I often get asked about the difference between my trade books for general audiences and my academic monographs for scholars.  Three times in my career I have written on the same topic for a popular and a scholarly audience.   The first was one on the manuscripts of the NT.  The popular book was Misquoting Jesus:  The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; the academic one was The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.    Just from the title it should not be too hard to tell which one is trying to cater to a wider audience and which one is directed to fellow academic nerds.

So too with the next set, dealing with the issue of pseudonymity in the New Testament and other early Christian Writings.  The popular account:  Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors are Not Who We Think They Are; the academic one:  Forgery and Counter-forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in the Early Christian Tradition.

And now the one just completed, with the the second book (academic one) due to be available this coming April 5.  The tradebook (from last year) was called: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife and the (soon to appear) academic one: Journeys to Heaven and Hell in the Early Christian Tradition.

     In this final case the difference isn’t overly clear just from the titles; in part that’s because the publisher (Yale University Press) was not particularly intrigued by the title I suggested, which was something like: Katabasis in the Early Christian Tradition and Its Greek and Roman Comparanda.  For some reason they didn’t think that wouldn’t attract a lot of readers….

I thought it might be fun to show the difference between the two books simply by posting the openings of each one.  Here is how the trade book Heaven and Hell begins.  (Please don’t worry about typos or other kinds of mistakes: this is simply a typed out version that hasn’t been copy-edited)


In the winter season of 1886-87 a French archaeological team digging in Akhmim Egypt, about eighty miles north of Luxor, made one of the most remarkable manuscript discoveries of modern times.  The site was a cemetery; the archaeologists were digging in a portion dating to the eighth century CE.  In one of the tombs, taken to be that of a Christian monk, they discovered a sixty-six page book, written in Greek and containing a small anthology of texts.  One of them was a portion of a Jewish apocryphon known today as 1 Enoch.  Another was a previously unknown Gospel that provided an alternative version of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection, allegedly written by his closest disciple, Peter.  A third was also a book claiming to be by Peter, which in some respects was the most intriguing of all.  This was an account, written in the first person, of a guided tour of the afterlife, a detailed description of the torments of sinners in hell and, in far less detail, the blessings of saints in heaven.   It is the earliest Christian forerunner of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the most authoritative such account ever to appear – allegedly authenticated by one of Jesus’ own apostles.

Except no one today thinks Peter actually wrote the account.  It was produced by a later Christian who simply wanted his readers to think he was Peter.  And why not?  What better way to convince them that his descriptions of heaven and hell were bona fide?

Before the text was discovered, scholars had known that some such “Apocalypse of Peter” once existed in the second Christian century.   It is mentioned by church fathers from the period.  In fact, in some circles, down to the fourth century, Christian authors considered the book a legitimate part of the New Testament, with church leaders arguing whether it, rather than the Apocalypse of John (the book of Revelation), should be included in the canon. Eventually it lost this battle and then disappeared from sight, until serendipitously uncovered by our French archaeologists. [1]

Some years after its discovery, a longer and more detailed version appeared in an ancient Ethiopic translation.  Careful analysis has shown that this Ethiopic text provides a more accurate version of the original writing.


The Realms of the Damned and Blessed

The account begins with Jesus seated on the Mount of Olives, speaking to his disciples who want to know what will happen at the end of the world, a scene familiar to readers of the New Testament (Matthew 25; Mark 13).[2]  Jesus responds by telling them that false Christs will appear before the end of time, and there will be unimaginable cosmic disasters:  cataracts of fire will be let loose; the whole earth will burn, the stars will melt, the heavens will pass away, and the entire creation will dissolve.  Only then will Christ come from heaven with his righteous ones and angels.  At that point the dead will be raised and all people will face judgment: punishments for sinners and rewards for the righteous, for all eternity.

The account proceeds to describe in graphic and stunning detail the torments awaiting the damned, who are being punished for their most characteristic sin while living, often following…


[1] It is mentioned already by Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century; see Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.14; Eusebius himself, writing in the early fourth century, suggests that some Christians considered it to be canonical Scripture; History of the Church 3.25.  Scholars have determined that the 66-page book that contains the Greek text was produced some time in the sixth century; see Peter van Minnen, “The Greek Apocalypse of Peter,” in Jan Bremmer and István Czachesz, eds, The Apocalypse of Peter (Leuven: Peeters, 2003), pp. 15-39.


[2] I’ll be following the older, Ethiopic version of the text in my summary.  For side-by-side English translations of both the Greek and Ethiopic texts, see J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) pp. 593-612.  Quotations are from this edition.