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How Would an Early Christian “Know” Which Books Peter Wrote?

So if there were lots of books in circulation that claimed to be written by the apostle Peter, why did some of them (1 and 2 Peter) come to be accepted both as his and as canonical scripture, and others come to be deemed forgeries and excluded from the canon?

The first point to stress is that Christians in the second, third, and fourth centuries had no real way of knowing which, if any, of these books Peter wrote.  They were living many decades or even centuries after the books had first been put in circulation.  The books were passed around from one church to the other before *anyone* on record claimed that they really were or really were not written by Peter.  And how would they know?

They almost certainly didn’t have any “insider information.”  Where would their information have come from?  Simply from other people who said so, one way or the other.   And 99.9% of these people accepting, or rejecting, this book or another were not specialists trained in sophisticated modes of literary analysis.  Most of them couldn’t even read.  Those who could read did not have advanced, elite educations.  Most of those with advanced, elite educations still were not trained as literary sleuths.  How many literary sleuths were there in the first century of the church?  We don’t know of any.

So how did they know?  The short answer, I’m afraid, is

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Was the Apocalypse of Peter Originally Part of the New Testament?
The Books of Peter



  1. Lev
    Lev  December 18, 2018

    Very interesting question. Given the context of your inquiry, would the answer relate to how the early church viewed the afterlife?

    2 Peter asserts the typical end times apocalypse (found in Paul and Revelation) where the world is destroyed with fire and a new heaven and new earth are created – the new creation where the saved live an eternal life on a physical planet with physical (eternal) bodies. Whereas the Apocolypse of Peter asserts a cosmic afterlife in either heaven or hell where the saved or the dammed have spiritual, not physical, bodies.

    Did the early church reject the Apocolypse in favour of 2 Peter due to the differences in how they interpreted the afterlife?

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 18, 2018

    So we have a series of works written by “John”, and “Peter”. Are there other disciples who have had a large body of work ascribed to them but whose works didn’t make it into the Bible? There’s the Gospels of Judas and Thomas, but the other disciples? The other disciples seem very bland, like they were chosen to get the magical number 12.

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  December 18, 2018

      One more question: Why did the Didache not make it into the Bible? It’s supposedly very early, right?

      • Bart
        Bart  December 19, 2018

        It’s a good question, and we don’t really know. Part of it is probalby that it is not attributed to the disciples, but is said only to represent their teachings.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      Not *lots* of books in the names of others, but certainly books in the names of James, Matthew, Bartholomew, Philip, and others.

  3. Avatar
    Maciej Owczarzak  December 18, 2018

    I was discussing the autorship of 1 and 2 Peter with christians and atheists the other day. I wanted to hear different evidences being proposed. I was presented with this:

    “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” – Acts 2

    So that’s how Peter was able to write in Greek. Checkmate atheists.”

  4. Avatar
    darren  December 18, 2018

    Maybe for a mailbag post, but I have a question about baptism and purification rites. The Essenes (or whomever had the Dead Sea Scrolls) were obsessed with ritual purity, believing only members of their group were acceptable, and only then if their followers washed frequently in very specific ways (among many, many other strict requirements). John the Baptist, however, baptized once to ritually wash people of their sins. Is this a reflection of the range of views and practices regarding baptism and purification at the time? Or could it imply that John maybe was an Essene who rebelled, rejected their view that only the select would be saved and that purification had to occur daily? It appears on the surface at least that John’s approach to baptism could have been designed as a rejection of the Essene approach.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      Yes, you’re right, there are a range of options for working it out. It wasn’t just the Essenes who insisted on regular periodic water-cleansing-rituals: it was common. John’s relation to the Essenes is vexed. The newest book on John, by Joel Marcus, does argue that he had been a member of the community. I’ve never been completely convinced.

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    brenmcg  December 19, 2018

    1Peter was widely believed to be written by Peter and the gospel of Peter had contrary views to it. This would be a good reason for the bishop to reject it as petrine.

    Didnt Origen reject hebrews as written by paul because the style was different to the other letters? I dont think 1st C christians just accepted whatever they told.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      He doubted if Paul wrote it, but he thought the *substance* was Pauline and so accepted it as part of Scripture. He wasn’t, of course, a first-century Christian, and his evaluations were not typical but highly extraordinary. He was the greatest Christian intellectual of the first three centuries.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  December 20, 2018

        Yes sorry meant 2ndC 🙂 – although origen should prob be described as 3rd.
        Life for a bible historian would be a lot easier if he was 1stC !

