The Gospel of Peter’s story of Jesus’s resurrection changes everything. It reframes how we think about what it means. It scrambles and re-orders what ‘happened.’
Here is its basic story. Jesus has died and was buried in a cave-like structure. Soldiers guard the tomb. A loud voice rings out. The sky opens up and two men descend in brightness to the sepulcher. The stone rolls away. The soldiers see this. While telling others, they see not two, but three, men coming out of the grave. The two from the sky are supporting the third one, and a cross is following them. The two are so tall that their heads reach all the way to the sky. The head of the one they are supporting is higher yet and reaches beyond the sky. They hear a voice from the sky: “You have spoken to those who sleep.” And the cross walking behind them responds to the voice from the sky: “Yes!” (Gospel of Peter 9:35-10:42)
The Gospel of Peter is not in the Bible. It was discovered in Egypt in 1886. Slowly it has become public but has not received much promotion. That’s disappointing, because this resurrection story makes us rethink so much. Among other things, some important scholars think this may well be one of the earliest stories of Jesus’s resurrection. And even if it is one of the five earliest stories of Jesus being raised, what Jesus’s resurrection means in the Gospel of Peter may be very different from what conventional Christianity thinks.
Gospel of Peter compared with other gospel stories of resurrection
The Gospel of Peter resurrection story is somewhat similar to a number of different ‘empty tomb’ stories in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Mary, and John. The scene itself is at the tomb, and there are soldiers guarding it. But as one can see, the Gospel of Peter story is much more fanciful. The two ‘men from the sky’ come back out of the tomb changed in that they are very big with their heads reaching to the sky. And—although he is not named—they are supporting Jesus, who is so tall that his head reaches beyond the sky. And, this tall Jesus seems not to have regained his legs completely, since he needs help walking. Perhaps most curious, a cross is walking behind these three as they leave the tomb. And the cross speaks!
This resurrection story insists that Jesus and his cross are extraordinary. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mary, and John, in which Jesus simply appears to his followers and has a conversation with them; here Jesus is cosmic-sized and his cross is alive and proclaiming Jesus’s importance. The only biblical resurrection story of Jesus that has similar cosmic dimensions is from Matthew, where when Jesus dies on the cross, there is an earthquake which is the occasion for many holy people to rise from the dead and enter Jerusalem.
On closer examination, however, the writer and teacher Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians has a list of ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death, some of which are also quite fantastic. This list of ‘appearances’ is generally understood as the earliest writing about the resurrection, since all the gospels seem to have come after Paul’s writing. Paul’s list of ‘appearances’ includes the following: “He appeared to more than five hundred at the same time, most of whom are still with us… Last of all, he appears to me too…” (1 Cor 15:6,8).
A more powerful spiritual meaning
A number of scholars suggest that the Gospel of Peter’s story may have been one of the earliest, if not the earliest resurrection story. It is time to take this possibility seriously, mostly because it could help us see another kind of beginning to the story of Jesus’s resurrection, one that might have even more powerfully spiritual meanings than those understood by most 21st-century church people. Most conventional modern church folks tend to think of the resurrection of Jesus as a world changing event in which Jesus is raised from the dead in a way that changes nature itself. That is, this conventional rising of Jesus from the dead is, by and large, pronounced as a completely new possibility for humans. The logic goes something like this: Jesus was the first person to be raised from the dead; that resurrection now makes possible that all humans can rise from the dead, if they believe in Jesus’s resurrection.
But the fantastic resurrection in the Gospel of Peter suggests something far more spiritually meaningful and humanly accessible. The Gospel of Peter’s resurrection is giddy and more metaphorical than that which is accepted in conventional church Christianity. Peter’s story is not seriously suggesting that three people come out of the tomb and their heads shoot up into and beyond the sky. This is simply a poetic and metaphorical insistence on the importance of Jesus. The talking cross is also a beautiful and excited proclamation of how the post-death Jesus can inspire people to live full and powerful lives. The very tall Jesus needing a bit of help to walk is also finely drawn poetry, in which the resurrected Jesus climbs into the spirit of human beings in their daily life.
We do need to let this newly re-discovered resurrection story in the Gospel of Peter sink in, the way well-crafted movies, poems, and dreams take hold of our thoughts and feelings. But there are also many explicit metaphoric meanings of resurrection in this earliest story of resurrection, even though it is expressed poetically.
The thinking of Paul is explicit. His description of baptism appropriates Jesus’s resurrection in exactly this way: “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death…As Christ was raised from the dead by God’s glorious power, we to should begin living a new life….In the same way you must see yourselves as being dead to sin, but alive for God in Christ Jesus”(Rom 6:3,4,11 New Jerusalem Bible). Even beyond baptism, Paul talks about resurrection as the way he and others can live their current life: “I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I am alive. Yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20 New Jerusalem Bible). Similarly, Paul says, “What is raised is a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44 New Jerusalem Bible).
The Gospel of Peter’s story-poem of Jesus’s resurrection is the core of resurrection. It is a leaping poem of a walking and talking cross and a very tall Jesus, who is still limping. At first, one can take it as a crazy exception to the stories, but the more one reads the early writings, the more it becomes an early example of the ways Paul, Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Mark spiritually portray the resurrection as a powerful image of how to live with abandon, spunk, aliveness, and confidence.