Gospel of Peter & Early Christian Apologetics: Rewriting the Story of Jesus’ Death, Burial & Resurrection

Timothy P. Henderson examines the apologetic and polemical characteristics of the Gospel of Peter and demonstrates that this early Christian text was composed by reworking material from the New Testament gospels. He suggests that the category of Second Temple Jewish writings known as “Rewritten Bible” provides the best analogy for understanding the literary relationship between the Gospel of Peter and the canonical texts.

An important feature of this study is its investigation of the ways in which certain criticisms and claims from those outside the Christian movement, including both Jews and Gentiles, played a formative role in the composition of the Gospel of Peter and led its author to alter details from previous accounts in an attempt to provide a more compelling demonstration of Christian claims. Henderson also surveys many parallels from other early Christian literature in order to establish more clearly the apologetic traits of this fascinating gospel.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Gospel of Peter & Early Christian Apologetics: Rewriting the Story of Jesus’ Death, Burial & Resurrection

  1. Review

    Book Review: Henderson, Timothy P. The Gospel of Peter and Early Christian Apologetics: Rewriting the Story of Jesus’ Death, Burial and Resurrection; Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen Germany, 2011; ISBN 978-3-16-150709-0; 258 pp.

    Interactions and contacts between the members of the various religions in the world today tend to feature three approaches in relation to their beliefs and practices. These three are often labelled positive, negative and neutral, but in the context of religions, they are usually displayed as [1] an apologetical defence of the devotees’ own theistic-based beliefs, [2] an often antagonistic hostility and polemical attitude displayed towards the theistic-based beliefs and practices of adherents of other religions and [3] an academic analysis and examination of a religion from an open-minded and open-ended perspective.

    Discovery of Gospel in a burial place

    The first two attitudes are presented by Timothy Henderson as strong motivating factors in the composition and content of the non-canonical Gospel of Peter. This Gospel was thought to have been written some-time between 150-180 C.E. in the area of Syria (p.42) and it presents the Apostle Peter as the narrator of this Gospel. Fortunately, it was buried in a tomb at Panopolis (later called Akhmim) in Egypt and a section of it was discovered in this tomb by a French Archaeological Mission at Cairo in the winter of 1886-87. This segment included the trial, death, crucifixion, burial and the verbally-depicted resurrection of Jesus and this “Akhmim manuscript is now officially catalogued as P.Car. 10759 (p.13).

    Henderson submitted this dissertation to Marquette University in 2010 and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy. This version has been “lightly revised” and published as documented above. He has been Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary since 2006 and is also currently Adjunct Professor at Concordia University at St Paul Minnesota.

    Apologetics and Polemics

    The author’s preliminary examination of this Gospel of Peter led him to view its text as “Rewritten Bible” (p.2) and his analysis of the text has focussed on the editorial and compositional work of the Gospel’s author, who was writing in the name of Peter. This redaction-critical approach and analysis has consequently exposed the apologetical or defensive expression of the Jesus stories and the vehemently antagonistic hostility directed at the Jewish people and the Jewish leader for their execution of Jesus.

    This hostile attitude to the Jews is counter-balanced by the defence and exoneration of the Romans and Pontius Pilate. Consequently, the pattern of the exacerbation of the involvement and guilt of the Jews and of the emphatic exoneration of the Romans in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, features prominently throughout this book and forms its main line of argument.

    The actual historical status of this Gospel of Peter has been the subject of continuing debate. John Dominic Crossan has elevated its status and usefulness in his book The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988). Crossan projects early sections back to before the composition of the four canonical Gospels.

    Rewritten Bible

    However, Henderson has preferred to view this Gospel as using the canonical four Gospels as sources, with many episodes “rewritten”, expanded and creatively embellished. Hence, it appears that there is little chance of this Gospel contributing anything of substance in relation to the historicity or otherwise of Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means “Yahweh Saves”. On the contrary, it may contribute to the recent view that the contents of the Gospel of Mark has been composed against the background and influence of both Hellenistic novelistic but also Hebrew prophetic patterns, themes and clusters of motifs. This creative, novelistic influence has been meticulously examined by Paul Fullmer in his book Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective. (T&T Clark, London 2007). Fullmer has explored much novelistic and romantic literature from these early centuries and the novelistic themes of travel, history and a divine realm and his novelistic motifs of deep emotions, crowds, trials, descriptions of gruesome scenes and torture all sound very familiar to readers of Mark’s Gospel. This creative and imaginative novelistic process in Mark appears to continue in the Gospel of Peter.

    Within this Gospel framework of “Rewritten Bible”, as well as its devotional apologetics and demeaning polemics, Henderson explores many interesting aspects of the Gospel narratives, not the least being the now well-known description of Jesus’ actual resurrection and heavenly exaltation.
    The author reminds us that in about 150 C.E., Justin Martyr referred to the “Memoirs of Peter”, which may have actually referred to Mark’s Gospel. Mark appears to have benefitted from traditions and stories passed on from Peter. However, a Gospel of Peter was mentioned by Serapion, bishop of Syrian Antioch in about 190 C.E., and he even wrote a pamphlet about it (p.5). Theodoret in the 400s mentions that this Gospel was used by the Nazoraeans (p.9).

