Gospel of Peter’s Walking, Talking Cross Again: On Foster’s published response to Goodacre’s unpublished paper

I recently offered an explanation of the weird resurrection scene in the Gospel of Peter, in which Jesus expands gigantically from earth to heaven, and his cross ‘walks’ out of his tomb and talks to God (“Whence the Giant Jesus and his Talking Cross? The Resurrection in Gospel of Peter 10.39–42 as Prophetic Fulfilment of LXX Psalm 18“).

During the editing process, I made the decision to cut my original discussion of Paul Foster’s published response to Mark Goodacre’s unpublished interpretation of the resurrection scene in the Gospel of Peter — as it was not quite relevant. In ‘A Walking, Talking Cross or the Walking, Talking Crucified One? A Conjectural Emendation in the Gospel of Peter’ (Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting [Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Section], London, July 2011), as well as in an earlier blog post, Goodacre had argued for an emendation of σταυρός (‘cross’) to σταυρωθεντα (‘crucified [one]’, i.e. Jesus). Goodacre puts forward the possibility that ‘cross’ in an earlier Greek version of the Gospel of Peter had been written with the nomen sacrum ΣΤΑ. Early Christians often abbreviated certain divine names or titles, which they might have done with ΣΤΑ, which would then have originally stood for σταυρωθέντα (‘the crucified one’). But the scribe of the main surviving copy of the Gospel of Peter (the Akhmîm Fragment) misconstrued ΣΤΑ as σταυρόν (‘cross’). And so, the existence of a walking, talking cross in the Gospel of Peter, according to Goodacre, was the result of a copyist’s error. Goodacre’s proposed conjectural emendation therefore makes the text more ‘sensible’. It means that the Gospel of Peter does not make Jesus’s cross walk and talk, but rather Jesus (as ‘the crucified one’). After all, it would be much less surprising, at least for modern readers, to have a person walking and taking, rather than a cross. So Goodacre’s proposal has some degree of plausiblity.

I have argued in ‘Whence the Giant Jesus’ that the surviving text already makes perfectly good sense as a Christocentric interpretation of LXX Psalm 18. So it was not directly relevant to engage with Goodacre’s quite different alternative — although I did make mention of it. As you might expect, I favour my own explanation, rather than Goodacre’s conjectural solution (I mean, conjectural emendation is a last resort, am I right?)

Yet while Goodacre’s suggestion is only conjectural (without any direct textual support), I do consider that it was internally logical and possible. But Paul Foster disagreed. In a published article, Foster made three main criticisms of Goodacre’s proposal (‘Do Crosses Walk and Talk? A Reconsideration of Gospel of Peter 10.39–42’, JTS 64 [2013] 97–99).

I do not consider any of Foster’s three criticisms at all fatal to Goodacre’s case. That’s what my deleted footnote had discussed, and it may be worthwhile preserving my reasons.

In his published response to Goodacre’s unpublished paper, Paul Foster objects that

(1) the proposed nomen sacrum is rare;

(2) the author would then have inconsistently translated ΣΤΑ as σταυρωθέντα in GPet 13.56; and

(3) the emendation produces a text in which Jesus is simultaneously supported by the two men and walks behind them

(Foster, ‘Do Crosses Walk and Talk?, pp.  97–99).

The first objection, while cogent, is hardly fatal. Plenty of things we see in early Christian texts are rare or unique. This might be a rare case of ΣΤΑ being used for σταυρωθέντα.

The second objection is evidentially neutral, given the Akhmîm Fragment’s tendency to employ other nomina sacra inconsistently, as Goodacre already notes. Foster’s first two objections raise the question of probability, but are far from being decisive.

The third objection misreads Goodacre’s interpretation of the resurrection scene. Goodacre’s interpretation sees the ‘two’ men or angels from heaven not as ‘supporting’ the [crucified] one, but ‘lifting up’ the one (according to Goodacre’s translation of the rare verb ὑπορθοῦντας in GPet 10.39c). Then, the crucified one subsequently follows the two out of the tomb (10.39d). Although Foster’s own interpretation is different, he needed to acknowledge that, on Goodacre’s particular interpretation, the sequence was quite coherent.

Foster goes on to argue that the scene of a mobile, talking cross is not ‘absurd’, as Goodacre stated, given the examples of cross piety in early Christianity, in which the cross is given an independent role as ‘a salvific object’ which is involved in action or gets addressed by other characters. I have some sympathy for the underlying point that this is an example of cross piety, and my own article discusses the cosmic nature of the cross piety in the Gospel of Peter. But Goodacre’s ISBL paper was really only taking its point of departure from the perceived oddness of the content of GPet 10.39-42. His argument, however, is based on text-critical considerations, in particular the Akhmîm Fragment’s late date and the large number of ‘errors, riddles, and puzzles’ it contains (p. 8). Moreover, as Foster had acknowledged in his commentary, the motif of cross piety fails to account for the innovation of a walking and talking cross, which is ‘not typical of the other forms of cross-devotion exemplified in patristic texts’ (Gospel of Peter, 418). Quite right – something more that “cross piety” is required as an explanation for the unique mobile, talking cross of the Gospel of Peter.

Foster’s counter-arguments therefore fail to convince; Goodacre’s case for textual emendation offers a plausible solution for a problematic text, albeit one which relies on recourse to conjectural emendation. I think ultimately that the debate is superseded by the solution I offered. Yet I find Goodacre’s proposal, while not likely, to be internally consistent and logically possible.

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Why Jesus was a Giant: The Messianic Interpretation of Psalm 18(19) in Gosp. Peter 10.38-42

The Weekly World News: Following a fine tradition of Giant Jesuses which may have begun with the Gospel of Peter
The Weekly World News: Following a fine tradition of Giant Jesuses which may have begun with the Gospel of Peter

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. [39] 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. [40] And the head of the two reached as far as heaven, but that of the one being led by them surpassed the heavens. [41] And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” [42] 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.