The Apostles grounded all of their teachings and direction in what God accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Some who came after the Apostles sought to faithfully maintain all they proclaimed. Others would introduce other gospels to justify alternative ideas and doctrines. One such example of a later, apocryphal gospel is the Gospel of Peter.
The Gospel of Peter claimed to have been written by Peter (Gospel of Peter 60), yet early Christians recognized it as pseudepigraphal and written at a later time. Modern scholars do not disagree (Serapion and Eusebius, reported in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.3.12, 6.12). Some scholars claim the Gospel of Peter represents an early stream of Jesus tradition, perhaps from the first century; most, however, perceive the strong influence of the canonical Gospels on the Gospel of Peter, and consider it derivative in nature. Theodoret identified the use of a “Gospel of Peter” among the “Nazareans,” or Ebionites (a sect of Jewish Christians; Heretical Fables 3.2); Origen made a similar association (On Matthew, 10.17). Eusebius reported that Serapion was convinced the author of the Gospel of Peter was docetic (Ecclesiastical History 6.12); the Gospel of Peter spoke of Jesus being “taken up” (19), but also made much of burying His body (3-5, 23-24). While many noted scholars agree with Serapion’s claim of docetic influence, what has been preserved is not sufficient to identify the original author or audience with any degree of confidence.
The Gospel of Peter was sufficiently popular by 190 to lead Serapion of Antioch to write a treatise to the church in Rhossus condemning it as heretical (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12); this condemnation would be repeated by others until the early medieval era. The Gospel of Peter was eventually lost save for a few quotations and references in patristic literature. The Gospel of Peter was the first noncanonical gospel to be re-discovered in the modern era: a manuscript was discovered, neatly buried with a monk of the 8th or 9th century, near Akhmim in Egypt, containing a portion of the Gospel of Peter relating to Jesus’ passion, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
A translation of the discovered portion of the Gospel of Peter can be found online here. What remains began in the middle of Jesus’ trial, this time primarily before Herod, who is the one who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion (Gospel of Peter 1-2). Joseph of Arimathea was then seen as asking for Jesus’ body from Pilate even before the crucifixion (Gospel of Peter 3-4). The people are then shown as mocking Jesus, acting as if they have power over the Son of God; Jesus was then crucified (Gospel of Peter 5-14). The darkness in the midst of the crucifixion was then described in detail (Gospel of Peter 15-18). In the Gospel of Peter, Jesus cried out that His power had forsaken Him, and was then “taken up” (19). The signs surrounding Jesus’ death were further explicated, with the Jewish people seen as rejoicing, and Jesus’ body is brought to Joseph’s tomb, called the “Garden of Joseph” (Gospel of Peter 20-24). Some Jewish people were then portrayed as lamenting their sin and expecting the end of Jerusalem (Gospel of Peter 25); the narrative quickly shifted to Peter and his companions, distressed and in hiding, sought for doing wrong and desiring to burn the Temple (Gospel of Peter 26-27).
The request for soldiers to be stationed at Jesus’ tomb was then described, and the centurion of the guard is identified as “Petronius” (Gospel of Peter 28-34). The soldiers stationed at the last night watch were said to have seen the heavens opened with two radiant men coming down to the tomb; the stone in front of the tomb rolled away by itself, and the young men entered, and came out with another male and a cross following them; a voice was heard from the heavens asking if proclamation was made to those who had fallen asleep, and the cross responded in the affirmative (Gospel of Peter 35-43). The soldiers went to Pilate, told them what happened, and confessed Jesus as God’s Son; Pilate responded that he was clean of the blood of the Son of God; they all agreed to say nothing about what they had seen, choosing to owe the greatest sin before God than to be stoned by the Jewish people (Gospel of Peter 46-48).
The Gospel of Peter then described Mary Magdalene’s visitation to the tomb at the “dawn of the Lord’s day,” explaining that she had not been able to complete the appropriate rites because of the anger of the Jewish people; the narrative consistently followed the canonical Gospels’ accounts except that the “young man” at the tomb claimed Jesus was not only risen but also had returned to the place from which He had been sent (Gospel of Peter 50-57). The surviving portion ended with Peter claiming that all the Apostles returned to their homes in sorrow, and spoke of himself, Andrew, and Levi as fishing (Gospel of Peter 58-60).
We can ascertain many post-apostolic developments attested in the Gospel of Peter. We can perceive the shift toward blaming Herod and the Jewish people more fully for the death of Jesus, and the beginning of the attempts to exonerate Pilate. The story of a cross following Jesus out of the tomb and even speaking is novel and otherwise unattested. The voice (ostensibly of God) asking if proclamation was made to those who had fallen asleep is very much influenced by 1 Peter 3:18-19 and is leading to the “harrowing of hell” speculation which would become popular soon after. The consolidation of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is notable: it would be consistent with docetism, but on its own it is difficult to make much of it. Terminology like “the Lord’s day” betrays the later perspective of the author. If Origen has considered the same Gospel of Peter in its fullest form, it also promoted the perpetual virginity of Mary, claiming Jesus’ brothers were Joseph’s from a previous marriage (Origen, On Matthew, 10.7); another idea which was gaining currency in the second century (cf. the Protoevangelium of James).
The Gospel of Peter, therefore, is an apocryphal gospel. We can understand why it was not seriously considered to be part of the canon. While what has been preserved is not nearly as heretical and digressive as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, or similar Gnostic gospels, we can still perceive how the doctrinal developments of the second century were being “read into” the story of Jesus. False teachings, after all, are much more easily accepted when told as if part of the gospel narrative. We do well to hold firm to the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as revealed in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and trust in the Lord as manifest in them so as to be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry
“The Gospel of Peter“, accessed 03/26/2019
“The Gospel of Peter, translated by Raymond Brown”, accessed 03/26/2019