Does the Gospel of Peter belong in the New Testament?

by Ryan Turner

The canon of the New Testament was reserved only for those writings that were either written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle.  Since the Gospel of Peter was written in the mid second century, it is not a candidate for inclusion in the New Testament.  The numerous embellishments in the Gospel of Peter clearly indicate that it was composed in the second century and was not written by the apostle Peter.  This second-century date of authorship is in conformity with modern New Testament scholarship's appraisal of the Gospel of Peter.  Therefore, the early church rightfully rejected this Gospel which was falsely attributed to Peter.

Background Information about the Gospel of Peter

What is the Gospel of Peter?

Though incorrectly ascribed to the apostle Peter, the Gospel of Peter is comprised of 14 paragraphs (or 60 verses), written around 150 A.D., which describes the events surrounding the end of Jesus’ life including his trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.1  This Gospel is only partially preserved in one 8-9th century manuscript, beginning and ending in mid sentence (Harris, 245).2  The Gospel of Peter contains many similarities with the New Testament Gospels including the basic outline of the end of Jesus’ life with his trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, but it also contains a number of additions including, most notably, a description of the actual resurrection event with two giant angels, a super-sized Jesus, and a talking cross emerging from the empty tomb. 

When was the Gospel of Peter discovered?

The Gospel of Peter was allegedly discovered in 1886-1887 during excavations in Akhmîm, upper Egypt.  A ninth century manuscript was found in the coffin of a monk which is now known as the Akhmîm fragment.  Interestingly, this fragment contains no name or title.  However, since the manuscript had (1) alleged docetic3 overtones and was (2) found in the midst of other works attributed to the apostle Peter, such as the Apocalypse of Peter, scholars think that the Akhmîm fragment belonged to the Gospel of Peter.4  

Do any ancient writers talk about the Gospel of Peter?

Prior to the discovery of the Akhmîm fragment in 1886-87, scholars knew very little about the Gospel of Peter.  Their first main source was Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 260-340), the well-known early church historian, who noted that the Gospel of Peter was among the church’s rejected writings and had heretical roots.5  The second main source for the Gospel of Peter is a letter by Serapion, a bishop in Antioch (in office A.D. 199-211), titled “Concerning What is Known as the Gospel of Peter.”6  Bishop Serapion notes that the Gospel of Peter had docetic overtones and advised that church leaders not read it to their congregations.  From Bishop Serapion’s statements we know that the Gospel of Peter was written sometime in the second century, but we are left with little knowledge of its actual contents from Serapion’s statements alone.7

Is the Gospel of Peter a Gnostic Gospel?

There is some debate among scholars regarding whether the Akhmîm fragment actually is a Gnostic document.  There are two possible Gnostic examples in 4:10 [paragraph 4] and 5:19 [paragraph 5].  Paragraph 4 describes the crucifixion of Jesus and states, "But he held his peace, as though having no pain."  This may reflect the Gnostic view of Docetism which viewed Jesus as not possessing a phyiscal body.  This would explain Jesus' lack of pain on the cross.  Furthermore, paragraph 5 describes Jesus' death cry on the cross as, "My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me."  Some scholars see this as a reference to "...a docetic version of the cry of dereliction which results from the departure of the divine power from Jesus' bodily shell."8 However, some scholars dispute these references as referring to full blown Gnosticism or Gnostic teachings at all.

When was the Gospel of Peter written?

Though this work was attributed to the apostle Peter (Par. 14), contemporary New Testament scholars rightfully note that the Gospel of Peter is a second century A.D. work.  Most scholars would not date this Gospel before 130-150 A.D because of: (1) the numerous historical errors including a preponderance of legendary embellishments and lack of first century historical knowledge, and (2) the likely dependence which the Gospel of Peter has on the New Testament Gospels.  For these reasons among many, most scholars today reject the Gospel of Peter as giving us as accurate of a portrait of Jesus as the standard New Testament Gospels and regard it as a late composition from the second century A.D. 

