Apocalypse of Peter

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The Apocalypse of Peter (or Revelation of Peter) is an early Christian text of the 2nd century and an example of apocalyptic literature with Hellenistic overtones. It is not included in the standard canon of the New Testament, but is mentioned in the Muratorian fragment, the oldest surviving list of New Testament books, which also states that some authorities would not have it read in church. The text is extant in two incomplete versions of a lost Greek original, a later Greek version and an Ethiopic version, which diverge considerably. The work is classed as part of New Testament apocrypha.

The Apocalypse of Peter is purportedly written by the disciple Peter and describes a divine vision by Christ. After inquiring for signs of the Second Coming of Jesus (parousia), the work delves into a katabasis (vision of the afterlife), and details both heavenly bliss for the saved and infernal punishments for the damned. In particular, the punishments are graphically described in a physical sense, and loosely correspond to lex talonis ("an eye for an eye"): blasphemers are hung by their tongues, liars who bear false witness have their lips cut off; callous rich people are made to wear rags and be pierced by sharp fiery stones as would beggars; and so on. It is an early example of the same genre of the more famous Divine Comedy of Dante, wherein the protagonist takes a tour of the realms of the afterlife.

Manuscript history[edit]

Before 1886, the Apocalypse of Peter had been known only through quotations and references in early Christian writings. In addition, some common lost source had been necessary to account for closely parallel passages in such apocalyptic Christian literature as the Apocalypse of Esdras, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Passion of Saint Perpetua, although identification of this lost source with the Apocalypse of Peter was not known.

A fragmented Koine Greek manuscript was discovered during excavations initiated by Gaston Maspéro during the 1886–87 season in a desert necropolis at Akhmim in Upper Egypt. The fragment consisted of parchment leaves of the Greek version that was claimed to be deposited in the grave of a Christian monk of the 8th or 9th century.[1] The manuscript is in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo. From 1907–1910, a large set of documents of Clementine literature in Ethiopic were published along with translations into French.[2] M. R. James realized in 1910 that there was a strong correspondence with the Akhmim Apocalypse of Peter, and that these were Ethiopic versions of the same work.[3] Further Ethiopic copies have been discovered since. These Ethiopic versions appear to have been translated from Arabic, which itself was translated from the lost Greek original. Two other short Greek fragments of the work have been discovered: a 5th-century fragment at the Bodleian that had been discovered in Egypt in 1895, and the Rainer fragment at the Rainer collection in Vienna [de] which perhaps comes from the 3rd or 4th century.[4][5] These fragments offer significant variations from the other versions.

As compiled by William MacComber and others, the number of Ethiopic manuscripts of this same work continue to grow. The Ethiopic work is of colossal size and post-conciliar provenance, and many variations exist. In many Ethiopic manuscripts, the Apocalypse of Peter forms the first part of new combined works; two notable ones are "The Second Coming of Christ and the Resurrection of the Dead" and "The Mystery of the Judgment of Sinners."[6]

In general, most scholars believe that the Ethiopic versions we have today are closer to the original manuscript, while the Greek manuscript discovered at Akhmim is a later and edited version.[4] This is for a number of reasons: the Akhmim version is shorter, while the Ethiopic matches the claimed line count from the Stichometry of Nicephorus; patristic references and quotes seem to match the Ethiopic version better; the Ethiopic matches better with the Rainer and Bodleian Greek fragments; and the Akhmim version seems to be attempting to integrate the Apocalypse with the Gospel of Peter (also in the Akhmim manuscript), which would naturally result in revisions.[7][3][8]


Papyrus fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter, found in Egypt

The Apocalypse of Peter seems to have been written between 100 AD and 150 AD. The terminus post quem—the point after which we know the Apocalypse of Peter must have been written—is shown by its use (in Chapter 3) of 4 Esdras, which was written about 100 AD.[4] If the Apocalypse was used by Clement or the author of the Sibylline Oracles, then it must have been in existence by 150 AD.[7]

The Muratorian fragment is the earliest existing list of canonical sacred writings of what would eventually be called the New Testament. The fragment is generally dated to the last quarter of the 2nd century (c. 175–200). It gives a list of works read in the Christian churches that is similar to the modern accepted canon; however, it also includes the Apocalypse of Peter. The Muratorian fragment states: "the Apocalypses also of John and Peter only do we receive, which some among us would not have read in church." (The existence of other, non "received" Apocalypses is implied, for several early apocryphal ones are known: see Apocalyptic literature.) The scholars Oscar Skarsaune and Richard Bauckham makes a case for dating the composition to the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136).[a]


The Apocalypse of Peter is framed as a discourse of the Risen Christ to his faithful. In the Ethiopic version, a vision of hell granted to Peter is discussed followed by a vision of heaven; in the Akhmim fragment, the order is reversed. In the form of a Greek katabasis or nekyia, it goes into elaborate detail about the punishment in hell for each type of crime and the pleasures given in heaven for each virtue.

