LETTER OF PETER TO PHILIP
A Gnostic Christian tract, probably from the second century. The only manuscript that we have of this treatise is the Coptic translation of the original Greek. The Coptic text (NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY VIII. 2) recounts a Gnostic version of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the Christian church. To some extent, the treatise parallels Luke 24 and the first chapters of Acts and may well share a common tradition.
The central message is the emphasis on the soteriological value of the simple act of proclaiming the gospel. The words of the apostles when they preach are actually inspired by the Holy Spirit. For example, when Peter is first filled with the Spirit, he gives voice to the sacred creed:
- Our illuminator Jesus came down and was crucified. And he wore a crown of thorns.
- And he put on a purple robe;
- And he was crucified upon a cross; And he was buried in a tomb;
- And he rose from the dead.
Pentecost fulfilled the promise made by Christ when he appeared on the Mount of Olives before the disciples in order to convey to them the importance of the missionary activity about to begin. He explains how the cosmos came into being and in it mankind, which harbors a spiritual self that must be awakened and set on the path to freedom in the spiritual world in which there is no death (see GNOSTICISM). Trying to prevent the escape of the disciples and others like them are the archons (cosmic powers) created by the Arrogant One (the Demiurge). So far there is nothing new in this version of the myth about the fall and redemption of the spirit. However, the disciples want to know what weapons they can use to combat the archons and not be destroyed. They learn that the archons’ fight is against the “inner person,” that is, the spiritual self, and that they can be countered successfully by girding the inner person with the power and understanding that come from the Holy Spirit.
In other words, the Holy Spirit grants to the disciples the spirit of understanding (pneuma epistemes), empowering them to heal and to spread the saving knowledge about Christ. Armed thus, the disciples (now apostles) are able to overcome the enemy; for the Spirit’s activity strengthens them both physically and spiritually and reveals to them the way out of the cosmos. The fight is for the spiritual man, and the appropriate defense is described here in terms of spiritual gifts.
Pentecost is clearly the birthday of the Christian community, but in this text it is set within a framework of ongoing revelation. The structure of the work rests on four sacred events, or divine epiphanies, each in a different setting. In the first, the disciples travel to the Mount of Olives, where, in response to their petitions, Christ appears to them in the forms of light, a voice, thunder, and lightning. In the second, on the road back to Jerusalem, the voice is heard once again. In the third the disciples arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, where they experience (first Peter and then all of them) the coming down of the Holy Spirit, which fills them with its power to preach and to heal. The fourth epiphany takes place after Pentecost and after the first period of Christian missionizing, when Jesus appears to the disciples in order to give them his blessing.
Thus, the Letter of Peter to Philip reflects a view according to which the disciples’ experience of ongoing revelation is a guiding factor in the development of the Christian church. The risen Christ appears more than once, both before and after the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Nothing in the text suggests an end to such epiphanies.
The account given in the Letter of Peter to Philip varies in numerous ways from that of the author of Luke and Acts. For example, in Acts, the event of Pentecost takes place in some unspecified location among a crowd of anonymous Jews; here, Pentecost takes place in the Temple and involves only Peter and his disciples. The opening lines, which recount Peter’s invitation to Philip to join him and the other disciples in order to prepare together for the coming mission (from which derives the manuscript’s title), may be a polemical statement.
In Acts 8:4ff. and 14ff., we read that Philip converted many to Christ but that he himself had not yet received the Holy Spirit, for Peter and John are sent to finish his work for him. Whereas Philip had only baptized others in the name of the Lord Jesus, Peter and John are able to transmit the Spirit through the laying on of hands. Perhaps the Gnostic text was written in a Christian community that traced its origins to Philip’s missionary activity and wished to emphasize his participation in the original, spirit-giving event of Pentecost.
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