughout the GPet is how much blame is laid at the feet of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Although this allegation is true in the canonical Gospels, Pilate is practically reprieved in this writing. The trial of Jesus reads like this,
“(1) …But none of the Jews washed their hands, not even Herod, nor any among his judges. And since they were not willing to wash their hands, Pilate stood up, (2) and then Herod the king commanded that the Lord be taken away, saying to them, “What I have commanded you to do, go do.”
Pilate washed his hands of the matter but Herod, the judges, and none of Jews desired to do so. In fact, Herod gives the order of execution here, not Pilate (compare Mark 15:15). This consistent blame of the Jews can be seen throughout the text. When evaluating their response after the crucifixion, many of them are recorded as feeling guilt and fear of what would follow. Let’s take a look at their response in verse 25. It’s recorded with these words,
“Then many of the Jews, Elders, and Priests, having realized what evil they had done to themselves, began to weep and say, “Woe unto our sins! The judgment has come near and the end of Jerusalem.”
It should be noted that since the writer recorded the Jews as saying, “the end of Jerusalem,” this could be a meaningful point of reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The writer could have been looking back at the destruction and connecting it to the sins of the Jews for crucifying the Son of God. This could be a hint that this Gospel was written after 70 AD rather than before, disproving Crossan’s theory of the GPet being the first Gospel account.6
A second major difference is that Joseph (assumed to be the one from Arimathea) asked for the body of Jesus before the crucifixion. Notice how the GPet tells the narrative in verse 3,
“Now Joseph stood there, who was a friend of Pilate and of the Lord; and knowing that they were about to crucify Him. He came to Pilate and asked for the body of the Lord for burial.”
This differs from John’s account which tells us Joseph came to Pilate after Jesus was pronounced dead (cf. John 19:33-38). In addition to this variant, the GPet also states that Pilate asked permission from Herod to release the body to Joseph. This will once again remove all responsibility for this execution from Pilate. Notice what is stated in verses 4-5,
“Pilate, having sent to Herod, asked for His body. And Herod said, “brother Pilate, even if no one had asked for Him, we still would have buried Him since the Sabbath is drawing near. For it is written in the Law, “the sun must not set upon someone who has been executed.”
Another major variant in the GPet is from the testimony of one of the criminals on the cross. This account agrees with the canonical accounts of Jesus being placed between two criminals. However, the discussion that took place on the cross is entirely different. In the canonical account of Luke, the one criminal rebuked the other for reviling Christ. Though Matthew and Mark both record the two criminals being present (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27), Luke is the only one who records any verbal interaction between them (Luke 23:39-43). This is unique for the GPet because this Gospel does not follow Luke’s narrative very often. This “rare connection” would hardly be considered a harmonization of the two since the wording contradicts one another rather than complements one another. In fact, the criminal in the GPet does not rebuke the other criminal, he rebukes the centurions and the crowd of people. Notice how it reads in verses 13-14,
“Then, one of the criminals scorned them saying: “We have been made to suffer for the evil that we have committed, but this man, having become the Savior of men, what wrong has he done to you? And being angry at Him, they demanded that his legs should not be broken, so that he would die being tormented.”
It is uncertain in the grammar as to who the centurions were referring to when they demanded that “his” legs should not be broken. Some would say it refers to Jesus, others point to the criminal for confronting their wicked decision to crucify the Savior. It contextually makes sense that it would refer to the criminal since he “struck a nerve” so to speak. However, it is possible that it ignited them to be even more enraged at Jesus because he was called “the Savior of men.”
There’s only one statement that the GPet records of Jesus speaking on the cross. This variant is one of the most important differences in this entire manuscript. In the midst of darkness, verse 19 records the Lord crying out,
“‘My power, My power you have forsaken Me.’ And having said this, He was taken up.”
The implications that come from this variant changes the entire theology of the Gospel account. In Matthew 27:46, we see the amazing fulfillment of Psalm 22:2; where the Son experiences separation from the Father while being the sin-bearer. The anguish of Jesus moved Him to cry out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The GPet however, informs us that Jesus was in agony over His power being removed from Him. Psalm 22:2 is left unfulfilled and the focus of Christ bearing the weight of sin upon Himself is completely absent. To demonstrate that the manuscript reads “My power, My power,” I will leave an image of the manuscript below demonstrating the words “δύναμις μου, η δύναμις.”
