What Is the Gospel of Peter?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

During the second through ninth centuries, a large body of Christian literature was produced that claimed (falsely) to be produced by apostles of Jesus or those close to the apostles. These works, rejected by the Church as authentic, came to be known as the New Testament Apocrypha.

One of the most famous of these documents is the Gospel of Peter.  Biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, describes how this document was found.

In 1886, a French archaeological team excavating the necropolis of an ancient Pachomian monastery about 250 miles south of Cairo found a small book in a monk’s grave. Pages two through ten of this book, which was dated to the seventh to ninth centuries, contain an account of the death and resurrection of Jesus which scholars soon concluded was part of the Gospel of Peter mentioned by early Church Fathers from the beginning of the third century. (No other parts of the Gospel of Peter were found.)

How was the Gospel of Peter received by scholars?

Scholarship at first paid close attention to the Gospel of Peter, but when the consensus developed that it was a popularizing and docetic adaptation of the canonical Gospels, especially Matthew, disinterest soon marginalized it. . . .

Although scholarship at first branded the Gospel of Peter docetic, recent study has seen it as equally at home in what came to be orthodox Christianity. The Gospel of Peter does indeed share several characteristics of orthodox Christian literature of the second century. It popularizes the traditions with which it works, as can be seen in both its style (the somewhat crude parataxis) and its content.

It emphasizes the miraculous more than the canonical Gospels do, making miracles into seemingly incontrovertible proofs of the faith. It has some strong connections (oral and written) with the canonical Gospels. Like the Acts of Pilate, the other main passion narrative of the time, the Gospel of Peter has a strong anti-Jewish polemic. This may be connected with its location in popular circles, where anti-Judaism was probably stronger than in official circles. Finally, the Gospel of Peter has a pronounced devotional element, especially seen in its consistent use of “the Lord” rather than “Jesus.”

A closer examination of the Gospel of Peter, though, also reveals the influence of gnosticism, a heterodox strain of Christianity present in the second century.

[T]he Gospel of Peter can also be read as at least incipiently Gnostic and as having an appeal to Gnostic Christians. The phrase “as though he had no pain” (4:10) would appeal to Gnostic Christians who downplayed or denied the suffering of Christ. The cry of dereliction, “My power, O power, you have forsaken me” (5:19), would also appeal to Gnostics who held that the divine element of Jesus left him shortly before the crucifixion. That the Gospel of Peter could appeal to and be used by both orthodox and Gnostic Christians should not surprise us; after all, both groups also used the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.

Van Voorst then explains the controversy that currently surrounds the Gospel of Peter among biblical scholars.

The most controversial issue in current scholarship on the Gospel of Peter centers on whether an earlier form of its passion narrative was also the source of the passion narrative in the canonical Gospels. Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan are the two leading advocates of this position, but they have failed to convince the majority of scholars.

Crossan’s major statement of his hypothesis, in his book The Cross That Spoke; lacks the sort of detailed source-critical analysis that many scholars demand. Unless and until those who promote such a source hypothesis for the Gospel of Peter match the source-critical arguments of those who oppose it (e.g., Joel B. Green, Raymond E. Brown, Alan Kirk, and Susan B. Schaeffer), this fascinating hypothesis will continue to hold a minority position. The passion narrative of the Gospel of Peter fits well in the second century, and the argument against its containing a precanonical passion source seems at present much stronger than the argument in its favor.

If you would like to read the Gospel of Peter for yourself, you can find it at this link.