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Introducing the Apocalypse of Peter

As I said in my last post, I have been putting a lot of time into reading the scholarship on the Apocalypse of Peter, an early-second-century text that describes the torments of the damned in some graphic detail, and that almost came to be accepted as part of the New Testament canon.  I’m puzzling long and hard over why, in the end, it did not make it in.   It’s not an easy question to answer, given our scant discussions of it the matter antiquity, and given the fact that, well, there are no obvious disqualifying features.   But I’ll get to all that later.  First it’s important to summarize what the text is, so we’re all on the same page.

Here is how I introduce it in my textbook on the New Testament.


The last Christian apocalypse for us to consider claims to be a firsthand account of the tortures of hell and the ecstasies of heaven written in the name of Jesus’ disciple Peter. As we have seen, there are a large number of early Christian pseudepigrapha written in Peter’s name, one or two of which came to be included in the New Testament. Indeed, among Christian apocalypses alone we know of three that claim his name. One is preserved only in an Arabic translation; another was discovered among the Coptic writings of the Nag Hammadi library; and the third has been known by historians for centuries, although they have had it in their possession only since 1887, when it was found in the tomb of a Christian monk along with the pseudonymous Gospel of Peter. It is this third apocalypse that will concern us here, for it is a book that was accepted as canonical Scripture in some churches of the second and third centuries. Even when it finally came to be excluded from the canon, it continued …

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Now, The Gospel of Peter
A Very Perplexing Question



  1. Avatar
    mkahn1977  November 12, 2018

    Interesting that there is still an emphasis on following the commandments and not just believing in Jesus

  2. Avatar
    fishician  November 12, 2018

    Perhaps you’ll get to this, but did the early Christians debate the morality of inflicting an eternity of torment as penalty for a brief lifetime of disobedience? My two cents worth: if you have to scare or threaten people to get them into your belief system, then you must have a pretty lousy belief system!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      Yes, there were some debates — and some amazing justificatoins, especially by Augustine. In answering the objection that “it’s not fair” to be punished for eternity for a temporal sin, he replied that punishments *never* last as long as the crime. A murder may take two minutes, but the punishment may be life in prison.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  November 13, 2018

      The only (somewhat) reasonable reply to this from a Catholic apologist was, well, there is an eternity of heaven for finite behaviour as well. Not much of a satisfying answer but there it is!

  3. Avatar
    Sinseitional  November 12, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just taking a stab at this, but might it have to do with the brand of Christology that it promoted? Wouldn’t that disqualify it?

    Something else to consider, which you likely have, is what language(s) was it available in whilst canon was being debated?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      It was in Greek, so that wasn’t a problem. The Christology itself appears to be fine. But you’re heading in the right direction!

  4. Avatar
    anthonygale  November 12, 2018

    “There is only one way to avoid facing eternal torment for sins: don’t sin. Only those who believe in Christ and lead upright moral lives can expect to enter into his eternal Kingdom. All others will be damned by God to face unspeakable pain and suffering for all eternity”

    Are you saying the message is that BOTH belief in Christ and leading a moral life are required? Or that this apocalypse emphasizes the need to live a moral life, even if one believes?

    I know you like posts to contain one question, so the above is my question. I wonder though, what other factors might come into play in deciding whether or not this was included in the canon. A simple enough reason might be, can you have more than one apocalypse? If not, perhaps the apocalypse of John was simply preferred. What other theological views might have been less than acceptable, to the majority at least, in this apocalypse? The view of the afterlife? How to obtain salvation? Other ideas?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      My sense is (without any hard evidence) that the authors of these texts genuinely believed that the only ones moral enough to make it to paradise were followers of Jesus; it’s also worth noting that anyone who worships idols is also punished eternally, so that deals with most everyone else apart from Jews.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2018

    Did those deciding on what made it into the NT canon know that it was early second century? Is that possibly why it was excluded…since it was not first century?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      No, it was believed to be written by Peter.

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 13, 2018

        So they had no idea that it was written in the 2nd century?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 14, 2018

          Some may have suspected this, but most thought it was by Peter — at least those who accepted it.

  6. Avatar
    jhague  November 12, 2018

    “Included among the sinners who suffer eternal torments are those… who have disobeyed their parents…”

    1. Doesn’t the above include everyone? So no one should make it to heaven?

    2. Is it possible that the description of hell and the accompanying tourture was considered too far out there for those making the canon decision?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      1. The truly righteous! 2. Possibly, though a lot of Christians then, as now, really liked that stuff…

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 13, 2018

        Does disobeying parents mean somethig more than being a disrespecful teenager? All kids disobey their parents. Is this meant more from a religious view…disobeying one’s parents by not worshipping God properly?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 14, 2018

          I think it might mean something more like crossing them in a bit way.

          • Avatar
            jhague  November 14, 2018

            Sorry. “in a bit way?”

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 12, 2018

    Why accept the “Book of Revelation” and not the “Gospel of Peter” into the Bible?

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    Leovigild  November 12, 2018

    “He then details the eternal terrors that await those destined for hell and, more briefly (possibly because they are somewhat less interesting and certainly less graphic), the perpetual blessings of those bound for heaven.”