    Gospel of Peter Scholarship

    As the author reviews the history of scholarship relating to the Gospel of Peter, such names as J. Armitage Robinson, J. Rendel Harris, Henry B Swete, Adolf von Harnack, Leon Vaganay and Maria G. Mara feature prominently (p.17-32). The Gospel author’s creativity is stressed in the statement that Peter’s “own gospel is a new creation that significantly alters many of the details in the antecedent gospels” (p.33).

    Henderson also makes sure that other examples of re-written texts are included, such as the Assumption of Moses (p.34) and the Genesis Apocryphon (p.35). Such revised texts draw on a multiple of sources, which are then organised in a coherent manner (p.40) but they also allow the composer to “make a religious tradition meaningful within new situations” (p.41).

    Unfortunately, the polemical situation for the Jews was not a pleasant one. The Christian writer of this Gospel, using his demeaning, antagonistic and polemical skills, assigned to the Jews the worst possible traits and their hostile words were used to attack, disparage, or disprove competing claims of the Jews. Henderson thus proposes that it is a Jewish group located outside of the Christian community, which is the cause behind this virulent anti-Jewish polemics (p.42). They are blamed for the various abuses on Jesus (p.53); Herod is blamed for condemning Jesus and the motives behind this polemic are depicted by the author as being religious rather than political (p.77). The author even suggests that the growing conflict between the Christians and the Jews may have “contributed to the formation of the Gospel of Peter’s Passion Narrative” (p.90).

    In contrast, the Roman Pontius Pilate washes his hands (p.57) and, in this revision, he is demoted in his role as Roman executioner (p.87). Later, some Christian writers like Tertullian even declared that Pilate was a Christian (p.88).

    The discussion of “foundational narratives” raises the issue of early devotion to Jesus or “Yahweh Saves” as the Lord (p.90). Since the Hebrew’s deity Yahweh was also called Lord, were these two “Lords” viewed as identical (p.90). The reviewer wonders how this affects the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of this Hebrew deity Yahweh, if Yahweh and “Yahweh Saves” are conceptualised as identical.

    The Resurrection described

    In relation to the guards, Henderson observes that the witnesses to the burial and resurrection are not friends but independent and even hostile viewers. These guards are present when the two very tall heavenly beings descend to earth and the stone rolls away from the entrance of the tomb under its own power. These two tall beings enter the tomb and lead out a third figure, who is even taller, with a cross following behind. This depicted resurrection is clearly super-human and metaphysical and the depicted Ascension from the tomb and Exaltation in the Heavens is immediate (p.162). The discussion of the Resurrection as it appears in the earlier Gospels reveals the many differences between them, with Peter putting a lot of stress on seeing and hearing (p.170). On the other hand, Peter’s Gospel lessens the roles of the women as depicted in the canonical Gospels (p.173) but Peter seeks to replace doubt with certainty (p.174).

    It is of interest that the Gospels of Mark and Peter both appear to end abruptly and prematurely (p.208), perhaps in order to place the continuing story into the world of the reader to complete. It should also be clear that this Gospel of Peter illustrates very convincingly an example of “Rewritten Bible” and that much of its content emerges as being supportive and apologetical towards Christianity, but extremely hostile and antagonistic towards the Jews.

    The Issue of Theistic Presuppositions

    An added complication in our present 21st century research into religion relates to the existence and role of a deity generically labelled “God” but specifically called Allah, Brahma, El, Yahweh, Zeus, Jupiter and many other similar deistic concepts. Academic humanistic and socially-oriented analyses of religion, which deal with scientific and empirical methodologies, prefer to refrain from privileging any particular deity and its religion or from assuming that any one or all of such conceptualised deities actually exist and are ontological factors in the study of religion.
    At the same time, many religious apologists display a distinct tendency to declare that their chosen meta-physical deity does exist. In contrast, the antagonistic polemicists tend to be critical of the deities of other religions or they oppose and are hostile to all God-talk and to any claims that the devotee’s invisible deity does exist. In my view, some very important questions arise in such religious and theological contexts and they need to be addressed. Does any fair-minded, scientific analysis of religion require agnosticism or atheism in relation to such deity-concepts? To what extent can such academic and secular scholarship include in its analysis the realm of the deistic, the supernatural and the miraculous, which are contrary to the natural laws in the universe? Will such supernaturalism affect any honest analysis of religion and any academic attempts to establish the empirical truth about religion and its history. Such questions are usually avoided but they need to be addressed in any discussions relating to the defensive apologetics and damaging polemics both now and in the past, which are so prominently featured in this well-written and exhaustive analysis of the Gospel of Peter.

    The author’s ten pages of bibliography and his series of indexes to ancient sources, modern authors and subjects conclude a valuable, interesting, rationally-argued and very well-documented book. It should maintain an important place and role within Gospel of Peter research for many years to come.

    John Noack, February 2012.

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>