ACTS OF PETER AND THE TWELVE APOSTLES
The first tractate in Codex VI of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. While fragmentary in a number of crucial places within the first eight pages, this tractate clearly describes a journey taken by Peter and the other disciples at the beginning of their ministry and after the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Since no missionary acts by the disciples are noted, it is not a missionary journey, but rather a journey of preparation for later missionary efforts. The disciples first travel to an island city called “Habitation” (the Coptic term is probably a translation of the Greek word meaning “inhabited world”). There Peter—but not the other disciples—witnesses the activities of a pearl merchant who subsequently identifies himself as Lithargoel, meaning, according to the text, “a lightweight, glistening stone,” and still later he reveals himself as Christ. His actions involve hawking pearls, without actually displaying any. The rich turn away, but the poor respond favorably. However, when they want to see a pearl, he does not show one to them but instead invites them to his city, telling them that there they may not only see one but receive one as a gift.
At that point, the poor turn to Peter (the reason is unclear) and ask about the difficulties of the way to the city. Peter tells what he has heard, but then asks the pearl merchant first who he is and then about the difficulties, implying in the latter case that the pearl merchant truly knows the difficulties, whereas Peter has only hearsay.
The merchant identifies himself again as Lithargoel and says that the journey requires both the renunciation of possessions and fasting. The reason is that the journey necessitates going through a wilderness filled with beasts of prey who will attack those with possessions, food, and drink. Peter sighs over the difficulties and suggests that Jesus could give them the power to make the journey. Lithargoel says that all that is necessary is to know the name of Jesus and believe in him. He then affirms that he believes in the Father who sent Jesus. (Note that he does not say that he believes in Jesus.) With regard to the name of his city, he says it is called “Nine Gates.”
Peter is about to go and call his friends, but first, he observes that the island city is surrounded by walls and endures in the face of the storms of the sea. In a discussion with an old man, he makes a comparison between it and the person who “endures the burden of the yoke of faith.” He goes on to say that such persons will be included in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter then calls together his friends and they successfully make the journey to Lithargoel’s city. It should be noted that the poor are no longer involved. The disciples remain outside the gate, and Lithargoel comes to them in the guise of a physician. He promises to show them Lithargoel’s house but first performs healing. He then reveals himself as Christ.
The remainder of the tractate follows the pattern of a revelation discourse. The eleven disciples prostrate themselves before Christ and indicate their willingness to do his will. He instructs them to return to Habitation. They are to teach, care for the needs of the poor, and heal the physical ills of the believers with medicine that he provides. The disciples and the poor will receive the promised pearl at some future time. The physical healing by spiritual means is to convince those who are healed that the disciples can heal spiritual ills also. They are not to deal with the rich, who ignored him. Those in the churches who show partiality to the rich are condemned, but the disciples are to judge the rich uprightly. The disciples accept the instructions, prostrate themselves, and worship Christ. He raises them up and departs.
Signs of editorial activity abound. Some are evident from the description above. Two others should be mentioned: (1) The inconsistency of the story time. At its start, the story appears to be the account of the first journey of the disciples following the Resurrection, but at its conclusion, at a time before any missionary activity, reference is made to the existence of established churches.
The physician’s disguise of Lithargoel serves only to confuse the relationship between Lithargoel and Christ. Although we are told by the narrator (who is to be thought of as a disciple) that Lithargoel is Christ, there is, in fact, no way for the disciples to have learned that fact, until Christ begins to refer to things that Lithargoel had said earlier.
If one takes the indications of editorial activity into consideration, it is possible to identify a basic account and several editorial additions. The basic account is the allegory of the pearl merchant (referred to in the text as a parable that concerns both how the rich and poor respond to the preaching of salvation and how one can attain it). The allegory is contained in the section from 2:1 to 6:27. It is similar in theme and approach to the similitudes of The Shepherd of Hermas (see Hermas) from the second century A.D. (see particularly Similitudes 1:2 and 9:2, 12, 20). It is possible, as Krause has suggested (1972), that this account was originally non-Christian and had to do with a god named Lithargoel. However, there is no current evidence of a Lithargoel cult in late antiquity. In fact, the name Lithargoel is formed like the names of Jewish angels, for example, Gabriel and Michael (Schenke, 1973). Since there is only very late attestation for an angel with such a name, its original purpose would seem to have been to portray Christ as an angel in disguise.
Added to the allegory (and somewhat compromising its character) is the material about Peter and the other disciples preparing themselves for their ministry, which is to be in the city of Habitation. It may be that the proletarian stance of the allegory attracted the editor to it. This material exhibits an ambivalence about the character of the disciples; at times they are historical figures, and elsewhere, representative personalities.
At a later stage, the material has to do with Lithargoel’s disguise as a physician and the instructions about physical healing were probably added, perhaps in reaction to the popular cult of Asclepius, the god of healing.
Finally, at some point, Peter’s vision of the city and his subsequent discussion with the old man were inserted. The connection with the rest of the account is too tenuous for these elements not to have been originally independent. There are significant parallels between it and The Shepherd of Hermas.
Nothing within the tractate compels one to identify it as Gnostic. Nor does its presence in Codex VI lead to that conclusion, since the codex contains several other tractates that are neither Gnostic (i.e., the selection from Plato’s Republic and the two Hermetic tractates) nor possible to classify as such with any assurance. The renunciation required of those who would go to Lithargoel’s city does not point at any particular direction, since renunciation is a theme common to a variety of Christian groups (Haas, 1981).
Judeo-Christian origins for the allegory may be inferred from the name Lithargoel, from the portrayal of Jesus as an angel—and even as a guardian angel—from the fact that only the poor response to the pearl merchants, and from the parallels with The Shepherd of Hermas. Peter’s vision could have had the same origin in view of its parallels with Hermas. However, the material about the disciples, with its assumption of a ministry within a church that includes both rich and poor, was probably the work of an orthodox writer, who may well have been responsible for the tractate in its penultimate form (i.e., without the addition of the physician-physical healing material). He appears to have been opposed to the increasing worldliness of the church and its leaders.
The title, which is found only at the end of the tractate, is probably secondary since the tractate speaks of eleven disciples, not twelve, and the term “acts,” in the technical sense of missionary activity, is not accurate here.
As to the date, the allegory and Peter’s vision are probably no later than the middle of the second century A.D., in view of their affinities with The Shepherd of Hermas (a dated mid-second century or before). The final form of the tractate then would be dated late in the second century or early in the third.
It has been proposed that this tractate is somehow connected with the lost first third of the Acts of Peter (Krause, 1972), but no convincing arguments supporting that have yet been presented.
- Haas, Y. “L’Exigence du renoncement au monde dans les Actes de Pierre et des Douze Apôtres, les Apophtegmès des Pères du Désert et la Pistis Sophia,” pp. 296-303. In Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi, ed. B. Barc. Louvain, 1981.
- Krause, M. “Die Petrusakten in Codex VI von Nag Hammadi,” pp. 36-58. In Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts in Honour of Alexander Böhlig, ed. M. Krause. Leiden, 1972.
- Krause, M., and P. Labib. Gnostische und hermetische Schriften aus Codex II und Codex VI, pp. 107-121. Gluckstadt, 1971.
- Parrott, D. M., ed. Nag Hammadi Codices V, 2-5, and VI with Papyrus Berolinensis 8502, 1 and 4, pp. 197-229. Leiden, 1979.
- Robinson, J. M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, pp. 287-93. San Francisco,
- Schenke, H.-M. “Die Taten des Petrus und der zwölf Apostel.” Theologische Literaturzeitung 98 (1973):13-19.