Monday, September 06, 2010

Paul Foster: The Gospel of Peter - 2

4. According to Eusebius, in the late second century, Serapion, the bishop of Antioch, forbade a congregation in Rhossos from using the Gospel of Peter because it was conducive to docetic interpretation. Does the Gospel of Peter as attested by the Akhmim Codex have a docetic christology?

Once again, this is a question that occupied research on the Gospel of Peter since its initial publication in 1892. The reason for this is that scholars were guided (or perhaps misguided) by Eusebius’ comments. Eusebius cites Serapion (bishop of Antioch) who writes the following statement to the Christian community at Rhossos about the Gospel of Peter:

'For I myself, when I came among you, imagined that all of you clung to the true faith; and without going through the Gospel put forward by them in the name of Peter, I said, “If this is the only thing that seemingly causes captious feelings among you, let it be read.” But since I have now learnt, from what has been told me, that their mind was lurking in some hole of heresy, I shall give diligence to come quickly to you; wherefore brothers expect me to come quickly. But we, brothers, gathering to what kind of heresy Marcianus belonged (who used to contradict himself, not knowing what he was saying, as you will learn from what has been written to you), were enabled by others who studied this very Gospel, that is, by the successors of those who began it, whom we call Docetae (for most of the ideas belong to their teaching) – using [the material supplied] by them, were enabled to go through it and discover that the most part indeed was in accordance with the true teaching of the Saviour, but that some things were added, which also we place below for your benefit.’ Such are the writings of Serapion.' (Eusebius, H.E. 6.12.2-6).

It is instructive to note exactly what Eusebius reports Serapion as saying. Not that the Gospel of Peter itself was Docetic, but that the successors of Marcianus added certain things to this text to make it align with their Docetic tendencies. Serapion tells his readers that he will list those Docetic additions, but unfortunately Eusebius does not continue his citation of Serapion’s treatise, so modern readers are left in the dark about the specific contents.

The first generation of scholars to work on the Gospel of Peter read Eusebius citation of Serapion as saying the Gospel of Peter itself was Docetic. Thus, they looked for Docetic elements in the text. Swete, under the influence of this patristic description, catalogued what he saw as the self-evident docetic features of the text. He listed five examples.

1. The Lord’s freedom from pain at the moment of crucifixion.
2. His desertion by His ‘Power’ at the moment of Death.
3. The representation of His Death as analēpsis, ‘ascension’.
4. The supernatural height of the Angels and especially the Risen Christ.
5. The personification of the Cross.

Such a perspective on the docetic character of the text continued to be reiterated at the commencement of the more recent phase of research, albeit with recognition of the multifaceted nature of docetism and the ambiguous nature of the textual evidence in the Gospel of Peter (Mara, 1973: 107-111; Denker, 1975, 1975: 111-125). This position was challenged by McCant focusing in particular on the first three of Swete’s five points, since these had been the ‘stock-examples’ used to establish the case for the text being docetic (McCant, 1984: 258-273). The text on which the first point was based, ‘he remained silent as one having no pain’ (Gos. Pet. 4.10b), is seen as part of the silence motif of the Gospel of Peter which is not necessarily underpinned by docetic concerns. McCant states, ‘[n]othing in his sources or redactional activity indicates any motivation for negating pain in the Lord’s experience, although GP 4.10b remains ambiguous and neither affirms nor denies the experience of pain.’ (McCant, 1984: 262). The parallel contained in the Martyrdom of Polycarp is perhaps of great importance not only because of the close similarity in terminology, but because it portrays the noble and heroic character of those who suffer obvious pain in silence. Upon being pushed out of the wagon that has transported him to the stadium for martyrdom, Polycarp injures his shin. Yet he does not acknowledge such a wound, rather he walks as one ‘whom nothing had hurt’. Similarly the other supposed examples of Docetism have been considered to be far from compelling in modern research.

