Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem
In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
 
The Crucifixion of Jesus and the Gospel of Peter
 
by Fariduddien Rice
 
Assalamu alaikum / Peace be with you,

The crucifixion of Jesus (peace be with him) is of fundamental importance to the theology of most contemporary Christian churches. It is of great importance to the Christian doctrine that Jesus (p.) died so that mankind's sins could be forgiven. The standard account of what historically happened during the crucifixion of Jesus (p.) in today's Christian church is based on the accounts in the four "canonical" gospel accounts, known as the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (though the authors of these writings are generally in fact anonymous). In these accounts, Jesus (p.) was crucified, died on the cross, then arose from the dead, and after that he was raised into the sky.

In contrast to this particular Christian account of the crucifixion, however, we have the Islamic account. The Qur'an clearly states that Jesus (p.) was not crucified or killed, but instead that God raised him unto Himself.

How do we understand the conflicting accounts? In fact, the early Christian church had many different "branches," believing in different doctrines. The four canonical Gospels are those gospels which were approved by the Trinitarian branch of the church, that believed in the doctrine that Jesus died to atone for mankind's sins. However, in the early Christian church, there were also other branches of Christianity, which had their own gospel accounts and other writings. Historically, the Trinitarian church triumphed politically, with the help of the Roman Emperor Constantine and his successors, and the other non-Trinitarian branches of Christianity were suppressed. Nevertheless, we are fortunate that discoveries, primarily within the last century, have meant that we now have access to alternative early gospels which belonged to early alternative Christian churches, although some are only known to us in fragments. Regarding accounts of the crucifixion, one of these gospels is a fragment from the Gospel of Peter. Interestingly, the Gospel of Peter could support the Qur'anic account of the crucifixion.

The rest of this essay will be broken up as follows: 1. First, we will present the Qur'anic account of the crucifixion of Jesus (p.); 2. Second, we shall present the account as it occurs in the Gospel of Peter; 3. Thirdly, we shall discuss the authenticity and dating of this Gospel; and 4. we shall conclude with a brief summary.

1. The Qur'anic Account of the Crucifixion of Jesus (p.)

The Qur'an's account of the crucifixion of Jesus (p.) is as follows:

(Qur'an 4:157-158, adapted from Pickthall's translation.)

Therefore, the Qur'an seems clear: Jesus (p.) was not crucified or killed, but it was made to appear that he was to those who wished to kill him. The fact that the statement "God took him up unto Himself" appears directly after the denial that he was crucified or killed seems to indicate that this is connected to the fact that Jesus (p.) was not crucified or killed.

Now we shall compare the account of the crucifixion in the Qur'an with that in the Gospel of Peter.

2. The Account of the Crucifixion of Jesus (p.) in the Gospel of Peter

We only have today part of the Gospel of Peter, however what we do have contains a complete account of the crucifixion. The following translations are taken from the translation of the Gospel of Peter in "The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version" edited by R. J. Miller (HarperCollins, 1994, 3rd edition), which is a compilation of translations of various early gospels. The verse references in the Gospel refer to the verse references in this translation.

Here is an excerpt from the Gospel of Peter, beginning with the actual beginning of Jesus (p.) being put on the cross.

(Gospel of Peter 4:1-5:6.)

After this, the text continues to say (in brief) that they took the "Lord" down from the cross, the earth shook, and the sun came out. They then gave the body to Joseph of Arimathea to bury it.

I want to highlight first that in 4:1, the text says that Jesus (p.) on the cross "himself remained silent, as if in no pain." Therefore, according to this account, being on the cross was apparently no ordeal for Jesus (p.), and it was not a painful event.

Secondly, I would like to highlight that in 5:5, after Jesus (p.) cried out "My power, my power, you have abandoned me," the text says that, under the cover of an early darkness, "he was taken up." On this point, the commentators to this translation write:

This latter interpretation is consistent with the Qur'anic account.

Remember, the Qur'an says that, regarding the crucifixion:

(Qur'an 4:157-158.)

Therefore, the account of the crucifixion in the Gospel of Peter seems consistent with the Qur'anic testimony, which suggests that Jesus was not killed, though it was made to appear he was; instead God took him up unto Himself.

Note that where the Gospel of Peter has that Jesus (p.) was "taken up" during the crucifixion, the canonical Gospels say that he stopped breathing. The two accounts are not necessarily contradictory, since the Qur'an says that it was made to appear to them that they had killed him.

Also, the only raising of Jesus (p.) in the canonical Gospels occurs in Luke, where, after he had died and resurrected in this Gospel, he "was carried up into the sky" (Luke 24:51). It is interesting that the Gospel of Peter has, in contrast, Jesus being "taken up" while he was on the cross (5:5), in contrast to Luke, who has him raised afterwards. (Unfortunately, we do not know what happened to Jesus after his tomb was found not to contain him in the Gospel of Peter, since the last part of the Gospel has been lost.)

3. The Authenticity of the Gospel of Peter

The longest manuscript we have of the Gospel of Peter comes from a a papyrus codex discovered by French archaeologists in a monk's grave in Egypt in 1886. According to the compilers of "The Complete Gospels," the handwriting of this manuscript suggests that it dates from the eighth or ninth century. However, since then two tiny fragments of the Gospel of Peter in Greek have also been discovered. These fragments were published in 1972, and they have been dated to the late second or early third century (i.e. around 200 C.E.). This means that the latest the Gospel of Peter could have been composed would be around 200 C.E., however, most likely it was composed much earlier since existing fragments from around 200 C.E. means that probably the work was already well distributed at that time.

The Gospel of Peter contains a differing account of certain events, such as those we have noted and others also contained in the text. Regarding this, the Jesus Seminar (a group of scholars of Jesus (p.)) write:

Therefore, with the evidence we have at present, one could argue that either the Gospel of Peter, or the canonical accounts, preserve an earlier historical account. It is impossible to tell.

Unlike the canonical Gospel accounts, which do not explicitly name their authors, the Gospel of Peter explicitly names Simon Peter as its author within the text. The very last line of the existent manuscript says, that after they found the tomb opened and Jesus (p.) not there,

(Peter 14:3)

That is where the text ends. Simon Peter is also identified as the author (though not by name) in Peter 7:2. If this claim is accepted, then the original Gospel of Peter was composed by one of the disciples of Jesus (p.). This certainly may be possible; for example, the Gospel of Luke refers to the existence of many earlier Gospels written by eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2).

4. Conclusion

The historical evidence shows that this is an early Gospel, since the earliest fragments of manuscript we have of it date to about 200 C.E., however, most likely the original text was composed much earlier, and it may even contain an earlier account of the historical events than the canonical Gospels contain. The manuscript itself identifies Simon Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus (p.), as its author.

According to the Gospel of Peter, Jesus (p.) was put on the cross, but on the cross he remained silent, acting as if he was in no pain. Near the end of the day, the sky darkened, and Jesus was "taken up," which could be interpreted that he was saved from the crucifixion, at least in spirit. However, a body remained on the cross, and this was later buried. This account seems to be in agreement with the account of the crucifixion given in the Qur'an, where it is said Jesus (p.) was neither crucified nor killed, but it was made to appear so to them, and that instead God took Jesus up unto Himself.

And Allah knows best.

Copyright © 1996, 1998 Fariduddien Rice. Permission to reprint and distribute is granted only if this notice is included, and the text is not modified in any way, shape or form to alter the intended meaning.

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