Along with this discrepancy, some scholars point to the last sentence as being proof that this is a Gnostic Gospel. The last line spoke of Him being “taken up” rather than Him giving up the spirit. F.F. Bruce had this to say about the distinction,
“The Docetic note in this narrative appears… in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he ‘was taken up’, as though he – or at least his soul or spiritual self – was ‘assumed’ direct from the cross to the presence of God. (We shall see an echo of this idea in the Qur’an). Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.”7
The account of the resurrection is the most important variant in the GPet. It is a common practice for non-canonical accounts to focus on the details and events that are not demonstrated in the original four Gospels. This is what often gives away their “secondary” status of not being original accounts. It should be noted that the canonical accounts do not give vivid details of Jesus coming out of the tomb or what it looked like to be brought from death to life. If Christianity is looking to create this conspiracy of a resurrected Savior, wouldn’t the logical attempt of conspiracy be to highlight the most important moment in their religion, the resurrection? That’s not what the canonical Gospels do! They simply acknowledge an empty tomb, that was discovered by a group of Jesus’ followers who are now skeptical of His resurrection, and then a bodily appearance of Jesus after the fact. Here in the GPet, we are given details of what it allegedly looked like for Jesus to resurrect from the grave. Consider verses 35-37,
“(35) Now during the night as the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers stood guard in pairs of two at each watch, there was a loud voice from heaven; (36) and they saw the heavens were opened, and from there, two young men came down having great radiance, approaching the tomb. (37) Then the stone which was placed at the door, rolled away on its own, and partially gave way; and the tomb opened and the two young men went in.”
In these verses, we see that a loud voice from heaven is heard by the guards, followed by two young men coming out of heaven who were clothed in bright clothing. The stone rolls away on its own and is removed enough to leave a little opening for the two young men to enter in. In Matthew’s account, he tells us that the angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and he rolled the stone away and even sat on it (Matt. 28:2). The GPet tells of a loud voice coming from heaven, whereas the Gospel of Matthew tells us that it was an earthquake (Matt. 28:2). The differences in the narratives are alarming, to say the least. The narrative continues in the GPet giving us details of what it looked like when Jesus came out of the grave. The account of Peter states in verses 38-42,
“(38) Therefore, having seen this, the soldiers woke up the centurions and elders, for they were also keeping watch. (39) And while they were describing to them the things they had seen, behold, they saw three men coming out of the tomb, with the two young men supporting the One, and a cross following them. (40) And the head of the two reaching unto to heaven, but the One of whom they led out by the hand, His head reached beyond the heavens. (41) And they heard a voice from heaven asking, ‘Did you preach to those who sleep?’ (42) And a response was heard from the cross saying, ‘Yes!'”
In this passage, we see the soldiers who were on guard rushing to wake up the centurions and elders to tell them what they had seen. In Matthew’s account, they were scared to the point where they shook and fell like dead men (Matt. 28:4). There are numerous features in this narrative that differ in the details as well (e.g., some of the elders camped out at the tomb, the centurion was given a name, etc.). In the next scene, while the guards were telling the centurions and elders what they had seen, three men came out of the tomb. The description is of the two young men supporting “the One (Jesus),” with a cross following them. If this is not strange enough, the head of the two young men reached the heavens. Then, the next description is of the Lord’s head reaching “beyond” the heavens.
So we have this giant Jesus coming out of His tomb, supported by the two young men, and a cross following them. In the next scene, we see that a voice was heard from heaven asking a question. The GPet does not tell us whose voice it was, but we do know that it was heard by everyone present. The question was “Did you preach to those who sleep?” This question is not recorded by any of the canonical Gospels, nor is the description of the giant Jesus. The most alarming feature in this narrative is that neither a human nor an angel answers this question; but rather the cross speaks by answering, “Yes.” We see that the highlighted features in this book are displaying a giant Jesus and a talking cross.
