The Acts of Peter
J. K. Elliott
The figure of Peter gave rise to much apocryphal literature. The Acts and Passion of Peter appear in various forms and in various languages. The cycle of Pseudo‐Clementine literature and the Preaching of Peter represent other traditions concerning Peter (and these are dealt with elsewhere in this volume).
Ancient testimony to the existence of episodes known from the Acts of Peter includes possible references in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Didascalia, but these make no concrete reference to the written Acts, only to traditions about Peter. Literary references are therefore not certain before the time of Eusebius who in HE 3. 3. 2 declares the Acts of Peter to be heretical (Schwartz, GCS 9.1, pp. 188 f.). By the end of the fourth century Philaster of Brescia, haer. 88, speaks of the use of these Acts among Manichaeans and other heretics (ed. F. Marx CSEL 38 (Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, 1898), pp. 47 f.). The Gelasian Decree condemns the Acts.
The apparent use of the Acts of Peter by the Acts of Paul (as argued by C. Schmidt, ΠΡΑΞΕ ΠΑΥΑΟΥ (Glückstadt and Hamburg, 1936), pp. 127–30, pace James, ANT 306, or Michaelis, pp. 327 f.) may be seen especially in the famous Quo Vadis scene (which is out of place in the Acts of Paul). This would be the earliest evidence for the existence of the Acts of Peter and would of course prove its priority over the Acts of Paul. However, the interrelationship of these two Acts has not been satisfactorily resolved.
The relationship of the Acts of Peter and the Acts of John is another issue on which it is difficult to make a firm decision. Older editions of these apocrypha tended to argue that the Acts of Peter used the Acts of John, but the recent dating of the two works does not now allow this conclusion. There is indeed a certain affinity between the two works, but this is likely to be due to their shared similar common origins.
James, Apoc. Anec. i. xxiv f., claims that the author of the Acts of Peter is the same as that of the Acts of John, and identifies him as Leucius. The whole question of Leucian authorship is discussed at length by Schmidt in Die alten Petrusakten, and he concludes that only the Acts of John may legitimately be attributed to Leucius: because Leucius was identified with this type of literature his name was used as author of books for which he was not responsible. (See K. Schäferdiek, in Hennecke3, ii. pp. 117–25 (Eng. trans. 178–88) and Hennecke5, ii. pp. 81–93 (Eng. trans. ii. 87–100).)
The interrelationship of the Acts of Peter and the Pseudo‐Clementine literature is problematic, but it is generally agreed that the latter (normally dated about 260) is later.
The original Greek of the Acts of Peter has survived only in the Martyrdom and in a small Oxyrhynchus fragment (P. Oxy. 849) outside the Martyrdom. There is, however, a long Latin text found in a Vercelli manuscript which contains some of the Acts of Peter. 1 My translation is based on the Latin (and Coptic) for the Acts proper, and on the Greek for the Martyrdom. This Latin manuscript (Codex Vercellensis 158) dates from the sixth–seventh century, but its text is likely to be a fourth–fifth century translation of the original Greek Acts. Codex Berol. 8502.4 (Coptic), which is plainly from a larger work, insofar as it tells of Peter's doings also very probably came from the Acts of Peter. The manuscript is fourth–fifth century and contains an episode (the healing of Peter's daughter) that was known to Augustine (c. Adimantum 17. 5 (Zycha, p. 170)).
Augustine also refers in this context to a healing of a gardener's daughter. Such an episode is to be found in the Epistle of Pseudo‐Titus. That text survives in an eighth‐century manuscript edited in its entirety by D. de Bruyne in Rev. Bén. 37 (1925), 47–72. The relevant portion is translated below (from de Bruyne, Rev. Bén. 25 (1908), 151 f.).
The Stichometry of Nicephorus indicates that the original Acts contained 2750 stichoi. This means that only about two‐thirds has survived. It has been suggested that stories about Peter and Paul in Jerusalem would have made up much of the missing third. Vercelli chapter 23 refers to earlier contact between Simon and Paul, but Vouaux doubted if this chapter belonged to the original Acts. The healings of Peter's daughter and of the gardener's daughter which have survived are likely to have belonged to the Jerusalem cycle of stories.
Vouaux argued that some other portions of the Vercelli Acts did not derive from the original Acts. James agreed with him that Vercelli 1–3 could have been added to the original Acts by the writer of the Greek underlying the Vercelli manuscript to explain how there was a congregation in Rome before Peter reached it. (It is another question whether these chapters originated in the Acts of Paul.) Likewise Vouaux, followed by James, considered Vercelli 17 to have been inserted by the writer of the underlying Greek from the earlier, Jerusalem, section of the original Acts. The awkward sentences in the first paragraph and the sudden change to the third person suggest the chapter has been transplanted. The final sentence of 40 and the whole of 41 were also considered by Vouaux to have been added. Poupon in his ANRW article has argued that editorial activity may also be seen in Vercelli 4, 6, 10, 30, and elsewhere.
Although only the Martyrdom has survived in its entirety in Greek, the discovery of a portion of the Acts (corresponding to Vercelli 25–6) in P. Oxy. 849 proves that the original did exist in Greek. The Latin of the Vercelli manuscript betrays itself as a translation from Greek, as too does the more literal translation found in the Vita Abercii of the fourth century (which contains speeches of Peter and of Paul found in the Vercelli Acts transferred to the life of St Abercius of Hierapolis). 2 Vita Abercii 13, 15, 24, 26 contain passages taken from the Acts of Peter (Vercelli 2, 7, 20, 21); cf. edn. by T. Nissen, S. Abercii Vita (Leipzig, 1912).
As so often in this type of literature the account of the Martyrdom circulated as a separate work (i.e. from Vercelli 30 in the case of the Athos Greek manuscript, or in the case of the Patmos Greek manuscript and the versions 33–41). It is to be found in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Slavonic. The Coptic Martyrdom survives in a version edited by Guidi that commences at Vercelli 33. The other Coptic version edited by von Lemm commences near the middle of Vercelli 36.
The pioneering work of Lipsius in e.g. Die Quellen . . . , (below, bibliography under Peter and Rome) tended to emphasize the Gnostic character of these Acts. It is, however, now generally accepted that the Acts of Peter is not a Gnostic work although Gnostic and Encratite ideas, especially regarding marriage, are to be found in it. As with many of the other apocryphal Acts it is the product of popular piety. Such literature seems to have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the unorthodox teachings of the day (e.g. in Acts of Peter 38 about the significance of the cross), and this influence was responsible for prejudicing the early fathers against the work. More significant perhaps is that the use of these Acts by heretics ensured its removal from official church lists.
There is no detailed discussion in the Acts of Peter of the teaching of Simonian Gnosis. Simon Magus is here virtually a personification of evil, and the contests between him and Peter are in effect a classical battle between God and sin. The author has only limited theological competence or concerns.
The provenance of the composition must remain an open question, although Rome or Asia Minor remain the likeliest. A date in the closing decades of the second century is probable for the original Greek Acts.
1 My translation is based on the Latin (and Coptic) for the Acts proper, and on the Greek for the Martyrdom.
2 Vita Abercii 13, 15, 24, 26 contain passages taken from the Acts of Peter (Vercelli 2, 7, 20, 21); cf. edn. by T. Nissen, S. Abercii Vita (Leipzig, 1912).