The Apocalypses of Peter

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Apocalypse of Peter was well known even before its discovery in 1886-87 at Akhmim in Upper Egypt. This Greek version was found alongside the Gospel of Peter, buried in the tomb of a monk dating back to the 8th or 9th century. It consisted of frayed parchment leaves. It was probably written early in the second century. This copy now resides in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

This version had been extensively quoted among the Church Fathers and other early Christian documents. Though it was considered sacred literature for centuries, it was eventually rejected once leaders came to terms with the fact that Peter did not actually write it. It was written pseudonymously. The essence of this text is a trip through heaven and hell. Scholars have questioned whether, in reality, Peter accompanied Jesus on this journey, or if the telling of it was so graphic that Peter actually felt as though he was there. Some credit this document as the basis for Dante's The Divine Comedy.

Its setting is derived from Mark 13, which begins with Jesus and his disciples leaving theTtemple. One of them comments on the majestic stones, whereupon Jesus proceeds to describe the events of the last days. While listening to his apocalyptic discourse, Peter asks for more information about the coming Judgment. Jesus provides more details and then reveals to him a vision of the heavens and then of hell. Heaven will be the final resting place for the faithful; hell will be reserved for those who deserve punishment.

Heaven is addressed first, but the description of hell is considerably longer and very explicit. Few images are spared in chapters 7 through 12, where various crimes are matched to specific punishments. Let's say, for example, that someone had blasphemed. Their punishment would be hanging by their tongue over a fiery pit (apparently for eternity). Women who had committed adultery would be hung by their hair, men by their loins. Murderers would be placed in a pit with creeping things. Women who had had abortions and homosexuals were singled out for punishment, as were those who lent money with interest. The latter group would stand waist high in a lake of foul matter.

In contrast, the faithful followers would be beautiful, with milky white skin and curly hair. They would live in the realm of everlasting flowers and spices. Their clothes would be made of light, like the angels, and everyone would sing in prayer.

At the end of the revelation, Jesus invited Peter to accompany him to the holy mountain where they beheld two men more radiant than the sun. Jesus explained that these were Moses and Elijah, at which point Peter asked whether he should build three tabernacles, one for Jesus and one for each of them. Jesus retorted, "Satan has veiled your understanding." He added that his eyes needed to be opened and his ears unstopped in order for him to see "the tabernacle not made with human hands." Then Peter saw it, and "we were full of gladness."

With that, Peter heard a voice from heaven proclaiming, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Then a cloud came and bore away Jesus and Moses and Elijah. After a glimpse of heaven – comprised of men and angels – the gates were shut tight. Nonetheless, "we" prayed and "went down from the mountain, glorifying God, who had written the names of the righteous in the book of life." If only one lesson were to be learned from these visions of heaven and hell, it would have to be that each person should make the right choice and stay free of sin.

The Coptic/Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter probably comes from around the 3rd or 4th century. It is not to be confused with the one found at Akhmim, which was already quoted by several of the Church Fathers in the latter part of the second century. A copy of this Ethopic (Coptic) one was first discovered in 1910. Then another was found amid the Nag Hammadi library in 1945. This Coptic version of the Apocalypse of Peter was well preserved, with only a few letters missing at the bottom of a few pages. Scholars think it was probably a translation of an earlier Greek document. Its many references to other New Testament documents suggest a later date, allowing them time to become authoritative.

As a Gnostic text, it takes the crucifixion to its docetic conclusion by describing a laughing Jesus who chastised people for thinking they would be made pure by clinging to the "name of a dead man." It is a highly Gnostic text bearing many similarities to others found at the same time.

The text is comprised of three revelations that the Savior interprets for Peter. It begins with the Savior sitting in the temple in the three hundredth year of the covenant. He was, once again, talking with Peter and praising him for his strengths while reminding him that he was specifically chosen to lead the remnant. While the Savior was still speaking, Peter saw a mob of priests and others running up to them with stones, as if to kill them. Though Peter was fearful, the Savior assured him that the people were blind. Peter was to cover his eyes and then tell the Savior what he could see. Obviously, he could see nothing.

The Savior told him to (cover his eyes) again, and this time Peter saw a great light. In the light, the priests were praising Jesus. As a result, Peter realized that some people are blind and deaf, and he needed to exercise caution in what he revealed to them. Some people will not be capable of understanding the truth; in their ignorance, they will blaspheme. Others will initially believe, but then they will fall away. If the immortal ones (the Gnostics) should mingle with these unenlightened people, the Gnostics would become prisoners of them and "they will cleave to the name of a dead man" in the hopes of becoming pure. Though that might be their hope, it will not be the result; indeed, all of those people will be greatly defiled. Judgment awaits those who are blind, and, in the end, they will not prevail.

There is also a transitional story about fruit-bearing trees and fig trees. Peter didn't understand the metaphor. His questions allowed the Savior to explain that the fig tree was Israel. Because it had not produced any fruit for years, the Savior gave the order to have it dug up. The gardener, however, wanted to water and care for it, hoping it would bloom. Eventually, shoots would arise, referring to the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and had suffered martyrdom. These are additional metaphors for those who know the truth and those who don't. The ones who oppose the truth might seem to propagate for a time. They may look victorious until the Savior's return (the Parousia). Then all would be changed. At this, Peter woke up from his revelatory vision.

There is also a section, which claims that God will save all sinners in the end. "It is because of them that have believed in me that I am come. It is also because of them that have believed in me, that, at their word, I shall have pity on men... " It appears then, that all will be saved because of, or by the prayers of, those who are already in heaven. However, Peter cautions believers not to speak of this because this was meant to be a secret.

The issue here probably reflects the divisions between the Gnostics and Orthodox Christianity, which were rampant in the third century. By this time, Gnosticism had been declared a heresy. Obviously, various factions within the early church were actively persecuting the Gnostics, who were convinced of their immortal essence. Surely, it is no accident, then, that Peter is the focus of this document; he was chosen by Jesus and was his chief spokesperson. Having him speak these words would obviously have been an affront to the orthodox community.

The last Apocalypse of Peter is the Ru'ya Butrus. More than 100 manuscripts exist of this Arabic Christian document, some with different titles. Many of these are held in the Vatican library or at Oxford. It appears that some are based on a Syriac tradition, while others are associated with the Coptic/Ethiopic versions. The wording and translations, then, vary considerably. The apocalyptic language refers either to Roman or Byzantine emperors, or to Arab leaders. Some repeat the same apocalypsetic narrative over and over. As scholars continue to study them and perfect their understanding of the ancient languages, more insights are sure to be found. Many think this is only the beginning.

Though the texts vary greatly, the Apocalypse of Peter is somewhat similar to the Second Epistle of Peter. There are also similarities to the Sibylline Oracles (ca 2nd Century BCE to 5th Century CE), a collection of utterances by the Sibylline Prophetesses. One must remember, however, that all of these documents have been highly edited and translated over the centuries. Obviously, more work needs to be done to determine what's original and what's been added. Many, however, think these texts were the basis for much of the information about classical mythology and early Gnostic beliefs.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha