You are on page 1of 32

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.

Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
Te Letter of Peter to Philip and its Message of
Gnostic Revelation and Christian Unity
Michael Kaler
Burnfield Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M6G 1Y4
In this article I discuss the Letter of Peter to Philip, one of the gnostic documents found
in the Nag Hammadi collection, as well as in the recently published Codex Tchacos.
In prior work on the Letter, questions have been raised with regard to its overall coher-
ence, the precise nature of its relationship to the canonical book of Acts, and the rea-
sons for including it in Nag Hammadi Codex VIII in late antiquity. In my response to
these questions, I demonstrate that it is a coherent work; that it is solidly grounded in
a specific (albeit somewhat fictional) historical context, namely that of Acts 7-8; and
that its presence in codex VIII makes good sense given the codex’s underlying logic.
Te Letter has also been treated in the past as a Petrine document; I demonstrate that
in fact it is extremely indebted to a Pauline view of revelation and enlightenment,
drawing specifically on the account of Paul’s revelation in Acts 9.
Tus in contrast to older views that saw the Letter as an incoherent, Petrine work
making scattershot use of Lukan references and placed in codex VIII as “filler,” I dem-
onstrate that it is a quite coherent, Pauline work that operates within a precise context
in the Actsian historical plan, and that its presence in Codex VIII illuminates the logic
underlying that codex’s arrangement. In all of this, my emphasis is firmly on the nar-
rative aspects of the frame story part of the Letter, rather than privileging the content
of the esoteric revelation delivered by Jesus, as has been done in the past.
Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, Petrine, Pauline, Acts, Revelation Dialogue, Codicology
Te Letter of Peter to Philip (hereafter Letter) is an ancient gnostic text, extant
in two versions. A very damaged version is found among the writings
Support while this paper was written was provided by a Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 265
contained in the recently published Codex Tchacos; another, con siderably
more complete version is found at the end of Nag Hammadi Codex VIII.
We will be working with this latter version in what follows, except where
otherwise noted. Although there are significant differences between the
two versions, they do not affect the issues that we will be addressing here
(at least, insofar as the Tchacos version is extant), with the exception of the
very end of the Letter, discussed below, page 286.
Tere was a flurry of interest in the Letter in the mid to late 1970s, when
it first became widely accessible, with articles and studies published by
such scholars as Hans-Gebhard Bethge, Klaus Koschorke, Jacques Ménard,
Gerard Luttikhuizen, and Marvin Meyer (see the bibliography for details).
Tese studies established the broad lines that research on the Letter—such
as the later work of Bethge and Meyer, and the work of Judith Hartenstein,
Antti Marjanen, among others—would generally follow. Te Letter’s use of
Luke/Acts and its composite nature have been topics of abiding interest,
and its author’s irenic vision of a unified church that could include both
gnostics and non-gnostics has often been noted. In what follows I will
address these issues, and hopefully further illuminate this fascinating piece
of gnostic literature. Finally, I will move from the Letter itself to one of its
two known contexts of use, namely Nag Hammadi Codex VIII. Prior
research has tended to understate the significance of its presence in this
codex: I will attempt to provide a more nuanced discussion.
Summary of the Plot
Te Letter begins, as its name suggests, with a letter from Peter to Philip,
inviting Philip to come and join up with the rest of the apostles so that
they can complete their preparations for teaching and spreading the word.
Philip comes, rejoicing, and then he and the rest of the apostles go to the
Mount of Olives. Tere they fall to their knees and pray for help and
power “for they seek to kill us,” or “we are being sought after in order to be
killed” (third person plural subject pronouns in Coptic can function as
dummy subjects to signal passive voice).
A great light appears, and out of it speaks the voice of Jesus Christ. In
answer to the questions posed by the apostles, he reveals to them the
(extremely gnostic and mythological) details of the origin of the universe,
the powers that rule it, and his own salvific activity. Te apostles are
instructed that they will have to fight the “archons” and the “powers,” and
the revelation ends.
266 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
On the road back to Jerusalem, they discuss suffering, and a voice, pre-
sumably that of Jesus, reminds them of its inevitability. Having arrived in
Jerusalem, they perform healings in the temple. Peter makes a confession
of faith to his disciples, and prays for a spirit of understanding, which they
receive. Ten all the apostles perform healings. Jesus appears and gives them
a benediction, and they go their separate ways to preach the word.
1. Te Coherence of the Letter
Te first issue that I will address is that of the Letter’s coherence. In par-
ticular, there are three aspects of the Letter that have appeared to be inco-
herent in prior work on it. First, there is the issue of the relationship of
Christ’s revelation (134.9-138.7) to the rest of the narrative. Te second
aspect is the relationship of Peter’s brief introductory letter to the story that
follows. Both of these issues have to do with the redactional history of the
work, and there has been a tendency to see the transitions between the
various parts of the Letter (introduction, frame story, revelation) as being
awkward, betraying unskilful editing.
A third issue, related to the second, has to do with borrowings from
Luke/Acts. Although the Letter is clearly indebted to this literary source,
prior research has made it appear that the Letter’s author assimilates her
sources in a scattershot or general way, rather than according to any strict
In what follows, I will address these issues and demonstrate that in fact
the Letter is a coherent, well-planned and subtly organized document,
whose parts work together harmoniously when properly understood, and
whose narrative is anchored securely in a definite context within the overall
Luke/Acts historical framework.
a) Revelation Content
In his grand revelation to the disciples, Jesus teaches them of the “defi-
ciency of the aeons,” namely the disobedience and foolishness of the
Mother, which pave the way for the coming of the Arrogant One, who
imprisons a part of the Mother that she left behind and sets powers and
authorities to rule over it. Christ is sent from the Pleroma to rescue this
seed. He speaks with those who are his and enables them to receive their
true inheritance and to fight against the powers. Broadly speaking, this
revelation is a relatively clear and apparently pro forma presentation of
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 267
gnostic myth, and on first sight appears only tenuously linked to the frame
story that introduces it, and which also continues on after the revelation.
Let us begin by noting that it is common in revelation dialogues for
there to be some degree of disjunction between the content of the revela-
tion imparted by the Saviour, and the frame story surrounding it. Tis sort
of disjunction, of course, has long been noted, and is one of the sources for
the modern view of these works as being produced by supplying originally
independent discourses or treatises with apostolic frame stories.
Now, based on the number of works of this genre that have survived, it
seems safe to say that ancient readers cannot have felt this disjunction to
be as serious an aesthetic problem as modern scholars often seem to do. So
even if such a disjunction did exist in the Letter, it would not necessarily be
an argument against the coherence of the work as a whole from the point
of view of the author and her
audience, but merely evidence that its author
is working within the conventions of her chosen genre, rather than accord-
ing to our modern expectations.
But in fact, on closer examination we find that—especially by revelation
dialogue standards—the revelation is well integrated into the text as a
whole. We note first of all the use of clichéd Pauline terminology, gnosti-
cized in context, including references to “powers (Ϭⲟⲙ),” “powers of the
world (ⲛⲓϬⲟⲙ ⲧⲉ ⲡⲕⲟⲥⲙⲟⲥ),” and “authorities (ⲉⲝⲟⲩⲥⲓⲁ),” who are said
to “fight against us,” much of it plausibly borrowed from Ephesians 6:12,
a favourite of gnostic Paulinists—cf. for example the very similar “name-
checking” of that verse in the introduction to the Hypostasis of the Archons:
“On account of the hypostasis of the authorities . . . the great apostle, refer-
ring to the authorities of the darkness told us that ‘our contest is not against
flesh and blood . . .’.” Te use of this language establishes a Pauline literary
context for the revelation’s contents, a context which—as we shall see in
detail in section two of this paper—is abundantly supported by aspects of
the frame story that the Letter provides for it.
Speaking thematically, it is generally true that throughout the Letter
revelation is linked to persecution. Te revelation begins after the apostles
pray about persecution (134.3-9); it ends with Jesus’ warning with regard
to future persecution (137.21-138.3); Jesus speaks to them on the road
in order to warn them of the need for suffering (138.21-139.4); and a
In this paper I will use the feminine when the gender of the person in question is
unknown. Tis is done purely for the sake of avoiding awkward phrasing (“he/she”).
268 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
spirit of understanding is granted to them only after Peter acknowledges
the centrality of suffering to Jesus’ career (139.15-140.7).
Tus it is quite appropriate that the ultimate purpose of the information
that Christ imparts in this revelation is precisely to explain the mythologi-
cal underpinnings of the persecution faced by the apostles, as well as
the grounds for the hope of liberation from this persecution. Te contrast
between the this-worldly persecution that is the focus of the rest of the text
and the technical and mythological nature of the revelation may be sur-
prising at first, but from the point of view of the text there is no need to
make either/or decisions or to see a contradiction: rather, the very point of
the revelation is to show that persecution extends in a continuum from the
material to the cosmic level, and to show its ultimate origins.
Tis is brought out by Christ’s own instructions on fighting the powers.
