In 1886–1887 French archaeologists working in Akhmîm, Egypt came across a codex containing a fragmentary gospel in which the disciple Peter speaks in the first person. This gospel would subsequently be identified as the Gospel of Peter. The manuscript, known as the Akhmîm Codex, was found in a grave and contains parts of three other texts: the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Enoch, and the Martyrdom of Saint Julian. Although the manuscript itself shows no signs of being incomplete, the text of the Gospel of Peter begins and ends mid-sentence. For that reason, it appears that the sixth or seventh century scribe who copied the gospel into the codex did so from a fragment of a larger text.
What is in the Gospel of Peter? How does the Gospel of Peter compare to the canonical gospels?
The text of the Gospel of Peter begins mid-sentence during the trial of Jesus before Herod. Many elements of the passion narratives that are familiar from the canonical gospels follow: a mock coronation, Jesus’s crucifixion between two criminals, and Jesus’s body being placed in a guarded grave. Then comes a detailed narration of Jesus’s resurrection, an element not present in the canonical gospels. On the morning of the resurrection, two figures descend from the skies into the tomb. They reemerge as giants flanking a third figure, along with a cross that follows them out of the tomb. A voice from the sky then asks if Jesus has “preached to those who are asleep” to which the cross answers “Yes.” The text then returns to the more familiar account of the women, led by Mary Magdalene, going to the gravesite only to find it empty. The narrative ends mid-sentence as Peter, Andrew, and Levi set up their fishing nets.
While the narrative framework of the Gospel of Peter is similar to parallel sections of the canonical gospels, there are numerous differences in details. For example, in the canonical gospels it is Pilate who condemned Jesus to death, whereas that role is played by Herod in the Gospel of Peter. Even where there are similarities between the Gospel of Peter and one or more of the canonical gospels, there are very few verbatim agreements.
The mix of similarities and differences raises the question of the relationship between these texts. Are some or all of the canonical gospels used as sources for the Gospel of Peter in a way similar to Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark? Did the author of the Gospel of Peter compose a gospel independently of the canonical gospels, drawing only on oral traditions? Could the Gospel of Peter, or some version of it, be older than some of the canonical gospels? While debates continue, recent scholarship prefers a mid-second century CE date for the original Gospel of Peter. There is less consensus, however, on whether the author of the Gospel of Peter had direct knowledge of any of the canonical gospels.
Why is the Gospel of Peter significant?
The first known reference to a gospel attributed to Peter occurs in a second-century letter written by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch. In this letter, Serapion responds to questions from Christians in Rhossus about a gospel by Peter. Without knowing much about the text, Serapion initially affirmed the gospel’s authority because of its ties to one of the apostles. Later, after finding out that the text was used by docetists (a rival group who believed that Christ was pure spirit, not a human named Jesus, and that therefore Christ did not suffer), Serapion decided that he would no longer encourage Christians to read the text.
For much of Christian history, a gospel by Peter was only known from Serapion and other early Christian references. The discovery of the Akhmîm Codex, however, confirmed that such a gospel did, in fact, exist, even if only a fragment survives. The existence of the Gospel of Peter, and Serapion’s tentative response to the question of its authority, speaks to the fluidity of gospel traditions in early Christianity and suggests that attitudes about what was considered scripture were still quite open in the mid to late second century CE. It also gives insight into the diversity of beliefs in early Christianity: the emphasis on the resurrection in the Gospel of Peter suggests that at least some Christians in the second century CE were perhaps even more drawn to the hope of the new resurrection than the narration of Jesus’s death and suffering.
Zoe Grout, Kathleen Arbogast, Rubén R. Dupertuis , "Gospel of Peter", n.p. [cited 16 Aug 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/main-articles/gospel-of-peter
Zoe Grout (Class of 2022) is from Houston, TX. She is currently an English major, with minors in Religion and Geosciences at Trinity University.
Kathleen Arbogast (Class of 2021) is from Austin, TX and majored in Religion and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Trinity University.
Rubén R. Dupertuis is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Trinity University. His research interests include early Christian narrative, with a special interest in the Acts of the Apostles, The Gospel of Peter, education in the Greco-Roman world, and the role of the Bible in American popular culture. He currently coleads the Roman World Lab, a research lab featuring undergraduate research.