Historical Tradition in the Gospel of Peter

How long can oral tradition preserve information? The available evidence shows that, while the idea of preserving a complete story, word for word, in all its details and in order over even relatively short periods is all but impossible without the aid of writing, small pieces of information and tradition certainly can be preserved. One need not only think of the jokes, nursery rhymes, children’s games and assorted customs that have circulated and been passed on from one generation to the next. In the ancient world too we can find evidence of the same bit of local lore appearing in a written work by someone who visited the area, and then again centuries later.

The issue is not how long a tradition can be preserved. Oral cultures are perfectly capable of inventing stories and making things up, only to then pass those stories on faithfully for centuries. The distinction between fidelity of transmission and accuracy of information is crucial to a historian.

In this blog entry, I want to draw attention to a nugget of apparently authentic historical information in the Gospel of Peter, one that I briefly mentioned on a previous occasion. I have no particular interest in claiming that the mode of transmission was exclusively oral or written. The Gospel of Peter, in fact, shows how complex the realities of transmission of information could be. The Gospel of Peter shows knowledge of stories found in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as one that I think was originally found in the Gospel of Mark. But I have no reason to think that the author was sitting with a copy of either Gospel in front of him. Most likely, the stories circulated among most Christians orally, passing from oral tradition into writing and back again, as written Gospels influences the oral tradition.

The detail I have in mind is the reference to the disciples being in hiding after the crucifixion because it was feared that they would set fire to the Temple. I can conceive of no other explanation for the presence of this detail than that it was a piece of relatively well-known historical data that was nonetheless not included in the earlier written Gospels. To my mind, it is inconceivable that a Christian author would have created this accusation against Christians, especially after the Christians themselves had been accused of setting fire to Rome. On the other hand, this detail seems historically plausible in light of what we know about Jesus: he had predicted the Temple’s destruction, and so in some ways it was quite natural for the authorities to suspect that some of his followers might take matters into their own hands and forcibly bring about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction.

This does not mean that the Gospel of Peter is generally reliable. On the contrary, most of it seems like further unhistorical elaboration of material in Matthew that is itself quite likely unhistorical. The historian’s job is not to generalize. Even works of fiction occasionally refer to actual historical events; even top-notch historians get things wrong. The Gospel of Peter on the whole does not contain reliable information, but this particular piece of information seems to be absolutely credible.

Taking seriously the fact that, on the one hand, a culture that still maintains a strong oral component can remember and preserve both historical and unhistorical information over extended periods, it is appropriate for historians to sift through not only the canonical Gospels but significantly later sources, looking for nuggest of historical gold. This particular detail seems to be such a nugget.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Dig the nuggets.A toast to the motherlode!Ó

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00559055709208918638 Eric Rowe

    “The Gospel of Peter shows knowledge of stories found in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as one that I think was originally found in the Gospel of Mark. But I have no reason to think that the author was sitting with a copy of either Gospel in front of him.”But the hypothesis of G.Peter’s literary dependence on canonical gospels does not require that he was sitting with copies in front of him. He could simply have known the stories because he had read or heard those gospels before. And it seems somewhat gratuitous to leap from “I have no reason to think” such was the case to accepting it as an axiom for your theory. I don’t imagine I’ve studied G.Peter as carefully as you. But I find the theory that it was dependent on some or all of the canonical gospels very attractive. Some of the details it adds seem to be best explained as attempts to answer questions that a hearer of those gospels might have. Why did the women go to the anoint the body without knowing who would move the stone? Because they reasoned that they could leave the spices at the door if they can’t get in. Why did an earthquake happen? It happened when Jesus’ body was laid down. Why did the disciples hide? Because they feared that someone might expect them to burn down the Temple. The earliest patristic evidence we have of the G.Peter is Serapion, writing at the end of the 2nd or beginning of the 3rd century, who treats this document as something not previously addressed by a representative of orthodoxy, which suggests to me that it was not composed much before that time. The only 2 MSS we have are from around the same time. And no other patristic evidence can take us back farther. If the Gospel of Peter was composed in the late 2nd century (as seems likely though uncertain), say some time after the time of Justin, then it seems likely that its author did know some or all of the canonical gospels, which would invalidate the hypothesis that parallel accounts are due to oral tradition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Eric. I probably should have been clearer. While it seems unlikely to me that the author of the Gospel of Peter simply sat with a copy of Matthew (or Mark) in front of him, I absolute do think that his work is influenced by the Gospel of Matthew. I merely meant to leave the particular mode of influence open, since (contrary to your assertion) I don’t think my point depends on whether he had the Gospel in front of him, had read it one or many times before, or simply knew its content through some form of oral performance. My main point is simply that the author seems to have known a piece of valid historical information that he did not derive from the canonical Gospels or any other known extant source. Although I would want to nuance my position differently than James Dunn (my Doktorvater) has done in a number of respects, I think one of his main points in his recent work on the historical Jesus is an important one. It is inconceivable that any of the early Christian authors – those who produced the Gospel of Matthew, or of Luke, or of Peter – encountered the teaching of Jesus and stories about him only in the written sources they used to compose their works – whether Mark, or Q, or any others. What is needed is an approach that can identify when an author who knew an earlier written source shows evidence of also having known material (in some cases the same material) via oral tradition.Hopefully this clarifies this particular point. Whether or not it affects your view of my overall point remains to be seen! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    G. of Peter’s detail concerning a rumor that the disciples would set the Temple on fire seems exactly like the kind of detail that is added to combat later accusations of critics. Consider the story of the priests paying the soldiers to claim that some one stole Jesus’ body. This is the sort of detail that would be added to explain away a claim circulated by the Jewish authorities. Likewise the Temple arson story would be added to as an authentic-sounding detail to for audience already familiar with similar rumors concerning Rome.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    That should have read:”… an authentic-sounding detail to for audience already familiar with similar rumors concerning Rome.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    There is a sense in which it is a similar case, but I’m not sure if this is where you were going in your comment. The accusation that the disciples stole the body is surely one that was circulating among non-Christian Jews in the time Matthew’s Gospel was written. The author of that Gospel would not invent the accusation against his own beliefs, only to then have to answer it. A similar point could be made in relation to the Gospel of Peter. But since it was presumably written after the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans, it seems unlikely that the author was alluding to an accusation that was still widely circulated – indeed, perhaps the reason this Gospel could include it was because the Temple’s destruction was sufficiently in the past, and the Christianity the author knew sufficiently disconnected from its Jewish roots. I still find it hard to imagine that the author would invent the accusation. I suppose it is possible that, after what happened at Rome, some circulated that the disciples of Jesus had been viewed as a threat to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But that seems somewhat more of a stretch, a less plausible scenario than this simply being a snippet of historically authentic reminiscence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Perhaps the story of the disciples hiding due to rumors that they would “destroy” the temple is historical while the “plausible detail” added by the author was the means, fire. On the other hand, how else would a small group of men be assumed to be able to destroy the Temple.