Peter and the Talking Dog

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (July, 2005)

The Acts of Peter also contains an incredible story about a talking animal which, like Paul's talking lion, would have added to the scepticism of earlier critics of the apocrypha. This one is about a talking dog.

The subject of the Acts of Peter is the rivalry between the mission of Peter and the mission of Simon Magus in Rome. It was the theme of several 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, when Herod the Great built a house there. Simon Magus was its current leader in the time of Claudius (41-54 AD)and Nero (54-68 AD). In the meantime, however, Gentile pressure for equal status with Jews had focussed on the current heir of David, Jesus, who encouraged it to such an extent that the Gentiles had to form a new organisation with the name Christians. Peter, like Paul, had the task of travelling to already established mission stations to give them the new, reformed doctrine. In such a politically sensitive centre as Rome, the rivalry between the two forms of mission was intense, with the leaders sometimes forced into any stratagem that worked.

As we have seen in the Acts of Peter (in this section) both sides under the pressure of competition engaged in thaumaturgic devices, that we would call stunts.

The part of the Acts of Peter containing the dog story gives a credible account of an episode in the Rome mission, apart from the dog story. A distinguished Roman senator named Marcellus had at first become Christian, using his wealth and power to benefit Christians. "All the widows who hoped in Christ found refuge with him; all the orphans were fed by him." But the emperor Nero opposed and threatened him. Marcellus then changed to attacking Christians, and lent his house for Simon Magus to stay in. When Christians in Rome entreated Peter to stand up to Simon, Peter went to Marcellus' house and demanded admission. The doorkeeper refused him, on instructions from Simon.

Peter then turned to the people following him and said, "You shall see a great and marvellous wonder." He saw a great dog fastened with a chain and let it loose. The dog acquired a human voice and said to Peter, "What do you bid me do, you servant of the ineffable living God?" Peter sent the dog in to tell Simon that he was a wicked man and troubler of simple souls, and he must come out in public. The dog ran in to the house, lifted its forefeet and delivered this message. "When Simon heard it and saw the incredible sight, he lost the words with which he was deceiving those who stood by, and all were amazed."

There followed an exchange between Peter and Marcellus in which there was no mention of the dog, only typical doctrinal arguments. Marcellus was persuaded to renounce Simon and become Christian again. An opponent outside in the crowd ridiculed Peter, saying that the dog had said more to Simon than the message that was given, and the dog would soon die. Peter countered the opponent by smashing a statue of the emperor, showing his political colours, causing Marcellus to doubt again but be convinced again. He sprinkled water and the statue was restored.

Next the dog, in the house in the presence of Marcellus, preached a long sermon to Simon, cursed him, then ran off. It came to Peter in the crowd and reported what had happened. Then the dog fell down at Peter's feet and died.

It is not hard to guess what actually happened. When Simon in his house caused dishes of food to be carried by themselves without bearers, as we have seen, it is easy to suspect the use of strings in dark corners, controlled by hidden slaves. In Marcellus' house, there would be rich hangings on the wall, or possibly side-chambers, where a slave instructed by Peter hid, giving a voice to the family dog. Simon would know perfectly well how it worked, but Peter's stratagem came off so successfully that he exposed Simon as dealing in similar tricks. It also convinced simpler followers of Peter that he had a greater miraculous power. When the episode was over, it was necessary for the dog, separated from its "voice", to be dispatched, before it was discovered that it could not talk.

The statue of Nero was simply replaced by another, but presented as a miracle. The purpose of literature like this was to write about startling events, then when people's attention had been gained to include discourses deserving close study. Our media use similar devices!

The popular, political context of earliest Christianity may now be much better understood, overthrowing any lingering belief in a unique new set of teachings coming from a single inspired teacher, Jesus.