Probably my best-named book is Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  This is a book I wrote so I could use the title.  (A) In fact a publisher wanted to give me a contract for the book, but I turned it down because they wanted me to do other apostles too.  NO! I said.  It’s gotta be these three.  It’s perfect!  They disagreed.  Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.  So I went with a different publisher.  (!)

The short thread I just did on Mary Magdalene gave me an occasion to look back at the book.  I recall writing it with some fondness, in part because it is such a great topic: three of the most important figures in the early years of Christianity: Jesus’ closest disciple, his most important convert/missionary, and the one who is said to have found his empty tomb.  All three have great stories told about them in the New Testament, and from there the stories get, if anything, even more interesting.  Highly legendary, but just as highly intriguing.

The book is made up of eighteen relatively short chapters, six on each of these figures.  To show a bit about how the book works, I thought I could excerpt the very opening, my discussion of Peter.  This will take two posts, from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (Oxford University Press, 2008).


Simon Peter is undoubtedly the best-known disciple of Jesus.  But how well known is he, really?  We know his name — Simon.  And his nickname, allegedly given by Jesus himself, “Cephas” which in the first century was not a name at all, but a noun, meaning “rock.”  The modern equivalent would be “Rocky.”  This at least was his nickname in Aramaic, the language that both Jesus and Simon spoke.  In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for rock is PETRA, whence we get his more commonly known name, “Peter.”  Simon Peter literally, then, means “Simon the Rock.”  Given Simon’s impetuous and unfailingly fickle character during Jesus’ lifetime, one almost wonders if Jesus was being ironic.

But back to our question: how well do we know Peter, the Rock, from our surviving sources?  It is much to be regretted that we don’t have anything like a full biography of him written by any of his contemporaries, even though a number of ancient accounts narrate what he allegedly said and did, both during Jesus’ lifetime and afterwards.  One of the difficulties confronting historians is knowing which of these accounts, if any of them, can be trusted as historically accurate, and which were colored by the legendary impulses prevalent among Christian storytellers of the first several centuries.  The problem involves not only the legends found outside the canonical writings of the New Testament, but even the stories that eventually came to be regarded by Christians as sacred Scripture.  Consider the following examples.

Simon Peter literally, then, means “Simon the Rock.”  Given Simon’s impetuous and unfailingly fickle character during Jesus’ lifetime, one almost wonders if Jesus was being ironic.

Fact and Fiction in the Stories about Peter

In one of our early accounts of Peter’s missionary activities after the death of Jesus, we find him in the forum in Rome, trying to persuade the pagan (i.e., polytheistic) crowds to abandon their false gods and to believe in the power of Jesus, the only son of God.  A woman appears on the scene, completely distressed, for her only son, her love and joy, has just died.  Out of desperation, she appeals to Peter to raise him from the dead.  Peter replies to her: “In the presence of these witnesses go and bring your son, that they may be able to see and believe that he was raised up by the power of God.”[i]  He sends a group of men to retrieve the corpse.  They check to be sure the young man is dead and then bring him to Peter in the middle of the forum. Peter says a brief prayer over the dead body, and then commands, “Young man, arise and walk with your mother as long as you can be of use to her.”  And we are told that the “dead man rose immediately, and the multitude saw and were amazed, and the people cried, ‘You, God the Savior, you, God of Peter, you are the invisible God and Savior.’” Peter’s power is thus vindicated, God is glorified, and the masses convert to follow Christ.

But did this event really happen?  As it turns out, it is not found in the New Testament, but in a collection of writings known as the Acts of Peter, written some 150 years after Peter himself had passed from the scene.  Is it actual history or a pious legend?  Compare it to an account written somewhat earlier.  In the town of Joppa, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, a good Christian woman named Tabitha has recently died.  The disciples are distressed and send to Peter to come and do something.  Without delay he makes his way to town and ascends to the upper room where the body is laid out.  Sending everyone out of the room, Peter kneels by the dead Tabitha and prays.  He then says to her “Tabitha, rise.”  She opens her eyes and gives her hand to Peter, who raises her up, to the amazement of all in Joppa, many of whom come to believe in the power of Jesus as a result.  Here is a story similar to the other, but this one is found in the New Testament (Acts 9:36-43).  How can the historian claim that one of the stories is a fictional narrative and the other is a biographical fact?   Is it enough to say that the author of Acts was recording historical events simply because church fathers living many, many years later decided to include his writings in the canon of Scripture?[ii]


[i].  For apocryphal texts throughout this book I have used the translations found in J. K. Elliott,  The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1993).

[ii].  The first Christian on record who indicated that the twenty-seven books we now have as the New Testament was to be the canon of Scripture was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 CE — that is, some three hundred years after most of the books had been written.  For the debates over which books to include and which to exclude, and a discussion of the grounds for making such decisions, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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2024-02-26T14:26:04-05:00February 27th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

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  1. daniel.calita February 27, 2024 at 2:30 pm

    Hi, Bart!

    What do you think about the christian idea of predestination regarding one’s own faith/salvation? Could it be regarded as unfair and unjust and immoral?

    • BDEhrman February 27, 2024 at 6:33 pm

      It could be and often is!

      • AngeloB March 18, 2024 at 1:21 am

        What was Calvin the Reformer’s justification for predestination?

        • BDEhrman March 18, 2024 at 9:26 pm

          Well, it’s a bit complicated. But if God is all knowing (knowing who will be saved) and completely in control (completely!) then he controls who will be saved and has no surprises. There are also passages that could be referred to (Romans 8:29-30).

  2. mini1071 February 27, 2024 at 5:26 pm

    Professor, your book said “ One of the difficulties confronting historians is knowing which of these accounts, if any of them, can be trusted as historically accurate, and which were colored by the legendary impulses prevalent among Christian storytellers of the first several centuries.”

    What a polite way to say they made stuff up!

    • BDEhrman March 1, 2024 at 5:52 pm

      My mother raised me to be polite. But seriously, “made stuff up” has more of a sense of intentionality to it than I think right, at least when it comes to a generalization. Rumors and false information often just start without any intention at all, as we all know from our daily lives.

      • mini1071 March 1, 2024 at 10:46 pm

        As did mine. I also think I fail at keeping any realistic context of 1st Century Palestine in mind particularly when it comes to the supernatural or superstitious beliefs apparently common. That said, I sometimes wonder if Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) might have been a bit right about mans development of the ability to think rationally vs obeying the “godmind” cerebral hemisphere. After all 100 CE is just short of a millennium after Homer (on whose writings much of Jaynes theory was based) a short period in evolution.

  3. Upozi March 1, 2024 at 3:33 am

    I have sometimes thought that if Shakespeare had written the gospels he would have written the part of Peter for Will Kemp.

  4. Bewilderbeast March 10, 2024 at 2:59 pm

    As a 1955 baby, big fan of Puff the Magic Dragon, whose parents are Peter and Mary, what was the first publisher THINKING!?

    • BDEhrman March 11, 2024 at 8:42 pm

      That’s what I’m sayin’…

  5. trevortimpson March 15, 2024 at 12:54 pm

    Bart, are you struck by the similarity of the Dorcas story to Mark 5.41?

    • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 2:47 pm

      Do you mean the daughter of Jairus? Yes indeed: Talitha cumi (mark 5:41) and Tabith rise (Acts 9:46)? Yup, there is surely a connection — a story modified over time with the punch line slightly changing (my guess is the punch line was changed and then the narrative appropriately to the change)

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