Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Peter

Jeremiah’s New Monograph Released Today

Written and Researched in Oxford primarily at the Sackler Library:

95,000 Words Detailing the History of Resurrection Belief in the Judeo-Christian Context

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All four canonical gospels identify the resurrection of Jesus, yet none detail the exact moment of its happening. The absence of this narrative detail was hotly contested in the second century, when critics derided a resurrection account without credible witness. Thus, the discovery of the Akhmim fragment at the end of the 19th century, which purports to provide exactly that detail, is a huge and surprisingly under-utilised addition to Biblical scholarship of the Apocryphal gospels. Johnston examines both the impact of this discovery on the scholarship at the time, and argues for the dating of the fragment to the second century AD. He identifies shared characteristics with other documents from this period, including a rise in anti-semitic feeling, and developments in concepts of the afterlife, and makes a claim for this fragment being the text that aided the development of these movements.

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The Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Peter: A Tradition-Historical Study of the Akhmîm Gospel Fragment 

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Professor Jim Charlesworth and Dr. Jeremiah J. Johnston – SBL 2015 – Atlanta

SERIES EDITOR’S PREFACE – by Professor Jim Charlesworth (Princeton)

In my The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the New Testament: A Guide to Publications (1987) I drew attention to 104 gospels, epistles, acts, and apocalypses that should be included in a full edition of the New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Some of them clearly antedate the latest composition in the canonical New Testament, and many, like the Gospel of Peter, claim to be an improved record of historical events related to Jesus from Nazareth.

The Gospel of Peter, which all scholars agree appeared as a work in the second century CE, is a stunning and rather unique document. It presents a cross that speaks, a novel feature that is investigated in J. D. Crossan’s The Cross that Spoke (1988). Crossan claimed that the Gospel of Peter 5:15–6:21 is “independent of the New Testament gospels,” a conclusion with which many scholars do not agree. In 2004, T. J. Kraus and T. Nicklas focused on and drew attention to the Greek fragments in Das Petrusevangelium und die Petrusapokalypse.

Naturally, most critics will dismiss as mythological the depiction of a cross that walks and talks. But the narrative may draw attention to the historicity and early dimensions of the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. None of these evangelists explains how Jesus was resur- rected by God. Matthew adds that an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and mentions an earthquake (28:2). But, readers of the New Testament gospel will ask: “What actually happened and did anyone witness it?” Most importantly, we are told that a resurrected Jesus appeared to his chosen disciples and also to one who first hated him, namely, Saul.

What should our judgment be when the apocryphal works provide names for the anonymous characters in the canonical gospels? For example, is the naming of the one who guarded Jesus’ tomb, Petronius, according to the Gospel of Peter 8:31 historical or legendary? Can it be considered authentic, as supplying the name “Malchus” for the one whose ear was severed by Peter according to the author or editor of the Gospel  of John (18:10). Or, are all such “additions” legendary and reflective of the need for more precise details as the naming of the two malefactors who were crucified with Jesus, namely Dysmas and Gestas. Likewise,  the apocryphal gospels report that Longinus is the name of the man who pierced Jesus’ side. These details are supplied in, but are not original to, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and Acts of Pilate. Early Christians read Jesus’ narrative and were curious as to the names of those who were anonymous in the canonical gospels. Thus, these details supply glimpses into early Church history and not into Jesus’ history. Careful study of these extracanonical materials raises a number of questions and at the same time suggests scenarios in which we may imagine early Christians wrestling with the meaning of the extraordinary event that brought the Christian Church into being.

I am pleased to publish Jeremiah J. Johnston’s careful and erudite study of Jesus’ resurrection according to the author of and traditions preserved in the Gospel of Peter. This stunning composition helps us comprehend the long historical process of debating and vetting what will be called “the New Testament.” The collection evolved within a world of polemics. Eventually the four canonical gospels became dominant; and this is clear in P.Egerton 2, Papyrus 45, and Irenaeus. These works date to the late second century CE.

Scholars may now confront the claim that the author of the Gospel of Peter presents an apologetic version of Matthew. (I would add that 14:59–60 is dependent on John 21). They may also contemplate the identification of the Akhmim Codex Greek fragment as “probably” an “excerpt” from the Gospel of Peter known to Bishop Serapion (ca. 200). Scholars need to recall that no excerpt from the Gospel of Peter is found in Patristics, so we cannot compare excerpts; moreover, P.Oxyrhynchus 2949 and 4009 do not seem to preserve the Gospel of Peter. Jeremiah Johnston demonstrates, conclusively, that “the Akhmîm gospel fragment finds its place in the ongoing cut and thrust of second-century polemic and apologetic centred on early Christianity’s proclamation of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.” Dr. Johnston lays a solid foundation for future discussions of the origin and importance of the Gospel of Peter. Particularly salutary is the refinement of methodology for comparing texts of uncertain date and provenience. Scholars will be able to apply  Dr. Johnston’s methods to other important, but undated, literature.

I appreciate Professor Evans’ insight that we must not jettison this apocryphal gospel as “heretical”; for example, the Gospel of Peter is not docetic. It is indeed a marvelously crafted apologetic masterpiece that reflects one of the heights of second-century creative literature. In some ways, it is an ancient novel like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and Joseph and Aseneth, which is probably a Jewish composition that heralds Joseph as “the son of God.”

The second century was not as important as the first, in which John the Baptizer, Jesus, James, Paul, and Peter lived, but it significantly defined the canon (with the challenge of Marcion, the emergence of Gnosticism, and the process of editing our traditions and even the gospels, notably  the Gospel of John that eventually included 7:53–8:11). “Orthodoxy” and “heresy” are anachronisms in the early decades of Christianity, but they clearly are adumbrated in the Johannine Epistles. Hence, the so-called Apocryphal New Testament highlights the importance and the character of our New Testament gospels. Dr. Johnston’s learned work makes a significant contribution to a field of study that a growing number of scholars now view as mainstream New Testament research.

James H. Charlesworth

Princeton

Easter 2015

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