The Gospel of Peter (Greek: κατά Πέτρον ευαγγέλιον), or Gospel according to Peter, is one of the non-Canonical gospels which were rejected by the Church Fathers and the Catholic Church‘s synods of Carthage and Rome, which established the New Testament canon, as apocryphal. It was the first of the non-canonical gospels to be rediscovered, preserved in the dry sands of Egypt.
The Gospel of Peter explicitly claims to be the work of the Apostle Peter:
“And I with my companions was grieved; and being wounded in mind we hid ourselves:” — GoP, 7.
“But I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea;” — GoP, 14.
However scholars generally agree that Gospel of Peter is pseudepigraphical (bearing the name of an author who did not actually compose the text).
The true author of the gospel remains a mystery. Although there are parallels with the three Synoptic Gospels, Peter does not use any of the material unique to Matthew or unique to Luke. Raymond E. Brown and others find that the author may have been acquainted with the synoptic gospels and even with the Gospel of John; Brown (The Death of the Messiah) even suggests that the author’s source in the canonical gospels was transmitted orally, through readings in the churches, i.e. that the text is based on what the author remembers about the other gospels, together with his own embellishments.
In Christian iconography St. Peter is often shown holding the keys to heaven, as shown in this painting from St. Catherine's monastery at Mt. Sinai, Egypt.
Ron Cameron and others have further speculated the Gospel of Peter was written independently of the synoptic gospels using an early proto-gospel. A consequence of this is the potential existence of a source text that formed the basis of the passion narratives in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, as well as in Peter. Origen makes mention of the Gospel of Peter as agreeing with the tradition of the Hebrews. The relationship to the Gospel according to the Hebrews becomes more clear when Theodoret states that the Nazarenes made use of the Gospel of Peter, for we know
In Christian iconography St. Peter is often shown holding the keys to heaven, as shown in this painting from St. Catherine's monastery at Mt. Sinai, Egypt.by the testimony of the Fathers generally that the Nazarene Gospel was that commonly called the Gospel according to the Hebrews. The same Gospel was in use among the Ebionites, and in fact, as almost all critics are agreed, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, under various names, such as the Gospel according to Peter, according to the Apostles, the Nazarenes, Ebionites, Egyptians, &c, with modifications certainly, but substantially the same work, was circulated very widely throughout the early Church.
The gospel is widely thought to date from after Peter’s death. Scholars generally agree on a date in the second half of the 2nd century. This is assuming it is the text condemned by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch upon inspection at Rhossus, circa 190. The Rhossus community had already been using it in their liturgy.
Later Western references, which condemn the work, such as Jerome and Decretum Gelasianum, traditionally connected to Pope Gelasius I, are apparently based upon the judgment of Eusebius, not upon a direct knowledge of the text.
Into modern times the Gospel of Peter had been known only from early quotations, especially from a reference by Eusebius to a letter publicly circulated by Serapion in 190–203, who had found upon examining it that “most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour,” but that some parts might encourage its hearers to fall into the Docetist heresy. Serapion’s rebuttal of the Gospel of Peter is otherwise lost.
Origen also mentions that the Gospel of Peter, together with “the book of James”, was the source for the Catholic Church doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. It would appear that the former text to which Origen was referring is another Gospel of Peter, as evidenced to date: twopapyrus fragments from Oxyrhynchus, both in the Ashmolean Museum: P.Oxy 4009 and P.Oxy 2949 contain no such reference and what is referred today as the Gospel Of Peter, discussed below, contains a Passion narrative only.
2nd Clement refers to a passage thought to be from the Gospel of Peter: 2Clem 5:2 For the Lord saith, Ye shall be as lambs in the midst of wolves.
2Clem 5:3 But Peter answered and said unto Him, What then, if the wolves should tear the lambs?
2Clem 5:4 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.
“The saying of 5:2−4, for example, appears to be from the lost Gospel of Peter,” says Bart Ehrman in Lecture 15 of his audiobook, After The New Testament.
The Gospel of Peter was recovered in 1886, by the French archaeologist, Urbain Bouriant, in the modern Egyptian city of Akhmim (sixty miles north of Nag Hammadi). The 8th or 9th century manuscript had been respectfully buried with an Egyptian monk. The fragmentary Gospel of Peter was the first non-canonical gospel to have been rediscovered, preserved in the dry sand of Egypt. Publication, delayed by Bouriant until 1892, occasioned intense interest. From the passion sequence that is preserved, it is clear that the gospel was a narrative gospel, but whether a complete narrative similar to the canonical gospels or simply a Passion cannot be said.