Historical Errors

Error #1: The Guilt of Jews

The confession of the Jewish authorities guilt (par. 7; 11) lacks historical credibility.9 The confession of the Jewish authorities makes more sense in a context after 70 A.D. where the Jews were blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem as a result of not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.  Furthermore, the reference of the Jewish scribes and elders saying, “For it is better, say they, for us to be guilty of the greatest sin before God, and not to fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and to be stoned,” likewise reflects a period after 70 A.D. and is definitely not earlier than the Synoptic material.

Error #2: The High Priest Spending the Night in the Cemetery

Furthermore, the author of the Gospel of Peter (or Akhmîm fragment) possessed very little knowledge of Jewish customs.  According to paragraphs 8 and 10, the Jewish elders and scribes actually camp out in the cemetery as part of the guard keeping watch over the tomb of Jesus. Craig Evans wisely notes, “Given Jewish views of corpse impurity, not to mention fear of cemeteries at night, the author of our fragment is unbelievably ignorant (Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 83).”  The ruling priest spending the night in the cemetery; no ruling priest would actually do that.  Due to these serious blunders, it is highly unlikely that this Gospel reflects earlier material than the New Testament gospels.  Instead, the author is most likely far removed from the historical events surrounding Jesus’ death and burial.

Error #3: Embellishment of the New Testament Resurrection Accounts

There are a number of apparent embellishments in the Gospel of Peter, especially surrounding the guarding of the tomb and the resurrection.  Regarding the guarding of the tomb, there are seven even seals over the tomb (8), and a great multitude from the surrounding area comes to see the sealing of the tomb.  Though these are certainly historical possibilities, it appears to indicate that these are embellishments compared to the more simple accounts in the New Testament Gospels.

The New Testament writers never describe exactly how the resurrection took place, since presumably no one was there to witness it other than the guards.  Perhaps the most fascinating part of the Gospel of Peter’s account is that it actually describes the resurrection of Jesus (9-10)!

“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 from thence with great light and approach the tomb. And that stone which 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 hard by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they see three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him who was lead by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, Thou hast preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yea.”10

This resurrection account does not retain anything of the historical soberness that is in the New Testament resurrection accounts.  Instead, this description of the resurrection of Jesus has a large angel whose head “reached unto the heaven,” and a giant Jesus whose head “overpassed the heavens!"  Finally, the best example is the talking cross.  The voice from heaven says, “Thou has preached to them that sleep.”  The cross responds by saying, “Yea.”  While it is possible that there was a giant Jesus whose head surpassed the heavens and a talking cross, it is more likely that this story is probably an embellishment of the simpler empty tomb and resurrection accounts in the New Testament Gospels.  It is probably just another attempt like some other Gnostic Gospels to “fill in the gaps” in the events surrounding Jesus’ life. 

How anyone could think of this resurrection account as more primitive than the Gospels seems quite unreasonable.  Evans wisely states, “…can it be seriously maintained that the Akhmîm fragment’s [Gospel of Peter's] resurrection account, complete with a talking cross and angels whose heads reach heaven, constitutes the most primitive account?” (Evans, 84).

Dependence on the New Testament Gospels

It is difficult to prove exact literary dependence by the Gospel of Peter on the New Testament Gospel; however, there are at least a couple instances in Peter which are best explained by the author having familiarity with the canonical New Testament Gospels.  The Gospel of Matthew is a prime example, with its guard at the tomb of Jesus.  The Gospel of Peter author likely took this account and embellished it by having Jewish leaders come and camp out at the tomb overnight.  This may have served the apologetical purposes of the author of the Gospel of Peter which reflected conditions after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.  Furthermore, the centurion's confession (par. 11) appears to also reflect the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 27:54; cf. Mk. 15:39; Lk. 23:47).

Finally, the Gospel of Peter's reference of the thief uses the same Greek words to reference the thief in paragraph 4 (4.10, 13), which likely reflects the Gospel of Luke (23:33, 39).

Since the Gospel of Peter is likely a second century work due to the historical errors listed above, it is likely that the Gospel of Peter at least used similar traditions that are found in the New Testament Gospels, if not the Gospels themselves.  This is a much more sober conclusion rather than basing our argument on source criticism alone, which is often bound with mere speculation of hypothetical sources and layers of editing and redaction.  Anyhow, given the numerous embellishments and historical errors, it is likely that the author had some familiarity with the canonical Gospels and combined it with his own speculations.  However, to what extent the author had knowledge of the New Testament Gospels, we may never know.