Not only must the apostles strip themselves of that which is corruptible
(ⲉⲧⲉⲧⲛⲁⲕⲁⲕ ⲧⲏⲛⲉ ⲕⲁϩⲏⲩ ⲡⲁⲓ ⲉⲧⲧⲁⲕⲏⲟⲩⲧ), standard enough advice for a
gnostic text, but when they have done so they will become illuminators in
the midst of people who are dying (ϩⲉⲛⲫⲱⲥⲧⲏⲣ ϩ ⲧⲙⲏⲧⲉ  ϩⲉⲛⲣⲱⲙⲉ
ⲉⲩⲙⲟⲟⲩⲧ) (137.6-9). Te this-worldly, missionary note is struck again,
and very strongly, at the end of the revelation, where Christ says that “You
shall fight against them [the powers] in this way: Come together (ⲁⲙⲏⲉⲓⲧⲛ
ⲉⲩⲙⲁ) and teach in the world (ϯ ⲥⲃⲱ ϩ ⲡⲕⲟⲥⲙⲟⲥ)” (137.22-24).
Te command to “come together” refers the reader back to Peter’s men-
tion of the need to come together at the start of the Letter (132.19-20),
and forward to the later renewed gathering (ⲥⲱⲟⲩϩ) of the apostles and
their fellows (140.13-14), thus anchoring the revelation in the narrative
context of the Letter as a whole.
In terms of the revelation’s context within the Letter, we see that the text
opens with Peter’s statement of the need on the apostles’ part to learn how
to orient (ⲧⲱϣ) themselves so that they can “preach in the salvation that
was promised to us by our lord Jesus,” and so that they can “tell the good
news” (132.19-133.1). Te revelation that they receive, then, is what ori-
ents them, explaining the esoteric, underlying meaning behind their situ-
ation in the world.
It is important to note that Peter’s letter does not state that the revelation
is to form the content of their teaching. Preaching missions are quite dif-
ferent from apostolic gatherings, working by different rules and requiring
different responses—just as the information, for instance, that we might
receive in a teacher training seminar is of a different order and different
nature than the information that we impart when we are actually teaching
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 269
a class. Having received the information appropriate to this private, one
might say pedagogical, setting of an apostolic gathering, the apostles are
now prepared to go out and preach the historical, this-worldly aspect of
the good news. And in fact this is what we see them doing as the Letter
ends: “Ten the apostles parted from each other with four messages
(ⲡⲓϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ  ϣⲁϫⲉ—see page 286 below), so that they might teach.” While
the apostles need to be gathered together to be oriented, they are perfectly
capable of teaching others on their own once this has been accomplished.
To summarize, we can say that the revelation that the risen Christ deliv-
ers is perfectly coherent with the concerns, themes, and overall spirit of the
rest of the Letter. Its use of mythological language may appear surprising,
but this language serves to describe the underlying origins of the issues that
confront the apostles in the main stream of the rest of the narrative. While
the revelation may derive from a different source than the letter, it is not
awkward in its present context—in fact, its discussion of the importance
of apostolic unity ties to both the introduction and the end of the Letter.
In short, it fits in.
b) Te Introduction: Epistle and Philip
Te other major feature of the Letter that has led some to doubt its overall
narrative coherence has to do with the introduction, in its use of an epistle
from Peter to introduce the story and in its references to Philip. Peter’s let-
ter is addressed to Philip, and to judge by the introduction to the text it
would seem that Philip is being set up to become a major character in the
story that follows, yet as soon as he joins with the other apostles he disap-
pears from view, subsumed into the general group of “the apostles” under
Peter’s leadership.
Te “Historical” Context of the Frame Story: Acts 8
Let us examine the introduction a little more closely. In the fictitious
letter that opens the account, Peter writes to Philip, reminding him that
the Saviour had commanded the apostles to come together in order to
orient themselves and learn how to preach the good news. At first, Peter
writes, Philip was hesitant to join them, and so now Peter is asking again.
Tis time, we are told, Philip accedes to the request and joins his fellow
Peter’s introductory letter helps to establish the following allegedly his-
torical context in which the activities of the Letter take place: Jesus has
270 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
gone, leaving behind him a dedicated apostolic circle, in which Peter plays
a major role. Tey are keeping the faith alive, but persecution is becoming
an issue, as we will see later, when they pray for help against an unnamed
“they” who seek to kill them (134.8-9). Philip, for some unexplained rea-
son, is absent as the Letter opens, but there is communication—carried on
by letter—between the apostles, and a willingness on the disciples’ part to
go where they are needed, as we see by Peter’s summons and Philip’s eager
response—he comes “rejoicing” (133.9-11). After his arrival, the apostles
take part in a group prayer that ultimately results in a gift of the spirit
being granted to them.
Tis narrative background fits perfectly with the situation presented in
Acts 7-8.
Acts 7 describes the beginning of the persecution of Christians
through the martyrdom of Stephen. Te death of Stephen inaugurates a
“severe persecution” (8:1) against the disciples, which could certainly pro-
vide the template for the Christian “suffering” described by the author of
the Letter. Acts 8 deals with Philip’s wanderings away from Jerusalem; he is
one of the apostles who had been “scattered” (8:4). But despite his wander-
ing, Acts informs us that he keeps in contact, presumably by letter, with
the Jerusalem circle, in which Peter is a significant figure. At one point
(8:14), Peter and John are sent to aid Philip in Samaria, and their trip
results in the invocation of the Holy Spirit onto the Samarians.
Te beginning of persecution, the circle of apostles with Peter as a major
figure, the absence of Philip, the abundant communication between the
apostles, the act of summoning disciples to wherever they may be needed,
and the connection of the Spirit with the gatherings and prayers of these
mobile disciples: all of these features link the frame story of the Letter to
Acts—and not just to Acts in a general sense, but more specifically to the
situation portrayed in Acts 7-8.
It must be admitted that this view is contrary to the general tendency in
prior research to see either a general influence of Acts on the Letter, or—if
specific contextualization is advanced—the influence of the first few chap-
ters of Acts.
With regard to the first option, Meyer may have best expressed the
implicit scholarly consensus (Meyer 1981, p. 191): “Tus we do best to
Our discussion here is focused on the situation as presented in Acts, rather than on
reconstructions of historical reality, and thus we set to one side questions as to Peter’s real
status in the early apostolic circle, especially vis-à-vis James. Also, regardless of his relative
status, it is clear in Acts that he is the more dynamic and active of the two figures.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 271
conclude that the author of the Ep. Pet. Phil. is not consciously using a
specific Lucan text at all, but is familiar with themes and motifs in the
Lucan tradition.” Many—including Meyer himself—have seen that the
influence of Acts 8 can explain aspects of the Letter’s setting, but it has
been regarded as no more than one of a number of equally significant evo-
cations of Acts to be found in the Letter. But as we have seen, the author
of the Letter has taken considerable care to quickly and subtly establish
specific details of the context in which her story is set. Her work does
not float indistinctly in (Lukan) history; rather, it is anchored to a specific
time, a specific context.
Tis is certainly not to say that other passages from Acts are not evoked
in the work, and scholars have been correct to see that the atmosphere of
the Pentecost period is often strong, just as references to non-Acts sources,
particularly Pauline and Johannine literature, are to be found. But these
references are secondary evocations set within a specific historical context,
and that specific context fits in with Acts 7-8, making it the primary and
determining source.
Terence Smith provides the most sustained and convincing argument in
favour of the author drawing her inspiration from Luke 24-Acts 2 instead
(Smith 1985, p. 122-125), but in his discussion he focuses mainly on
Peter’s long speech (139.9-140.7), rather than the Letter as a whole. Even
with regard solely to this issue, Smith himself points out numerous aspects
of the Letter that clash with Acts 2. He notes that in his speech of Acts 2
Peter publicly addresses the non-Christian Jews (“the men of Judea and all
who dwell in Jerusalem”), whereas in the Letter he addresses his fellow
apostles (139.9-10). Also, in Acts 2, the holy spirit is bestowed before the
speech; here, the fullness of the Spirit is granted afterwards. Furthermore,
in the Letter Peter is filled with the spirit even before giving his speech, and
then the others receive the spirit afterwards, whereas the early verses of
Acts 2 emphasize that the apostles all received the spirit together. I would
also add that in Acts, unlike in the Letter, all of the apostles are said to
speak (2:3-4), with Peter only becoming the spokesperson to rebut the
mockery of the crowd (2:13 and following).
All of this is not to deny that there are similarities to, or reminiscences
of, the very early chapters of Acts, especially Acts 2, in the Letter. But even
where these similarities are strongest, namely in Peter’s speech, notable dif-
ferences between the speech and Acts 2 remain, and we are still obliged to
bring in a reference to Acts 8 to account for the absence of Philip at the
beginning of the Letter.
272 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
Is this evidence that we are seeing a scattershot use of various Lukan
passages without consistency or internal coherence? Not necessarily. We
can account for both the resemblances, and the differences, if we look at
Acts 2 as an influence on Peter’s speech, and not as a dominant influence
over the construction of the Letter as a whole.
