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A Very Strange Saying: From the Gospel of Peter?

As I pointed out yesterday, the “Gospel of Peter” that we have today, discovered in 1886, is unfortunately, only a portion – the only surviving portion – of what was once a complete Gospel. But was it a complete Gospel? Or was it only a passion Gospel (like the later Gospel of Nicodemus) that gave an account only of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus? That has long been debated.

I discussed one intriguing view of the matter some years ago on the blog, as follows:

In recent years a German scholar named Dieter Luhrmann has argued that other portions of the Gospel of Peter have shown up, in very small fragments of papyrus discovered in Egypt.  It is a controversial claim.  The most interesting possibility, for me, is a papyrus fragment that Luhrmann published called Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 4009 (it is the 4009th papyrus published from the huge find of papyri in the trash heap of ancient Oxyrhynchus Egypt).

To understand why this *might* be a fragment of the Gospel of Peter requires a bit of tricky background ( I hope it’s not too hard to follow.  Stay with me!).   The papyrus is…

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The Exasperatingly Fragmentary Gospel of Peter: Readers’ Mailbag December 4, 2017

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 5, 2017

    This is an interesting conversation–that seems to touch on the conflicts early Christians had over what to do when confronted violently, since they were forbidden to respond to violence with violence. Jesus’ belief in the Kingdom was, I feel sure, based on his belief that the genuinely good people–those who refused to harm other people–would always be at a disadvantage, and thus needed to be sheltered, like sheep from goats–or wolves.

    You just have to wait for God to send the Son of Man, and then it will be all right. You will be rewarded, and the others will wail and gnash their teeth outside.

    However, once enough time has passed that belief in the Kingdom has been replaced with belief in heaven and hell after death–then the conversation gets more complicated. And at some point, Christians are going to insist that they do have to fight back. And the wolves are going to learn that sheep can be dangerous.

    And the original message is neglected, more and more.

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  December 7, 2017

      I wonder if we already see this during Jesus’s lifetime, reflected in Luke 22:36, where Jesus, somewhat surprisingly (to later Christian readers, though maybe not to those who knew him), advises his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords. Being late in his ministry, it may have marked a turning point in his thinking, when the practicality of self-defense or even force if necessary started to take over, and his salvific hopes for kingdom’s imminent coming became increasingly subject to self-doubt (most dramatically echoed in his climactic Gethsemane episode which would’ve naturally later been re-interpreted and “fleshed out” according to Christian doctrine). Of course, when Luke was written, the sword line could’ve reflected the response of Christianity to recent experiences of political upheaval and persecution.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 10, 2017

        It’s possible, but I don’t think so. Because, when they show Jesus two swords, he says that will be enough. Not if the purpose is to defend them all from many attackers. And they aren’t really being physically attacked much at this point, being such a small cult. If this goal was what you suggest, this makes no sense.

        What does? I think there the point was that Jesus wanted people to know they could have fought back if they wanted to. They were not refraining from violence out of weakness, but out of strength. “He who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.” He tells them not to fight–he tells Peter to put the sword away (you can believe that without believing he healed the soldier’s wound).

        So it’s all staged, in a sense. Jesus knew there would be a confrontation. He saw to it they had (a few) swords. And then he deliberately saw to it that the swords were not used to kill or seriously injure anyone.

        I really suspect what came to be known as the Passion was, in a certain sense, a play Jesus had written in his head. That may not have played out exactly as he planned, but that’s where improv comes in.

  2. Avatar
    Drmagana  December 5, 2017

    Hello Dr ehrman
    When does this fragmentary papyri was discovered exactly?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      It was discovered in the archaeological digs at Oxyrhynchus, in the early part of the 20th century.

      1
  3. Avatar
    Seeker1952  December 5, 2017

    On another topic, in a theology class, I questioned the doctrine that Jesus was “entirely” free from sin by citing the case of the Syrophoenician woman whom Jesus calls a dog (a “bitch”?) in Mark 7.24-30. At the same time I acknowledged that Jesus was overwhelmingly compassionate in his life as a whole. The instructor argued that Jesus was actually testing and goading the woman to stand up for her status as a child of God.

    This sounded to me like a clear case of special pleading, of first assuming that Jesus was without sin and then interpreting the passage in such a way as to exonerate him. I don’t see anything in the passage that justifies this interpretation. Plus my understanding is that such as attitude toward Syrophoenicians would have been typical of Jews of Jesus’s day.