Conclusion

Despite the claims of some, the Gospel of Peter does not belong in the New Testament due to its serious embellishments and likely dependence on the New Testament Gospels.  For these reasons among many, most scholars today reject the Gospel of Peter as giving us as accurate of a portrait of Jesus as the standard New Testament Gospels, and regard it as a late composition from the second century A.D. 

A Summary of the Evidence for a Second Century Date of the Gospel of Peter

Historical Errors and Embellishments

  • Seven seals are used to seal the tomb of Jesus (Paragraph 8).
  • A crowd from Jerusalem comes to see the sealed tomb of Jesus (Par. 9).
  • The Jewish leaders camp out at the tomb of Jesus overnight.
  • The Jewish leaders fear the harm of the Jewish people (Par. 8).  This does not descibe the historical situation of the Jews before the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D. 
  • The Resurrection story actually describes how Jesus exited the tomb with two giant angels, a super-sized Jesus, and a talking cross.  

Late References

  • Transfer of responsibility of Jesus’ death away from Pilate to Herod and the Jews.
  • “The Lord’s Day” reference (Par. 9) indicates a later time period (cf. Rev. 1:10; Ignatius’s Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1).

Possible Gnostic Overtones

  • Silence during the crucifixion “as if he felt no pain.”  This could be consistent with a docetic view of Jesus which was common in Gnostic circles.
  • Crucifixion cry is “my Power!” “my Power!” which likely indicates a supernatural being departed from him.
  • Jesus’ death is described as being “taken up,” implying that he was rescued without dying.  This would be consistent with some Gnostic views that thought since Jesus was not fully a man, he could not actually die on the cross.

Possible New Testament Parallels

  • The centurion’s confession (Par. 11) appears to reflect the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 27:54; cf. Mk. 15:39; Lk. 23:47).
  • The posting of the guard at the tomb appears to reflect the Gospel of Matthew.

Sources

  • Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.  
  • Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
  • Evans, Craig A. “The Apocryphal Jesus: Assessing the Possibilities and Problems.” 147-172. In Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, eds. Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. 
  • Harris, Stephen L. The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction. Fourth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • Head, P. M. "On the Christology of the Gospel of Peter," Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 209-224.
  • Strobel, Lee. The Case for the Real Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
  • 1. To read a copy of the Gospel of Peter, please visit: http://sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob30.htm. I also consulted “The Gospel of Peter” in The Ante Nicene Fathers, volume 9, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, pp. 7-8.
  • 2. Interestingly, we do not know if the Gospel has a report on Jesus’ public ministry and miracles since the copy of the Gospel of Peter that we have is just a fragment.  The Akhmim fragment ends abruptly with probably an appearance of Jesus about to take place at the Sea of Galilee.  Some scholars state that the Gospel of Peter fragment may date to the 7th century.  See P. M. Head, "On the Christology of the Gospel of Peter," Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 209.
  • 3. Docetism was a belief in the early centuries of Christianity which held that Jesus was fully divine, but not fully human.  In other words, Jesus was God, but not man since physical reality is evil.
  • 4. A few scholars debate whether the Akhmîm fragment actually is the Gospel of Peter, but for the sake of argument, we will just assume that the Akhmîm fragment actually is the Gospel of Peter especially since this is the consensus view of scholarship today.
  • 5. Ecclesiastical History, 3.3.1-4; 3.25.6; and 6.12.3-6
  • 6. Bishop Serapion’s letter is actually preserved by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3-6
  • 7. Some scholar have attempted to find parallels or quotations of the Gospel of Peter in other early church fathers including Origen, but these parallels are questionable.
  • 8. Head, 214. Head does not actually ascribe to this viewpoint.
  • 9. It is possibly based on Jesus’ statements about Jerusalem (Lk. 21:20-24; 23:48) and perhaps to Caiaphas’s counsel (Jn. 11:49-50).
  • 10. http://sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob30.htm

 

 

 

 
 
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