Two other papyrus fragments from Oxyrhyncus (P.Oxy 4009 and P.Oxy. 2949) were uncovered later and published in 1972. They are possibly, but not conclusively, from the Gospel of Peter and would suggest, if they belonged, that the text was more than just a passion narrative. These small fragments both seem to give first person accounts of discussions between Jesus and Peter in situations prior to the Passion week.
To date it is one of four early non-canonical narrative gospels, which exist only in fragmentary form: this Gospel of Peter, the Egerton Gospel, and the two very fragmentary Oxyrhynchus Gospels (P.Oxy. 840 and P.Oxy. 1224). The main point of interest from the first has resided in establishing its relationship to the four canonical gospels.
J. Rendel Harris (1852–1941) decided to introduce it to the public in A Popular Account of the Newly-Recovered Gospel of Peter. He opens with a description of its discovery, offering his opinions regarding its date and original language. Classifying the work as a Docetic gospel, Harris defines the community in which it arose as well as its use during the Patristic age. He translates the fragment and then proceeds to discuss the sources behind it. Harris is convinced that the author borrowed from the canonical accounts, and he lists other literature that may have incorporated the Gospel of Peter, with special emphasis on the Diatessaron.
One of the chief characteristics of the work is that Pontius Pilate is exonerated of all responsibility for the Crucifixion, the onus being laid upon Herod, the scribes, and other Jews, who pointedly do not “wash their hands” like Pilate. However, the Gospel of Peter was condemned as hereticalalready ca. 200 AD for its alleged docetic elements. Other elements which may have led to its condemnation are its more supernatural embellishments, including astronomically tall angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the fact that the Cross of Christ itself is portrayed as moving itself out of the tomb and uttering the word “Yes” in response to a heavenly voice.
The opening leaves of the text are lost, so the Passion begins abruptly with the trial of Jesus before Pilate, after Pilate has washed his hands, and closes with its unusual and detailed version of the watch set over the tomb and the resurrection. The Gospel of Peter is more detailed in its account of the events after the Crucifixion than any of the canonical gospels, and it varies from the canonical accounts in numerous details: Herod gives the order for the execution, not Pilate, who is exonerated; Joseph (of Arimathea, which place is not mentioned) has been acquainted with Pilate; in the darkness that accompanied the crucifixion, “many went about with lamps, supposing that it was night, and fell down”.
Christ’s cry from the cross, in Matthew given as Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? which Matthew explains as meaning “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” is reported in Peter as “My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me”‘. Immediately after, Peter states that “when he had said it he was taken up”, suggesting that Jesus did not actually die. This, together with the claim that on the cross Jesus “remained silent, as though he felt no pain”, has led many early Christians to accuse the text of docetism. The account in Peter tells that the supposed writer and other disciples hid because they were being sought on suspicion of plotting to set fire to the temple, and totally rejects any possibility of their disloyalty.
The centurion who kept watch at the tomb is given the name Petronius. Details of the sealing of the tomb, requested of Pilate by the elders of the Jewish community, elaborates upon Matthew 27:66, “So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch”, saying instead:
“And Pilate gave them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to guard the tomb. And with them came elders and scribes to the sepulchre, and having rolled a great stone together with the centurion and the soldiers, they all who were there together set it at the door of the sepulchre; and they affixed seven seals and pitched a tent there and guarded it. And early in the morning as the Sabbath was drawing on, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region round about, that they might see the sepulchre that was sealed.”
Most importantly, the Resurrection and Ascension, which are described in detail, are not treated as separate events, but occur on the same day:
“9. And in the night in which the Lord’s day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in. 10. When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders, for they too were close by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, You have preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yes.”
The text is unusual at this point in describing the Cross itself as speaking, and even floating out of the tomb, which has led some scholars[who?] to suspect it of gnostic sympathies. The text then proceeds to follow the Gospel of Mark, ending at the short ending (where the women flee the empty tomb in fear), adding on an extra scene set during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, where the disciples leave Jerusalem, and ends, like the short ending, without Jesus being physically seen or explicitly resurrected.