    Do you see any warrant for the instructor’s interpretation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      I would say your instructor is reading something into the text that the text itself does not say. It’s a very difficult passage to interpret — it doesn’t say *why* Jesus seems to be so caustic.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 8, 2017

        But Mark presents Jesus as jerk in other places, as when he gets angry because a leper wants to be healed. Do you think Mark thought Jesus had a short fuse or is there a christological reason for painting him that way?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2017

          Consistently Mark seems to portray Jesus as an angry fellow.

          1
    • Avatar
      godspell  December 6, 2017

      Jesus could have been joking. In poor taste, perhaps. I wouldn’t call expressing yourself strongly a sin. (I only regard it as a compliment if somebody compares me to a dog. I am not worthy of such praise, being a sinner myself.)

      I don’t believe Jesus was without human flaws. The word ‘sin’ would seem to me to refer to something more than just using strongly worded statements to get a point across.

      You could say it was a sin for Jesus to overturn the tables of the money lenders and merchants at the Temple courtyard–the sin of anger, and destroying property. But I tend to think that was a calculated move, meant to provoke the Temple authorities. If he’d actually used a whip of cords on them, that would be a sin for sure, but I don’t believe he did.

      Might as well say Gandhi and Dr. King sinned, when they knowingly provoked violent reactions for a larger cause. Modern protesters do much worse in the name of various worthy causes. But of course people with a cause tend to think they alone are without sin.

      It’s hard to bring about any kind of change without offending someone. It’s also hard to get a serious point across without offending someone. Would it have been better if he’d just ignored the Samaritan woman entirely? Instead of engaging her as a fellow being (as most men of his era did not often do with women), listening to her response, then praising it? Perhaps learning from it. None of which would have happened if he’d just nodded politely and said nothing.

      Jesus was human and humans aren’t perfect, but I don’t see any behavior of his described in the gospels that I would regard as sinful.

      He sure as hell wasn’t PC.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 6, 2017

        Simpler answer–“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”

        Jesus believed he was a sinner.

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        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  December 8, 2017

          Which would be his reason for being baptized.

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 10, 2017

            That’s the only reason anyone gets baptized. Matthew and Luke struggled with this. John (the gospel author) just flat-out ignored it. Mark still saw Jesus as one of us, chosen for a great task, and we are all sinners. Even the best of us.

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        • Avatar
          meohanlon  December 9, 2017

          Agreed. I always liked that statement. I think that (read straightforwardly) it also shows he didn’t think he was God incarnate walking among lesser beings. Apparently he also thought he was a sinner by feeling the need to repent through baptism- in Mark, also taken in a straightforward, non-special pleading way, that later gospels are increasingly uncomfortable with.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 8, 2017

      There’s an interesting pun in that passage (Mk 7:27) that only a person who spoke both Greek and a Semitic language would get. The Greek word for “dog” has the root κυν- (roughly pronounced “kun-” from whence we get the word “cynic”), and the Semitic root for a Phoenician is כנען (roughly pronounced “kna’an” from whence we get the word Canaanite). So the expression “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” could have started out as a Jewish slight against the Phoenicians that found it’s way into Jesus’ mouth. Who knows? Is this just a coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 10, 2017

        Except the Samaritan woman’s response wouldn’t make sense in this context. And anyone who spends time around literal dogs knows that they are never far away from a table people are eating at.

        I could see this conversation happening quite differently from the way it’s normally portrayed, with Jesus all stern, and the woman so reverent–more like a lively dispute at a marketplace. A spirited back and forth, and Jesus isn’t being entirely serious, and she’s not the least bit deferential–she’s got a point to make, and he appreciates it. She gets the better of him, and he laughs joyfully. This sister’s got a hold of something! We’re all dogs at our master’s table, begging for scraps, and one dog has no business looking down on another.

        There would have been many conversations like this, and he’s learning with each one. He’s expanding his idea of who can be saved. The prejudices he was raised with, against Samaritans, against gentiles–they don’t make hold true in many cases. So cast them aside, like an ill-fitting garment. All that matters is faith. And anyone can have faith. A good dog is a good dog, regardless of breed.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  December 5, 2017

    I have a parallel version of the Gospels with notes containing some extra material or alternate translations which I find helpful. Has anyone ever compiled a similar work incorporating the material from outside the Gospels, like including the Proto-gospel of James stories, or the Gospel of Peter, etc? Would that even be possible, or is the material too disjointed?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      Yes, there are such tools, but now that I think of it, I don’t know of any (off hand) for general readers as opposed to scholars.