    This would suggest that the description of Hell comes first, but in the translations I can find online, the description of Heaven comes first. Do you know why there is this discrepancy?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      The translations you’re reading must be based on the Greek fragment of the work, which gives the sequence in reverse order to the Ethiopic translation. Every expert has agreed that even though the Ethiopic translation is later, it is based on an earlier form of the Greek text that is the “original” form of the apocalypse. (The Greek fragment we have has been edited, probably to make parts of the Apocalypse fit into the Gospel of Peter; there are compelling reasons for thinking it’s not the original form)

  9. Avatar
    doug  November 12, 2018

    How did Christians who did *not* accept the Gospel of Peter as scripture account for its acceptance as scripture by some churches of the second and third centuries? Sincere disagreement? Deceived by the devil? Those churches had evil people?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018


      • Avatar
        doug  November 13, 2018

        “I’m not wrong – you’re a heretic!”. Reminds me of the Freud joke where he has an argument with another psychologist. In desperation Freud finally yells, “I’m not wrong – you’re sick!”.

  10. Avatar
    wostraub  November 12, 2018

    Peter’s apocalypse appears to focus primarily on providing grisly details of the damned, but what about those who go to heaven? It can’t all be milk and honey (yuck) and praises to God spent eternally on one’s knees (ouch).

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      He has a shorter — very short indeed — description of life in paradise, a literal lush and incredibly pleasant garden.

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  November 12, 2018

    Just a guess but couldn’t one reason that the A of P was not included in the canon be the hint of universalism which I think is found there? Isn’t there a verse that at raises the idea that hell might not be eternal?


  12. Avatar
    drumbeg  November 12, 2018

    I have a couple of different questions: Was this one of the ways in which the early Christians who wrote these books hoped to get converts? Was this a calculated effort? Or did they believe in an eternal hell? If so, and they did believe in a hell with eternal torments, then was this a way to justify for themselves why the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus had not come true, but would in the world to come?

    I definitely plan to buy your new book.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      My sense is that this literature was for *insiders* — not for distribution among potential converts. But part of the idea may have been to equip Christians with views that would help them convert others, and they found ealry on that fire and brimstone proved to be an effective message.

      • Avatar
        Bwana  November 13, 2018

        Pompeii, the ultimate symbol of Roman decadence, was destroyed by fire and brimstone only 9 years after the Romans destroyed the city of God. Retribution following sin, with undeniable finality. Surely this “meme” was milked for all it was worth by those wishing to prove the superiority of their god (eg. Revelation 18). However, since Roman rule did not collapse immediately, the earthly fire&brimstone stuff then got re-imagined as the metaphysical hell at some future date. ( I daresay, just like an earth-bound Kingdom of God got re-imagined as heaven when the 2nd coming didn’t occur as expected.) In any case, it proved to be a very effective message indeed.

  13. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  November 12, 2018

    It is uncanny to me how that kind of text looks like the nahash, the serpent telling us to bite into the fruit of knowledge of what is good or bad…rather that the tree of life. Why it didn’t get into the canon, maybe because the nahash doesn’t like to make himself to obvious. Figuratively speaking of course!

    (just a thought, I haven’t figured that one yet either 😉 )

    But getting back a bit more on the text, if Peter is trying to explain his vision on the mountain that to me is a red flag. Let’s not forget that that is a metaphore that show’s how Peter was wrong (and is showing in the future how the church of Peter will be wrong to want to be living out of touch from this world, way up on the mountain instead of down to earth). In the text it says that Peter wanted to put a tent on the mountain, wish was a mistake . The reference to that mistake can be found when Moses was to go up the mountain, G.od made sure that he had secured the base of the mountain so everybody would stay down.

    That metaphore is showing how the church of Peter will be wrong and so it’s not in it’s interest to put it there, but they did, so it has all the making of being authentic… anything else trying to reverse that to me is a red flag.

  14. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 13, 2018

    So scaring people to death to achieve their conversion is a pretty old Christian practice, right?

    If it is true that Jesus did not preach this kind of heaven/hell, can you estimate how soon after his death such practices emerged? What is the first instance we know of when a Christian missionary/author is scaring their audience to make them convert?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      Yup, it’s been around — since the beginning! Paul himself had a bit of fire and brimstone — only believers in Jesus would survive the coming apocalypse.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  November 13, 2018

        Jesus himself wasn’t above a bit of brimstoning.

        Matthew 10
        14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

  15. Avatar
    caesar  November 14, 2018

    You seem to be persuaded that the NT writers didn’t believe in everlasting punishment/torment. I’m not so sure what to believe about that. Since this relatively early book does teach everlasting punishment, that doctrine must have originated somewhere…Could that indicate that some of the NT books really DID teach everlasting punishment…and the writer of this apocalypse adopted this view from the NT writers?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2018

      I’m not sure which book you’re refeerring to (“this relatively early book”). Do you mean the Apocalypse of Peter? It was written decades after most of the NT books. That’s the point: it embraces a later view.

  16. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 14, 2018

    How can anyone have even a trace of moral authority to threaten his readers with hell for let’s say – blasphemy, when he is lying about his own identity? Such a person is obviously traumatizing and psychologically harming at least a part of his audience (while enlarging it by pretending to be Peter). That’s horrifying. Shouldn’t he be eternally and repeatedly beaten with all such manuscripts he produced (*sarcasm*)?

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 24, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What were these ‘visions’ in the ancient world i.e. Book of Revelation and in Acts? Were they self-induced hallucinations? Or were they just a way of trying to say that something was “of God?”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      I’d say neither of those two options. They were either actual visionary experiences or literary texts meant to convey them.

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    By “actual visionary experiences” are these things today called hallucinations, daydreams, something of that nature? They would have to be, correct? You certainly would not say they were actual insights from God.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2018

      Yes, I if they are visions of things that are not really there, they are hallucinations. But the people who see them still, genuinely, experience them.

  19. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree we have multiple attestation for an appearance to the 11?

    Eleven disciples Matthew 28:16-20
    Eleven disciples John 20:24-29

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