Gospel of Peter's relationship to the canonical gospels


I earlier presented thoughts on the possibility that both the gospels of Peter and Mark were based on an earlier gospel story that was closer to what we find in the former than the latter, and that our Mark was possibly composed as a reaction against the implicit theology of that gospel. I further suggested that Matthew and Luke could be read as partial attempts to reconcile some elements of that earlier gospel and Mark. In further study of this possibility I finally revised my thoughts to the point of reversing them. I list here reasons for seeing the Gospel of Peter (GP) as a mutation from the canonical gospels (CGs) with no need to hypothesize an earlier gospel story for either.


Basic to my earlier view that the GP was based on a plot prior to Mark was its greater simplicity. It spoke of only one trial and did not allow for a Judas betrayal and contrasted this with the more sophisticated complexity of Mark’s two trials and divisions among the Twelve. Was Mark following a Pauline-like theology of equalizing the guilt of Jew and gentile as well as opposing a (Jewish-Christian?) reliance on the integrity of the original Twelve? But a closer look at the evidence exposed problems.


While studies have been published pointing to the GP’s apparent harmonizations of certain phrases from across the CGs (e.g. Alan Kirk’s ‘Examining Priorities: another look at the Gospel of Peter’s relationship to the New Testament gospels’ NTS, 40, 572-595) these fail to address adequately the GP’s significant variations (the Jews pushing Jesus, Joseph a friend of Pilate, the earth quaking as Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, the disciples being hunted as potential pyromaniacs, etc.) that appear to bear no relationship at all with the CGs.


I was helped to arrive at the following by compiling comparative tables to enable me to see the bigger picture more easily: Comparative table of the Gospel of Peter and the canonical gospels and Justin’s gospel narrative compared with early gospels.



Evidence that the GP is later than the canonical gospels


In my earlier thoughts I spoke only of the GP being possibly derived from an earlier gospel account because I was not confident it could be claimed that the GP itself as we know it could be dated prior to the CGs.










Explaining the GP as a mutation from the canonical gospels


Common DNA

Despite differences in story elements the GP significantly shares with the CGs the same source pool for its story elements. Both the GP and CGs draw on OT scriptures to shape their respective stories. One of the reasons I earlier suspected the GP of being earlier than the CGs was that it relies even more heavily on OT allusions than the CGs. But on further reflection that sort of evidence would appear more likely to indicate a later development from the CGs. The CGs appear to demonstrate a growing interest over time in searching out more nuggets from the OT to cleverly include in their passion narratives (PN). It may be significant that the author of Mark does not intrude in his PN to draw the readers’ attention to the OT allusions underlying his rhetoric but that the later gospels do. The GP finds itself in the company of the later gospels (Matthew, John and Luke) rather than Mark in this. (Mark’s 15:28 is a later interpolation.) The GP’s author also proudly draws the readers’ attention to how cleverly he is utilizing, pesher-like, OT passages to inspire his story. (See the red text in my comparative table.)


A Classic Illustration

If we accept that Mark drew on the Roman triumph to tell the story of Jesus from the time of Pilate’s sentence to his death as a mock-triumph, we may have a partial explanation for why the GP appears to have replaced these elements with others drawn exclusively from OT passages and bears no similarity with the CGs here. In Mark’s gospel the Romans dragoon Simon a Cyrenian to carry Jesus’ cross. This is suggestive of the sacrificial victim in a Roman triumph being accompanied by its executioner carrying the instrument of its execution. A fourth century novel describes this executioner as typically being “from the country”. Simon was coming “from the country” when he was taken for this role. I know of no reference to any OT passage being drawn for this procession to the cross as found in the synoptic gospels. We do know, however, that the author of John’s gospel regarded the scene as dispensable in the interests of theological correctness and wrote instead of Jesus carrying his own cross.


Compare the GP. It has been widely assumed that the GP has no procession to the cross scene at all but I think this view fails to understand an otherwise most strange and relatively crude scene in the GP (3.6) that speaks of the Jews “pushing” Jesus as they surround him and run, forcing or pushing him along with them. But does not this image replace the Roman procession with an exclusively Jewish one drawn straight from the OT, from Psalm 118:12-13 specifically, that speaks of the psalmist being surrounded and pushed violently. And where are they running to, if it is not to the place of execution? This GP “procession” scene, if that is what it is, comes prior to the mocking of Jesus, not after it as in the CGs, and this may account for why it has not been readily recognized as such. Such reordering of the narrative is a regular feature of anyone re-writing the gospel story. Compare Matthew and Luke’s (and possibly John’s) reordering of Markan material, and certainly John’s reordering of the “temple-cleansing” scene from the end to the beginning of the gospel story.