In other words, these resemblances can be explained by arguing that our
author is not relying solely on her own imagination for the speech that
she creates for Peter in the Letter. Rather, she is using the Acts speech as
a model for creating her new speech. Hence the resemblance. But this
use of this account as a guide for how to construct a proper Petrine speech
does not alter the fact that the frame story within which Peter’s speech
is set owes more to Acts 7-8 than to Acts 1, with the absence of Philip
being the determining factor. We can see this as the general context for the
Letter as a whole, whereas Acts 2 evidently provided a specific guide to
Peter’s speech.
Furthermore, there is the issue of the background of the brief letter from
Peter to Philip that opens the Letter. It has been seen, source critically, as
“an independent unit from the material that follows” (as noted in Mat-
thews 2002, p. 147, although the view is shared by others). In other words,
he would see something of a discontinuity between the letter and the rest
of the text, which would make the Letter as a whole appear awkward and
inelegantly constructed.
Must we view it in this way? I do not believe so. Te introductory letter
can also be seen as an evocation of the Actsian atmosphere, establishing
that the separated missionaries keep in touch with the Jerusalem circle
through the medium of letters and that these letters are used to pass along
instructions and requests (no letter is explicitly mentioned in Acts 8, but
see for example Acts 15:22-29). In that case, the awkwardness vanishes,
along with the necessity of assuming an obvious and inelegant graft.
Instead, the introductory letter becomes a charming and sophisticated way
of setting the scene for the tale that follows. Tis view is supported by the
way in which the contents of the letter harmonize with the revelation that
the apostles receive, as discussed above (p. 267).
Tere is thus nothing to rule out, and much to argue in favour of, the
hypothesis that the author of the Letter intended her frame story to be
understood as taking place around the time depicted in this section of
Acts. Te Letter quite definitely anchors us in a particular moment of
church history, even as it tells us a story that is not recorded in Acts, but
that takes place in the same fictional universe and chronology.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 273
Tis is not a case of the stereotypical gnostic “rewritten bible,” where
stories from the canonical scriptures are told with different interpretations
or emphases. Rather, we have to do here with what we might call an
“expanded bible,” such as seems to have motivated (for example) the
authors of the apocryphal Acts of the apostles, or the authors of both of the
Apocalypses of Paul. In effect, the Letter can be seen as a fictional expansion
of the Acts account, adding new episodes to it and filling in the story. And
Peter’s introductory letter, both by its content and by the mere fact of it
being a letter, the medium used to link far-flung disciples, is an ingenious
and effective way of establishing and reinforcing this narrative context. (A
similar method is used in the Apocryphon of James, which is also set in the
post-resurrectional apostolic period.)
Our understanding of the precise context in which the Letter is set
enables us to rebut the assumption that one might derive from reading
other discussions of the Letter, namely that the author of the Letter makes
general, unsystematic use of Luke/Acts. In fact, as we have seen, she anchors
her text securely in a very definite context. While the Letter does contain
evocations of other sections of Luke/Acts, particularly Peter’s Pentecost
speech (as noted by Smith and others), these evocations are used to supple-
ment the overall Actsian atmosphere of the work, and not weaken its spe-
cific contextual setting.
Te Disappearance of Philip
However, one puzzling feature remains, namely the way that Philip as an
individual disappears from the story immediately after he rejoins the other
apostles. Te Letter begins with a letter, written by Peter and addressed to
Philip, urging Philip to rejoin the rest of the apostles. Philip does so—in
fact, he comes “rejoicing.” Once he arrives, Peter gathers all the apostles,
and we never hear about Philip as an individual again.
We have seen the utility, even the attractiveness, of using a letter from
Peter to introduce the story and establish its narrative context. But why is
this letter addressed to Philip, and why does Philip then disappear from
the story?
First of all, we must identify whom we are talking about here. On the
one hand, this figure is apparently modelled on the Philip of Acts 8, one of
the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6:2-5. On the other hand, in the Letter
Peter describes him as “our fellow apostle (ⲡⲉⲛϣⲃⲏⲣⲁⲡⲟⲥⲧⲟⲗⲟⲥ, 132.14),”
which would seem to link him to Philip the apostle, mentioned at Acts 1:13.
In antiquity the two figures were often confused or combined, however,
274 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
and it is quite possible that this is what we see happening here, as argued
by Meyer (1981, p. 94) and Bethge (1997, p. 60).
We should note as an alternative explanation that it is also possible that
the author of the Letter has a wider definition of “apostle” than does the
author of Acts, and sees no problem with applying the title to the Philip of
Acts 6 and 8—who is, after all, an important figure in the history of the
earliest church, and whose activity fulfils the literal meaning of the title
“apostle.” Whichever of these explanations may be the case, the unex-
plained absence of Philip at the start of the Letter argues strongly that he is
to be identified with the Philip of Acts 6 and 8, whether or not he is linked
to the Philip of Acts 1 as well.
In one of the early studies of the Letter, Bethge proposed that the Letter
as we have it might be only the beginning of a longer Acts of Philip (Bethge
1978, and in his subsequent work on the Letter). He suggested that in this
longer work, the section that is now the end of the Letter—which features
the disciples going their separate ways to spread the gospel—might have
been followed by a specific focus on Philip: “As for Philip, he went . . .”
(Bethge 1978 p. 162; he maintains this theory in Bethge 1997). He felt
this would explain why Philip is a prominent figure at the start, the
addressee of Peter’s letter, and then disappears for the rest of the Letter.
However, this hypothesis accentuates rather than resolves the question
of Philip’s disappearance from the text. Especially in an Acts of Philip, we
would not expect Philip first to be mentioned as only the subject of Peter’s
letter, and then to perform precisely one action (rejoining the apostles),
after which he fades into the undifferentiated group of apostles, only to
emerge from this group later on, if then. In the Letter as we have it, this
appears to be at least partly justified by the text’s focus on Peter; in an Acts
of Philip, we would expect Philip to be in the forefront throughout.
We should note as well that Bethge explains the abridgement of these
Acts of Philip into the Letter by describing the Letter as an attempt to sim-
ply produce “filler [Buchfüller]” (Bethge 1978, p. 162), an excerpt intended
to fill up the last few pages in Nag Hammadi Codex VIII after the extremely
long work Zostrianos. Whether or not this assumption satisfactorily explains
the situation with regard to Nag Hammadi Codex VIII is questionable in
itself, but it certainly does not explain why a version of the Letter that is
very similar to the Nag Hammadi version should be found in Codex
Tchacos as well, where the “filler” argument does not apply. Tis new evi-
dence makes it clear that the Letter as we have it circulated independently
and was considered to be worth copying and preserving by at least two
people or groups of people. It should be noted that not only are there two
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 275
versions of the Letter, but these two versions also have almost exactly the
same title: ⲧⲉⲡⲓⲥⲧⲟⲗⲏ  ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ ⲉⲧⲁϥϫⲟⲟⲩⲥ  ⲫⲓⲗⲓⲡⲡⲟⲥ (NHC VIII:
“Te letter of Peter that he sent to Philip”); ⲧⲉⲡⲓⲥⲧⲟⲗⲏ  ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ ϣⲁ
ⲫⲓⲗⲓⲡⲡⲟⲥ (Tchacos: “Te letter of Peter to Philip”). Te similarity, and also
the fact that the title is found at the end of the Tchacos version, argues that
the title is meant to apply to the treatise as a whole, rather than just to the
letter that opens it—which also supports the thesis of this text’s indepen-
dence from any hypothetical Acts of Philip.
Tus, Bethge’s explanation leaves out the fact that it is the Letter as we
have it that was read and copied by the users of Nag Hammadi codex VIII
and Codex Tchacos, and not these hypothetical Acts of Philip. As an oper-
ating hypothesis, we should certainly assume that the Letter as they read
and copied it was coherent and complete to them—else why copy it? And
as I will show, it is perfectly possible to account for Philip’s disappearance
without invoking the hypothesis of an unattested continuation of the story
that would bring him back into focus. (For a different but also critical
approach to Bethge’s theory, see Meyer 1981, p. 97-8; Matthews 2002,
pp. 144-149.)
Te Importance of Unity: Te Lost Sheep
Te clue to resolving this issue comes when we note that Philip is men-
tioned individually only while he is absent from the other apostles. In fact,
his absence is the major theme of Peter’s letter. As we learn from the letter,
the lack of a unified apostolic circle in fact prevents them from moving on
to the next stage in their instruction. Peter tells Philip that the Saviour
specifically ordered that they should come together in one place in order
for this to happen. Philip’s absence prevents it from taking place: thus the
need for Peter’s letter.
Now, it is quite common in revelation dialogues for Christ to take one
or a few apostles aside and provide them with privileged information,
as happens in the Book of Tomas, the Apocryphon of James, the Gospel of
Tomas, and elsewhere. We tend to interpret these portrayals as indicating
that the secret teachings contained in the revelations are meant only for a
select group within the church.
But here in the Letter, as Peter’s epistle informs us, we have exactly
the opposite situation, in that the revelation is being withheld until the
apostles are all gathered together as a group. It seems that the author of
the Letter wants to make it clear to her readers that there is to be no ques-
tion of divisive, secret knowledge belonging to a restricted group of Chris-
tians, or to only one strand of the apostolic tradition. In her telling, the
276 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
knowledge is imparted not to Tomas alone, or to James and Peter, but
to all the apostles at once—in fact, as is shown by Peter’s introductory
letter, the knowledge cannot be imparted unless all the apostles are together.
