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

My Readers’ Mailbag is stuffed, and I need to clear out a few questions to make room for others that come in.  So I may be answering more than normal over the next couple of weeks.  Here is one that I find intriguing:



If you could choose any currently-fragmentary or otherwise lacunose document from antiquity and magically receive a reconstructed version to read, what would it be?



Wow.   There are lots to choose from.   I would probably come up with different answers on different days of the week, but the first thing that springs to mind is the Gospel of Peter, one of the most interesting of the ancient non-canonical Gospels.  We have only a fragment of the book, which begins smack dab in the middle of an episode and ends, literally, in the middle of a sentence.   To show why that’s so tantalizing, let me first say a bit about what the Gospel is (at least that part of it we still have!).

The Gospel comes from one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of Christian texts in the nineteenth century.  In the winter season of 1886-87 a French archaeological team headed by M. Grébant was digging in Akhmîm in Upper Egypt, in a portion of a cemetery that contained graves ranging from the eighth to the twelfth centuries CE.  They uncovered the grave of a person they took to be a Christian monk, who had been buried with a book.  Among other things, the book contained a fragmentary copy of a Gospel written in the name of Peter.

It is a parchment manuscript (P. Cair. 10759) of sixty-six pages, averaging 13 x 16 cm, containing a small anthology of four texts in Greek, all of them fragmentary (the manuscript itself is not fragmentary; the works copied into it are incomplete): the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of Enoch, and the Martrydom of St. Julian.  The first page is adorned with a cross; the second page starts, at the top, frustratingly, in the middle of a sentence (or at least an episode): “…but none of the Jews washed his hands, nor did Herod or any of his judges. Since they did not wish to wash, Pilate stood up.”

Whoa!  That’s where it *starts*.  Obviously …

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A Very Strange Saying: From the Gospel of Peter?
And Then There Was Q



  1. Avatar
    doug  December 4, 2017

    How sad that Christian writings such as the Gospel of Peter contributed to antisemitism.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 6, 2017

      It is. And nothing can ever justify what came later.

      There was probably little or no tolerance of early Christians by Jews. They were reviled, driven away, and sometimes physically attacked when they tried to win converts.

      It would have been very disturbing to most Jews that these heretics were winning converts–even a Pharisee’s son like Paul, who had begun by persecuting them. I think we can say, without question, that the Christians didn’t strike the first blows. (Never mind that Jesus told them never to strike back at all).

      Not all or even most persecution of Christians came from Jews, but the first people who noticed them as a distinct group were Jews, because to most pagans, Jews and Christians were the same thing. Later, when Israel rose up against Rome, it became necessary as a matter of survival for the still non-violent Christians to make that distinction clear. And over time, it just became a reflex reaction, an emotional prejudice, ingrained from birth. Which then had to be justified, rationalized. As prejudices invariably are.

      Hate begets hate. So don’t hate. Jesus told them that. They all should have listened. So should we.

      • Avatar
        essar  January 14, 2018

        It might even be sadder that the root causes of early Christian anti-Semitism — a struggle between sects after the fall of the second temple — wasn’t understood during centuries of violence and death. Its practitioners were almost programmed by tradition yet lacked an understanding of its reckless and capricious purpose.

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    ardeare  December 4, 2017

    I’m glad this fellow also carried with him “The Book of Enoch.” He must have been a free thinker and not caught up in societal pressures to conform with Jewish or Christian orthodoxy.

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    anthonygale  December 4, 2017

    I have a similar type of question…If you could pick five figures from early Christianity to interview, who would they be and why? I’d imagine Jesus and Paul would probably make the list, but who else? And how flabbergasted do you think Jesus would be if you showed him what came of his ministry?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      1. Yes, Jesus and Paul. And, I supposed, Peter, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. 2. He’d be floored.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  December 5, 2017

        According to Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters), Jesus would never stop throwing up.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 7, 2017

          Yes, well, let he who is without sin……

      • Lev
        Lev  December 5, 2017

        If you could choose more, would John the Baptist make the cut?

        The baptism of Jesus seems to me to be the starting gun on Jesus’ ministry and I’ve always wanted to know what really happened.

      • Avatar
        doug  December 5, 2017

        Good choices. I’d have to include Judas Iscariot.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  December 6, 2017

        I can imagine the look on Jesus’ face at his first glimpse of the Vatican, and the thought that the Popes were his representatives.

    • Robert
      Robert  December 5, 2017

      Also got to interview James, the brother of the Lord. If I had to limit it to five, I’d leave out Mary in favor of James.

  4. Avatar
    tskorick  December 4, 2017

    What do you think of Ron Cameron’s suggesting that The Gospel of Peter may be based on a proto-gospel that predates the synoptic gospels? I thought the rather pronounced blame of the Jews for Jesus’ execution and also the sacking of Jerusalem were elements that emerged in later Christian works …

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      The idea was developed most fully by John Dominic Crossan in his book The Cross that Spoke; it has not proved persuasive to most scholars (I know of only one other who actually buys it); but it is a clever thesis!

