Biblical Studies The Acts of Peter
by
Callie Callon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0285

Introduction

The Acts of Peter is one of the five ancient apocryphal Acts that relate the missionary activities of the apostles beyond the canonical account. The primary focus of this narrative is a wonder working contest between Peter and the magician Simon set in the city of Rome. Through a variety of miracles, including a revivified salted fish, a talking dog and baby, and a resurrection competition set in the Forum, Peter demonstrates his (and by extension early Christianity’s) legitimacy. The final chapters relate how Peter’s teaching prompted wives and concubines associated with imperial figures to reject conjugal relations, causing these men to seek fatal retaliation. Peter’s attempt to flee is abandoned upon his encounter with a vision of Jesus in the famous “Quo Vadis” scene where Jesus claims he is going to Rome to be crucified again. Upon his return Peter is arrested and sentenced to death by crucifixion. He is crucified upside down at his own request and delivers a lengthy discourse prior to his death. The text as it is typically published in translation is compiled from a handful of discrete sources, some of which are disputed as being components of an original Greek composition. This original text is commonly held to be composed in the later portion of the 2nd century. The narrative was influential on much subsequent ancient Petrine literature.

Scholarly Assessments of the Contents of the Acts of Peter

The Acts of Peter survives in a mostly complete 4th-century Latin translation known as the Actus Vercellenses (the Vercelli Acts) preserved in a 6th- or 7th-century Codex (Cod. Verc. CLVIII). There is some dispute as to whether the first three chapters, which relate Paul’s departure from Rome, and chapter 41, which includes the first reference to Nero named as such, are original or a later interpolation to the text. Lapham 2003 maintains chapters 1–3 are original to the text, while Vouaux 1922, Poupon 1988 and Thomas 2003 argue that they are more likely an interpolation. The final chapters narrating Peter’s martyrdom also exist in Greek texts that also circulated independently, and P. Oxy 849, a 4th-century Greek vellum page that corresponds to portions of chapters 25–26 of the Vercelli Acts. Using these in comparison with the Latin, Zwierlein 2013 is the most recent scholar to maintain that the Vercelli Acts are a largely faithful translation of a Greek original. Baldwin 2005 has challenged previous scholarship, which held a similar perspective, arguing that the Vercelli Acts are best understood as purely the product of the 4th century and are of no use in trying to re-create an earlier Greek original, if one even existed in the first place. It is a meticulous work that highlights the caution that should be used in approaching the text, although his conclusions are ultimately too conservative. This view is supported in Döhler 2018, which engages briefly but directly with aspects of the work. Based on the Stichometry of Nicephorus, which listed the original text as being comprised of 2750 stichoi, several scholars thus posit that one-third of the original text is now lost. Schmidt 1903 argues that the episode pertaining to Peter’s successful prayer for the disablement of his daughter to thwart her sexual temptation for men, found in Codex Berol. 8502.4, was originally a component of this missing portion, as was a similar episode pertaining to a gardener’s daughter (found in the Epistle of Pseudo-Titus). While many scholars and translations of the work follow Schmidt’s proposal that these episodes corresponded to the missing third of the text, which related Peter’s events in Jerusalem prior to coming to Rome, some authors, in works such as Luttikhuizen 1998 and Molinari 2000, argue against this.

  • Baldwin, Matthew C. Whose Acts of Peter?: Text and Historical Context of the Actus Vercellenses. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.

    Baldwin argues against the consensus that the Vercelli Acts are a faithful translation of an earlier Greek document. He highlights the discrepancies between it and ancient works also thought to have drawn on a Greek original, asserting that the ways the texts deviate yield substantial differences in meaning. He thus concludes that the Vercelli Acts should be treated solely as a 4th-century utterance.

  • Döhler, Marietheres. Acta Petri: Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den Actus Vercellenses. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.

    Döhler (pp. 37–41) engages directly with some arguments in Baldwin 2005, and concludes he is not successful in fully overturning the scholarly consensus that the Vercelli Acts do represent to some extent a 2nd-century Acts of Peter.

  • Lapham, Fred. Peter: The Myth, the Man and the Writings; A Study of Early Petrine Text and Tradition. London: Sheffield Academic, 2003.

    In addition to maintaining that chapters 1–3 of the Vercelli Acts were original to the narrative, Lapham (pp. 60–66) challenges scholarly consensus in proposing that the martyrdom was originally its own discrete narrative before being added to the Acts of Peter, rather than being subsequently excerpted from it in order to circulate independently.

  • Luttikhuizen, Gerhard. “Simon Magus as a Narrative Figure.” In The Apocryphal Acts of Peter: Magic, Miracles and Gnosticism. Edited by Jan N. Bremmer, 39–51. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1998.

    Luttikhuizen argues that the daughter narratives were not original to the text as they, like aspects of the martyrdom, evince an interest in encratism that is not found elsewhere in the Vercelli Acts, and this encratism is even at odds with some portions of the narrative, such as Peter accepting money from a woman portrayed as sexually promiscuous.

  • Molinari, Andrea Lorenzo. “I never knew the Man”: The Coptic Act of Peter (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502.4), Its Independence from the Apocryphal Acts of Peter, Genre and Legendary Origins. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2000.

    Argues that parallels posited in Schmidt 1903 between this Coptic text and other ancient texts, which drew on the Acts of Peter, are unconvincing to indicate an original unity. Rather, he argues that these overlaps are common to early Christianity in general and were likely independently drawn upon. He further argues that this episode is incompatible with other aspects of the Vercelli Acts based on literary and theological grounds.

  • Poupon, G. “Les ‘Actes de Pierre’ et leur remaniement.” In Aufsteig und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Rom im Speigel der neureun Forschung; 2 Principat, Bd. 25; Teilbd 6, Religion. Edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, 4363–4383. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1988.

    Poupon holds chapters 1–3 to be later supplements to the text. He argues that these were added in addition to other editorial activity that he sees at work in the text to serve the redactor’s interest in second repentance. He posits that these redactions were undertaken in the 3rd century as authors from this period, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus of Rome, also evince concern regarding the issue of lapsed Christians.

  • Schmidt, Carl. Die alten Petrusakten im Zusammenhang der apokryphen Apostellitteratur, nebst einem neuentdeckten Fragment. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1903.

    In this highly influential work Schmidt argues that the story of Peter’s daughter and the gardener’s daughter belong to the Greek original Acts of Peter, identifying what he views as numerous parallels between the two texts. He suggests that the Coptic text is more likely to be a closer translation, rather than a paraphrase, of an original Greek text.

  • Thomas, Christine M. The Acts of Peter, Gospel Literature, and the Ancient Novel: Rewriting the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Thomas also argues (pp. 21–27) in favor of chapters 1–3 as later additions and addresses material within the Vercelli Acts that seem redacted but dates this editorial activity to the late 2nd century.

  • Vouaux, Léon. Les actes de Pierre: Introduction, textes, traduction et commentaire. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1922.

    Vouaux (pp. 27–33) argues that the first three chapters were added to the narrative by a later redactor in the 3rd century to connect the text better with the canonical Acts, and he views chapter 41 as also likely a latter addition. He discusses what he sees as the predominant redactional activity in chapters 4, 6, 10, and 30 and other shorter instances of it elsewhere in the text.

  • Zwierlein, Otto. Petrus und Paulus in Jerusalem und Rom. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.

    Zwierlein (pp. 161–164) offers the most recent comparison between the respective Greek and the Latin texts, maintaining that the latter demonstrates a high degree of fidelity to the Greek as earlier scholarship also maintained prior to Baldwin 2005 (cited under Scholarly Assessments of the Contents of the Acts of Peter).

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