If this is what the author of the GP has done then its pushing scene is no longer so crude or strange. It culminates in the arrival at the place of final mockery and execution. That a judgement throne is found for Jesus here is no more strange than that the Jews just happened to have a crown of thorns and a purple robe handy. The mockery by the Jews is fleshed out with added details from the OT not found in the CGs. Someone ‘pierces’ Jesus with a reed (Zc.12:10) and they scoff “Let us honour the Son of God with this honour” (Ps.8:5). Compare the less imaginative CG Roman mocking which is essentially a doublet of the earlier mocking at the hands of the Sanhedrin.


Redundant Limbs?

Another new OT detail that emerges in the GP is the mock exaltation of God’s servant (Isa.52:13) by raising up of Jesus high. And when it turns dark at noonday how could any author omit to remind readers that the people ‘stumbled as at noonday’ (GP 5.18) as per Is.59:10 once they had known of it? Why would later authors omit such wonderful details – especially since they were consciously drawing their readers’ attention to the fulfilment of such prophecies? Surely these are other small suggestions of the priority of the CGs.


A more mundane classic feature

Matthew adds the detail to Mark’s original that the soldiers sent to watch the tomb (sparsely) ‘sealed it’. GP tells us of the soldiers sealing it “with seven seals” and then pitching a tent in front as they begin their watch. Notwithstanding my caveat regarding comparative lengths of pericopes above it is difficult to see such increasingly elaborate details as this being anything other than a subsequent development – in this case that the GP account is a later elaboration of Matthew’s.



No need for a pre-Petrine core story


The K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, Stupid) principle?

The PN plot of the GP is decidedly simpler than the one in the CGs. This can most adequately be explained by reference to conditions other than my initial theoretical trajectory of an evolution from simple to complex literature. If Mark began the gospel story tradition as an anti-Twelve tract we see his later revisers working diligently to redeem them. Matthew’s Jesus most notably declares Peter the earthly rock of the church. Could not the GP be seen as an even later and fuller evolution of this trend to redeem the Twelve by finally removing both the betrayer Judas and the denier Peter? The surviving fragment of the GP suggests that there is no Judas betrayal (the Twelve are still together after Jesus’ crucifixion) and there is no hint that Peter has been guilty of any betrayal. The GP’s Peter mourns only for the fate of Jesus, not for any of his own failings.


There is wide acceptance that the CGs demonstrate a tendency to increasingly shift blame for the crucifixion away from the Romans and more on to the Jews. Pilate’s innocence is made more apparent step by step (Matthew’s Pilate “marvels greatly” at Jesus as his wife warns him of his innocence from a dream; Luke’s Pilate pronounces Jesus innocent; and John’s almost begins a discourse with Jesus on the nature of truth) until Pilate is eventually himself canonized in later history. GP’s Pilate does not sit with the ungodly Jews when he sees their guilt (c.f. GP 1:1 with Ps.26:4-6). It appears that the removal of a Pilate trial of Jesus could most appropriately be seen as a further natural step in the exoneration of Pilate and the tendency to place full responsibility for the death of “the Lord” on the Jews. (Recall GP always refers to Jesus as “the Lord”. Is this another indicator of it belonging to time later than the CGs?)



The reason I had resisted this notion earlier was because the GP is not in my view necessarily anti-semitic, as I explained above. A second look indicates that the pro-Jewish passages are less “pro-Jewish” than they are “pro-OT-fulfilment’. The Jews in the GP know their sin and the penalty about to befall them, and that they are deserving of what is to come. In their remorseful mourning over their sin they are pronouncing condemnation on themselves by identifying all the more completely with the OT prophecies “foretelling” their sorry plight – mourning tearfully, knowing their sin, and the inevitability and justice of their imminent punishment. Compare Mark’s portrayal of Peter’s tears over his denial, and how this does not undo the foretold fate of one who denies Jesus is to be denied by Jesus; and Luke’s Jesus telling the crowd to weep for themselves since they will soon be destroyed for what they are doing. Nevertheless it is true that the Jewish public is kept in ignorance of the fact of the resurrection by their leaders, and if they knew the truth they would turn against their leaders, so the author of the GP appears to have left room open for future repentance by some of the Jews while savaging most forcefully their leaders.