  5. Avatar
    billw977  December 4, 2017

    Interesting. I would also be interested in what would be your comments about this new “discovery” of a gnostic gospel of Peter in Greek.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      This is the Secret book of James. We already knew the book from a Coptic translation; this though is the first time we had a portion of it in its original Greek. So it’s not the discovery of an unknown text, but of a Greek version of a known text. Still, really terrific!

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    Judith  December 4, 2017

    Very intriguingly written, Dr. Ehrman!

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    J.J.  December 4, 2017

    Nice pick, for sure. Just for fun, what would be your top 5 or 10 other items?
    Let’s limit it to items that we actually have tangible fragments, not mere patristic quotes or hypothetical sources (Q, etc.). Fwiw, I’m drawing up my own list, before I see yours.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      Not sure about ten, but tops on my list would be the Diatessaron, Papyrus Egerton 2; Gospel of Philip (key passage: maybe I’ll post on it); Papyrus Oxyrhnchus 4009 (see today’s post); and the Gospel of the Savior.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  December 5, 2017

        Nice list. My list was: P.Egerton 2, 0212, p37, p69, 0171, p25, the Fayyum fragment, P.Oxy 840, P.Oxy. 1224, and
        p64/67. It would be quite fascinating if each of these existed in their entirety for study. Oh well. Honorable mention to Codex Bobiensis and 0207.

  8. Avatar
    bknight  December 4, 2017

    Bart, I know this calls for speculation, but have you wondered why anyone would have copied incomplete works into the parchment manuscript? Why would they have valued fragments of gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      The best guess is that they found a few pages of a text, they thought it was really important, and they wanted to preserve it for posterity, probably regretting very much that there was no more of the text that survived.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 8, 2017

        Were they counting on grave robbers to find and appreciate its value? Seems odd to me, but it was another time and place. How many other intriguing texts have been recovered from the ransacking of burial grounds?

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    RonaldTaska  December 5, 2017

    Hmmm? Why would the disciples grieve after seeing Jesus raised from the grave? Shouldn’t they be joyous instead?

    Another very interesting blog. I have no idea how in the world you have produced so many interesting and wide ranging blogs, but thanks and keep going.

    Obviously, the Gospel of Peter sounds pretty fantastic and it makes me wonder if the Biblical Gospels might have also seemed fantastic to me if I had not been raised on them….

    • Bart
      Bart  December 5, 2017

      Apparently, in this text, the women had learned Jesus had been raised but the men hadn’t heard yet.

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  December 6, 2017

      I have lived a completely secular existence till entering the Catholic Church in my 60s. Read the New Testament for the first time, and fell away from reading the Old. To your point, I was not raised on the Gospels, and I find them to be astonishing.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 6, 2017

        I’m fascinated by the difference in people’s experiences! Not critical of anyone’s choices, just intrigued by the number of different paths taken. I was raised Catholic, and I’ve been an agnostic/non-theist since at least my mid20s.

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  December 6, 2017

        I was raised Jewish (orthodox) and never read the N.T. until in my 30’s. I’m now 65. I, too, find the N.T. fascinating even though I’m an agnostic. I’m very intrigued by religions and the absolute faith that their texts generate. I do have to say that this Gospel seems to stretch the imagination a bit too far for any except the most mystical (gullible?) believers unless it was meant to be entirely allegorical. I know that being raised in a religion makes some of the fantastical seem reasonable to the insiders and absurd to outsiders but would a walking, talking cross be believable to even an ANE person? I’m fascinated by all of it!

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 8, 2017

          I’d rank it about on the same level as a talking bush. I could buy the talking, but if was a bush with the power of speech, and I was on fire, the first words I’d utter would be “AHHHHH!! Somebody bring water! Put me out!”

          I’d imagine a very large number of these stories–myths in general–were not originally mean to be taken as literal recountings of past events. Not necessarily allegories, per se, but not written the way you’d write a chronicle of a war that just ended, or some other historic event. There is an element of artistry involved here. Poetic license, in a sense.

          I mean, we don’t go to a Dali exhibition and say “Watches don’t deflate like balloons.” (Well, I don’t). The imagery, in both cases, is meant to create an effect in the minds of a receptive audience.

          Since most Christians have never heard of, let alone read, the Gospel of Peter, it’s all kind of moot, but I still want to know why that bush isn’t begging somebody to come put it out. 😉

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    steveandcris  December 9, 2017

    I’ve always thought that it was quite the story of stories as far as as Gospels go.Who can’t appreciate persons with their heads in the sky and a walking talking cross! They had to wake the centurion? All that going on. Towns people etc. what about the part “ but we, the TWELVE disciples of the Lord cried and grieved” Huh? Peter is telling us a very different Judas story with that statement……….is he not?

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