5. What does the Gospel of Peter tell us about growing interest in the figure of Peter in the early church?

At one level – very little! Peter hardly surfaces in the surviving portion of the Akhmîm narrative. He is only explicitly named in the final verse of the text, which states, ‘I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew took our nets and went to the sea’ (Gos. Pet. 14.60). However, when this text is seen alongside the burgeoning literature that circulates in Peter’s name in the second century and beyond, it becomes possible to perceive a wider phenomenon at work. The range of texts encompasses Apocalypses, Acts, Preachings (kerygmatic texts), and Epistles. The Gospel of Peter stands as part of a larger literary tendency where texts are generated around Peter as a central protagonist or the authority behind the text written often in his name. In many ways this is unsurprising, and reflects the phenomenon of pseudepigraphical literature, which is widely attested in contemporary ancient literature and beyond. This body of Petrine literature amply illustrates the ongoing production of texts either centred on Peter or written in his name. This growth is consonant with the increasing prestige that Peter enjoyed as a primary source of authority and with his link with the Roman see.

6. What is unique about the resurrection account in the Gospel of Peter?

How about a ‘walking talking cross’ for a start! Miraculous elements are heightened, the security measures placed at the tomb are emphasized and specific details absent from canonical accounts are introduced into the story. In many ways the narrative answers the questions of the pious, and it was designed to be used as an apologetic tool that shows the impossibility of the disciples stealing the body of Jesus. Perhaps the best thing is to give readers a flavour of the text by citing the resurrection scene:

34. Now when the morning of the Sabbath dawned a crowd came from Jerusalem and the surrounding region that they might see the tomb which had been sealed. 35. But during the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, while the soldiers were guarding two by two according to post, there was a great voice in the sky. 36. And they saw the heavens were being opened, and two men descended from there, having much brightness, and they drew near to the tomb. 37. But that stone which had been placed at the entrance rolled away by itself and made way in part and the tomb was opened and both the young men went in. 38. Then those soldiers seeing it awoke the centurion and the elders, for they were present also keeping guard. 39. While they were reporting what they had seen, again they saw coming out from the tomb three men, and the two were supporting the one, and a cross following them. 40. And the head of the two reached as far as heaven, but that of the one being led by them surpassed the heavens. 41. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, ‘Have you preached to those who sleep?’ 42. And a response was heard from the cross, ‘Yes.’

7. Where is the actual Akhmim codex at the moment and what would it be worth it anyone could find it?

This is another question of fundamental importance. In the early 1980s the manuscript was photographed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo. These excellent images were taken by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen and are available online.

It appears that at some stage the manuscript was moved to the Alexandria Library. I have made numerous attempts to ascertain the current whereabouts of the manuscript. In June of this year a colleague, Prof. Dr. Johannes van Oort (Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen & University of Pretoria), wrote to me making the following statement:

“Between June 12–20 I did my utmost in Alexandria to see the Gospel of Peter manuscript, but without any real success. According to all my information, the manuscript is not in Cairo (neither in the Egyptian Museum, nor in the Coptic Museum, or in any of the other ones). Also, I have an explicit statement that it is not in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. All my indications are that it should be in the Alexandria Library and during a week I visited this location every day. The people there looked in their treasures, but until now they could not find the manuscript.”

As to whether it would be worth finding the manuscript, of course. Apart from being able to conduct a fuller codicological analysis to assess the technology used in the books construction, with improved imaging techniques problematic readings might be clarified.

Why the manuscript went missing is unknown – an accident, an oversight, sequestered, sold – nobody appears to have firm information since the last set of photographs were made.

8. Why should people be interested in the Gospel of Peter?

An excellent question! The text provides a highly informative and interesting window into the way gospel traditions developed and were expanded in the second half of the second century. It also reflects the concerns and beliefs of at least one community of believers in that period. Anybody interested in the study of Christian origins, the transmission of gospel traditions, or the life and piety of second century Christians will be richly rewarded by reading this fascinating gospel text.


Michael Barber said...

Awesome stuff! Thanks for this post!

Tim said...

Thanks much for posting this interview. I completed my dissertation on the Gospel of Peter early this year and have dialogued with Dr. Foster on a few occasions. We wrote our works independently of one another, but the more I hear about his commentary, the more it sounds like we've reached many of the same conclusions. Some of the statements in the book's blurb sound eerily similar to ones I made in my own work. I'm very excited to read his final product and am thankful that it's finally being published. He has waited a long time to have this see the light of day.

My dissertation is currently under review by a publisher, so I might have more details on my own work being published soon. Anyone interested more in the Gospel of Peter can check out my blog: