Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Gospel of Peter: Setting expectations on the authors' terms

In the current series, we have this and one more writing to analyze before completing the review of documents that are in the scope of the series. Today we will review the Gospel of Peter which survives only in a fragment.

Here is a sample how of the document introduces several of the items contained in it:
  • ... but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges.  
  • Joseph stood there, the friend of Pilate and the Lord, and knowing that they were about to crucify him, he went to Pilate and asked for the body of the Lord for burial. 
  • They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, "Let's drag the son of God since we have him in our power."
  • And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them.
  • Now it was midday and darkness prevailed over all Judea.  
The document introduces different items are generally introduced with people, actions, and times; sometimes there are also places. That is to say, in the Gospel of Peter we have a narrative of events. In the surviving fragment, the timeframe begins when Pilate sentences "the Lord" to death and ends after the women have found the tomb empty and some of the disciples head out fishing. While "the Lord" is never named in the document available to me with the remaining pages, I have not heard anyone seriously question whether Jesus is the intended reference.

In contrast to some other documents we have reviewed, the Gospel of Peter does not make a habit of mentioning the specific location of events. One interesting exception is that the location of the tomb is said to be called "Joseph's Garden". There are also details of the guard deployment at the tomb that are not recorded in the Biblical accounts such as the name of the centurion Petronius. 

When reading a narrative like the Gospel of Peter -- something that covers events that are familiar from other sources -- it can be tricky to get a fresh view of the events from only the material in the current document. It can also be tricky to gauge whether that document's author intends for the current account to be seen entirely separately from any other accounts that they might have expected their readers to know. For instance:
Now it was the last day of Unleavened Bread, and many were returning to their homes since the feast was ending. But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, continued weeping and mourning, and each one still grieving for what had happened, left for his own home. But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, took our fishing nets and went to the sea. With us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord...
The end of the fragment leaves the reader anticipating but not certain that the next event may have been Jesus in a post-resurrection appearance to Simon Peter, Andrew, and Levi. The fragment that we have shows basic agreement with other known accounts on the main points of the narrative: that Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and his tomb was discovered empty by the women including Mary of Magdala. And yet the account here is not entirely like that found in the New Testament gospels. (Speaking for myself, I find the timing and location of the fishing trip to be a point of interest, since the Biblical gospels place the fishermen as having boats on the Sea of Galilee some distance away from Jerusalem, while the Gospel of Peter indicates that they had their nets with them in Jerusalem at the feast, and isn't specific about which sea they might have fished on that day starting from Jerusalem.) It would be a worthwhile study of its own to compare and contrast certain details in this writing to those from the accounts in the Bible.