Te apostolic circle cannot move forward to the next phase while it is
Taking what we have discussed up to now into account, we can see that
Philip fills two roles in the overall structure of the Letter. As an individual,
he is important because his initial absence links the Letter’s setting to Acts 8.
But he is also important in a negative manner, as a symbol of the initial
lack of apostolic unity, a lack that—we are told—is contrary to Christ’s
instructions. From this latter point of view, Philip is individually signifi-
cant only so long as he is absent, only so long as he is the one who is
missing—just as there is nothing individually significant about the lost
sheep in the parable, except the fact that it is lost.
Once Philip arrives, and the apostolic circle is complete, his uniqueness—
which was based on his absence—vanishes and he merges with his fellow
apostles. As the Letter puts it, upon receipt of Peter’s letter, Philip “went to
Peter, rejoicing with gladness. Ten Peter gathered the others also. Tey went
upon the mountain . . .” (133.10-14). Philip arrives as an individual, separate
from his fellow apostles; the “others” are gathered by Peter; and then Philip
and the apostles, unified, merge into a final “they,” with no distinctions made.
We could even read Peter’s reference to Philip’s unwillingness to join
the other apostles, followed by the description of Philip’s rejoicing after he
changes his mind and comes to them, as the author’s comment on lack
of unity within the church, and the happiness that reconciliation brings.
After all, this “rejoicing” is in fact Philip’s only individual action in the
Letter, which makes it especially significant.
Bethge argues instead that the joy is caused by his anticipation of the
Christophany (Bethge 1997, p. 63). Tis is also possible, but unlikely. Te
phrasing of the passage clearly associates his rejoicing with his activity of
coming to join the other apostles: ⲁϥⲃⲱⲕ ⲉⲣⲁⲧϥ̅  ⲡⲉⲧⲣⲟⲥ ϩ ⲟⲩⲣⲁϣⲉ.
Te rejoicing is an adverbial modifier of the main verb, “to go,” ⲃⲱⲕ. In
the absence of any authorial contraindications, it behoves us to adopt the
straightforward reading of the passage, especially given that this reading is
quite plausible on narrative grounds as well. It makes perfect sense that
Philip would be happy to rejoin his fellows and re-establish apostolic
unity—and let us keep in mind that at this point in the narrative Philip
does not know about the Christophany that is to come.
In the balance, then, it is more likely that Philip’s rejoicing has to do
simply with his joy at rejoining his fellow apostles. And by depicting Phil-
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 277
ip’s happiness, the author of the Letter gives a powerful appeal to others
who may have caused division within Christianity to “bury the hatchet”
and come together again.
It is possible as well that our author is making intertextual reference to
the three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the
Prodigal Son. All three of these parables deal with a group that loses one of
its components, and then regains it. Te hundredth sheep is brought back
to the herd; the tenth coin is found; the prodigal son returns. All three of
these parables also emphasize the rejoicing that accompanies the restora-
tion of unity (15:6, 9, 32), and in all three cases the Greek χαίρω is ren-
dered by Coptic ⲣⲁϣⲉ,
the verb used in the Letter as well, albeit in its
nominal form to suit the extremely common ϩ ⲟⲩⲻ construction. And in
all of these cases, the rejoicing has to do simply with the return of the lost
element, rather than any anticipated future event. (Note as well that in
these cases, the lost element is significant for the fact that it is lost, not for
any reason intrinsic to it. Tis too fits with the situation in the Letter, and
the disappearance of Philip from the narrative after his return.)
Now, Judith Hartenstein has argued that the reference to Philip’s absence
could suggest that the author is thinking of a separated group of Christians
identified with Philip in her own historical context (Hartenstein 2000,
p. 168-9; this hypothesis is also supported in Matthews 2002, pp. 150-1). But
while this is a possible reading, it is not necessary to adopt her hypothesis,
as the Acts 7-8 influence on its own provides a perfectly reasonable explana-
tion for why Philip should be the missing apostle. Tis clear intertextuality
relieves us of the obligation to make risky sociological arguments on the basis
of literary devices in the narrative. We need not think of Philip as represent-
ing contemporary “Philipites” or “Philippians”; we can see him instead as the
missing piece, the one who is needed to restore apostolic unity.
Tis is a powerful, and irenic, message, which goes along with such uni-
fied gestures as referring to Christ as the saviour of the cosmos (132.18-
19), rather than denigrating the world; the linking through prayer of gnostic
spiritual enlightenment with somatic healing (140.2-11); and Christ’s stress
that the cosmic powers are to be fought through worldly activity (137.20-
25). Given these aspects of the work, Luttikhuizen’s hypothesis with regard
to its origin appears quite possible: “In our text a Christian who has been
converted to the gnostic doctrine of salvation is speaking. When he chooses
his own words, he still uses the vocabulary of catholic Christianity . . . He
was convinced that in the gnostic teachings the deeper and fuller message
All Coptic citations of New Testament material from Horner 1910.
278 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
of Jesus was revealed. He saw no substantial conflict between the catholic
and the gnostic doctrine and therefore did not need to abandon his former
views” (Luttikhuizen 1979, p. 102).
Te Separation at the End
It is true that at the end of the Letter the apostles split up again, but it is
also noteworthy that this time no separate names are given. Te text reads,
“Ten the apostles separated themselves into the four messages so that they
might preach” (140.23-26). Teir act is a collective one. As a group they
divide themselves, having been “oriented (ⲧⲱϣ)” collectively through the
revelation that they all received. Tough they go their separate ways, there
is no lack of unity here. Rather, this is the completion of the purpose of
their coming together, as announced at the start of the Letter (132.16-
133.8). Having received a common revelation, having become harmo-
nized, they can now function independently.
c) Conclusion: Te Letter is both Coherent, and Well-Crafted
Tus we can conclude that the Letter is coherent even when considered on
its own and not as an excerpt from a longer document. Its setting in the
Actsian historical universe is clear; its revelation is well-integrated into the
rest of the text; and it makes effi cient and symbolic use of Philip. In fact,
rather than being scattered or vague, it is well and subtly crafted, present-
ing a message of unity and reconciliation.
2. What about Paul?
Despite all of this focus on unity, however, there is one apostle who is con-
spicuously absent from the Letter, namely Paul. What are we to make of
this? Are there any clues here as to the author’s attitude towards Paul? Tis
is particularly significant given that the Letter has in the past been consid-
ered to be a Petrine writing, based on Peter’s role as the clear leader of the
Paul’s Presence Would Be Anachronistic . . .
Te first, easy answer to this question is that Paul is absent simply because
of the Letter’s historical setting. At this point in the Acts narrative, the
apostles had not met Paul, who indeed was just having his Damascus road
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 279
experience. In leaving Paul out of the Letter, our author is simply avoiding
But His Teachings Are the Same . . .
However, although Paul himself never appears in the Letter, his influence
certainly does. As we saw above, Pauline language, reminiscent of Eph. 6:12,
is used to describe the oppressive cosmic powers, in very much the same
manner as in the introduction to the Hypostasis of the Archons and in other
gnostic texts. Tis suggests that for the author of the Letter, the apostolic
revelation can be harmonized with the esoteric teachings revealed through
a gnostically enlightened reading of Paul’s letters. For this author, Paul’s
letters, when properly understood, speak of the same things as are revealed
to the disciples, thus uniting the apostle to the Gentiles and the Jerusalem
circle—or, more precisely, aligning the Jerusalem circle with gnostic
And His Revelation Is the Same
Let us furthermore remember that Paul’s “gospel,” and his apostolic status,
were based not on acquaintance with Jesus during his earthly career, but
rather linked to Paul’s own revelation of the risen Christ, recounted in
Gal. 1:13-17. Now, this revelation is also described in Acts 9,
and thus
takes place immediately after the events that—as we have seen—lead up to
the Letter’s frame story. In other words, the apostles in the Letter are having
their revelation—which is unrecorded in Acts—at approximately the same
period in the Acts historical framework as Paul is having his revelation. For
anyone familiar with this framework, it is diffi cult to avoid thinking of
Paul’s Damascus road experience in context with Philip’s absence or the
period of persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom.
Given this, it is not surprising to find that Actsian Pauline influence in
the Letter extends far beyond the use of Pauline language mentioned above.
Indeed, the whole setting and structure of the apostolic revelation betrays
Te revelation is also described elsewhere in Acts, of course, but for the purposes of this
paper I will focus on the Acts 9 account, as it is physically proximate to the section of the
Acts that inspired the setting of the Letter and thus the obvious choice for the Letter’s author
to draw on. Furthermore, it is also the only one of the three accounts that is told from the
narrator’s perspective, and this, in addition to its early occurrence in Acts, gives it the
appearance of being the most objective and reliable account of “what really happened.”
280 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
the profound influence of the Acts 9 account of Paul’s revelation on the
road. I am far from the first to note this aspect of the Letter—it has been
mentioned by almost everyone who works with the Letter—but to date it
has not been discussed in detail.
