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Did Jesus’ Death Matter? The Intriguing View of the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter

From remembering the birth of Jesus (Christmas!), we turn for a moment to remembering his death.  I recently received this question, in response to my statement that some Christians did not think the death of Jesus mattered for salvation, and others maintained that he never actually died.

 

QUESTION:

Can you give some reference to where I can explore this idea of the Crucifixion being unimportant or not happening at all?

RESPONSE:

I will take two posts to answer this question, since they involve two different sets of “Gnostic” belief, which, in brief, was a distinctive and “declared-heretical” understanding of the Christian faith that stressed that the ultimate divine realm was not closely connected with this material world (the highest God was not the Creator), a world that was to be escaped, not one that would be redeemed.  One document that embraces the view that the death of Jesus had no bearing on salvation is the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, which provides an alternative understanding of what happened at Jesus’ death – as witnessed by Peter himself (given to attack the proto-orthodox view that Jesus’ death brought salvation).  Here is how I discuss it in my book Lost Christianities:

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Among the gnostic attacks on the superficiality of proto-orthodox views, none is more riveting than the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi.  This is not to be confused with the proto-orthodox Apocalypse of Peter in which Peter is given a guided tour of heaven and hell.  The Nag Hammadi “apocalypse” or “revelation” portrays the true nature of Christ and castigates the ignorance of the simple minded (= the proto-orthodox) who do not recognize it.

The book begins with…

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Did They Crucify the Wrong Guy? Jesus’ Identity Switch.
Christmas Reflection 2017

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Comments

  1. joncopeland  December 26, 2017

    Is there a distinctly Coptic form of Gnosticism? I realize it’s probably more appropriate to refer to “Gnosticisms”. I’m just curious if there were characteristics of the mystery cult in Egypt that made it stand out from other Gnostic movements.

    Side note: this was my first year following the blog and I absolutely loved it. I’ll be back for another year, for sure, and will share your euangelion far and wide. Merry Christmas, Dr. Ehrman!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2017

      It’s really hard to know. There were definitely Gnostic sects in various places,and the sects had major differences among them, but our primary evidence comes almost entirely from Egypt; still the Gnostics known to Irenaeus were in many ways similar to the ones attested in some of the Nag Hammadi texts (discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt)

  2. stuckyabbott  December 26, 2017

    Thanks for the information. Everybody seems to think they have the ‘real’ understanding.
    I have a question because I don’t have the understanding – about Acts 5: 1-11 about Ananias and Sapphira. I seldom (if ever) hear this text mentioned in sermons etc. Are we supposed to think that God killed the two for not giving it all or that they died of guilt or shame or something? Are there any other texts in the New Testament in which it is implied that God actively or passively destroyed the lives, the existence of someone for disobeying a command or a policy? I can’t think of any right now.
    I’d appreciate your wisdom on this matter. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2017

      Yes, the Spirit killed them (through Peter) for not giving their all and lying about it. Elsewhere: Paul indicates that “some have died” as a punishment for not celebrating the Lord’s Supper properly in 1 Cor. 11; and he himself puts a curse on a man in 1 Cor. 5 that is often interpreted by scholars as a death curse. God, of course, kills off most of the earth in the book of Revelation.

      • RVBlake  December 28, 2017

        I recall in the Old Testament, don’t remember which Book, that while transporting the Ark to Jerusalem in a cart, the cart shifted to the side for some reason. The Ark slid and when one of the attendants steadied it with his hand to prevent it falling out of the cart, God killed him as punishment.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  December 26, 2017

    The text sounds not just Gnostic but very Marcionitic. Is there any chance that it has a connection to Marcionite Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2017

      No, Marcion held a docetic Christology, not the kind of separationist Christologies you find among Gnostics. See today’s post. (Fuller exposition in the first chapter of my book Orthodoxy Corruption of Scripture)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 27, 2017

        Dr. Ehrman, the reason I ask is specifically because of the reference to “Elohim” as if he is the evil demiruge of Gnosticism. I know Marcionites believed the God of the OT (i.e. Elohim) was the evil demiurge of this corrupt world, so would it be fair to say that, putting christological differences aside, this Gnostic notion of the OT God being the real evil force in this world, was that an early, independent idea that came to eventually inform Gnostic beliefs in general, including Marcionism?

        I guess what I’m asking is, if disparate Gnostic groups believed this one concept — that the God of the Jews (The God of the OT, Elohim or YHWH) was an evil demiurge — irrespective of their different christological beliefs (e.g. docetic vs separationist) — then doesn’t that suggest that this belief developed early and independently of those christological beliefs? And if it didn’t originate with Marcion, then who? I know the legend is that it started with Simon Magus, but is there any evidence that supports this or any other legend?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 28, 2017

          I would not include Marcion as a Gnostic. And yes, Elohim did figure into Gnostic cosmogonies. For Marcion the demiurge was not evil: he was just and vengeful. For many Gnostics he was inferior, imperfect, and ignorant.

