Obnoxious Gnostics: The Apocalypse of Peter
By Andrew Phillip Smith
People don’t always agree with each other, and people who form groups tend to not agree with people belonging to other groups. Whether this is due to human nature or a lack of experience of successful cooperation may be debated endlessly. Of course, this happens with religious or spiritual groups too. The face of modern Christianity, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Protestant is a direct result of schism and heresy in a mega-church that had itself crowded out its early competitors. Most modern Gnostics would admire both Neoplatonists and ancient Gnostics, but Plotinus famously denigrated Gnostic teachings in “Against Gnostics,” in Enneads II.9.
What of the Gnostics themselves? While the Valentinians seem to have been bridge-builders, taking part in the emerging catholic Christian movement while maintaining their own Gnostic cosmologies and esoteric interpretation of the gospels and Paul, the Sethians were the hard men of ancient Gnosticism, matching the invective of Irenaeus, Tertullian et al with their own ferocity. The Gospel of Judas is a good example of this, revealing the twelve apostles as a bunch of demiurge worshippers, no better than Judas. The Eucharist itself is ridiculed by the Jesus of this gospel. But when does polemicism collapse under its own weight? When does the strength to stand one’s own ground and refuse to be bullied turn into an obsession with infighting, sniping and backstabbing? The answer: in the Apocalypse of Peter.
The Apocalypse of Peter is in Codex VII of the Nag Hammadi library, following on from the Second Discourse of the Great Seth, with which it shares some features, including the laughing Jesus and a hostile attitude to other sects. It refers to a series of characters from the Hebrew bible, including Adam, Abraham, Solomon and Moses as jokes or laughingstocks. The Apocalypse is usually dated to the third century, possibly composed in Alexandria.
The Apocalypse claims Peter as its apostle. Though Peter is often seen as the representative of proto-orthodox Christianity, here he defends the Sethian view. This Peter is rather uncertain of himself, but his Jesus is just as intolerant as the stereotypical rock of the mainstream church.
A glance at the Apocalypse of Peter shows a strong concern with good and evil, a determined dualism[i]. But let’s look closer. Early on it becomes apparent that good and evil do not refer to any fundamental principles or moral values but to good and evil teaching. A distinction is made between teachings of unrighteousness and lawlessness and the righteous teachings supported by the author. Throughout the Apocalypse, good refers to the true teachings of the particular (Sethian) sect to which the author belongs, and evil or error to other Christian or Gnostic texts. This us-and-them attitude is illustrated by the narrative from the outset. Jesus and Peter, having been in the Temple in an exalted state, are pursued by priests and people with stones who are shouting. Jesus explains that they are blind and dead to knowledge/gnosis. This immediately sets the tone of persecution and isolation from the rest of Christianity, and indeed from the rest of humanity.
Jesus then goes on to explain that many people will initially accept his words but will turn away because of “the father of their error”.[ii]2 These people are obviously other Christians, and at least five, and quite possibly more, groups are allusively described in the cryptic words of Jesus. The attempts to identify these (the hard work has been done by many previous scholars) are very interesting.
First, Jesus rails against “the kingdom of those who praise a Christ of a future restored world.” The word “restored” here is the Greek apokatastasis, the “restoration.” There are a few candidates for sects or individuals that taught this concept. Clement of Alexandria and Origen developed a doctrine of apokatastasis in which everything will finally come to rest in harmony and peace with God. But Clement and Origen are perhaps a little too late for the Apocalypse of Peter. According to Hippolytus, the proto-Gnostic Basilides also taught a form of apokatastasis in which the world would be restored to its original state when Jesus returned. The second coming would cast a permanent ignorance on the archons and souls who cannot ascend to the heavenly realm. Also, the Gospel of Philip uses the term, “Of what a nature is the resurrection! And the image must rise again through the image. The bridegroom and the image must enter through the image into the truth, which is the apokatastasis.” This appears to refer to a process which an individual person undergoes rather than a grand cosmic reconstitution. Whatever teaching is intended here, it is clearly one that might appeal to modern Gnostics, but not the author of this text. Thus the Apocalypse of Peter is attacking groups with which we might be in sympathy.
