The Acts of Peter

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (June, 2005)

The Acts of Peter is another source containing what seem to be unbelievable or unedifying accounts of the Christian mission in Rome, which may now be understood as giving facts of the history.

The main subject is the rivalry between the mission of Peter and the mission of Simon Magus in Rome. This was the subject of many of the Apocrypha, and, in the light of our new knowledge, is to be taken as an account of a significant stage in Christian history.

The original Jewish-Samaritan mission to Gentiles had been well established in Rome from the 1st century BC. Herod the Great, a protégé of Augustus, built a house there and had his sons educated there. A rival Herod, Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, formed an anti-royal party in Rome in 4 BC at the time of the lawsuit concerning the Herod succession (Ant. 17,227). His household came to include Simon Magus as the head of the continuing Jewish-Samaritan mission in the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD) and Nero (54-68 AD). Simon strongly opposed the royal Herods, the Agrippas. Simon's claim to be a god and Helena a divine being, working from their Tiber Island centre, was still known in the following century, as is shown by Justin Martyr. (See 'Justin Martyr quote' in "The Clementine Books" in this section.)

After the schism between Christians and Simon in 44 AD at the death of Agrippa I, the royal Herodian house under the youthful Agrippa II became Christian through Paul and Peter, members of the court. The Christians made Rome their main centre from 61 AD, and so came into direct conflict with the Magian mission. Peter, appointed Pope representing the hidden Jesus, had to confront Simon personally, condemning him for immorality, in the same way as he had done in Samaria (Acts 8: 18-24).

It was an age when the ordinary, illiterate people could be impressed by a thaumaturge, a worker of "miracles". They roused a sense of awe, and in some more enquiring minds an interest in studying the philosophy for which the "miracles" were simply a public front. The neo-Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana gained his reputation in this way.

According to the Clementines Simon Magus, or the Magician, was a skilled practitioner of thaumaturgic trickery. Clement writes, "They told me that he makes statues walk, and that he rolls himself on the fire, and is not burnt; and sometimes he flies, and he makes loaves of stones; he becomes a serpent; he transforms himself into a goat; he becomes two-faced; he changes himself into gold; he opens lockfast gates; he melts iron; at banquets he produces images of all manner of forms. In his house he makes dishes be seen as borne of themselves to wait upon him, no bearers being seen. I wondered when I heard them speak thus; but many bore witness that they had been present, and had seen such things." (Clementine Homilies 2, 2,32).

It would not be too difficult, from behind, to make statues appear to walk - or even to make them weep tears of blood! The use of masks in dim lighting would help the "transformation" into a serpent or goat. In similarly dim lighting, normal during a candle-lit banquet , the use of strings suspended from the roof could appear to make dishes appear to be "borne of themselves to wait upon him, no bearers being seen" (since the bearers were above the ceiling).

The story in the Acts of Peter about the death of Simon Magus is readily accounted for as another trick, its method known to the Christians, who used it in order to get rid of this troublesome rival. They themselves presented their success as a miracle.

"But after a few days had elapsed Simon the magician promised the rabble that he would show Peter that he (Peter) had not put his faith in the true God but in a deception. Now while he (Simon) performed many false miracles, he was laughed to scorn by those disciples who were already firm in the faith. For in their living-rooms he caused certain spirits to be brought in to them, which were only appearances without real existence....He made the lame appear to be sound for a short time, and the blind likewise, and once he appeared to make many who were dead come alive and move...But all the while Peter followed him and exposed him to the onlookers. And as he was now always out of favour and derided by the people of Rome and discredited, as not succeeding in what he promised to do, it came to such a point that he said to them, 'Men of Rome, at present you think that Peter has mastered me, as having greater power, and you attend to him rather than me. But you are deceived. For tomorrow I shall leave you, who are utterly profane and impious, and fly up to God, whose power I am, although enfeebled. If then you have fallen, behold I am He That Standeth.....

"And by the following day a large crowd had assembled on the Sacred Way to see him fly. And Peter, having seen a vision, came to the place, in order to convict him again this time; for when Simon made his entry into Rome, he astonished the crowds by flying...

"So this man stood on a high place, and seeing Peter, he began to say: 'Peter, now of all times, when I am making my ascent before all these onlookers, I tell you: If your god has power enough - he whom the Jews destroyed, and they stoned you who were chosen by him - let him show that faith in him is of God; let it be shown at this time whether it be worthy of God. For I by ascending will show to all this crowd what manner of being I am.

"And lo and behold, he was carried up into the air, and everyone saw him all over Rome, passing over its temples and in hills; while the faithful looked towards Peter. And Peter, seeing the incredible sight, cried out to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'Let this man do what he undertook, and all who have believed on thee shall now be overthrown, and the signs and wonders which thou gavest them through me shall be disbelieved. Make haste, Lord, with thy grace; and let him fall down from this height, and be crippled, but not die; but let him be disabled and break his leg in three places!' And he fell down from that height and broke his leg in three places. Then they stoned him and went to their own homes; but from that time they all believed in Peter.

"But one of Simon's friends named Gemellus...came along the road shortly afterwards and seeing him with his leg broken said, 'Simon, if the Power of God is broken, shall not the God himself, whose power you are, be proved an illusion?' So Gemellus also ran and followed Peter, saying to him, 'I too desire to be one of those that believe in Christ.'...

"But Simon in his misfortune found some helpers, who carried him on a stretcher by night from Rome to Aricia; and after staying there he was taken to a man named Castor...and there he (Simon) underwent an operation; and thus Simon, the angel of the devil, ended his life." (Acts of Peter 30-32)

A little detective work would suggest that Simon on a platform had caused himself to be hoisted up by pulleys to a height between towers where onlookers, trying to see him, were dazzled by the sun. His long robes covered the platform so that he appeared to fly. The pulleys, hoisting him higher, made it appear that he was flying above temples and hills seen behind him. The Christians only had to sabotage his act by overpowering the concealed men holding the pulleys, so that he crashed down and broke his leg. Subsequently, when he was taken for medical attention, some other enemies ensured that he was put to death.

Other stories in the Acts of Peter and the related Acts of Paul show further "miracles", such as tallking animals, in circumstances where trickery could be easily suspected. It is hard to explain why subsequent centuries would invent all this out of fantasy. Rather, the writings are better understood as propaganda from the apostolic generation in Rome, when the Christians were trying to establish themselves. They were still expected by the masses to perform miracles in support of their authority, but at the same time they gave to those who were attracted to them a teaching with a better ethic and greater philosophical depth than that of the Magus.