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2018

          Yes, he was active in the first part of the third century.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 19, 2018

    So, people choose the books that most support what they already believe. What happened to divine inspiration? And I am not trying to be provocative. It’s an important question. How do we know which books were divinely inspired?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      If you believe in divine inspiration, then you would need to find some criteria, e.g., that the Holy Spirit guided the decisions about which books to be included in Scripture. If you don’t believe in it, then the answer is: “none.”

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    Bewilderbeast  December 19, 2018

    “But acceptable to whom? To Serapion the authorizing bishop. If the book said anything that he himself found problematic or even wrong, then obviously it could not have been written by an apostle.”
    Classic “eminence is more important than evidence” stuff!

  8. Avatar
    RAhmed  December 19, 2018

    I don’t believe 1 Peter is written by Peter but doesn’t Papias cite 1 Peter? Considering that Papias claims to have known people who knew the apostles, isn’t that a strong argument that 1 Peter really was from Peter?

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    Matt2239  December 19, 2018

    Ehrman’s narrative agrees that the gospel was suspect from the get-go. It cropped up unexpectedly. It carried a weighty name. It backed one side over another in a hot theological dispute. The style and structure are things look to today, but that doesn’t exclude them from use in antiquity either. It’s just that no average church goer would understand it if Serapion said the style wasn’t authentic to Peter. One has to be able to read and write to understand style, and most people in the ancient world were illiterate.

    Eusebius also says that many of the things in the gospel are true to accepted belief. Hence, to discover what parts of the Gospel of Peter might have been “added,” just look at the points of divergence. And the obvious history of the church like the Council of Nicea shows that differences in legitimate scriptures led to huge conflicts, not disqualification of divergent accounts.

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    Fanex  December 20, 2018

    If there is an ancient account how the lives of christians were ?
    They keep jewish traditions and holidays ? There were from the begining christians holidays like xmas,easter,celebrating certain saints in a certain day?
    When this happened ? In early days they crowded together for ritual meal,when this tradition dissapear ?
    When appear cross in christian symbolistic ? Funeral ritual,baptism for children or for new member,excomunication ?
    When these local ecclesia turned from a sort of christian congregation to church ?
    A lot of question,maybe theme for future,maybe i will find in earlier posts.
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2018

      We have only allusive references to the social lives of the Christians. A good overview of our earliest Christian churches (those of Paul) can be found in the book by Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians.

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    Thespologian  December 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, you have mentioned numerous times that Jesus was essentially an Apocalypticist who, along with other main cast members of the NT, believed the end times would fall within their own lifetime. Did no one write anything about being wrong? “Hey guys, I guess we might be around a little bit longer than I thought!” Or “they didn’t go there” when it came to inerrant prophesying? Was admission of culpability never to be respected or practiced when opposed to a belief system? Or have there been any clues to suggest writings of this kind did exist and were necessarily destroyed?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2018

      Yes, this was an issue in the early church. It is actually one that 2 Peter was trying to address!

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    Peyman  December 24, 2018

    Hi Bart, I have read your book ” Lost Christianity” in chapter 1 you talked about publicity of the Gospel of Peter. In p. 22 you wrote, ” Gospel of Peter was widely popular in the early church, as popular as Mark. Could you please provide me with some sources for supporting this claim? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      Wow. I said that? OK, then. I don’t think it’s true. I’m wondering what I meant. Possibly that we have more (possible) papyri of Peter than of Mark? Neither one is well attested, but the fact that Irenaeus assumes Mark is canonical shows that it almost certainly was more widely spread than Peter, which would have been known in Syria and possibly Rome and … where else? Not sure!

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    Brand3000  January 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In one of your Great Couses Lectures you mentioned that writings such as James, 1 Peter, · 2 Peter, 1 John, · 2 John, ·3 John, were likely written by followers of these apostles. Do you think that by reading these documents we can hear the voices of the apostles fairly well, or were these too late and too removed for them to be of substantial value in trying to hear these big names preach?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      I think they are typically expressing the auth’rs own views, which he wants his readers to *think* are the veiws of teh apostles themselves.

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