Te Revelation and Acts 9
Te persecutions and the other events recounted in Acts 7-8 lead up to and
underlie the revelation received by Paul in Acts 9. Paul’s role in the perse-
cutions is made clear at Acts 8:1, 8:4, 9:1-2, and 9:5, thus linking persecu-
tion and revelation, a link made stronger by the fact that Paul’s revelation
has the effect of turning him from persecutor to persecuted, as is affi rmed
at 9:16. In the Letter, too, the environment of increasing persecution sets
the stage for and underlies the revelation received by the disciples, as is
shown by the disciples’ prayer immediately before the revelation: “Give us
power, for they seek to kill us!”
Clearly, then, there is a thematic link between Paul’s revelation in Acts
and the disciples’ revelation in the Letter, in that both are tied to an atmo-
sphere of persecution. But the similarities between the two revelations go
much farther than this. Tey are so pronounced that it seems likely that in
her account of the revelation, the author of the Letter has used Paul’s rev-
elation as a template for the construction of the disciples’ revelation, just as
she has used the Acts 7-8 situation as the basis for her frame story.
Turning to the revelation itself, we note the following similarities:
Te Setting
Te setting of the revelation does not correspond to Paul’s vision on the
road, of course, but it does cohere with the disciples’ residence in Jerusalem
at the time of Paul’s revelation, as specified in Acts 8:14, and of course it
also coheres with the vision granted to the apostles earlier in the Acts his-
torical universe, which took place on the Mount of Olives. It thus fits into
the overall Actsian context.
Light but no Vision
In both the Letter and Acts 9, there is an emphasis on light, but not
on vision—in fact, the light is accompanied by a loss of vision. In the
Acts account, we are told that both Paul and those who are with him
hear a voice, but do not see any person, while there is a great light that
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 281
shines. Furthermore, Paul himself is blinded after the vision, only regain-
ing his sight after the Lord’s prediction of his election and his suffering
In the Letter, too, we have the presence of a great light, with no-one to
be seen. Jesus is not seen until much later in the text (as was the case with
Acts), and his opening words in the Letter’s revelation have to do precisely
with listening: “Hear my words (ϫⲓ ⲥⲙⲏ ⲉⲛⲁϣⲁϫⲉ).” Tus in both cases we
see a joined emphasis on light, sound, and the invisibility of the speaker
and/or a lack of sight.
Te Saviour’s Question
Te Saviour’s question in the Letter, “Why are you asking me?” corre-
sponds formally to the question that he asks Paul in Acts 9:4, namely,
“Why do you persecute me?”; the difference in content is accounted for by
the different backgrounds and settings of Paul and the disciples, but in
both cases we have a demand for a justification of the activities of the
recipients of the revelation. In both cases, too, the question is rhetorical,
more a grand gesture than a real request for information; no answer is
expected or given in either account.
I AM Statement
Ten the I AM statement following this question (“I am Jesus the Christ,
the one who is with you to eternity [ⲁⲛⲟⲕ ⲡⲉ ⲓⲥ̅ ⲡⲉⲭ̄ ⲥ̅ ⲉⲧϣ[ⲟ]ⲟⲡ ⲙ̄ ⲛ̄ ̅ ⲧⲏⲩⲧ̄ ⲛ̅
ϣⲁ ⲉⲛⲉϩ]”) also conforms to the Acts account formally and contextually
(“I am Jesus, the one who you persecute [ⲁⲛⲟⲕ ⲡⲉ ⲓⲥ̅ ⲡⲉⲧⲕⲡⲏⲧ ⲛⲥϥ]”),
albeit again it differs in terms of its specific content so as to fit the different
contexts of the different addressees. But in both cases, it consists of the I
AM declaration, followed by one or two titles, followed by Jesus’ statement
of his relationship to the recipient(s).
Pauline Content
Te specific gnostic content of the revelation does not correspond to the
Acts account of Paul’s revelation. But its Pauline resonances, which have
been discussed above, must be taken into consideration along with the
more frequently discussed Johannine content of the revelation (Koschorke
1979). It seems that the presentation of the disciples’ revelation is at least
partly inspired by a gnostic reading of Paul.
282 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
Te After-Effects: Vision, Suffering, and the Spirit
Te after-effects of the revelations in the Letter and Acts are also linked
through the mingled themes of vision, suffering, and the infusion of the
spirit. In Acts, Paul’s lack of vision is rectified only after the Lord’s predic-
tion that he (the Lord) will reveal to Paul what sufferings he (Paul) must
endure, and it is to predict this that the Lord appears to Ananias in a
dream. Ten Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit, and regains his sight.
In the Letter, Peter refers to the need for suffering (138.16-20; 139.21-
23), followed by a prayer for a spirit to be granted to the apostles. Ten it
is stated that the apostles saw (ⲧⲟⲧⲉ ⲁⲡⲉⲧ[ⲣⲟⲥ] ⲙ̄ ⲛ̄ ̅ ⲛⲓⲕⲉⲁⲡⲟⲥⲧⲟⲗⲟⲥ ⲁⲩⲛⲁⲩ
ⲉ[ⲃⲟⲗ]) and they are filled with a spirit of understanding. I agree here with
Terence Smith, who notes that “the giving of the spirit to the apostles is
regarded as dependent in some way upon the content of the speech uttered
by Peter, a conclusion reinforced by the further observation that the speech
ends with the specific request that they be given ‘a spirit of understanding’”
(Smith 1985, p. 134). Te parallel with Paul helps us to see that the giving
of the spirit is linked to, and dependent on, the affi rmation of the need for
Te statement that the apostles “saw” is an interesting one for our pur-
poses. Now, due to the lacunous state of the Nag Hammadi manuscript,
there is some ambiguity here (the corresponding section in the Codex
Tchacos version has been lost). Te verb ⲛⲁⲩ (to see) is preserved, followed
by what is probably an epsilon. Tere would have been space for roughly
three more letters in the line, but these letters are lost. Te two suggestions
that have been advanced for reconstructions are ⲁⲩⲛⲁⲩ ⲉⲣⲟϥ (they saw
him/it) or ⲁⲩⲛⲁⲩ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ (they saw, with the connotation of regaining sight
or of sight as opposed to blindness—Crum 234a).
If the former solution is adopted, as in Meyer’s work on the Letter, the
question arises: who or what did they see? Given the immediate context,
the two masculine singular possibilities are Jesus, to whom Peter has been
referring, or the spirit for which he is praying. Neither of these fit in the
context. It is clearly stated several lines later (140.14-15) that Jesus appears
to them, hence it is unlikely that they see him here. And as for the spirit,
it is stated in the next line that “they were filled with a holy spirit.” On the
one hand this fulfils Peter’s request; and on the other, if the spirit was
referred to with a pronoun before (ⲛⲁⲩ ⲉⲣⲟϥ), it is diffi cult to see how
it would then subsequently become indefinite (“a holy spirit,” ⲟⲩⲡ̄ⲛ̅ⲁ̅
ⲉϥⲟⲩⲁⲁⲃ). Tus a reading of ⲁⲩⲛⲁⲩ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ (they saw, or they regained their
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 283
sight) is to be preferred (see on this as well Bethge 1997 pp. 144; contra
Meyer 1981 pp. 158-159).
According to this reconstruction, the apostles are not said to have seen
anything, but simply to have seen, as if they had been blind previously,
although no such blindness is mentioned in the text. Considered solely
from the point of view of the Letter, it seems as though that the author has
some sort of spiritual seeing in mind—one is tempted, for example, to
read this as a comment that previously they were blind to higher realities,
but now they can perceive, that is, “see,” them. But things become much
more precise when we read this phrase intertextually, as containing an allu-
sion to Paul’s revelation in Acts 9, in which the Coptic verb used is also
ⲛⲁⲩ ⲉⲃⲟⲗ. As is the case there, so too here a reference to regained sight is
linked, thematically and temporally, to predictions of suffering, revelation
and the reception of the spirit.
Louis Painchaud has established three criteria for identifying allusions,
namely that 1) the possible allusion must in some way be perceived as
standing out from, or foreign to, its context, 2) the allusion, if present,
must cast new light on its context, 3) and the possibility of a given passage
being allusive is increased by the presence of other references in the work
to the source from which the allusion is drawn.
All three of these criteria
are satisfied here, making it very likely that this passage is alluding to Paul’s
revelation in Acts 9. As we have seen, the reference to seeing stands out
from its context; treating it as evidence for an allusion to Paul’s revelation
certainly does cast new light on the whole scenario; and of course the Let-
ter’s use of Acts generally is clear.
Harmonization with Paul
To sum up, we have here a description of the apostles undergoing a reve-
lation whose form is modelled on Paul’s own revelation as described in
Acts 9, and whose content, while fundamentally gnostic and Johannine, is
justified and supported by Pauline references. Te author of the Letter,
then, is engaged in creating a parallelism between the Jerusalem circle and
Paul. Tey are linked not just by the fact that they all have revelations, but
by the facts that their revelations take place at roughly the same time (after
the events described in Acts 8), and in similar contexts and with similar
themes and contents. Te author of the Letter is on the one hand applying
Painchaud 1996.
