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The Gospel of Peter

New Page – 30 April 2004

The Gospel of Peter has several intriguing features. These include a similarity to the canonical gospels, a distinct anti-Judaism, its suppression by the early church, and its potentially docetic character. The latter aspect, docetism , assumes that if Christ was truly divine he could not be human, and thus he could not actually suffer and die. Docetism stems from the Greek “appear” and suggests that Jesus only appeared to be a flesh and blood human. Clearly, this alleged lack of suffering and death flew in the face of the early church, making it decidedly heretical. It is also wholly opposed to the concepts of atonement and sacrifice and makes Mel Gibson's movie The Passion almost laughable.

According to Bart Ehrman [1], a slight variation of the docetism of the ancient Christians assumed Jesus to be a real flesh-and-blood human.

“But Christ was a separate person, a divine being who, as God, could not experience pain and death. In this view, the divine Christ descended from heaven in the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism and entered into him; the divine Christ then empowered Jesus to perform miracles and deliver spectacular teachings, until the end when, before Jesus died (since the divine cannot die), the Christ left him once more. That is why Jesus cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?' (see Mark 15:34). Or as it can be more literally translated, “Why have you left me behind?”

Either alternative in interpretation is clearly not in the interests of a hierarchy or authority intent upon ruling on the basis of guilt, fear, and unrequited sin. Thus, while the Gospel of Peter has distinct similarities to the canonical gospels, the differences are substantial in terms of philosophy and church teachings. Of particular note is The “Whole” Bible website's [2] comment of:

“The Gospel of Peter was eventually branded as heretical, if for no other reason, because it seemed to deny the suffering of Jesus. The particular passage (4:1) reads, "And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them. But he himself remained silent, as if in no pain." However, this agrees with the expected silence of the "suffering servant" in Isaiah 53:7, and therefore is not [necessarily] a docetic statement.”

The Reluctant Messenger [3], for example, notes twenty-nine variations of fact between the Gospel of Peter and the four canonical gospels, and that furthermore there is a distinct variation in tone.

“While in general the story of the trial and crucifixion that is revealed here follows that of the canonical gospels, in detail it is very different. This account is freer from constraint; and with the events between the burial and resurrection of our Lord, it is much more ample and detailed than anything in the canonical tradition.”

Some of the more important variations noted by the Reluctant Messenger [3] include:

•  Herod was the one who gave the order for the execution.

•  Joseph was a friend of Pilate.

•  In the darkness many went about with lamps and fell down. (That is a startling glimpse of the confusion that seized the people.)

•  Our Lord's cry of "My power, my power."

•  The account of how the disciples had to hide because they were searched for as malefactors anxious to burn the temple.

•  The name of the centurion who kept watch at the tomb was Petronius.

The Reluctant Messenger also notes a distinct prominence assigned to Mary Magdalen – something possibly connected with the Gospel of Mary Magdalen where Peter was at first highly suspicious of Mary's claim to have secret knowledge from Jesus. This would imply that if the Gospel of Peter is truly Peter's teachings, then it would appear that he very much took to heart the lessons he learned from Mary Magdalen.

Finally, there is the emphasis on placing responsibility on Herod, a potentially anti-Judaism aspect. Pilate, on the other hand, seems to have gotten away a bit cleaner – perhaps due to his penchant for hand washing.

Of some potential significance is the question of the chronology of which gospel was written first – the implication that the earlier versions were somehow more accurate having been closer to the time of the events recorded. Of course, we're talking about a minimum period of 30 to 50 years between the time of the Crucifixion and the time when almost any scholar would assign to the writing down of any gospel, canonical or otherwise. This separation of a generation between deeds and recordings does not lend itself to exceptional credibility.

The “Whole” Bible website [2] notes that:

“Modern scholars initially had assumed that Peter was dependent upon the canonical gospels, but more recently the possibility has been examined that the passion narrative is in fact the earliest of the known accounts. The gospel contains none of the "special" Matthean or Lukan material that would be expected if those gospels had priority. In fact, Peter's source for the passion narrative may have been the same one used by both Mark and John.”

“Peter's gospel relies very heavily upon references to Jewish messianic prophecy; more so than even Matthew. The trend in later gospel writings (particularly John) was to ignore messianic expectations, giving further support to an early date of composition.”

Thus while the Gospel of Peter may well have been written earlier, there is still the open question as to its higher credibility than other gospels. In the end, the question is almost always one of which philosophy one wishes to embrace. If suffering appeals to you, then there are gospels tailored to such beliefs. If knowledge and gnosis is more appealing, this too can be provided. And if one is into the somewhat more selective, customized versions of faith, there is always the option of assuming that all gospels have their hidden agendas and thus limited credibility, and simply picking and choosing one belief from gospel A, two from gospel B, and so forth and so on.

A notable factor is the availability of the Gospel of Peter to the mainstream public. Even though the gospel was discovered in 1816 and a translation published six years later, it was quickly evident to scholars the gospel was “possibly of overwhelming importance”. And yet it failed to be made available to the general public. [3] Such is the difficulty of confusing well established dogma with new and possibly more credible information. It is not surprising, but does not speak well for religions based on truth and honesty.

One additional website of mention is the Early Christian Writings website [4], which is somewhat more extensive in its links and variety of translations, commentaries, and sources. Meanwhile, New Advent [5] provides an excellent comparative study between the Gospel of Peter and the canonical gospels – as well as including the complete known works of the text (as do several other websites). Interestingly, Google lists 1,900,000 results when searching for the Gospel of Peter . Considering the hundred or so years from the date of its discovery to its availability to the public, this ancient text is clearly on the upswing in terms of interest and importance.



[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities; The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, New York , 2003.

[2] http://www.maplenet.net/~trowbridge/gospet.htm

[3] http://reluctant-messenger.com/gospel-of-peter.htm

[4] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/gospelpeter.html

[5] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1001.htm


The Cathedrals of Northern France

Comparative Religions 

The Lost Gospels

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Mary Magdalen 

Forward to:

The Passion



The Fifth Gospel

Universal Perspectives

The Gospel According to Daniel


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