In a previous post I discussed the Apocalypse of Peter that was considered by a number of early Christians to be an inspired book of Scripture. There is another early Christian book with the same name, which is differentiated from the “proto-orthodox” one I’ve already discussed by being normally referred to as the “Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.” It is intriguing both because it has a view of Christ completely different from what became the orthodox view (here the man Jesus and the divine Christ are actually different beings who are temporarily united up to the point of Jesus’ death), and because it claims those with a different view (e.g., the view that “Christ died for the sins of the world”) are the heretics!
Here is how I discuss it in my book Lost Christianities:
Among the gnostic attacks on the superficiality of proto-orthodox views, none is more riveting than the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter discovered at Nag Hammadi. This is not to be confused with the proto-orthodox Apocalypse of Peter in which Peter is given a guided tour of heaven and hell. The Nag Hammadi “apocalypse” or “revelation” portrays the true nature of Christ and castigates the ignorance of the simple minded (= the proto-orthodox) who do not recognize it.
The book begins with the teachings of “The Savior,” who informs Peter that there are many false teachers who are “blind and deaf,” who blaspheme the truth, and teach what is evil. Peter, on the other hand, will be given secret knowledge (Apoc. Pet. 73). Jesus goes on to tell Peter that his opponents are “without perception.” Why? Because “they hold fast to the name of a dead man.” In other words, they think that it is Jesus’ death that matters for salvation. That, of course, had been the proto-orthodox view from the beginning. But for this author, those who maintain such a thing “blaspheme the truth and proclaim evil teaching” (Apoc. Pet. 74).
Indeed, those who confess a dead man cling to death, not to immortal life. These souls are dead and were created for death.
Not every soul comes from the truth nor from immortality. For every soul of these ages has death assigned to it. Consequently it is always a slave. It is created for its desires and their eternal destruction, for which they exist and in which they exist. They (the souls) love the material creatures which came forth with them. But the immortal souls are not like these, O Peter. But indeed as long as the hour has not yet come, she (the immortal soul) will indeed resemble a mortal one (Apoc. Pet. 75).
Gnostics in the world may appear to be like other people; but they are different, not clinging to material things or living according to their desires. Their souls are immortal, even though this is not widely known: “Others do not understand mysteries, although they speak of these things which they do not understand. Nevertheless they will boast that the mystery of the truth is theirs alone” (Apoc. Pet. 76). Who are these who fail to understand, who do not teach the truth? “And there will be others of those who are outside our number who name themselves ‘bishop’ and also ‘deacons,’ as if they have received their authority from God…. These people are dry canals” (Apoc. Pet. 79). This is scarcely complimentary to the leaders of the Christian churches: they are not fountains of knowledge and wisdom but dried-up river beds.
But what is this knowledge that is accessible to the immortal souls that are not riveted to material things? It is knowledge about the true nature of Christ himself and his crucifixion, which is only mistakenly thought (by the proto-orthodox) to refer to the death of Christ for sins. In fact the true Christ cannot be touched by pain, suffering, and death but is well beyond them all. What was crucified was not the divine Christ, but simply his physical shell.
In a captivating scene, Peter is said to witness the crucifixion, and admits to being confused by what he sees: When he had said those things, I saw him apparently being seized by them. And I said, “What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it you yourself whom they take? … Who is this one above the cross, who is glad and laughing? And is it another person whose feet and hands they are hammering?”
Jesus then gives the stunning reply, which shows the true meaning of the crucifixion: The Savior said to me, “He whom you see above the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his physical part, which is the substitute. They are putting to shame that which is in his likeness. But look at him and me.” (Apoc. Pet. 81)
Not Christ himself, but only his physical likeness, is put to death. The living Christ transcends death — literally transcends the cross. For there he is, above it, laughing at those who think they can hurt him, at those who think the divine spirit within him can suffer and die. But the spirit of Christ is beyond pain and death, as are the spirits of those who understand who he really is, who know the truth of who they really are — spirits embodied in a physical likeness, but who cannot suffer or die. The vision then continues:
And I saw someone about to approach us who looked like him, even him who was laughing above the cross, and he was filled with a pure spirit, and he was the Savior…. And he said to me, “Be strong! For you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given, to know through revelation that he whom they crucified is the first-born, and the home of demons, and the clay vessel in which they dwell, belonging to Elohim [i.e., the God of this world], and belonging to the cross that is under the law. But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the primal part in him whom they seized. And he has been released. He stands joyfully looking at those who persecuted him…. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception. Indeed, therefore, the suffering one must remain, since the body is the substitute. But that which was released was my incorporeal body” (Apoc. Pet., 82)
The body is just a shell, belonging to the creator of this world [= Elohim, the Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament]. The true self is within, and cannot be touched by physical pain. Those without this true knowledge think they can kill Jesus. But the living Jesus rises above it all and laughs them to scorn. And who is really the object of his derision? The proto-orthodox, who think that the death of Jesus is the key to salvation. For this author, this is a laughable view. Salvation does not come in the body; it comes by escaping the body. It is not the dead Jesus who saves but the living Jesus. So-called believers who don’t understand are not the beneficiaries of Jesus’ death; they are mocked by it.