By Charles Quarles
Skeptics frequently allege that the true story of the real Jesus appears not in the four New Testament Gospels but in other “lost gospels” which were suppressed by the early church. One of these allegedly superior sources is the Gospel of Peter. This article will summarize the contents of the Gospel of Peter, discuss the implications of affirming the reliability of the document, and present compelling evidence that the Gospel of Peter is later and less reliable than the four NT Gospels.
The so-called Gospel of Peter was discussed by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History 3.3.1-4 (early 4th century). Eusebius indicated that the document had been a topic of debate in the church at Rhossus (Ecclesiastical History 6.12.3-6). Although the Bishop of Antioch, Serapion, had initially approved the document for reading in the church of Rhossus, upon more careful examination of its contents he rejected the work. In a letter to the church, Serapion noted that while the document was generally in accord with the NT Gospels, the Docetists had added some elements in support of their false teaching. Serapion wrote about the Gospel of Peter in approximately AD 200 and his discussion which is preserved by Eusebius constitutes the earliest extant reference to the work.
Until the late 1800s, nothing was known of this mysterious gospel apart from the brief mention by Serapion, Eusebius and Origen (Commentary on Matthew 10:17; early 3rd century). However, in excavations at Akhmim Egypt in 1886-87, archaeologists discovered a fragment of a gospel in the coffin of a Christian monk. The Greek fragment consisted of some sixty verses and dated to the eighth or ninth century. Because the final verse of the fragment identifies Simon Peter as the author, most scholars have concluded that this fragment is a portion of the long lost Gospel of Peter.
Scholars are not sure of the extent of the original document. The fragment begins with an allusion to Pilate’s handwashing at the end of Jesus’ trial and breaks off at the beginning of a description of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. This portion of the document was apparently all that was available to the scribe responsible for copying it since ornaments at the beginning and end of his manuscript indicate that the manuscript is complete. This ancient scribe copied all of the gospel that was available to him. On the other hand, Origen claimed that the tradition that Mary’s husband Joseph had children by a previous marriage was preserved either in the Gospel of Peter or the Book of James. This may imply that the Gospel of Peter was much more extensive and included a narrative of Jesus’ birth. However, Origen’s statement may not be helpful in determining the original extent of the document since he seems uncertain about the contents of the Gospel of Peter and since the reference appeared in the alternative source mentioned by Origen, the Protevangelium of James. At the very least, the original gospel would have contained an account of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, resurrection, and at least two post-resurrection appearances to his disciples.
In its present form, the so-called Gospel of Peter begins as the trial of Jesus ends. After Pilate washed his hands in display of his innocence in Jesus’ unjust trial, Joseph of Arimathea asked permission to bury Jesus’ body. In this gospel, the Jews filled the role assigned to the Roman soldiers in the NT Gospels by mocking, spitting on, striking, and scourging Jesus. The author of the Gospel also claimed that the Jews were directly responsible for nailing Jesus to the cross, inscribing the titulus that adorned the cross, and dividing Jesus’ garments. The Jews refused to break Jesus’ legs and hasten his death in hopes of prolonging his agony and intensifying his tortures. The account emphasizes the guilt of the Jews by saying “They fulfilled all things and completed the measure of their sins on their head” (17) and “Then the Jews and the elders and the priests recognized what great evil they had done to themselves and began to grieve and to say ‘Woe on our sins, the judgment and end of Jerusalem is near’” (25).
Several miracles occurred around the time of Jesus’ death and these drove many of the Jews to repent of their role in Jesus’ crucifixion. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil in the temple was torn in two. Later when Jesus’ corpse was removed from the cross and touched the ground, an earthquake occurred. Repentant Jews frightened the scribes, Pharisees, and elders by declaring that Jesus was innocent. The Jewish leaders asked Pilate to authorize a Roman guard to ensure that Jesus’ disciples did not steal the body and stage Jesus’ resurrection. Pilate sent a Roman custodia to guard the tomb. The guard was accompanied by scribes and elders. The group rolled a stone over the tomb, sealed it with seven seals, set up camp at the tomb entrance and began to keep watch. Early in the morning on the Lord’s Day, the heavens opened and two men surrounded by a bright light descended to the tomb. The stone sealing the entrance rolled aside all by itself. The men stepped in to escort Jesus out of the tomb. When they exited the tomb, the men from heaven were so tall that their heads bumped the sky but the resurrected Jesus was so tall that his head reached the heavens. A cross floated out of the tomb behind them. A voice from heaven asked, “Did you preach to those who sleep?” The cross replied, “Yes.”
The soldiers reported the events to Pilate but at the request of the Jewish leaders he commanded the soldiers to say nothing about the events to anyone. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw a young man in a shining robe sitting in the tomb who announced that Jesus had risen. In the next pericope Peter, Andrew, and Levi left the other grieving members of the Twelve to go to the sea and fish. Unfortunately, the text breaks off no sooner than the story is introduced.
John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, which is an organization residing on the theological left, has claimed that the Gospel of Peter was the product of a complex evolution. The earliest layer of the Gospel was a hypothetical source called the “Cross Gospel.” Crossan argued that this early layer served as the only written source for the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. After the production of the NT Gospels, a later editor inserted material from the four Gospels into the Cross Gospel. An even later editor noticed tensions between the original and newer material in this patchwork gospel and polished up the document.