In the opening, the disciples ask for signs of the Second Coming (parousia) while on Mount Zion. The Gospel parables of the budding fig tree and the barren fig tree, partly selected from the "Little Apocalypse" of Matthew 24,[11] appear only in the Ethiopic version (ch. 2). The two parables are joined, and the setting "in the summer" has been transferred to "the end of the world", in a detailed allegory in which the tree becomes Israel and the flourishing shoots become Jews who have adopted Jesus as Messiah and achieve martyrdom.[12] It is possible this was edited out of the Greek version due to incipient anti-Jewish tensions in the church; a depiction of Jews converting and Israel being especially blessed may not have fit the mood in the 4th and 5th centuries of the Church as some Christians strongly repudiated Judaism.[13]

The punishments in the vision closely correspond to the past sinful actions, often with a correspondence between the body part that sinned and the body part that is tortured. It is a loose version of the Jewish notion of an eye for an eye, that the punishment may fit the crime.[14][15] The phrase "each according to his deed" appears five times in the Ethiopic version to explain the punishments.[16] Many of the punishments are overseen by Ezrael the Angel of Wrath (most likely the angel Azrael, although it is possibly a corrupt reference to the angel Sariel); the angel Uriel is also involved as well, largely in the process of resurrecting the dead into their new bodies.[17] Punishments in hell according to the vision include:

  • Blasphemers are hanged by the tongue.
  • Those who deny justice are set in a pit of fire.
  • Women who adorn themselves for the purpose of adultery are hung by their hair over a bubbling mire. The men who had adulterous relationships with them are hung by their genitals next to them.
  • Murderers and their allies are tormented by venomous creatures and numberless worms.
  • Women who aborted their children are in a pit of excrement up their throats, and their children shoot a "flash of fire" into their eyes.
  • Mothers who committed infanticide have their breast milk congeal into flesh-devouring animals that torment both parents. (Their dead children are delivered to a care-taking angel called Temlakos.)
  • Persecutors and betrayers of the righteous have half their body set on fire, are cast into a dark pit, and their entrails are eaten by a worm that never sleeps.
  • Those who slander and doubt God's righteousness gnaw their tongues, are tormented with hot iron, and have their eyes burnt.
  • Liars whose lies caused the death of martyrs have their lips cut off, with fire in their body and entrails.
  • Rich people who neglected the poor are clothed in rags and pierced by a sharp pillar of fire.
  • Those who lend money and demand "usury upon usury" stand up to their knees in a lake of foul matter and blood.
  • Men who take on the role of women in a sexual way, and lesbians, fall from the precipice of a great cliff repeatedly.
  • Makers of idols are either scourged with fire whips (Ethiopic) or they beat each other with fire rods (Akhmim).
  • Those who forsook God's Commandments and heeded demons burn in flames.
  • Those who do not honor their parents fall into a stream of fire repeatedly.
  • Those who do not heed the counsel of their elders are attacked by flesh-devouring birds.
  • Women who had premarital sex have their flesh torn to pieces.
  • Disobedient slaves gnaw their tongues eternally.
  • Those who give alms hypocritically are rendered blind and deaf, and fall upon coals of fire.
  • Sorcerers are hung on a wheel of fire.[12]

The vision of heaven is shorter than the depiction of hell. In heaven, people have pure milky white skin, curly hair, and are generally beautiful. The earth blooms with everlasting flowers and spices. People wear shiny clothes made of light, like the angels. Everyone sings in choral prayer.

In the Ethiopic version, the account closes with an account of the Ascension of Jesus on the mountain from chapters 15–17. As the Akhmim version moved the Apocalypse earlier, to when Jesus was still alive, it is not in the Akhmim version.