The last variant I would like to look at is what happens after the resurrection. There are no appearances in Jerusalem to Mary Magdalene, Peter, or to any of the other Apostles. Clearly, no one has seen Jesus resurrected, nor experienced anything similar to the joyous resurrection that we find in the Gospels of Luke and John. Assuming the disciples did recover their faith and come to believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, it was only weeks later and in Galilee rather than Jerusalem. Note how the GPet ends the narrative in verses 57-60,
(57) Then the women were afraid and fled. (58) Now, it was the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and many of the people were going out, returning to their homes since the feast had come to an end. (59) But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, continued weeping and grieving, and each one was grieving because of what had taken place, and returned to his own home. (60) But I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother, having taken our nets, departed out to the sea; and there was Levi the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord…”
There are a few things to take note of here. First, there is a similar response to the women leaving in fear after receiving news of Jesus’ resurrection as recorded in Mark 16:8. However, the second thing to notice will change the direction of the narrative. Next, we see everyone returning home sorrowful and grieved. Even the Apostles all went to their own homes in a state of distress. Thirdly, the writer finally declares himself as Peter in verse 60. It’s an interesting factor that he calculates twelve of them, each of which went home weeping and grieving. This number seems to be one too many given the fact that Judas Iscariot hung himself before the crucifixion took place (Matt. 27:5). Understandably, the group as a whole can be referred to as “the twelve” just as they were in 1 Corinthians 15:5. But here in this account, the language seems to present more so the idea of individuals given the statement “each one… returned to his own home.” The fragment ends after the word “Lord.” We are not sure what the writer was about to say regarding Levi (Matthew) or if they ever saw a bodily appearance of Jesus at all.
Because the ending was not intact, it is difficult to say for sure if this Gospel is Gnostic. I do not believe this is a heretical Gospel based on the readings that did survive. If we had the complete manuscript, my opinion of this could easily be changed. However, it is clearly a non-inspired work with numerous inaccuracies. It does not meet the qualification of a self-authenticating model of the canon. First, it does not come from the Apostles. It cannot be traced to Peter himself and it is clearly a forgery. We know through Papias, that Peter was behind the Gospel of Mark. If this were truly Peter, why the disunity between the two narratives? Second, it does not display the full attributes of God such as accuracy and unity. Third, it was not received by the churches as a whole and disappeared for over 1200 years.
I agree with Brown and Ehrman that this document was created by someone who was writing based on their memory from oral tradition. The scribe certainly showed no disrespect to the Lord in transcribing the Greek text. Throughout this narrative, “Lord” and “God” are represented by the Nomina Sacra. Scribes would often do this out of respect for the sacred names of God. Here is an example of the Nomina Sacra in the text:
The Nomina Sacra for “Lord” here is the Greek word κυριον. The first and last letters are represented with a line above them (as seen above). It should be noted that nowhere in the GPet is the name”Jesus” or “Christ” represented in the surviving manuscript. He is always referred to as “Lord” or “Son of God.” However, He is called “Jesus” in the quotation of 2 Clement 5:2-4 which does not have manuscript support to date.
Someone might ask the question, “Why study a book like this? If it does not belong in the canon, should we even study these writings?” I believe there are three reasons why we should study these writings. First, these are historical writings. Regardless of how one may feel about its content, it is a document that has survived antiquity, that God in His providence has allowed us to study. Second, there are some important details in these books that can teach us more about customs, places, and tendencies in those days.
In this Gospel, the writer gives us the name of the centurion who oversaw the guarding of the tomb. It’s very unlikely that the original writer made up a name like Petronius when dedicating this account. Now, we do not know for certain if that was his name, but it does give us an option to study and think about. Third, they help demonstrate the authenticity of the canonical Gospels. Comparing the accounts of the original four with the various non-canonical, truly demonstrates how majestic and unified, though giving different viewpoints, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are with one another. These types of writings should cause us to rejoice in the Gospels that we do possess and have stood the test of time.
Grace and Peace
Dr. Stephen Boyce
If you enjoy studies on these types of books, feel free to check out the article that Stephen wrote on the Gospel of Thomas as well. Stephen also has his own translation of the Gospel of Peter that is available for everyone to read.
- Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. vi. 12
- All citations of the Gospel of Peter are taken from my own personal translation of the fragmented Gospel
- Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, iii. 38
- Ehrman and Pleše 2011, pp. 370-372.
- Brown, Death of the Messiah, Appendix 1 Gospel of Peter – B3 Composition, Doubleday, 1994. Vol. 2, p. 1334-1335
- Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 44–62. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1996
- Bruce, F.F. (1974), Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament. Hodder and Stoughton. p. 93.