In the 1980s-1990s, Dominic Crossan, Helmut Koester, and Arthur Dewey argued that a version of the Gospel of Peter predates Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. They also argued that this version of the Gospel of Peter was a source for the four canonical gospels. Some earlier scholars had already suggested a direction of dependence from the Gospel of Peter to the canonical gospels (e.g. Adolf von Harnack, Percival Gardner-Smith, Benjamin Arlen Johnson, and Jürgen Denker). Yet the opinion had always been in the minority (and still is).
Rather than assess the proposal in full here, I want to mention a couple of the reasons they offered, both of which relied on form-critical arguments. The first, following the earlier contention of Martin Dibelius (in “Die alttestamentlichen Motive in der Leidensgeschichte des Petrus- und des Johannes-Evangeliums”), was that the Gospel of Peter must be older because it much more directly incorporated references to the Old Testament in its composition of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The basis of the argument is that “the way in which the suffering of Jesus is described [in the Gospel of Peter] by the use of passages from the Old Testament without quotation formulae is, in terms of the history of the tradition, older than the explicit scriptural proof; it represents the oldest form of the description of the passion (of Jesus)” (Philipp Vielhauer, quoted in Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, p. 218).
Yet this argument relies on a fairly wooden view of tradition history, without due regard for the specific social-contextual reasons for quoting from the Old Testament. In addition, the basis for the supposed tradition-historical law has few (if any?) concrete examples behind it. Its evolutionary view of tradition relies mainly on assertions about what early Christian oral preaching must have been like. For example, Dibelius claimed, “At the origin [of Christianity] was the sermon; it preached the passion of Jesus by recounting Old Testament sayings, and it maintained – according to its devotional tendency – as close a literal connection to the sacred text as possible.” Well, this might have been a feature of the traditions on which later written gospels drew. But it certainly isn’t a necessary or exclusive feature. In fact, there is no good basis for positing a unidirectional development from a high level of citations of the Old Testament to a lower level of citations.
Second, Crossan, Koester, and Dewey each argued that they could identify the earliest level of the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Peter on the basis that it had the pure form of an epiphany narrative. So, all the bits that didn’t fit a (purported) pure form of an epiphany narrative must, they argued, be later additions. For Koester, the resurrection narrative “reveals the basic formal features of an epiphany story”, i.e., “(1) an introduction which sets the scene for the epiphany, (2) the appearance of heavenly figures, (3) a miracle, (4) the epiphany of the risen Lord, and (5) the reaction of the witnesses”. So Koester treated any parts of the actual resurrection narrative which did not fit into this alleged pure form – such as Jesus’s transformation into a giant who stretched all the way to heaven and the mobile, talking cross – as secondary, “novelistic features”. For Koester, only the elements of the pure epiphany form “belong to the older oral tradition of epiphany stories related to Jesus’ resurrection”. Which is all very well to assert, but as there are no pure epiphany stories in reality, it is more difficult to demonstrate.
More fundamentally, recent work on social memory has severely criticised, if not discredited, the use of form-critical methods to neatly separate authentic from inauthentic Jesus traditions. There is an excellent summary of social memory scholarship in relation to the Gospels in a recent two-part article by Chris Keith: “Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: The First Decade” (Part One; Part Two). In the first part, Keith outlines the theories of three major proponents of social memory theory (Maurice Halbwachs, Jan Assmann, Barry Schwartz); in the second, he discusses its key findings when applied within Gospel scholarship.
In respect of the form-critical assumptions I discussed above, social memory studies, writes Keith, “point to a much more complex interaction between the present and the past than form criticism’s unidirectional theory of the transmission of the oral gospel tradition can accommodate”. In addition to the criticisms of Crossan, Koester, and Dewey identified above, social memory research indicates that there are continuities between early and later contexts which problematize attempts to strictly separate formal tendencies. Summarising Jens Schröter’s approach, Keith contends that social memory studies have revealed the inadequacy of “a reconstruction of the past built with snippets that scholars have supposedly excavated from the evidence that exists”. Instead, “the historical task inevitably requires historical imagination based upon the available knowledge of the socio-historical contexts in which memories of Jesus formed and circulated.”
In order to understand the presence of a giant Jesus in the Gospel of Peter‘s resurrection narrative, we therefore need a specific, tailored understanding of the work’s actual use of the Old Testament, and how this might have influenced its construction of what is seemingly its most innovative scene. We also need useful comparisons with other contemporary texts which portray Jesus as a cosmic giant or the cross as a salvific and cosmic actor – not just an excavation of some putative ‘pure form’ from the text. More on this at a later date…