The second group or doctrines mentioned are those who “hold on to the name of a dead man”. These are clearly orthodox Christians, and there is some poetic power in this phrase. The veneration of Jesus, a crucified man, may arguably lead away from his actual teachings. This denigration of the literal crucifixion and physical resurrection is common in Sethian writings and is emphasised at the end of the Apocalypse. These people are said to “fall into the hands of an evil deceiver with complicated doctrines.” It has been suggested that this refers to Paul, for whom the crucified Christ was of central importance. Paul was well-loved of the Valentinians, but not the Sethians.
A third group “give themselves a name… the name of a man and a naked woman of many forms and many sufferings.” It is likely that this refers to Simon Magus, who referred to himself as the great power of God (the name) and his consort Helen, who was reincarnated in several forms, including that of Helen of Troy and the prostitute Helena whom Simon met in the city of Tyre. According to the heresiologists (though all reference to him is absent from the Nag Hammadi library) Simon Magus was seen as the arch-Gnostic and founder of the Simonians, a specific Gnostic sect. Thus we have Gnostic infighting here.
The fourth condemnation (though there are other, less specific polemics in the text which may also refer to competing groups) names Hermas as a dead man and the firstborn of unrighteousness. If this is not a garbling of Hermes, suggesting the Hermetica, then it probably refers to the Shepherd of Hermas, a second century collection of visions, parables and allegories that was well-respected by orthodox Christians of the second century and was an unsuccessful candidate for inclusion in the canon.
The final group once again appear to be orthodox Christians, particularly those with a strict hierarchy and those who consider martyrdom praiseworthy, “whose work is an imitation of the marriage of incorruptibility.” These bishops and deacons are dry canals.
The final section describes the crucifixion and its true significance. The body whose feet and hands are hammered into the cross is not the living Jesus who smiles and laughs above the cross. Peter shows a moment of weakness when he suggests to Jesus that they should leave, but Jesus once again stresses that these people are blind. There is the suggestion of a mysterious third Jesus, intertwined with the holy spirit, surrounded by bright light and angels. We might pause here to consider the poetry and beauty of this image: the crucified body surrounded by a crowd of people, a living, laughing Jesus above the cross, surmounted by light, angels and the ultimate aspect of Jesus. But the magic of this scene is spoiled suddenly when it is revealed that Jesus is laughing not in joy or mirth but at those who are blind and is taking pleasure in seeing that those who did harm to him are divided among themselves. The text ends with a particularly harsh application of the synoptic saying that those who do not have will have even that taken away from them.
There is little positive Sethian doctrine here, no mother Barbelo or deeply pondered metaphysical myth. All is polemic and criticism. Even the Gospel of Judas, with its mocking Jesus and satire of the apostles, contains an elaborate cosmological explanation.
Thus the Apocalypse of Peter is historically fascinating, but spiritually it is entangled in the politics of competition between Christian sects. To be fair, the Sethians were also on the receiving end of Christian infighting—witness the extensive heresiological writings. Late Sethian texts such as Zostrianos and Marsenes show them moving closer to Platonism, having been pushed out of the general Christian world. But how much time and energy was wasted, and ill-will invested, in this fight. The Sethians, and particularly the author and community of the Apocalypse of Peter, would have done well to avoid playing this futile game. After all, whatever the merits of such a contest, they were the losers.
[i] An extract from the Apocalypse of Peter, “But many others, who oppose the truth and are the messengers of error, will set up their error and their law against these pure thoughts of mine, as looking out from one (perspective) thinking that good and evil are from one source” was even quoted recently as a condemnation of nondualism. See http://www.palmtreegarden. org/2010/05/the-urban-myth-of-non-duality
In a discussion on the Spiral Inward forum, “Soulgazer”, the author of the piece (and a very decent man) countered with a spirited argument that what is being opposed is the monotheistic Jewish view that good and evil are both sent by God. An example would be “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, KJV). He has almost convinced me that this is the case, but not quite. Whatever the reference really means, it’s certainly a viewpoint that is being condemned.
[ii] Quotations are from The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James Robinson (Harper & Row, 1988.)