Prayers for those in hell[edit]

One theological issue of note appears only in the version of the text in the 3rd century Rainer Fragment, the earliest fragment of the text. Its chapter 14 describes the salvation of condemned sinners for whom the righteous pray:

Then I will grant to my called and elect ones whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment. And I will give them [i.e. those for whom the elect pray] a fine baptism in salvation from Acherousian lake which is, they say, in the Elysian field, a portion of righteousness with my holy ones.[18]

While not found in later manuscripts, this reading was likely original to the text, as it agrees with a quotation in the Sibylline Oracles:[18]

To these pious ones imperishable God, the universal ruler, will also give another thing. Whenever they ask the imperishable God to save men from the raging fire and deathless gnashing he will grant it, and he will do this. For he will pick them out again from the undying fire and set them elsewhere and send them on account of his own people to another eternal life with the immortals in the Elysian plain where he has the long waves of the deep perennial Acherusian lake.

— Sibylline Oracles, Book 2, 330–338[19]

Other 2nd century parallel passages possibly influenced by this are found in the Epistle of the Apostles, the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah, and possibly the Acts of Paul.[20][21]

The passage also makes literary sense, as it is a follow up to a passage in Chapter 3 where Jesus initially rebukes Peter who expresses horror at the suffering in hell; Richard Bauckham suggests that this is because it must be the victims who were harmed that request mercy, not Peter. While not directly endorsing universal salvation, it does suggest that salvation will eventually reach as far as the compassion of the elect.[18] Some of the Ethiopic manuscripts written in the 9th century and beyond include new extensions that also describe a great act of divine mercy to come that will rescue (some? all?) sinners from hell.[21]

Influences, genre, and related works[edit]


Much of the original scholarship on the Apocalypse was on determining its predecessor influences. The first studies generally emphasized its Hellenistic philosophy roots in Greek traditions, such as those by Albrecht Dieterich in 1893, who on the basis of the Akhmim manuscript alone postulated a general Orphic cultural context in the attention focused on the house of the dead.[22] Later scholarship by Martha Himmelfarb and others has emphasized the strong Jewish roots of the Apocalypse of Peter as well; it seems that apocalypses were a popular genre among Jews after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Much of the Apocalypse of Peter may be based on or influenced by these lost Jewish apocalypses. The book directly cites 4 Esdras. The author also appears to be familiar with the Gospel of Matthew and no other; a line in Chapter 16 has Peter realizing the meaning of the Beatitude quote that "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."[23]

Contemporary work[edit]

The opening setting of the resurrected Jesus giving further insights to the Apostles, usually on a mountain, followed by an account of Jesus's ascension, appears to have been a popular setting in 2nd century Christian works. The genre is sometimes called a "dialogue Gospel", and is seen in works such as the Epistle of the Apostles, the Questions of Bartholomew, and various Gnostic works such as the Pistis Sophia.[23]

The Apocalypse of Peter also fits into the same genre as Clementine literature that was popular in Alexandria, despite Clement not appearing directly. The Ethiopic manuscripts that Grébaut found the Ethiopic manuscripts of were mixed in with other Clementine literature, which usually featured Peter prominently.

Among work that was eventually canonized in the New Testament, the Apocalypse of Peter shows a close resemblance in ideas with the Second Epistle of Peter, to the extent that many scholars believe one had copied passages from the other due to the number of close parallels.[24] Conversely, the Apocalypse of Peter differs from the Apocalypse of John in putting far more stress on the afterlife and divine rewards and punishments than Revelation's focus on a cosmic battle between good and evil.

Later influence[edit]

The Sibylline Oracles, popular among Roman Christians, seems to directly quote the Apocalypse of Peter.[25] The Acts of Perpetua and the visions narrated in the Acts of Thomas also appear to quote or reference the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Apocalypse of Peter is one of the earliest examples of a Christian-Jewish katabasis, a genre of explicit depictions of heaven and hell. Later works inspired by it include the Apocalypse of Thomas in the 2nd–4th century, and more importantly, the Apocalypse of Paul in the 4th century. Despite a lack of "official" approval, the Apocalypse of Paul would go on to be popular for centuries, possibly due to its popularity among the medieval monks that copied and preserved manuscripts in the turbulent centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Most famously, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy would become extremely popular and celebrated in the 14th century and beyond.[4] Directly or indirectly, the Apocalypse of Peter was the parent and grandparent of these influential visions of the afterlife.

