The curious resurrection account in the Gospel of Peter (10.39–42) is not simply the author’s creative innovation, but is based on a Christocentric interpretation of LXX Ps 18.1–7. The Gospel of Peter’s unusual description of Jesus’ exit from the tomb, whereupon he expands gigantically so that his head enters heaven (GPet 10.39–40), derives from an early Christian interpretation of LXX Ps 18.5c–7. The following conversation between God and the glorified cosmic cross (GPet 10.41–2) derives from a Christocentric interpretation of LXX Ps 18.2. In addition, the cross’s verbal affirmation that it had preached to the dead (GPet 10.42) follows from a literalising yet Christocentric reading of LXX Ps 18.2b.
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…
[Update: Here is the “more… at a later date”: Why Did Jesus Turn Into a Giant? New article proposes an answer]
Mark Goodacre provides a second podcast on the second-century apocryphal Gospel, the Gospel of Peter. In an earlier podcast, Mark provided an overview of the Gospel of Peter. In this podcast, Mark discusses the most unusual aspect of the Gospel of Peter: that a walking, talking cross follows Jesus out from his tomb at his resurrection, and is heard (not seen) to answer the voice of God from heaven while walking about on earth.
As those of you who have seen Mark’s 2011 SBL International paper or who have read his blog posts might anticipate, Mark finds the narrative highly problematic. In his podcast, he sets out some of the oddities in the story which make it difficult to understand (quite apart from a cross walking around), and provides reasons to support a conjectural emendation of “cross” to “the crucified one” (i.e. Jesus).
It’s a convincing emendation, and his informative podcast includes such droll observations as this one:
I think the advantages of my reading, of my suggestion, do outweigh any of the possible negatives. Probably more important than anything else is that, in my reading, Jesus is not upstaged, at his own resurrection, by his cross.
– Mark Goodacre, “NT Pod 56: The Walking, Talking Cross in the Gospel of Peter”
For more on the issue of the walking talking cross, see:
NT Blog, “A Walking, Talking Cross or the Walking, Talking Crucified One?”, 18 October 2010
NT Blog, “SBL International Paper Proposals Accepted”, 8 February 2011
NT Blog, “The Giant Jesus and the Walking, Talking Cross”, 26 July 2011
Remnant of Giants, “Jesus was a Giant – But Let’s Be Reasonable: There was no walking, talking cross!”, 28 July 2011
For my proposed explanation why Jesus is a Giant in the Gospel of Peter, see:
Remnant of Giants, “Why Jesus was a Giant: The Messianic Interpretation of Psalm 18(19) in Gosp. Peter 10.38-42“, 14 September 2011
Here is Paul Foster’s translation of the passage (2010), altered to take into account Mark Goodacre’s conjectural emendation of “cross” to “Crucified One”:
[10.38] Then those soldiers seeing it awoke the centurion and the elders, for they were present also keeping guard.  While they were reporting what they had seen, again they saw coming out from the tomb three men, and the two were supporting the one, and a Crucified One following them.  And the head of the two reached as far as heaven, but that of the one being led by them surpassed the heavens.  And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you preached to those who sleep?”  And a response was heard from the Crucified One, “Yes”.
Once the infamous “walking, talking cross” is removed from the text – by Mark’s quite convincing emendation – the text is still a little unusual. For the Crucified One (Jesus) and his two companions, on departing from the tomb, have become giants. And that is, on most accounts, a quite unusual feature. Jesus’ two companions are so tall that their heads touch heaven. But Jesus is even taller, an even bigger Giant. For Jesus’ head surpasses the heavens, implicitly entering into the very throne room of God, where Christ’s head is questioned by the voice of God, and makes a succinct, one-word answer to God in return. The conversation is even overheard on Earth, implicitly by the Roman centurion, guards, and Jewish elders.
From very early times, at least by the first century AD, it was a reasonably common idea that heavenly messengers, or angels, and even Jesus and Christians, had to change their bodily form in order to ascend into the heavens. In the Gospel of John (20.19, 26), the legendary resurrected Jesus walks through locked or shut doors, and in the Gospels of John (20.14) and Luke (24.16), Jesus’ own disciples do not recognise him after he has transformed into a resurrection body. In the second century Christian work, the Acts of Peter (21), different witnesses see Jesus in different forms, even at a single post-resurrection appearance: some see him as an old man, some see him as a young man, some see him as a young boy.
But while the transformation of the post-resurrection Jesus into various forms is not unusual in these early Christian legends, his transformation into a Giant who reaches all the way from Earth into the highest heaven is rather more unusual. How did the Gospel of Peter arrive at such a novel transformation … or giganticization? In the first place, we might note that the Gospel of Peter was, as far as we know, the first gospel to provide a narrative of the resurrection of Jesus. In the earlier extant Gospels, we only get stories of the aftermath of the resurrection. So, there are stories about already emptied tombs, post-resurrection appearances, zombie saints moving about in Jerusalem, etc. What this probably means is that the Gospel of Peter could not rely on any established tradition of the precise mechanics of the resurrection and had to compose his own.
I propose that the author of the Gospel of Peter utilised Old Testament scripture to fill this gap. To wit, he employed LXX Psalm 18 (MT Psalm 19) as the basis of his new resurrection narrative. The LXX translates the Hebrew כגבור (“like a hero/mighty man/man”) as ὡς γίγας (“like a Giant”).
That’s a brief outline of my argument, which I might write up more formally for publication. I haven’t read enough to work out if this has all been suggested before, and haven’t examined variants, let alone much of the secondary literature on the Gospel of Peter. But, in the meantime, I very much welcome comments, questions, and suggestions.