In my previous two posts (Part 1 and Part 2) I summarized the three options for understanding Justin’s reference to “his memoirs” (Dial. 106), outlined Ehrman’s reasons for rejecting two of them, and offered my explanation for why Ehrman’s arguments are lacking and why the other two alternatives are more likely. Now I want to present the first part of Ehrman’s positive case for thinking that Justin was referring to the Gospel of Peter.
Ehrman states that…
where Justin’s comments on the life of Jesus overlap with the surviving narrative in the Akhmim fragment of the Gospel of Peter, he appears to rely on it in substance. For example, the guilt of the Jews in the death of Jesus–they are the ones who actually kill him–is the same in both (e.g., Dial. 85.2 “who suffered and was crucified by your people under Pontius Pilate”; cf. GPet. 5-10); and in both accounts the disciples are said to have fled after Jesus’ crucifixion (Dial. 53.5; cf. GPet 26, 59), unlike in the New Testament Gospels.
The first thing to note is that in neither of these cases does Justin indicate that his information derives from the “memoirs.” But more importantly, I fail to see why we should conclude that Justin is “relying on” the Gospel of Peter.
Let’s take the first detail. It is true that both Justin and the Gospel of Peter blame Jews for the death of Jesus. However, as I documented extensively in my dissertation (as have others), the trend in the second century was for Christians to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, while exonerating Pilate (see Henderson, The Gospel of Peter and Early Christian Apologetics, 78-88). While Justin indicates Jewish culpability, he clearly indicates elsewhere that Pilate was also responsible for the death of Jesus (1 Apol. 40). Since Dialogue with Trypho is a putative argument against a Jew known to Justin, it should not be surprising that he focuses on Jewish culpability. But I digress…
There are several sources predating Justin that depict Jews as being responsible for Jesus’ death:
1. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved- so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!
Some have suggested that this is not an original part of Paul’s letter but instead is a later interpolation. Even if it is an interpolation, it must have been a very early one, since it has left no trace in the manuscript tradition. This means that it very likely would have been added no later than the early 2nd century.
2. Acts of the Apostles (especially the speeches in Acts)
[Peter speaking to "men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem"]: Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
[Peter speaking to "men of Israel"]: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name- by faith in his name- has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.(Acts 3:13-17)
[Peter speaking to "rulers of the people and elders"]: Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead- by him this man is standing before you well. (Acts 4:10)
You get the point. I could add other speeches from Acts that convey this same idea (i.e., 4:27-28; 5:30; 7:52; 10:39; 13:27-29). More than any other NT book, Acts includes statements indicting Jews for the death of Jesus.
3. Epistle of Barnabas
For [the Jewish leaders] will see him on that day, wearing a long scarlet robe about his body, and they will say, “Is this not the one whom we once crucified, insulting and piercing and spitting on him?” (Barn. 7:9)
A precise date for this letter is uncertain, but it surely predates Justin.
He was pierced by the Jews; and he died and was buried. (Apol. 2)
There is some debate over the date of Aristides, but the most likely is sometime in the 120s-130s.
Granted these many other early references to Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, there is absolutely no good reason to conclude, as Ehrman does, that Justin is “relying” on the Gospel of Peter for the tradition that the Jews killed Jesus. How does Ehrman know that Justin is not relying on Acts for this info? Or on one of the other sources? Or on something else? Even in the first century, there was a belief among some Christians that Jews were responsible for executing Jesus. Therefore, Ehrman’s argument falls flat yet again. Let’s see if his second point fares better…
He states that in both Justin and the Gospel of Peter, “the disciples are said to have fled after Jesus’ crucifixion (Dial. 53.5; cf. GPet 26, 59), unlike in the New Testament Gospels” (326). Let’s compare the texts under consideration:
Moreover, the prophet Zechariah foretold that this same Christ would be smitten, and His disciples scattered: which also took place. For after His crucifixion, the disciples that accompanied Him were dispersed, until He rose from the dead, and persuaded them that so it had been prophesied concerning Him, that He would suffer; and being thus persuaded, they went into all the world, and taught these truths. (Justin, Dial. 53.5)
But I [Peter] with the companions was sorrowful; and having been wounded in spirit, we were in hiding, for we were sought after by them as wrongdoers and as wishing to set fire to the sanctuary. (Gospel of Peter 26)
But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. (Gospel of Peter 59)
There are some general similarities between the two texts here. However, I’m once again confounded as to why Ehrman ignores other evidence and misrepresents the evidence he does cite. First and foremost, in the Gospel of Peter we do not know precisely when the disciples fled. Ehrman states that they did so after the crucifixion, but there is nothing at all in the text to indicate this timing. In Gospel of Peter 26 we simply discover that they have hid themselves, and it’s unknown exactly when they fled. The next verse (27) actually implies that they had, in fact, been in hiding for quite some time – the expression “night and day” typically conveys an extended period of time. Ehrman’s claim here – that the disciples flee after the crucifixion – is not supported by the evidence. The Gospel of Peter seems to portray the story in the same way as the canonical gospels – the disciples flee (Matt 26:56; Mark 14:50) and go into hiding (John 20:19). I do not see how the timeline in the Gospel of Peter is “unlike” the NT gospels. Nowhere in John’s gospel does it say when the disciples fled, but John does state that they’re in hiding after the crucifixion (the closest parallel to the Gospel of Peter)
So in both cases – Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death and the disciples’ flight after the crucifixion – Ehrman’s claim that Justin is “relying on” the Gospel of Peter for his information is simply not supported at all by the evidence. In my next post, I’ll summarize the remainder of Ehrman’s argument.