Literary merits[edit]

19th and 20th century scholars consider the work rather intellectually simple and naive; dramatic and gripping, but not necessarily a coherent story. Still, the Apocalypse of Peter was popular and seemed to have a wide audience in its time.[23] M. R. James remarked that his impression was that educated Christians of the later Roman period "realized it was a gross and vulgar book" which might have partially explained a lack of elite enthusiasm for canonizing it later.[26]

Debate over canonicity[edit]

The Apocalypse of Peter was ultimately not included in the New Testament, but appears to have been one of the borderline works that came closest to being included, along with the Shepherd of Hermas.[10] As discussed in dating the Apocalypse of Peter, the Muratorian fragment mentions the Apocalypse, but also states that "some among us would not have read in church." Both the Apocalypse of Peter and Apocalypse of John appear to have been controversial, with some churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries using them and others not. Clement of Alexandria appears to have considered the Apocalypse of Peter to be holy scripture. Eusebius personally found the work dubious, but his book Church History describes a lost work of Clement's, the Hypotyposes (Outlines), that gave "abbreviated discussions of the whole of the registered divine writings, without passing over the disputed [writings] — I mean Jude and the rest of the general letters, and the Letter of Barnabas, and the so-called Apocalypse of Peter."[27][28] The Stichometry of Nicephorus also lists it as a used if disputed book.[13] Although the numerous references to it attest that it was in wide circulation in the 2nd century, the Apocalypse of Peter was ultimately not accepted into the Christian canon.[29] The reason why is not entirely clear, although considering the reservations various church authors had on the Apocalypse of John (that is, the Book of Revelation), likely similar considerations were in play. As late as the 5th century, Sozomen indicates that some churches in Palestine used it in his time, but by then, it seems to have been considered inauthentic by most Christians.

One hypothesis for why the Apocalypse of Peter failed to gain enough support to be canonized, propounded by Bart Ehrman, is that its view on the afterlife was too close to endorsing Christian universalism. The passage in the Rainer Fragment that dead saints, seeing the torment of sinners and heretics from heaven, could ask God for mercy, and these damned souls could be retroactively baptized and saved, had significant theological implications. Presumably, all of hell could eventually be emptied in such a manner; M. R. James suggested that the original Apocalypse of Peter may well have suggested universal salvation after a period of cleansing suffering in hell.[7] This ran against the stance of many Church theologians of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries who strongly felt that salvation and damnation were eternal and strictly based on actions and beliefs while alive. Augustine of Hippo, in his work City of God, specifically advocates against arguments based on similar logic to what is seen in the Rainer passage.[30] Such a system, where saints could at least pray their friends and family out of hell, and possibly any damned soul, would have been considered incorrect at best, and heretical at worst to these views. Ehrman agrees with James and proposes that the Rainer fragment reading was the original one; and that this passage was not copied by later scribes who felt it was in error, hence not appearing in later manuscripts. He believes that the damage to the book's reputation was already done, however. The Origenist Controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries retroactively condemned much of the thought of Origen, particularly his belief in universal salvation, and this anti-Origen movement was at least part of why the book was not included in later canon lists.[31]


  1. ^ Skarsaune and Bauckham's argument supporting composition by a Jewish-Christian author in Israel during the Bar Kochba revolt is that the text speaks of a single false messiah who has not yet been exposed as false. The reference to the false messiah as a "liar" may be a Hebrew pun turning Bar Kochba's original name, Bar Kosiba, into Bar Koziba, "son of the lie".[9][10]