  4. godspell  December 26, 2017

    There is power in this view–expressed poetically many times since, by people who possibly never read this text. Ezra Pound’s Ballad of the Goodly Fere, for example. Another would be this modern hymn, partly inspired by Hindu myth–

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_the_Dance_(hymn)

    For myself, I think pain does matter–being willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good does matter. Martyrdom matters. I don’t believe anybody was saved by Jesus’ suffering, in itself. And there would have been no gnostic movement without the memory of that suffering inspiring Jesus’ followers. The teachings are what matters, but would those teachings have survived without Jesus proving that he was willing to die for them?

    To say the pain doesn’t matter is to say Jesus the man (as opposed to the divine spirit) didn’t matter. It did. And he does.

  5. Telling
    Telling  December 27, 2017

    This is all good stuff, Bart.

    It is my opinion that both “orthodox” and “gnostics” have done some serious “reverse engineering”. In our examples here it means analyzing a result and devising a reason for that result coming into being; namely, the all-powerful Israeli Messiah is executed on a cross. It makes no sense. For material minded people, it works that the Messiah came to bear our burdens and is raised on the third day to demonstrate that he has conquered death. This doesn’t work for gnostics, and so they have “reverse engineered” a different explanation. They have several, it seems, ranging from Judas assisting Jesus’ suicide so that he can escape the entrapping physical matter, to him getting crucified, but so what? He doesn’t feel a thing. Regardless, they know Jesus is eternal and so the resurrection is symbolic only.

    There is a yet different explanation having a firm logical foundation. The Master comes every once in a while to bring mankind back to the principles of religion (as said in Hindu Baghavad-Gita). He invariably teaches the real truth, the facts, nothing but the facts, ma’am.

    The facts are: We are born; we die. And we live and are aware in this very moment in all created time. We are aware now at this moment because we aren’t really born and then die. We are aware now at this very moment because we are eternal beings (cannot be proved but absolutely must be presumed or all is nonsense, and all cannot be nonsense).

    Now, as to our birth and eventual death, they are illusion. We have a bigger family than that here on “earth”. There is no father and mother, sister and brother, and no child. This is hard to swallow and is why we must die. We cannot accept the truth. We cannot accept eternal life, and so must die.

    We are formless beings, of an eternal nature. We form realities communally, and identities personally. Then they end and we reform new ones. It may sound frightening but is most certainly true.

    The Seth entity in the Jane Roberts/Seth Material that I earlier mentioned, Seth says we can believe whatever we want to believe. We can believe we are saved by the grace of God or by the blood of Jesus, or that we were born of pond scum and evolved into what we are. But regardless of what we believe, we will incarnate into a new body with a new identity sometime after we physically die. Death amounts to a loss of memory, the end of a narration. Life of course is the beginning of a new narrative, new memories entering as the former ones fade away and are forgotten.

    The hope, though, is that we overcome the fears and desires and whatever else that traps us in our present status and that we free ourselves from the entrapping matter and become truly free. This is a reasonably good summary (I hope) of the teachings of Eastern religions, and Western metaphysics and new-age spiritualism.

  6. essamtony  December 27, 2017

    It seems there is a sustained attack in Christian Gnostic literature on Normative Christianity. However the Orthodox Christian Church doesn’t seem to have much counter-attack literature. Can we speculate that this means that Gnosticism was not much of a threat or a challenge to the “Proto-Orthodox” Church? Apart from a Coptic Gnostic monk living in a cave in the desert in Upper Egypt near to Nag Hammadi, and similar few intellectuals here and there (with a concentration in Egypt), this movement appear to have had limited following; basically a bunch of intellectuals influenced by Greek philosophy meeting at Starbucks in Nag Hammadi in the second century and writing books that inspire a few people.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2017

      Oh no, quite the contrary. A good bit of the early Christian literature was highly polemical. Think of the writings of Justin (now lost), Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and so on!

  7. Ryan  December 27, 2017

    Hello. Interesting read. What is your best estimate of when the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter was written?

  8. SidDhartha1953  December 27, 2017

    I can’t believe there have been no comments on this. Sometimes I see other comments only after I post one. Has anyone else experienced that.?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2017

      Everyone’s still eating their Christmas candy!

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 27, 2017

      Yeah, the blog is quirky. Sometimes I get comments that haven’t been moderated yet, but then other times, they don’t come through (if I subscribed to comments from that particular post) until Bart moderates them. The blog does what it *wants*. lol

    • ardeare  December 27, 2017

      When you first post a comment, it awaits moderation until Bart posts all of the questions/comments in totality. It can easily appear that you are the only poster because yours is visible only to you while the others are hid until publication.

  9. RonaldTaska  December 27, 2017

    For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend reading “Lost Christianities.” The thesis of the book is that, even from the beginning, there was a lot of diversity in Christianity. It is one of my favorite Ehrman books because, before reading it, I had appreciation for the later diversity of Christianity, but not this early diversity. I know it’s probably not a good thing to think this, but I often wonder why God just did not make things a lot clearer so that there would not be so much diversity. Silly me for asking this of God.

  10. Ophiuchus  December 27, 2017

    I wonder if there is any relation between the view of the crucifixion in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Muslim view of the crucifixion? They seem similar.

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