Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Is the Gospel of Peter Docetic?

For translations of all of the patristic citations and papyri fragments associated with the Gospel of Peter see the site Text Excavation.

Eusebius mentions Gos. Peter on three occasions (Hist. Eccl. 3.3.2; 3.25.6-7; 6.12.1-6) and on the third he records that about the year 200 Bishop Serapion of Antioch prohibited the reading of the Gospel of Peter in nearby Rhossus, a city of Syria lying northwest of Antioch. On a former visitation to that church he had allowed the congregation there to read the Gospel of Peter (a work till then unknown to him) in its services. Afterwards however, when heresy broke out in Rhossus some appealed to the Gospel of Peter in support of Docetism. Serapion then scrutinized the document and, finding some parts of it to be unorthodox, he rejected it as a forgery.

The text which Serapion refers to is probably to be identified with the Akhmim fragment. (But for a more careful opinion see Paul Foster, ‘Are there any Early Fragments of the So-Called Gospel of Peter?’ NTS 52 [2006]: 1-28). A translation is available on the above site or try the one at Gospel Net.

Is the Akhmim fragment/Gospel of Peter docetic? Have a look at 4.10; 5.19.

There are several verses that are often thought to support a docetic interpretation. The comment that during the crucifixion ‘he kept silent as though he had no pain’ (Gos. Pet. 4.10) could imply an absence of physical suffering or valiant heroism. Just before he dies the Petrine Jesus cries out, ‘my power, my power, why have you forsaken me’ (Gos. Pet. 5.19) which might signify the departure of the Logos, divine aeon, or Christ-Spirit from Jesus upon his death. Alternatively, ‘power’ (dunami) could be a circumlocution for the divine name (e.g. ‘The Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ in Mk. 14.62, Mt. 26.64; cf. ‘power of God’ added in Lk. 22.69) and is an alternative citation of Ps. 22.1-2. The statement here is no more docetic than Mk. 5.30 where Mark reports that ‘Jesus knew in himself that the power proceeding from him had gone out from him’. The same is perhaps true of the following phrase where it states ‘and after saying this he was taken up’. This could conceivably mean a variety of things including the separation of a heavenly being from the man Jesus at the cross, a confusing reference to an ascension of Jesus’ Spirit at the cross, or merely exclaiming that Jesus died and went to be with the Father somewhat akin to the Lucan Jesus’ prayer: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk. 23.46). If one were concocting an explicitly docetic and/or gnostic interpretation of Jesus’ death then something akin to the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter would be more appropriate. There Peter witnesses Jesus ‘seemingly’ being seized to be crucified and he then looks upon the cross and observes the ‘living Jesus’ above the cross laughing, on the cross is someone else a ‘substitute being put to shame who came into being in his likeness’, and the ‘Saviour’ explaining the events of the cross to Peter (Apoc. Pet. 81). In retrospect, the Gospel of Peter is not explicitly docetic but it was obviously congenial to a docetic interpretation given its use by Docetists in Rhossus and Serapion himself claimed no more than this. The author(s) may have docetic sympathies or consciously embedded docetic features in the document in deliberately cryptic fashion, but this element is clearly subdued and does not dominate the text. Another possibility is that the docetic elements represent a later gloss.

If the Gospel of Peter is not explicitly docetic it may not be as sectarian as many scholars suppose and it may have been written to be read alongside (or in lieu of) the canonical Gospels.


Alan S. Bandy said...

fascinating post Michael.

Peter M. Head said...

I tend to agree. More of a popularisation than a heretical document. Cf. P.M. Head, ‘On the Christology of the Gospel of Peter’ Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 209–224.