Although Crossan’s theory has convinced few in the scholarly community, one scholar recently claimed “one can expect that all future research on Gos. Pet. will need to begin with a serious consideration of Crossan’s work” (Paul A. Mirecki, “Gospel of Peter,” ABD 5:278-81, esp. 280). If true, Crossan’s theory would have a devastating effect on confidence in the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the four Gospels. According to Crossan’s theory, the sole source for the accounts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in the four Gospels was a document that was already so laced with legend as to be wholly unreliable even before it reached the hands of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The four Gospels would be unreliable adaptations of an unreliable tradition replete with talking floating crosses and a super-sized Jesus whose head bumped the heavens when he walked out of the tomb!
Despite Crossan’s daring claim, the evidence for his theory is very slim. An impressive number of clues suggest that this gospel postdates even the latest New Testament book and belongs to the mid-second century. First, a close analysis of verbal parallels shared by the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the Gospel of Peter postdates Matthew and utilized that Gospel as a source. An example of these parallels is the account of the guard assigned to Jesus’ tomb. Of the four canonical Gospels, only Matthew shares with the Gospel of Peter an account of this event. Both the account in Matthew and the Gospel of Peter refer to the Pharisees gathering before Pilate to express concern about a staged resurrection on the third day. Both accounts refer to the guarding and sealing of the tomb. Both describe the Jews as “the people.” One sustained verbal parallel clearly indicates a definite literary dependence of one document on the other. Both Matthew 27:64 and Gospel of Peter 8:30 contain the precise words “lest his disciple come and steal him.” Crossan argued that the parallel demonstrated Matthew’s dependence on an early form of the Gospel of Peter (the Cross Gospel). However, an examination of the vocabulary, grammar, and style of the two documents strongly favors the dependence of the Gospel of Peter on Matthew. Robert Gundry, one of the most respected experts on issues related to Matthew’s style, called the phrase a “series of Mattheanisms” (Gundry, Matthew [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 584). Similarly, John Meier noted “when it comes to who is dependent on whom, all the signs point to Matthews priority. . . . The clause is a tissue of Matthean vocabulary and style, a vocabulary and style almost totally absent from the rest of the Gospel of Peter” (Meier, Marginal Jews, 1:117). This is consistent with a number of other Matthean features appear in the Gospel of Peter that all point to the dependence of the Gospel of Peter on Matthew.
Second, other features of the Gospel of Peter suggest that the gospel not only postdates Matthew, but even postdates the latest book of the NT canon, the Book of Revelation. For example, although Matthew indicates that the Roman guard sealed the tomb of Jesus, Gospel of Peter 8:33 adds that it was sealed with seven seals. The reference to the seven seals conflicts with the immediate context. Gospel of Peter 8:32-33 states that all the witnesses present sealed the tomb. However, a minimum of nine witnesses were present leading readers to expect at least nine seals. The best explanation for the awkward reference to the seven seals is that the detail was drawn from Revelation 5:1. This allusion to Revelation fits well with the Gospel of Peter 9:35 and 12:50 reference to the day of Jesus’ resurrection as the “Lord’s Day” since this terminology only appears in Revelation in the NT and first in Revelation out of all ancient Christian literature. The reference to the “Lord’s Day” in the Gospel of Peter is a shortened form that appears to be a later development from the original form appearing in Revelation.
Still other features of the Gospel of Peter fit best with the historical data if the Gospel of Peter was produced in the mid-second century. The Gospel of Peter assumes the doctrine of Jesus’ descent into Hades to preach to the dead. However, this doctrine first appears in the words of Justin Martyr around AD 150. The talking cross is a feature of other second-century literature. The Epistula Apostolorum 16 states that during the second coming Jesus will be carried on the wings of the clouds with his cross going on before him. Similarly, the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter 1 describes the returning Christ as coming in a glory seven times as bright as the sun and with his cross going before his face. In a similar fashion, beginning in the late first century, Christian texts describe Christ as possessing gigantic stature. In an allegorical depiction of Jesus’ supremacy and authority over the church, Shepherd of Hermas 83:1 described Christ as of such lofty stature that he stood taller than a tower. 4 Ezra 2:43, a portion of 4 Ezra dating to the middle or late third century, referred to the unusual height of the Son of God. These shared compositional strategies and features make the most sense if these documents and the Gospel of Peter were composed in the same milieu.
This evidence confirms the traditional Christian claim that the four NT Gospels are the most reliable accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, burial, and resurrection. The accounts of crucifixion and resurrection in the four Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony rather than naïve dependence on an unreliable source like the alleged “Cross Gospel.” The Gospel of Peter (and the so-called Cross Gospel) is clearly later than the NT Gospels and is sprinkled throughout with imaginative elements and traces of legend. Although the gospel is helpful for understanding the thought of some sectors of the church in the mid-second century, it is of little value for understanding the details of Jesus’ final days on earth. [For a more detailed discussion, see Quarles, “The Gospel of Peter: Does It Contain a Pre-canonical Resurrection Narrative?” in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue (ed. Robert Stewart; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 106-120].
Charles L. Quarles is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.