The Acts of Peter
In Acts of the Apostles Luke told the story the way the Holy Spirit intended for him to relate it. It therefore focuses on the specific acts of some of the Apostles over a specific period of time. And yet, without a doubt, other stories were both told about and grew up around the Apostles. The Acts of Peter purports to be one such collection of stories about the Apostle Peter.
The Acts of Peter is believed to be an early Christian apocryphal work, likely composed in Greek, probably somewhere in Asia Minor in the early second century. There are some affinities with the Acts of John; in antiquity both were said to be authored by Leucius Charinus, believed to have been an associate of John. According to the Stichometry of Nicephorus the Acts of Peter was originally 2,750 lines; most of what has survived is found in the Vercelli manuscript in Latin translation, and it is missing at least a third of the original. The Acts of Peter related stories and traditions about Simon Peter, specifically focusing upon his contests with Simon Magus in Rome and his martyrdom.
The Acts of Peter may be accessed here. A fragment in Coptic preserved a part of the Acts of Peter in which Peter related why his daughter was palsied on one side by his own prayer in order to preserve her from the desire of one Ptolemaeus. The Epistle of Titus may also preserve a part of the Acts of Peter in which a gardener asked Peter for a blessing for his virgin daughter; Peter prayed and the child died; the gardener begged for her to be raised; Peter did so, and the next day she was violated by a slave.
The Acts of Peter as preserved in the Vercelli manuscript begins with a description of Paul’s departure from Rome to go to Spain (Acts of Peter 1-3; whether this section was part of the original text, an insertion from the Acts of Paul, or composed by another to frame the Acts of Peter is disputed). After Paul’s departure, Simon the Magician stirred up Rome with his enchantments (the same Simon of Acts 8:9-25 fame; Acts of Peter 4). God charged Peter to leave Jerusalem and go to Rome; on the journey Peter converted the ship’s governor Theon en route (Acts of Peter 5-6).
Peter went up to Rome; he received reports about Simon; Peter would speak to Simon through a talking dog and a baby; Simon’s host Marcellus repented; a demon was cast out of a man who then struck a statue of Caesar in Marcellus’ house; the statue is restored; Peter caused a sardine to become alive and swim before the people (Acts of Peter 7-15). Jesus appeared to Peter to confirm him regarding what would come to pass; Peter then related to the people an expanded tale of his interactions with Simon in Judea, featuring a woman named Eubula and her stolen gold; Peter asked for prayer to overcome Simon; Marcellus had cleansed his house and invited everyone to pray there; they go, Peter healed a blind woman there, and he exhorted them all in Jesus; they all prayed and some widows saw visions of the Lord in light; Marcellus saw a vision which strengthened Peter (Acts of Peter 16-22).
The next day Peter stood before the Romans and was asked to demonstrate the power of his God; Peter testified about his previous involvement with Simon; Simon in turned denied the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus; Peter declared him accursed and testified against him further (Acts of Peter 23-24). The prefect established a challenge: Simon was to kill one of his servants, and Peter would raise him; both the prefect’s servant and a widow’s son were raised; many in the city believe, and a senator’s wife begged Peter to raise her son; Peter instead makes it a challenge between himself and Simon; Simon tried to trick all into thinking the son was raised, but he was not; Peter raised the dead man, named Nicostratus, who then spoke with him of Christ; many believed and relief was given to many (Acts of Peter 25-29). Peter received money from Chryse, a woman of ill repute, who saw a vision and had repented; many were brought to Peter to be healed; Simon promised to fly back to the god who sent him; in the middle of flight Peter cried to Jesus to have him fall and break his leg; Simon thus fell; Gemellus, a follower of Simon, repented; Simon survived but died at the hands of doctors (Acts of Peter 30-32).
The rest of the Acts of Peter is preserved in many manuscripts as the story of Peter’s martyrdom (Acts of Peter 33-41). Peter exhorted chastity upon many of the women of Rome, including wives and concubines of prominent men; these men conspire to avenge themselves on Peter; Peter saw a vision of Jesus going to Rome to be crucified again, and understood that such would be his fate; Peter is arrested by one such man, Agrippa, who thus condemned him (Acts of Peter 33-36). The brethren appealed on his behalf, but Peter encouraged them to hold firm to what he taught them; he asked to be crucified upside down; he explained to those who saw why he did so; he encouraged all to serve the Lord Jesus, and died; Marcellus took the body and buried it ornately; Peter rebuked him for it in a vision, but Marcellus took encouragement from the vision (Acts of Peter 37-40). Nero was angry at Agrippa for executing Peter because he had wanted to do so more viciously; Nero wanted to persecute Christians but was affrighted by a vision and did not do so for the moment; the brethren thus had peace (Acts of Peter 41).
It is difficult to know what to fully make of the Acts of Peter, especially since the full text has not been preserved. Much is made of Peter’s ability to perform signs and raise the dead. The author makes much of Simon Magus; such is consistent with the world of early Christendom in which Simon is considered the heresiarch, the originator of all heresies. The idea that Peter would be martyred as upside down on a cross, if nothing else, sounds like the kind of thing Peter would request and suffer. In the end, however, the Acts of Peter is assuredly apocryphal: stories from Acts are repeated in different contexts or expanded beyond recognition; dogs and babies prophesy and speak condemnation, which is funny but unlikely; the contrast between the history recorded by Luke and the tales told in the Acts of Peter is strong. Yet it remains possible that some of the stories, despite all their expansions, may maintain some kernel of historical truth about Peter as remembered by Christians in Rome. We have thus considered the Acts of Peter; may we serve God in Christ and be saved in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Early Christian Writings, “The Acts of Peter”, accessed 01/26/2017
Wikipedia, “The Acts of Peter“, accessed 01/26/2017