Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tales From Apocrypha 4: Touring Hell in the Apocalypse of Peter

I’m in the middle of one of my lulls when it comes to history. My work that I get paid to do has been quite full and I was involved with a major conference last week. And I was unexpectedly elected as Vice Chair of a committee at this meeting so it doesn’t look like this will ease up. At least my presentation went well though I had a bit of a “gulp” moment when I realized that I would be discussing preparedness for radiological emergencies with an audience which included someone from Japan. Between that and the absolutely gorgeous fall weather we’ve had around here my history reading has been playing third fiddle to my job and working outside. This will end eventually and I’ll dive back into history but this blog may be fairly quiet for a time.

Or maybe not. One of the advantages of having spent several months last winter reading non-canonical texts is that I have a reservoir of 232 (just checked my sources spreadsheet for the number) apocrypha to draw on. I suspect that I could come up with at least a couple of dozen of these which I think are interesting enough to write about.

Most readers of this blog will be at least somewhat familiar with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy or La Comedia. Dante was not the first to receive a guided tour of Heaven and Hell. While Dante’s is the most detailed, these types of accounts had been around since the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest known example is the Apocalypse of Peter. I’ll be abbreviating this as AP for the rest of this post.

The AP exists in two versions; a Greek version which is quite fragmentary discovered in Egypt during the winter of 1886-87 and a more complete Ethiopian version known from 1910. The Greek text appears to date from the 8th or 9th centuries and the Ethiopian from the 7th or 8th. Based on references to it from early Christian authors, particularly Clement of Alexandria, who according to Eusebius considered it canonical, it is believed to date to the first half of the second century and to have originated in Egypt. 1

The AP begins while Peter, James, John and Andrew accompany Jesus to the Mount of Olives in Mark 13. In addition to the apocalypse Jesus describes, Peter has been granted a more detailed vision which is depicted as basically a continuation of what is given in the Gospel. Guided by Jesus, he is given a tour of Hell and Heaven where he sees the punishments given out to various categories of sinners. As it is the more complete version, I’ll use the Ethiopic translation from Schneemelcher and Wilson (2003) pp 625-35 for my comments.

The detail is nothing like in Dante but the AP has separate sections of Hell reserved for different sorts of transgressions. As I think these are interesting, I’ll list the sections of Hell, their descriptions, and who is sentenced to spend eternity there (the AP has no purgatory and no indication that anyone will ever escape his or her punishment).

  • Verse 7: People who have blasphemed will be hung by their tongues over a fire.
  • Verse 7: Women who fornicate will be hung by their hair and necks and men who fornicate by their thighs in a burning pit.
  • Verse 7: Murderers and those who aided them will be cast into a fire full of venomous creatures as the souls of those who were murdered by them watch.
  • Verse 8: Women who had abortions are buried to their necks in excrement while lightning from the eyes of the children they killed pierce them. The milk from the breasts of these women produce creatures which eat their flesh and that of their husbands who were complicit. Women receive the most attention in this one but men get theirs too.
  • Verse 9: Ezrael casts the burning bodies of those who persecuted the righteous into a dark place where a wrathful spirit torments them and a worm eats their intestines.
  • Verse 9: The slanderers and those who deny Christ have their eyes put out with hot irons and chew their tongues.
  • Verse 9: The deceivers, particularly those who slew the martyrs by lying, have their lips cut off and are tormented by a fire that enters their mouths and burns their entrails.
  • Verse 9: Those who coveted wealth are dressed in rags and impaled upon a pillar of fire.
  • Verse 10: Those who practiced usury are cast into a place of filth which they are immersed in to their knees. Not that I’m going to rank these or anything but this one seems relatively mild compared to the others.
  • Verse 10: Those who worshiped idols are repeatedly thrown down from a high place, driven back up it by demons, then thrown down again.
  • Verse 10: Ezrael has prepared a place near the preceding torment into which all idols are cast and burned and those who made these idols or followed devils are tormented in eternal chains of fire.
  • Verse 11: Those who have not honored their father and mother stumble while on a high place and roll down into a place of fire and fear only to have to climb back up and repeat the process.
  • Verse 11: Related to the previous, those who love their sins, did not obey their parents, or honor their elders are hung up to be eaten by flesh-eating birds.
  • Verse 11: Maidens who did not remain virgins until marriage receive the same punishment (carnivorous birds) as the previous.
  • Verse 11: Disobedient slaves chew their tongues and are tormented by fire.
  • Verse 12: Those who claimed to be righteous but weren’t are stricken blind and dumb and cast onto coals of fire.
  • Verse 12: Sorcerers and sorceresses are hung upon a whirling wheel of fire.

Peter is also granted a vision of heaven and sees the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. Heaven is depicted as a garden, fragrant and beautiful. As with this post, the AP devotes far more time to Hell than to Heaven.

There is an attempt to make the punishment fit the crime though I’ll admit that the significance of some of the punishments escapes me. One other interesting note is the appearance of the Angel of Death (or punishment), Ezrael (Azrael). He is not mentioned in either the Old or New Testament, or at least not in what the Catholic Church determined to be canonical. As he is not mentioned in the Greek fragments, only the Ethiopian, and as he is more prominent in Islam, this may be a case where early Islam influenced early post-Arab Conquest Egyptian Christianity. I’m sure someone’s written about this someplace but I haven’t come across it.

Also, while there’s nothing in this text to indicate that this will be his role, as Peter has sometimes been considered the holder of the keys to Heaven, I suppose it makes sense that he’d get a closer look at what he’d help consign souls to. It would be pretty tenuous to use this one text as part of the origin of that tradition but I still found it interesting.

Image of Saint Peter from about 1390 by Andrea Vanni. Note the keys.
Later medieval images of Peter often show him with the keys to Heaven.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians were as fascinated with what Hell was like as Dante. The AP doesn’t have the literary value of Dante and is far less detailed, but I found it interesting when I came across it and thought it was worth sharing.

1 For a fuller discussion of the discovery, dating and transmission of the AP see Schneemelcher and Wilson (2003) pp 621-5. They believe it was likely first written about 135. For Eusebius see his Ecclesiastical History VI.14.1. In my edition he refers to this as the Revelation of Peter.

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.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

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.

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Posted by on October 13, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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