284 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
the Acts-inspired Pauline standards for revelation to the apostles, that is,
giving the apostles the sort of revelatory context that Acts gives to Paul;
and on the other hand, she is giving their revelation a gnostic, Pauline
appearance. In other words, the apostles are being conformed to Pauline
Paul and Peter
Now, this period in the Acts account has very important ramifications for
subsequent Christian history. Te theme of persecution comes to the fore
here, and it is linked intimately with the theme of the expansion of the
mission (as presented via the description of Philip’s activities in Acts 8) and
with the development of the mission through revelation. Te figure of Paul
is crucial for all three of these themes, in that he is a) a persecutor who will
be the subject of much persecution, b) he is the figurehead for the expan-
sion of the mission to the Gentiles, and c) his Christian career is based on
revelation. From the point of view of Acts, Paul will also take over from
Peter as the central figure in second half of the work. Te ways in which his
and Peter’s figures are constructed and interrelate are of pivotal importance
for this view of Christian history—a view which, as we have seen, has pro-
foundly influenced the author of the Letter.
It is well known that one of the irenic concerns of the book of Acts is to
smooth away the acrimonious divisions and disputes that occurred between
Paul and the “Jerusalem circle,” the Christian establishment under Peter’s
leadership. Tat concern is especially significant here in the Acts historical
account, as it is at this point that begins the passing of the torch of Chris-
tian leadership (at least as far as the Acts account is concerned) from Peter
to Paul.
In order to make this transition as smooth as possible, the author of Acts
harmonizes Paul with Peter, at least on the surface. So, for example, what-
ever the historical Peter may have thought about food laws and Paul’s abro-
gation of them, in Acts it is Peter who has the vision that legitimates this
(10:9-16). Peter’s vision paves the way for, and renders inoffensive, Paul’s
refusal to impose food restrictions on his gentile converts—and, indeed,
the very idea that gentiles can be baptized and receive the Spirit without
discrimination (10:41-11:1). Tus from the point of view of Acts, Peter
and Paul are linked by having Paul carry on in Peter’s footsteps. Teir
differences are annulled through the assimilation of Paul to precedents
already established by Peter and the Jerusalem circle.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 285
Te Letter and Christian Unity
In the Letter, we see the same concern at work, namely the desire to create
a rapprochement between Paul and the apostolic circle, but this need is
satisfied in the opposite manner. Rather than Paul being assimilated to
Peter, here Peter is assimilated to Paul, in that the pivotal revelation that he
and the other apostles share is in fact modelled formally on Paul’s, and its
content references Pauline writings.
Te author of the Letter, like the author of Acts, is concerned to present
a unified, harmonious vision of the early church, but she does this by
expanding the Acts account so as to include a scene that identifies the
apostles with a gnostically-interpreted Paul. To judge by her literary activ-
ity, her vision of the church is one where enlightened people (such as her-
self, presumably) would be integrated into the Christian community as a
Persecution is sure to come, and the “powers” and “archons” may do
battle against Christians, but here there is no inner-Christian polemic, no
railing against bishops and deacons who “do business” in Christ’s name
and are “dry canals,” such as we find in the Apocalypse of Peter or the Testi-
mony of Truth.
Furthermore, although the revelation that the Letter
describes takes place after Christ’s death, the author of the Letter points out
unambiguously that the contents of the revelation were taught to the apos-
tles during his life on earth (135.4-6; 138.1-3; 139.9-13). Tey are no
post-resurrectional novelty, but rather they are fundamental elements of
Christ’s teaching all along.
As Hartenstein has argued, it could be the case that the absence of Philip
at the start of the text points to an authorial context in which there is some
division among Christian groups—although, as we saw, his absence can
also be explained by the context of the frame story and the author’s desire
to emphasize the joys of unity.
Even if the former understanding is adopted, it is significant that the
author’s approach to this situation is to use the carrot rather than the stick:
she emphasizes Philip’s joy and the spiritual blessings that accompany his
return, rather than being critical or threatening. It is also extremely impor-
tant to note that the authorial position is identified with, and sympathetic
to, that of the majority of the apostles, under Peter’s leadership, and not
Bethge notes that “Es finden sich keine Anzeichen, die in bezug auf das Leiden und die
Verfolgung auf eine innerchristliche Konfrontation hinweisen” (Bethge 2001, p. 669).
286 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
with Philip. Ultimately, the Letter can be read as a story about the wonder-
ful benefits to the church that come from Christian unity.
Sitz im Leben
Te fact that this eulogy of church unity is combined with a definitely
gnostic understanding of Christianity argues in favour of an early dating of
the Letter, to a period when a gnostic could reasonably hope for a peaceful,
“two circles” coexistence of gnostic and non-gnostic Christians within the
same broad institution.
Te Letter’s stress on the necessary presence of external persecution and
the link between persecution and revelation may suggest that it was writ-
ten in a situation where the church was under attack by external forces:
the author is calling for Christians to band together, both to increase the
flow of revelatory knowledge and to resist outside oppression. On the other
hand, it may argue that the author sees persecution as a general rule, rather
than a specific situation.
I am inclined to read the reference at the end of the Letter to the spread
of Christianity (“then the apostles parted from each other in the four words
in order to preach,” 140.23-24) as evidence that the author is thinking in
terms of a global (from her perspective) church.
Now, there has been a good deal of debate over this apparent reference
to “the four words (ⲡⲓϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ  ϣⲁϫⲉ).” Te codex Tchacos version of the
Letter differs from the Nag Hammadi version, but unfortunately casts no
light on the problem, as there is a lacuna at precisely this point: ⲛⲁⲡⲟⲥⲧⲟⲗⲟⲥ
ⲁⲩⲡⲱⲣ [approx. nine letters missing then ⲧ|ⲟⲟⲩⲥⲟⲩ ⲉⲧ|ϣⲉ ⲟⲉⲓϣ|:
“the apostles separated . . . [se]nt them to pr[each]” (9.9-11). But whether
one ascribes this phrase it to some corruption in the text, with ⲕⲗⲓⲙⲁ or ⲥⲁ
being the original word,
or whether one sees the “four words” as the four
cardinal directions,
or whether one sees in “the four words” a reference to
the four canonical gospels,
the overall point for our purposes remains
the same.
Under any of these interpretations, this section shows the apostles going
out into the world to preach and spread the good news. Despite the fact
that they are going in four different directions, or preaching four different
gospels, they are nonetheless unified, having been made so by their revela-
Discussed Meyer 1981, p. 160; Bethge 1978, p. 169, note 54; Wisse 1991, p. 250.
Bethge 1997, p. 149; Bethge 2001, p. 676 note 75.
My own view, in which I follow Ménard (1977, p. 47) and Meyer (1991, p. 251), who
refers to Irenaeus’ Adv. Haer. III.11.8, four gospels for the τέσσαρα κλίματα τοῦ κόσμου.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 287
tion. Tus, from her point of view the link between persecution and Chris-
tian mission would have been established as a rule in the paradigmatic
period marking the start of widespread missionary activity.
If so, one is lead to believe that she sees persecution as simply a funda-
mental fact of Christian life, without necessarily having a specific situation
in mind. Te way in which persecution is linked to the very history of the
cosmos and the underlying cosmic forces as well as to the paradigmatic
career of the Saviour favours this assessment alternative.
Is the Letter a Petrine Document?
Given the prominence of Peter in the narrative, it is logical to argue that
the Letter is a Petrine document. However, as we have seen above, the situ-
ation is more complicated than this.
It is true that Peter is quite definitely the leader of the apostolic circle,
both in a this-worldly and in a spiritual sense—note, for instance, his
reception of the Spirit before the rest of the apostles (139.14). But the
question then arises: Is Peter’s prominence due to the author’s own sympa-
thies in the matter, or is it caused by her faithful reflection of the situation
as presented in this section of her source-text, namely Acts?
Te way in which the author harmonizes the apostolic revelation with
Pauline influences strongly suggests the latter explanation. Peter is the
leader at this point in history, true, but his revelation is being set in a dis-
tinctly Pauline mould, in form as in content. Te author’s own preference
is clearly for a unified, harmonious Christian church; but to judge by the
account that she has left us, her conceptions of several fundamental ele-
ments of that church followed (gnostic) Pauline lines.
Tis conclusion nuances, but need not contradict, the assessment of
Terence Smith in his work on early Christian Petrine controversies. Speak-
ing of the Letter, Smith ascribes its esteem for Peter to its use of Acts: it is
“direct result of the author’s use of the early chapters of Acts as a model”
(Smith 1985 p. 197). I would merely extend this observation by noting
that the author’s development of her Actsian heritage implicitly under-
mines its Petrine focus. Paradoxically, the fact that Paul is never mentioned
or explicitly referred to in the Letter does not prevent it from being a pow-
erfully Pauline document.
Overall, then, I hope to have shown thus far that the Letter is a unified and
coherent work, in which we see a gnostic author working with consider-
288 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
able skill and nuance, exploiting several different literary genres in an
imaginative and creative fashion. Her story is precisely set historically in
the context of the events described in Acts 7-9, and she is creating a new
story within this fictional universe.
