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Why Shouldn’t We Trust the Non-Canonical Gospels Attributed to Peter?
by J Warner Wallace
When I first started investigating the reliability of the New Testament Gospels, I was fascinated by the ancient non-Canonical stories and legends related to Jesus. While they were written too late to be legitimate eyewitness accounts, they were built on the core truths of Gospels (albeit altered and embellished by authors with specific motivations). There are good reasons to reject these texts, but there is much we can learn about Jesus as well. I’ll be examining a number of non-canonical documents over the next several weeks in an effort to discover how they differ from the reliable accounts, why they were rejected by the Church, and what we can learn about Jesus, in spite of their unreliability. We’ll begin with the work of ancient authors who attempted to legitimize their stories by attributing them to Apostle Peter:
The Preaching of Peter (100-150AD)
The original manuscript of the Preaching of Peter is now lost to us. We do, however, have a few fragments and evidence from letters written by Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) and Origen (185-254AD) that quote the Preaching of Peter in several places. In addition, Origen wrote early church leaders like Heracleon used the text alongside the canonical Gospels.
Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
The text does not appear in early lists of canonical documents and may not have been considered worthy of addition based on the fact it appeared in history well after the life of Peter (too late in history to have been written by him), and did not add significant, new (or even contradictory) material to the eyewitness account of Jesus.
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How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus?
The few quotations available to us corroborate several elements of the historical account of Jesus. The Preaching of Peter describes Jesus as the real, historical “Son of God” through whom God created the universe and everything in it. The text also affirms that Jesus had many disciples, and from these disciples twelve were specifically chosen and commissioned to preach the Gospel. The Preaching of Peter corroborates Jesus’ persecution at the hands of the Jews, His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The text also affirms the Old Testament prophetic predictions related to Jesus and the Biblical notion that only those who hear and believe are saved.
Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
In the few passages that are available to us from the letter of Clement, nothing from the Preaching of Peter appears to contradict or distort the orthodox teaching related to Jesus.
The Gospel of Peter (150-200AD)
The Gospel of Peter was first discovered by the French archaeologist, Urbain Bouriant in 1886. He recovered the 8-9th century manuscript from a monk’s grave in Akhmim Egypt, approximately six miles from the Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library discovery. The text available to us is only a fragment and it represents a narrative description of the Passion of Jesus (His crucifixion and resurrection). It is unknown if the original Gospel of Peter was a complete narrative about the life of Jesus or if the text was always limited to the Passion. The Gospel of Peter may have been very popular among early Christians and was certainly known to the early Church Fathers.
Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
Eusebius mentions the Gospel of Peter and cites a letter written by Serapion, the Bishop of Antioch between 190 and 203AD. Serapion describes the Gospel of Peter as mostly trustworthy, declaring that “most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour”. But Serapion also condemned the text and warned that some parts incorrectly described Jesus in a Gnostic or “Docetic” manner, as a spirit whose body was only an illusion. Much later in history, Church leaders continued to condemn the work as heretical; both Jerome and Pope Gelasius I classified the text in this manner. In any case, scholars date the Gospel of Peter to the late 2nd century and consider any internal claims related to Peter’s authorship to be inauthentic. The Gospel of Peter appears in history far too late to have been written by Peter…