  5. Avatar
    Seeker1952  December 5, 2017

    On another topic, I’ve rather recently been thinking that Jesus’s calling of his disciples, especially the Twelve, may have been devastating (at least economically if not also in other ways) for some of their families. However, in trying to look at the other side of the issue, it occurred to me that maybe: (1) most (I think Peter would be a clear exception) were unmarried-though even the unmarried probably had economic responsibilities in their families of origin; (2) following Jesus wasn’t necessarily a full-time job and they still had been able to work; (3) most of Jesus’s time was spent in a very small geographic area meaning that the disciples were not necessarily far from home; (4) some of the disciples were currently unemployed anyway; (5) Jesus’s public life may have only lasted a few months and these may have been filled with the expectation that God’s kingdom could be coming any minute anyway; (6) etc.

    I’m guessing we have no way of knowing for sure but is there reason to think it more plausible that the calling of the disciples did gravely harm their families than not?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      My sense is that it took the bread-winner out of the home, and must have been devastating. Discipleship at a cost. (To others!)

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 8, 2017

        Which makes that scenario very unlikely – and likely a myth. 1Cor 9 identifies that the apostles expected, and received, church support. No sign of anybody abandoning families.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 10, 2017

        The same could be said of many things–joining a union. Protesting social injustice. Fighting for freedom. The women who fought for suffrage and equal rights often left husbands and children at home (that wasn’t just in Mary Poppins). That was discipleship at a cost to others. Doesn’t mean the cost wasn’t worth it.

        Should Paul Gauguin have given up painting, in order to support his family? That was selfish, to be sure–but wasting a god-given gift in the name of a more comfortable settled existence is a different kind of selfishness.

        Choices are hard. And without them, nobody is alive.

  6. Avatar
    Seeker1952  December 5, 2017

    On another topic, in Luke 16.1-8, Jesus seems to commend the “dishonest manager” who reacted to his master finding that the manager had squandered the master’s property by cancelling the debts of his master’s debtors in order to find security with them after the master dismisses him. It’s hard to see the moral of this parable. The interpretation that has grabbed me that is that Jesus was praising the manager for taking decisive action in the face of disaster just as people of Jesus’s time should take decisive action due to the imminence of judgement in connection with the coming of God’s kingdom?

    Is this a supportable interpretation? Are there other, better interpretations?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      I think that’s a great interpretation! It’s a tough passage!

      • Avatar
        Seeker1952  December 11, 2017

        I think it’s from Norman Perrin though I got it from a popularization about Jesus’s parables.

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  December 5, 2017

    On another topic, in trying to interpret the parables of the ten bridesmaids and and of the talents (Matthew 25:1-30), it seems to me that these would have come not from Jesus but from early Christians trying to deal with the delay of Jesus’s return. They are a way of countering criticism by displacing the blame for the delay from Jesus to his followers who either misunderstood him or are who are not staying faithful and prepared for his return. Rather than blame Jesus they should look to their own faults. On the surface they make a moral point but underneath are ways of dealing with the delay.

    is this a supportable interpretation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      Yes, it is normally seen as a later creation of Christian story-tellers, for precisely teh reason you cite.

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  December 5, 2017

    i finally purchased a copy of your ‘After the New Testament’ 2nd addition (it was hard to find it at a reasonable price), and look forward to reading these passages in larger context (at least Clement)

    The passage is very similar to Matt 10:28. I think it shows that Jesus had the idea of a, probably, eternal relationship with God extending beyond physical death. that ‘might’ be in a resurrected body on the earth, though the passage really doesn’t at all imply that or it might be in heaven.

  9. Avatar
    ardeare  December 5, 2017

    I know there’s not much papyrus (4009) to contrast with other writings, but I’m curious if you think the writing style is reminiscent of Mark? I’m guessing you think there’s no way that Peter actually wrote it.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      No, no one thinks Peter wrote it; and there is not enough text to be able to make a literary comparison with any of our NT writers.

  10. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 5, 2017

    That is very interesting. Is there other evidence to suggest, one way or another, whether this fragment and the Gospel of Peter fragment are likely from the same document? Say from writting style or dating? As opposed to being a seperate forgery in the name of Peter. I realize that with such a small fragment, it might be hard to draw those types of conclusions.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      There’s not enough text to make that determination; Luhrmann thinks it comes from the Gospel of Peter itself (though obviously not the same manuscript that our longer story comes from)

  11. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 5, 2017

    The Clement version ends with “fear the one who, after you die, has the power to cast your body and soul into the hell of fire”, which the Oxyrinchus one lacks because the text ends just before where it would have come. So C has fear of a vengeful power (Who would that be? Yahweh/Jesus? Satan?) but we don’t know whether Oxy had that or not. Do you have any opinion as to whether Oxy would have had it?

    And in terms of the rapidly evolving Christian theology of the first and early second centuries, wouldn’t that make a difference? I.e., when would the notion of fire and brimstone as a punishment for not getting with the program have appeared?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      1. I don’t think we really know. 2. It starts showing up in Jewish apocalyptic texts before the NT.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 8, 2017

        This was a reply to another comment (about Jesus and the Syro-Phoenecian) rhat got misplaced. My question here is, did Peter/2Clement get “fear the one who can cast body and soul into hell” from Q? Matthew and Luke both cite it.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 10, 2017

          Any saying in both Matthew and Luke not in Mark is from Q.

  12. Lev
    Lev  December 5, 2017

    That is AWESOME! I love this sort of detective work amongst scholars.

    More of this sort of thing please, Bart.

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  13. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  December 6, 2017

    We all know irony and humor. Let’s say John has a friend Mark who used to be an ultimate fundie Catholic hater. Mark changes his attitude later in life completely and even has internal ironic humorous moments with John that go something like, “You know how I hate Catholics!” For someone without context this would be an obvious anti-Catholic statement, while for the two friends it is the exact opposite because it demonstrates his current love for Catholics and an evolution of his personal beliefs. My question is – is any such phenomenon known in ancient literature? Could any such phenomenon be present in NT writings (say Paul’s letters)?

  14. Robert
    Robert  December 6, 2017

    Do you still believe the gospel of Peter was not dependent upon earlier written gospels but instead relies upon similar oral traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2017

      I lean that way but it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on….

      • Robert
        Robert  December 6, 2017

        Life would be so much easier for you if only you would accept direct and indirect literary dependence and authorial freedom.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2017

          I believe in all three. But authorial freedom does not mean that authors are necessarily just makin’ stuff up. I have not difficulty with thinking they did on occasion. Not sure if you’ve seen my book Jesus Before the Gospels, but a big point is that Xn story tellers were doing that a lot. But authors were *also* (to a greater extent) using earlier accounts they had heard/read.

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 6, 2017

    “fear the one who, after you die, has the power to cast your body and soul into the hell of fire” passage is very similar to
    Luke 13:3 “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

    Both imply that no one should be concerned about earthly things since the heavenly kingdom is very near where you will face eternal judgement.

  16. Avatar
    scissors  December 7, 2017

    “the Gospel of Peter. If he’s right, and this fragment comes from an earlier portion of the Gospel – a teaching of Jesus prior to his arrest. And that would mean that the Gospel of Peter was not just an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but more likely a complete Gospel, including the words and deeds of Jesus prior to the passion.”

    I know I am probably missing the obvious here, but, how, if right, would it fit in. Is it just another gospel like the Gospel of Thomas or something more?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2017

      Not like Thomas, since Thomas does not have a Passion narrative. More like the canonical Gospels.

  17. Avatar
    steveandcris  December 9, 2017

    I’m wondering if it’s at all possible because of the size of fragment #4009 that it could be mostly complete and just a portable note someone cherished and was somehow preserved over history. Is that something people did? Does anyone know? It was small, seemingly complete in thought, written on both sides. Like a pocket note. In papyrus. Were people known for doing that type of thing? Any other evidence?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2017

      We do have manuscripts that were made portable — but this does not look like one of them. (They are normally smaller in size and handwriting) It is a scrap from a full size manuscript.

  18. Avatar
    Michael Toon  December 21, 2017

    Bart,

    Can you think of any passages in the NT gospels where Jesus can be viewed as committing a sin or sins?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2017

      It depends on how you define sin. This is a large part of my friend Jeffrey Siker’s book, Jesus, Sin, and Perfection

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      • Avatar
        Michael Toon  December 23, 2017

        Wow. I just looked that book upon on Amazon. I’m gonna have to order it! Because the description of its content appear to be tantalizingly awesome for future discussion in debate fora on Facebook!

        “This volume is the first full-length study to trace how early Christians came to perceive Jesus as a sinless human being. Jeffrey S. Siker presents a taxonomy of sin in early Judaism and examines moments in Jesus’ life associated with sinfulness: his birth to the unwed Mary, his baptism by John the Baptist, his public ministry – transgressing boundaries of family, friends, and faith – and his cursed death by crucifixion. Although followers viewed his immediate death in tragic terms, with no expectation of his resurrection, they soon began to believe that God had raised him from the dead. Their resurrection faith produced a new understanding of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, in which his death had been a perfect sacrificial death for sin, his ministry perfectly obedient, his baptism a demonstration of perfect righteousness, and his birth a perfect virgin birth. This important study explores the implications of a retrospective faith that elevated Jesus to perfect divinity, redefining sin.”

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