Te purpose of this new story is first of all to validate gnostic beliefs by
showing that the apostles themselves were the recipients of gnostic revela-
tions; second, to argue for the essential unity of the Christian message by
linking these gnostic revelations to Christ’s teaching prior to his crucifix-
ion; third, to argue for the essential unity of the Christian church by show-
ing how revelation is hindered by apostolic divisiveness, and how gnostic
revelation harmonizes with and in fact requires active this-worldly mis-
sionary efforts and persecution; and, fourth and finally, to show that the
apostolic revelation coheres with Paul’s revelation on the road to Damas-
cus, thus completing the apostolic circle.
Tus the Letter can ultimately be seen as an irenic work, conciliatory
on any number of levels. Christ’s post-resurrectional teachings are recon-
ciled with his earthly career; Philip is reconciled with the other apostles;
the Jerusalem circle is reconciled with Paul; and it provides as well a
justification for the reconciliation of gnostic Christians with non-gnostic
3. Te Letter and Nag Hammadi Codex VIII
In the preceding discussion of the Letter on its own terms, I hope to have
clarified some of the problematic issues that have surrounded this work
over the past generation. But of course the Letter has not come down to us
on its own. Rather, it is found in definite contexts, namely Codex Tchacos
and Nag Hammadi Codex VIII. In this paper we have been working with
the Nag Hammadi version of the Letter, and our focus will remain on Nag
Hammadi even as we shift outward from the specific text to the codex that
contains it, in order to address one more problematic issue related to the
Letter, namely its codicological context. (For discussion of the logic under-
lying codex Tchacos, see Brankaer/Bethge 2007.)
Scholarly interest in codicological organization has been growing over the
past decade, and with good reason. It is hard to imagine that the codices in
which gnostic texts are found were assembled randomly. Teir contents
must have been chosen, although we cannot say how large a selection the
compilers had to draw from, and ordered.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 289
In some cases this choice and ordering may have been casual, or super-
ficial. In many cases, however, it is clear that considerable thought has been
put into the selection and arrangement of the various writings. Such is the
case, for example, in Nag Hammadi codex V, the so-called “apocalyptic
codex,” or in the three-volume collection of Nag Hammadi codices I, XI,
and VII (see on this Painchaud/Kaler 2007). Let us remember, too, that
these codices are the only non-hypothetical contexts of use that we have
for the vast majority of the gnostic writings: they are thus crucially impor-
tant for our understanding of how these works were received, used, and
read by their owners.
But does this apply to the codex containing the Nag Hammadi version
of the Letter? Some, following in Bethge’s footsteps (Bethge 1978, p. 162),
have argued that the Letter was included in Nag Hammadi Codex VIII
simply because of its length: it was short enough to fit into a codex after
the extremely long work Zostrianos. As Birger Pearson recently put it, “the
Nag Hammadi version [of the Letter] . . . was probably chosen for inclusion
in Codex VIII because it is short enough to fit on the remaining pages
of the codex, after the tractate Zostrianos . . . Te two tractates are not in
any way related to one another in terms of their content” (Pearson 2007,
p. 244). But there is more to be said on the matter than this. In fact, the
Letter’s presence gives evidence of careful planning on the part of those
who organized the codex.
Before exposing my own views, I should note that Michael Williams has
also argued for the presence of a coherent design underlying codex VIII
individually as well as the pair of codices IV-VIII (Williams 1996, pp. 251-
252). While our understandings of the codicological logic overlap at seve-
ral points, and while his arguments have definitely influenced my own
understanding, we also have quite considerable differences. For the
moment, I will summarize his views, but the reader is urged to consult
Williams’ work directly.
In his view, the organizational principles underlying codices IV-VIII are
the same as those underlying codex III. In both of these cases, the collec-
tion begins with the Apocryphon of John, which tells of “primordial origins”
and can be seen as a rewritten Genesis. Following this, we get in both cases
the Egyptian Gospel, which presents us with “the divine Seth’s autobiogra-
phy” as well as continuing the theme of “primordial origins.” After this, the
two collections diverge: in codex III, we get Eugnostos, whereas Zostrianos
is the next work in the IV-VIII collection. Both of these, Williams argues,
present “ancient testimony” dealing with the nature of the transcendent
290 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
realm. Finally, codex III contains the Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Dialo-
gue of the Savior, while in codex VIII we have the Letter. Williams argues
that these works present “Christ’s revelation to his disciples.” Tus in
Williams’ view both codices share a three-stage progression, moving
forward temporally from primordial origins, to the testimony of an ancient
figure about the heavenly realms, to Christ’s contemporary revelation.
My own view puts more weight on the frame stories of the various
works, and their relative degrees of explicit Christian affi liation. In Nag
Hammadi Codex VIII, the Letter is preceded by a not-explicitly-Christian
work entitled Zostrianos. Tis extremely long and poorly preserved work
was the only other writing contained in the codex. Te overwhelming
majority of Zostrianos seems to have dealt with the revelatory experiences
undergone by its protagonist, but it also includes a frame story that has
strong resemblances to the Letter’s frame story.
Te introductory section of Zostrianos presents us with a narrator who
has been partially enlightened. He separates himself from the others around
him because of his “holiness” and “sinlessness,” and seems to have been
sustained in his quest for knowledge by visions of “the perfect child.” But
although he searches for knowledge in his ancestral traditions, he does not
find satisfactory answers. His suffering over the lack of knowledge almost
drives him to suicide, but he is saved by an angel of knowledge, who raises
him into the heavens and reveals the mysteries of existence to him. On his
return, he becomes a preacher of salvation, inviting others to learn from
him and flee death, despite the fact that they will be “reproved” and treated
badly by the archontic rulers of the world.
As was the case in the Letter, here too we see a state of initial suffering
leading to revelation, which then will be inevitably accompanied by perse-
cution. Te initial suffering here seems to be self-inflicted rather that
arising from persecution as in the Letter, but the narrator of Zostrianos
also evidently has problems with his relationship to those around him
(whom he rejects in stinging terms) and his ancestral traditions (which
he castigates as being insuffi cient to satisfy him). Following his revelation,
he takes up a career as a missionary. His message is based on the esoteric
knowledge that he received in his revelation, and he warns his listeners that
those adhering to his message must expect persecution from the rulers of
the world.
Although the revelations that the Letter and Zostrianos describe differ
greatly, the two works are very similar in terms of the patterns of their frame
stories, their cautionary insistence on the inevitable links between revelation,
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 291
suffering and persecution. Tis narrative and thematic similarity between
the two works helps to explain their presence together in codex VIII.
It is also significant to note the fact that Zostrianos, a work with no
explicitly Christian features, is followed by the very explicitly Christian
Letter. Te Letter could well have served to reassure readers of the codex of
the compatibility of the sort of revelation experienced by the protagonist
of Zostrianos with Christianity, by showing Peter and the apostles undergo-
ing their own, similar, revelation. Let us note as well that the expressions
in Zostrianos of its protagonist’s dissatisfaction with his ancestral traditions
and “the god of my fathers” (3.16-17) could be used by the Christian
reader as a justification for linking the setting of Zostrianos to the context
of diffi culty between the apostles and the non-Christian Jewish commu-
nity that we see in the Letter.
Zostrianos, read by itself, does not appear to be Christian; when read in
conjunction with the Letter, as the codex’s compilers seem to have intended,
it becomes far more amenable to Christian interpretation: it is “codico-
logically Christianized” through its numerous parallels with the Letter. As
Michael Williams has noted, “the temptation has been to think of [the
Letter] as an afterthought to the volume’s real purpose, a short piece that
happened to fit in the available space. But in fact it may have been pre-
cisely [the Letter] that gave Zost. its Christian ‘point’ in the mind of the
scribe” (Williams 1996, p. 252).
Tis suggestion becomes even more interesting when we take Nag Ham-
madi Codex IV into account as well. It has been linked, in terms of its con-
struction and handwriting, to codex VIII (Williams 1992), and it is possible
that the two codices were intended as a two volume set (Williams 1996). If
this is the case, the set might have begun in codex IV with the Apocryphon of
John—a tale of revelation whose unambiguously Christian frame story is
formally very similar to those of Zostrianos and the Letter—followed by the
Gospel of the Egyptians a.k.a. the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, a not
explicitly Christian work, and then continued in codex VIII with Zostrianos,
again not explicitly Christian but similar in form to the Apocryphon of John
and the Letter, and then finally ending up with the Letter.
Te two not explicitly Christian texts are in the middle of the collection,
bookended by clearly Christian works
whose frame stories link them to
Whatever the alleged origins of the Apocryphon of John, the work as we have it in the Nag
Hammadi collection and the Berlin codex is clearly intended to be Christian, as shown by
its frame story.
292 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
the apostolic period and to revelations of the risen Christ. Te Christian
reader of the collection would be reassured both at the start and the end of
her reading as to the essential Christianity of the collection as a whole.
And not just Christianity in general, either: the stories told in the Apoc-
ryphon of John and the Letter are set in similar circumstances in the early
years of Christianity (the beginnings of worldly persecution leading to rev-
elation), and as we saw above some aspects of Zostrianos could lead the reader
to imagine that it involved a similar context. Tese works come together,
then, to tell of the awesome revelations mediated by Christ, delivered to the
first generation of Christian leaders as they struggle with opposition.