Bad guys win, nice guys lose

If Mark’s gospel was the original his story of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial ultimately proved indelible keystones in the story despite later attempts to redeem the disciples. The GP might be seen as appearing to make a valiant effort to fully redeem them by expunging completely such damning accounts but in this it could not ultimately compete for the command of the popular psyches that latched on to such personifications of the perfidious Jew (Judas) and well-intentioned but flawed disciple (Peter).



So while the GP story is simpler – the Twelve stay united and there is no complicating Roman trial – this fact can adequately be explained by reading it along the same trajectories as we see the other post-Markan gospels moving. It furthers (perhaps even culminates) the trend to restore the Twelve and shift full responsibility on to the Jews (whether that is done as an expression of anti-semitisim or not). There is no need to resort to postulating the existence of a story for which we have no other evidence.


Explanatory Power

Seen this way, the other GP oddities quickly fall into place. Since the Roman trial and any allusion to a Roman triumph has been removed, Joseph is unable to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus after the death of Jesus since he has been long since been handed over to the full control of Herod and the Jews by then. He has to ask Pilate in advance of Jesus’ death, just prior to this handing over. Since the Simon Cyrenian detail is dependent upon the Roman involvement in the crucifixion it also had to be removed and replaced by an OT based anecdote of the Jews pushing Jesus to the place of execution. The GP’s thief castigating the crowd for mocking Jesus looks very much like a literary growth in the way of highlighting the crowd’s guilt. The mob’s decision not to break Jesus’ legs is portrayed as another sign of Jewish viciousness against their saviour – surely a welcome opportunity that fell into the author’s mind when he had to remove the Romans from this potential task.



The place of GP among the early gospels?


Justin Martyr’s gospel narrative details do not fully match either the CGs or the GP. But Justin does seem to be mindful of many details that we do find in the GP and that are not in the CGs. A similar point can be made for Justin’s apparent knowledge of the Protevengelium of James. Was this an indication of the emerging persuasiveness of the authored “gospel memoir” over anonymous scripts? Justin does once mention in passing that Peter is an author of one of his “memoirs of the apostles.” If he did indeed know of our CGs (he almost certainly knew nothing of our Acts) he seems not to have quite known what to do with them. Bellinzoni and Koester argue that Justin knew a gospel harmony. If one accepts that, then it seems odd that such would exist before any other references to the gospels on which it was based, not to mention it’s apparent frequent inferiority to gospels like those apparently penned by James and Peter. If Justin’s quotations of the sayings of Jesus are indeed from a gospel harmony then a simpler solution would be that the writings we have under Justin’s name were in fact written, at the earliest, in the later time of Tatian’s Diatessaron. It would certainly not be surprising for a later author to write under the name of an earlier hero. (Further, the Diatessaron that we have evidence for today is almost certainly so heavily redacted since the original that we no longer have any way of knowing the exact form of the original.) But a later Justin may only be of interest to those who postulate the origin of the gospels as much later than the first century to give time for the GP and its story elements to emerge as the dominant form for Justin.


Was it the growing popularity of the ‘named-authored’ gospels (of James and Peter in Justin’s case) that led to the need to attribute authorial legends to the original anonymous gospels?


Why did the GP not make it into our canon? Without the full text that is of course an impossible question to answer completely or with little more than speculation. The later legend of it being docetic is not borne out by the evidence of the manuscript we do have available to us (McCant). But the distinctive resurrection scene in the GP does have certain features that may not have sat with a possibly competing view of eschatology. Was it not problematic to have the heavens opening with voices calling from beyond them and all those responsible for the piercing of Jesus, along with gentiles, standing there and witnessing the resurrection. Was that at odds with the teaching that such a scene more properly belonged to the return of Christ at time of final judgment? Or was an “signed” gospel as opposed to an anonymous one too likely to take on an authority and life of its own that would prove less easy to control?



Neil Godfrey