Bart Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, which we have excerpted below, in addition to The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code and most recently, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. Ehrman spoke on NPR yesterday about why we suffer.
In one of our early accounts of Peter’s missionary activities after the death of Jesus, we find him in the Forum in Rome, trying to persuade the pagan (i.e., polytheistic) crowds to abandon their false gods and to believe in the power of Jesus, the only son of God. A woman appears on the scene completely distressed: her only son, her love and joy, has just died. Out of desperation, she appeals to Peter to raise him from the dead. Peter replies to her: “In the presence of these witnesses go and bring your son, that they may be able to see and believe that he was raised up by the power of God.” He sends a group of men to retrieve the corpse. They check to be sure the young man is dead and then bring him to Peter in the middle of the Forum. Peter says a brief prayer over the dead body and then commands, “Young man, arise and walk with your mother as long as you can be of use to her.” And we are told that the “dead man rose immediately, and the multitude saw and were amazed, and the people cried, ‘You, God the Savior, you, God of Peter, you are the invisible God and Savior.’” Peter’s power is thus vindicated, God is glorified, and the masses convert to follow Christ.
But did this event really happen? As it turns out, it is found not in the New Testament but in a collection of writings known as the Acts of Peter, written some 150 years after Peter himself had passed from the scene. Is it actual history or a pious legend? Compare it to an account written somewhat earlier. In the town of Joppa, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, a good Christian woman named Tabitha has recently died. The disciples are distressed and send for Peter to come and do something. Without delay he makes his way to town and ascends to the upper room where the body is laid out. Sending everyone out of the room, Peter kneels by the dead Tabitha and prays. He then says to her “Tabitha, rise.” She opens her eyes and gives her hand to Peter, to the amazement of all in Joppa, many of whom come to believe in the power of Jesus as a result. Here is a story similar to the other, but this one is found in the New Testament (Acts 9:36–43). How can the historian claim that one of the stories is a fictional narrative and the other is a biographical fact? Is it enough to say that the author of Acts was recording historical events simply because church fathers living many, many years later decided to include his writings in the canon of Scripture?
The resuscitation of dead bodies may not seem all that remarkable to readers of the New Testament. To be sure, we don’t see this kind of thing happen every day, but it does seem to happen in the Bible. Other miraculous events, though, while no less impossible in a literal sense, may strike us as a bit more peculiar and subject to doubt. Consider the episode of Peter and the smoked tuna fish. Peter is back in Rome, trying to convince the crowds that his God is all-powerful and deserves to be worshiped. They ask him for a miracle to prove his point, and he notices a smoked tuna hanging in the window of a fishmonger’s shop. He takes hold of the fish and asks the crowd, “When you see this swimming in the water like a fish, will you be able to believe in him whom I preach?”
They all answer in one voice, “Indeed we shall believe you.” And so he says the magic words: “In your name, O Jesus, Christ, in whom they do not yet believe, I say, ‘Tuna, in the presence of all these, live and swim like a fish.’” And the fish immediately comes back to life—not just for an hour or so, but for good, as people see when they stay and feed it bits of bread. This display of divine power has then a spectacular result: “very many who had witnessed this followed Peter and believed in the Lord.” This is a rather strange moment in the life of Peter—and again, one found not in Scripture but in the second-century Acts of Peter. But there are strange events in the New Testament as well. In one passage of the book of Acts, we are told that Peter is so powerful that he no longer even needs to touch the sick or demon-possessed to heal them. If he passes by on a sunny day, his shadow cures them (Acts 5:15–16)…
We can broaden the question to include the words of Jesus that Peter, his closest disciple, is alleged to have heard. In one account we are told that Jesus was seated on the Mount of Olives teaching his disciples about what would happen at the end of time. When Peter asks him for more details, Jesus launches into a long exposition of what could be expected for nonbelievers on the day of judgment, and appears actually to show Peter the realm of the damned. The graphic and lurid images that appear in the account clearly make their point: those who habitually practice sin will be condemned to severe and painful suffering in the afterlife, and to some extent their punishments will match their crimes. So women who braid their hair to make themselves attractive to their illicit lovers will be hanged by their hair for all eternity, and the men who have had illicit sex with them will be hanged by their genitals over fire. As one might expect, these men lament, “We did not know that we should come to everlasting punishment!” Those who revel in their riches will be clad in rags and filthy garments and cast for all eternity upon a stone topped with a pillar of fire that is “sharper than swords.” Those who have lent money out at interest (usury) will spend eternity in a pit with filth up to their knees. And so it goes.
This narrative can be found in a book called the Apocalypse of Peter, which was considered Scripture by many Christian leaders for centuries before the canon was finally agreed upon, but which, obviously, did not finally come to be included in the New Testament. No less striking, however, is the account found within the Christian New Testament, where Jesus is recorded as saying to Peter (and James and John) that “before this generation passes away” (Mark 13:30) the entire universe will fall apart: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:25–26). If people can see the Son of Man coming, that might be the greatest miracle of all, since there will no longer be any sun, moon, or stars.
More could be said about the amazing stories surrounding Peter both within the canon of Scripture and outside it, but this is enough to make my basic point. Most readers of the noncanonical accounts will have no trouble realizing that they are filled with legendary reports about the things Peter said, heard, did, and experienced. These reports are often based on pious legends, as storytellers among the Christians wanted to celebrate the life of this chief disciple of Jesus. But the legend-making tendencies did not start only after the canon of the New Testament had been completed. Quite the contrary, there are legendary materials within the books that Christians eventually came to call sacred Scripture. It is not the case that the New Testament presents us only with facts and the books outside the New Testament present us only with pious fictions. There are facts and fictions in all our books, both inside the Bible and outside of it. And in many cases it is difficult—one might say well nigh impossible— to separate one from the other.
And maybe that’s not the most important task in any event. Both kinds of story, the historically accurate and the highly legendary, were told and retold by Christian storytellers and authors for reasons, and often for precisely the same reasons. We need to realize that the people telling the stories about Peter (as well as Paul, Mary, and even Jesus) were not interested simply in providing history lessons, objectively verifiable reports for students needing to learn about history “as it really was.” Christian storytellers had an entirely different range of purposes. They wanted to explain, illustrate, explore, and embody important Christian beliefs, perspectives, worldviews, ideas, biases, purposes, practices, and so on.
So, given the nature of the material, possibly the most important task is not the rather dry academic exercise of separating history from legend but rather to understand what the stories were trying to accomplish on their own terms, that is, to see what the storytellers wanted to achieve by telling the stories the ways that they did.