Tus we see that the position and presence of the Letter in Nag Ham-
madi Codex VIII makes perfect sense. Rather than being an afterthought,
it provides a Christian model of the sort of revelatory experience presented
in Zostrianos when considered in the light of codex VIII alone. When con-
sidered in the light of codices IV and VIII, it is even more evocative and
appropriate, ending the two-volume collection as it began, with an explic-
itly Christian tale of revelation set in the apostolic period. It cannot be
dismissed as mere “Buchfüller.”
Appendix: Revelation Dialogues
In this paper I have discussed the coherence and contents of the Letter’s
frame story, rather than the gnostic revelation itself. Tis being the case, I
would like to conclude with a brief look at the reception that revelation
dialogue frame stories have tended to receive in scholarly discussion. In
fact, there has been a tendency in prior work on the literary genre of the
revelation dialogues—a genre to which the Letter belongs—to denigrate
the importance of the frame story.
Te description of the revelation dialogue as a literary genre has been
particularly associated with two scholars, namely Kurt Rudolph, whose
foundational article was published in 1968, and Pheme Perkins, whose
book on the revelation dialogues was published in 1980.

Rudolph associated these works quite strongly with erotapokriseis lit-
erature, the catechetical and extremely formulaic collections of “questions
and answers” that were a popular means of discussing issues related to
Te reader seeking a much more complete discussion of the history of research is
directed to the first section of Hartenstein 2000.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 293
high-status literature. In Rudolph’s opinion, revelation dialogues were not
“real” dialogues such as those found in philosophical writings; the sole
purpose of their frame stories and the interaction between characters (who
are cardboard figures, “without flesh and blood”) was to provide an excuse
for the presentation of their doctrinal content.
In the wake of the late 1970s enthusiasm for morphological analysis of
early Christian and Jewish writings, Pheme Perkins undertook to describe
the genre following the example of Collins et al. in their work on apoca-
lyptic literature. In her section on the narrative setting of these dialogues,
she discusses typical geographical and temporal settings, the recipients,
their initial mental state, the appearance of the Redeemer, his initial
address, questions directed to him by the disciples, the Redeemer’s com-
missioning of the disciples, his ascension, and any narrative finale elements
that may be present.
Although she does deal with the frame stories in considerable depth,
bringing out their strong associations with the New Testament gospel
accounts, nonetheless for Perkins as for Rudolph these frame stories, and
thus also the characters and their interactions in works of this sort, are taken
as being very standard and clichéd. In her book, the real focus of these
works is taken to be the transmission of esoteric information; the frame
story (including the activities, opinions and states of mind of the disciples)
is merely the means by which this transmission is accomplished.
Tese assumptions have coloured much of the subsequent scholarship
on the various revelation dialogues. I have argued elsewhere at some length
that they are in need of re-examination and will not repeat my arguments
here. However, I do wish to point out that the nuanced, sophisticated use
that the author of the Letter has made of Acts 7-9 certainly cautions us
against applying clichéd conclusions about the “formulaic” nature of these
frame stories to this work. Here we have what at first looks like an utterly
generic and stereotypical frame story (the setting on a mountain, the voice
from heaven in response to anguished prayers, etc.) and yet it turns out on
examination to be the product of a considerable amount of thought and
creativity on the part of the author, as well as being specifically located and
carefully integrated into sacred history. In addition to this, it meticulously
develops the historical tradition: its presentation of a previously unattested
incident in the early days of the church is carefully presented so as to
advance sophisticated theological point.
Tus I would hope that in addition to demonstrating the coherence and
subtlety of this specific work, the present investigation might serve as a
294 M. Kaler / Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 264-295
contribution towards rethinking some of the old, pejorative stereotypes
about the frame stories of revelation dialogues.
Bethge, Hans-Gebhard, 1978. “Der sogennante ‘Brief des Petrus an Philippus’.” Teologi-
sche Literaturzeitung 103: 161-170.
——, 1997. Der Brief des Petrus an Philippus: ein neutestamentliches Apokryphon aus dem
Fund von Nag Hammadi (NHC VIII,2). Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der
altchristlichen Literatur 141. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
——, 2001. “Der Brief des Petrus an Philippus (NHC VIII,2).” Pages 663-676 in Nag
Hammadi Deutsch. ed. Schenke et al. Die Griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der
ersten Jahrhunderte 8. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Brankaer, Johanna, and Bethge, Hans-Gebhard, 2007. Codex Tchacos: Texte und Analysen.
Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 161. Berlin: de
Crum, Walter Ewing, 2000. Coptic Dictionary. Originally published 1939 by Oxford Uni-
versity Press, special edition published by Sandpiper Books. New York.
Evans, Craig, Robert Webb, and Richard Wiebe, 1993. Nag Hammadi Texts and the Bible:
A Synopsis and Index. New Testament Tools and Studies 18. Leiden: Brill.
Hartenstein, Judith, 2000. Die Zweite Lehre: Erscheinungen des Auferstandenen als Rahmenerzäh-
lungen frühchristlicher Dialoge.Texte und Untersuchungen 146. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Horner, George, 1910. Te Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect,
otherwise called Sahidic and Tebaic: with critical apparatus, literal English translation,
register of the fragments and estimate of the version. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kasser, Rodolphe et al., 2007. Te Gospel of Judas together with the Letter of Peter to Philip,
James, and a Book of Allogenes from Codex Tchacos. Critical Edition. Washington: National
Koschorke, Klaus, 1977. “Eine gnostische Pfingstpredigt: Zur Auseinandersetzung zwischen
gnostischem und kirchlichem Christentum am Beispiel der ‘Epistula Petri ad Phillippum’
(NHC VIII,2).” ZTK 74: 323-343.
——, 1979. “Eine gnostische Paraphrase des johanneischen Prologs: Zur Interpretation
von Epistula Petri ad Philippum (NHC VIII,2).” Vigiliae Christianae 33: 382-392.
Luttikhuizen, Gerard P., 1979. “Te Letter of Peter to Philip and the New Testament.”
Pages 96-102 in Nag Hammadi and Gnosis, ed. R. McL. Wilson. Leiden: Brill.
——, 2006. Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories and Early Jesus Traditions. Nag Hammadi
and Manichaean Studies 58. Leiden: Brill.
Marjanen, Antti, 2002. “Te suffering of one who is a stranger to suffering: Te crucifixion
of Jesus in the Letter of Peter to Philip.” Pages 487-498 in Fair Play: Diversity and Conflicts
in Early Christianity, ed. Ismo Dunderberg, Christopher Tuckett, and Kari Syreeni. New
Testament Studies 103. Leiden: Brill.
——, 2006. “Te Figure of Authades in the Nag Hammadi and Related Documents.”
Pages 567-582 in Coptica—Gnostica—Manichaica: Mélanges offerts à Wolf-Peter Funk,
ed. by Louis Painchaud and Paul-Hubert Poirier. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi,
section “Études” 7. Québec/Louvain: Les Presses de l’Université Laval/Éditions Peeters.
Te Letter of Peter and its Message 295
Matthews, Christopher, 2002. Philip: Apostle and Evangelist. Configurations of a Tradition.
Supplements to Novum Testamentum CV. Leiden: Brill.
Ménard, Jacques, 1977. La lettre de Pierre à Philippe. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi,
section “Textes” 1. Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.
Meyer, Marvin, 1981. Te Letter of Peter to Philip: Text, Translation and Commentary. SBL
Dissertation Series 53. Chico: Scholars Press.
——, 1991. “NHC VIII,2: Te Letter of Peter To Philip.” Pages 227-251 in Nag Hammadi
Codex VIII, ed. Bentley Layton. Nag Hammadi Studies XXXI. Leiden: Brill.
Painchaud, Louis, 1996. “Te Use of Scripture in Gnostic Literature.” Journal of Early
Christian Studies 4(2): 129-146.
Painchaud, Louis and Kaler, Michael, 2007. “From the Prayer of the Apostle Paul to the
Tree Steles of Seth: Codices I, XI, and VII from Nag Hammadi Viewed as a Collection.”
Vigiliae Christianae 61:445-469.
Pearson, Birger, 2007. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Perkins, Pheme, 1980. Te Gnostic Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press.
Smith, Terence, 1985. Petrine Controversies in Early Christianity. WUNT 2 Reihe 15.
Tübingen: Mohr.
Williams, Michael, 1996. Rethinking “Gnosticism:” An argument for dismantling a dubious
category. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
——, 1992. “Te Scribes of Nag Hammadi Codices IV, V, VI, VIII and IX.” Pages 334-
342 in Marguerite Rassart-Debergh and Julien Ries, eds., Actes du IVe congrès copte:
Louvain-la-neuve, 5-10 septembre 1988. II: De la linguistique au gnosticisme. Louvain:
Institut Orientaliste.
Wisse, Frederik, 1991. “Te Letter of Peter to Philip: Notes to Text.” Pages 234-251 in Nag
Hammadi Codex VIII, ed. Bentley Layton. Nag Hammadi Studies XXXI. Leiden: Brill.