I’m still working through Ancient Christianity and have been, mostly, reading up on the Second Century. I say mostly because what I’ve recently buried myself with have been Apocrypha. I started this off by reading the New Testament a few weeks ago and when I started looking for other source material I immediately went to Apocrypha. Many of these were developed in the Second Century but quite a few were from the Third and some even later. 1
Let me begin by talking about what is meant by Apocrypha – and I’m sure there are definitions and Wikipedia entries out there. Apocrypha are Christian texts which were not included in the New Testament Canon. There are various reasons for this but primarily the Canon includes what I’d call texts which are written by direct witnesses to Christ, or at least what folks in the 3rd and 4th centuries believed were direct witnesses. They were authored by, or at least considered to be reliable testimonies about, those who had direct contact with Christ. In this context, Christ appearing to Paul(Saul of Tarsus) in order to convert him is considered direct contact. The Apocrypha are not necessarily texts considered non-Orthodox. Many of them are what came to be viewed as mainstream (considering anything mainstream doesn’t really work until 325 after the Council of Nicaea). Many of them are not. The sheer number of Apocryphal texts provides very good evidence regarding the variety of beliefs which developed in the early days of Christianity. You have major players such as Gnostics (more of these have survived than others because of the Nag Hammadi texts), Ebionites and Manichaeans and other, less well-represented groups such as Cainites and Elchasaites. And let me be clear, “less well-represented” does not necessarily mean they weren’t as numerous, it just means we have less textual evidence for them. This may be because there were fewer adherents or it may be due to the accident of survival. Texts considered heretical tended not to be preserved.
One other qualifier which I want to note. I’m going to feature texts which are interesting (at least to me), historically important, or which are rather extreme deviations from what became Orthodox. At times I may use disparaging, or at least humorous language to refer to these because, as someone brought up with a Protestant Christian belief system, some of this stuff is “out there” from that perspective. At the same time people have a right to believe what they want to believe (this right was not recognized in the Ancient or Medieval periods). There are groups today who, for example, believe that ensuring the spiritual continuity of relatives is best achieved by ritual cannibalism after their death. This sounds crazy to me but it obviously doesn’t to them. And for some reason, though the actual eating of the dead seems a bit odd, the ritual cannibalism inherent in the Eucharist; some variant of, “Take, eat; This is my body which was shed for you,” seems perfectly normal to me. It’s all what you’re used to. So with all those qualifiers out of the way, I’m going to begin by talking about The Acts of Peter.
The text which came to be known as the Acts of Peter was likely composed in the second half of the second century, possibly in 180-90. It was originally a Greek text and has largely been preserved in a single Latin manuscript, a codex at Vercelli dating from the 6th-7th century, though other fragments have been found. While the Vercelli manuscript is fairly complete some of the opening portions are fragmentary. 2 There are a variety of themes included within it, including an account of Peter’s crucifixion, but I’m going to focus on the contest between Peter and Simon Magus.
Simon Magus was a rather important figure in Early Christianity and stories about him continued to pop up now and then throughout the Medieval period (and possibly later). He first appears in Acts 8:9-24 as a magician in Samaria who had achieved considerable local notoriety. In the New Testament, Simon is not portrayed as evil so much as misguided. He hears Philip preach, converts and is baptized. Later he sees Peter and John laying hands on people to grant them the Holy Spirit and he offers them money so that he might gain this power. Peter scolds him for thinking he can buy this with money and Simon finishes by asking Peter to pray for him on account of his sin. Simon’s sort of a powerful screw-up but in this context he is portrayed in such a way as to serve as an object lesson for the rich and powerful, that wealth cannot purchase God’s favor, and as an example of how the power of God trumps that of earthly magic. Not such a terrible person.
This changes in the Acts of Peter. Here we find Simon coming to Rome, flying in on a cloud of dust (or as a cloud of dust) and proceeding to encourage apostasy in many of the newly converted. While in Jerusalem, Peter receives a vision that Simon, whom he had expelled from Judea (note the change from the account in Acts), is in Rome and acting as an agent of Satan. On reaching Rome, Peter preaches to the people who had been corrupted by Simon. Their faith renewed, they urge Peter to overthrow Simon who is staying with a Roman Senator, Marcellus.