  1. ^ Jan N. Bremmer; István Czachesz (2003). The Apocalypse of Peter. Peeters Publishers. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-90-429-1375-2.
  2. ^ The Ethiopic text, with a French translation, was published by S. Grébaut, Littérature éthiopienne pseudo-Clémentine", Revue de l'Orient Chrétien, new series, 15 (1910), 198–214, 307–23.
  3. ^ a b Bauckham 1998, p. 162–163
  4. ^ a b c d Maurer, Christian (1965) [1964]. Schneemelcher, Wilhelm (ed.). New Testament Apocrypha: Volume Two: Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Translated by Wilson, Robert McLachlan. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. p. 663–668. Translation from Ethiopian to German by H. Duensing.
  5. ^ The Greek Akhmim text was printed by A. Lods, "L'evangile et l'apocalypse de Pierre", Mémoires publiés par les membres de la mission archéologique au Caire, 9, M.U. Bouriant, ed. (1892:2142-46); the Greek fragments were published by M.R. James, "A new text of the Apocalypse of Peter II", JTS 12 (1910/11:367-68).
  6. ^ Bauckham 1998, p. 147, 162
  7. ^ a b c Elliott, James Keith (1993). The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford University Press. p. 593–595. ISBN 0-19-826182-9.
  8. ^ Ehrman 2022, p. 157–160
  9. ^ Oscar Skarsaune (2012). Jewish Believers in Jesus. Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 386–388. ISBN 978-1-56563-763-4.
  10. ^ a b Bauckham 1998, p. 160–161
  11. ^ The canonic New Testament context of this image is discussed under Figs in the Bible; Richard Bauckham, "The Two Fig Tree Parables in the Apocalypse of Peter", Journal of Biblical Literature 104.2 (June 1985:269–287), shows correspondences with wording of the Matthean text that does not appear in the parallel passages in the synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke.
  12. ^ a b Bauckham 1998, p. 164–168
  13. ^ a b Ehrman, Bart (2012). Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford University Press. p. 457–465. ISBN 9780199928033.
  14. ^ David Fiensy, "Lex Talionis in the 'Apocalypse of Peter'", The Harvard Theological Review 76.2 (April 1983:255–258). Fiensy writes "It is possible that where there is no logical correspondence, the punishment has come from the Orphic tradition and has simply been clumsily attached to a vice by a Jewish redactor." (p. 257).
  15. ^ Ehrman 2022, p. 89–91. Note that Ehrman contests the scholarly opinion of the use of lex talionis, focusing more on bodily correspondence, as the punishments described are far more severe than the original crime - which goes against the idea of punishments being commensurate to the damage or pain done within "an eye for an eye."
  16. ^ Bauckham 1998, p. 194–197
  17. ^ Bauckham 1998, p. 221–223
  18. ^ a b c Bauckham 1998, p. 145–146; 232–235
  19. ^ Charlesworth, James, ed. (1983). "The Sibylline Oracles". The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 1. Translated by Collins, John J. Doubleday. p. 353. ISBN 0-385-09630-5.
  20. ^ James, M. R. (April 1931). "The Rainer Fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter". The Journal of Theological Studies. os–XXXII (127): 270–279. doi:10.1093/jts/os-XXXII.127.270.
  21. ^ a b Bauckham 1998, p. 147–148
  22. ^ Dieterich, Albrecht (1893). Nekyia: Beiträge zur Erklärung der neuentdeckten Petrusapokalypse (in German). Reprinted Stuttgart, Teubner, 1969.
  23. ^ a b c Bauckham 1998, p. 168–174; 208–209
  24. ^ Bauckham 1998, p. 290–303
  25. ^ Specifically Sibylline Oracles ii., 225ff.
  26. ^ Ehrman 2022, p. 199–201
  27. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea (2019) [c. 320s]. "Book 6, Chapter 14". The History of the Church. Translated by Schott, Jeremy M. Oakland, California: University of California Press. p. 297. ISBN 9780520964969.
  28. ^ Clement 41.1–2 48.1 correspond with the Ethiopian text M. R. James in introduction to Translation and Introduction to Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)
  29. ^ Perrin, Norman The New Testament: An Introduction, p. 262
  30. ^ Bauckham 1998, p. 157–159 Specifically, according to Augustine, the saints in heaven will have their will fully aligned with God, and thus would never want to oppose God's will that the damned be punished, so they would never pray for the salvation of the damned as they do in the Apocalypse of Peter.
  31. ^ Ehrman 2022, p. 189–223. See also the blog posts at Ehrman, Bart (January 30, 2019). "The Aberrant View of the Afterlife in the Apocalypse of Peter". The Bart Ehrman Blog: The History & Literature of Early Christianity. Retrieved January 27, 2022. and Finally. Why Did the Apocalypse of Peter Not Make It Into the Canon?


  • Bauckham, Richard B. (1998). The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. Brill Publishing.
  • Ehrman, Bart (2022). Journeys to Heaven and Hell: Tours of the Afterlife in the Early Christian Tradition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-25700-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eileen Gardiner, Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante (New York: Italica Press, 1989), pp. 1–12, provides an English translation of the Ethiopic text.

External links[edit]