At one time Marcellus had been a generous man, giving to the poor and seeing to the care of the destitute. Now he has been influenced by Simon and regrets all his good works. When Peter reaches Marcellus’ house to challenge Simon, he is refused entrance. Peter then grants a dog Human speech and the dog enters the house and challenges Simon. Simon and the dog argue for a while. In the meantime Marcellus repents and asks Peter to forgive him – there are some seriously fickle people in this story, and we’re just getting started. Finally, after giving Simon a good scolding, the dog returns to Peter, tells him everything that’s happened and lays down and dies.
Since the talking-dog-as-envoy strategy didn’t work Peter decides to perform some miracles. He grabs some smoked fish hanging in a merchant’s window and throws them in a pond where they start swimming around. After all this Marcellus kicks Simon out of his house. Making the best of a bad situation, Simon challenges Peter and says that he’ll show him who has more power.
A couple of days later (Peter performs several miracles in the interim) Simon and Peter have their contest in the Roman Forum. First they engage in a little trash-talking where Peter yells at Simon for wanting to buy God’s favor while Simon tells Peter his God is nothing more than a carpenter, from a family of carpenters, from a nothing place like Judea, and not only that but his God was executed, what kind of God is that? Peter gives a comeback based on scripture and the contest begins.
The Prefect, Agrippa, isn’t screwing around and goes for the big guns right off. He tells Simon to kill a young man and for Peter to restore him. After Simon kills him with a whisper Peter takes his time, earning a bit of abuse from the prefect who liked the young man (what’s he do to people he doesn’t like?) and the dead man’s mother but he restores him. Another woman, whose son has just died, begs Peter to restore him as well. Peter has the body brought to the forum and challenges Simon to revive him. Simon takes this on and tells the people of Rome that if he’s successful they must run him out of town. The Romans say they won’t just kick Peter out but burn him.
Before long the young man’s limbs start to move and (I’ll quote this because it’s too good), “… at once they began to look for wood and kindling, in order to burn Peter.” 3 Peter takes issue with this and says that if the man’s really alive he should get up, ask for his mother, walk around, etc. The prefect makes sure Simon can’t manipulate the body and discovering that the man is dead the crowd decides Simon should be burned instead but Peter restrains them, then restores the man.
Having lost this contest, Simon at least shows that he is persistent as he travels around Rome performing miracles which Peter repeatedly exposes as fraudulent. Finally Simon gives up and tells the people of Rome that they’re fools for believing Peter and he’ll fly away. As Simon starts to fly Peter cries out to Jesus that if Simon flies away all the good he’s been able to do, including people he’s converted, will be undone, but that Jesus shouldn’t kill him, just break his leg. Simon falls, breaks his leg, but later dies while it’s being operated on.
Good stuff here. As I was reading it I was thinking that this would make a pretty fair starting point for a modern movie. You have good versus evil, talking dogs, people killed and restored, flying bad guys defeated by the forces of good, a fickle crowd (burn him – no, burn HIM!) what more does Hollywood need? I’ve always thought that people who refuse to read religious works, even if they want to read them as literature, not for religion, are missing a lot. There are plenty of good stories in the Bible and the Apocrypha have a bunch too.
NOTE: The Acts of Peter is in Schneelmacher and Wilson(2003) and Ehrman(2003). Schneelmacher and Wilson offers a more comprehensive analysis and variants found in different manuscripts/fragments.
1 There are 27 Books of the Canonical New Testament. The number of Apocrypha flat out dwarfs this number. I’ve listed the collections of Apocrypha which I have here and will be using whenever I make one of these posts.
2 Based on Schneelmacher and Wilson(2003), p 277 this was likely titled Actus Petri apostoli and is found in cod. Verc. CLVIII.
3 Acts of Peter 28 in Schneelmacher and Wilson(2003).
Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.
Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0195-14182-5.
Ehrman, Bart and Plese, Zlatko, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011). ISBN:978-0-19-973210-4.
Hennecke, E., Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings, Volume 1, Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Press (1973). ISBN:978-0-334-01111-8.
Kasser, Rudolphe, Meyer, Marvin & Wurst, Gregor, The Gospel of Judas, Washington: National Geographic Society (2006). ISBN:978-1-4262-0042-7.
Lipsius, Richard Adelbert and Wright, William, Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: Edited From Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum and Other Libraries, London: William and Norgate (1871).
Meyer, Marvin, The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth, New York: HarperCollins (2005). ISBN:978-0-06-076208-7.
Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, New York: Random House (2005). ISBN:978-0-375-50156-2.
Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 8: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age Fourth Printing, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN:1-56563-090-4.
Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume, New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.
Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN:9780664227227.