copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
So what was the biggest single concrete difference between the narratives of the Marcionite gospel and the Gospel of the Hebrews? The role played by the now familiar figure of Simon called “Peter” or Kepha. According to our Catholic tradition “Peter” is the very disciple Jesus chose to make the head of the Church. I don’t know how far the Gospel of the Hebrews went in terms of extolling Simon. All evidence seems to suggest that he was still somehow subordinate to James. Nevertheless it was certainly a far cry from what appears in the rival Markan or so-called “Pauline” traditions. Here, Simon was anathematized It is high time we understood why there is this difference.
Scholars have long noticed something odd in the patronymic by which Jesus refers to Peter in John 1:42, “So you are called Simon bar-Jona? You shall be called Cephas.” The trouble is, that is an otherwise unattested form of “son of Johanon,” so we must suspect it is a corruption of something else. And, as it happens, there is ready to hand another option that many would indeed have hastened to cover up: “Simon barjona” would mean “Simon the revolutionary,” even “Simon the terrorist.” Simon the Canaanean (“the Zealot”) is similarly rooted. In the Gethemane scene Simon is said to have been armed. It seems wholly out of place with our inherited understanding of Jesus as the leader of a peaceful and peaceable organization. Why would Simon have been armed unless it was a surviving vestige of an earlier truth about him? Put a mental bookmark here; we will return to the point presently. But first another building block.
There is also a strong connection between “Peter” and Gnosticism. The Nag Hammadi collection has a number of texts which make “Peter” the spokesman for heretical ideas. Clement reports that the heretic Basilides claimed to have been a hearer of Simon Peter once removed. The Church Fathers say that he was really a hearer of Simon Magus once removed. But maybe they were both right: when we come across the figure of “Simon Magus” in the Church, we have to consider seriously whether he represents a Marcionite version of the beloved apostle Peter.
Consider for a moment the pairing of “Simon and Helena” in the reports of the Church Fathers. Simon, they say, went about brazenly in the company of one Helena, a former prostitute he had rescued from captivity in a Tyrian brothel. Everyone should immediately see who Helena was: she is Helena queen of Adiabene and wife of Monobazius I, one of the principal financial backers of the revolutionaries during the Jewish War. As Gottheil notes, “there were a number of Adiabene Jews in Jerusalem, who probably belonged to the princely household. Josephus knew several, and in [Jewish War,] ii. 19, § 2 mentions a Kenedeus and a Monobaz as aiding bravely in the defense of Jerusalem against the Romans, and "the sons and brethren of Izates the king . . . were bound . . . and led to Rome, in order to make them hostages for their country's fidelity to the Romans" ([Jewish War,] vi. 6, § 4). That is the fact underlying the various “remembrances” of Simon and Helena wandering through Syria together in the years immediately following the crucifixion.
While most scholars have attempted to connect “Simon Magus” to Paul, we should pay careful attention to the pattern in later Catholic writings to have the newly “purified” Catholic personna “deny” or “attack” his association with his previous incarnation. So it is that “Paul” now a devout Pharisee, is made to declare that he is not the “apostle” who desecrated the temple. In the same manner “John” becomes the enemy of “Marcion” and now also “Peter” the sworn adversary of “Simon” in the Clementia.
SIMON AS “KEPHA”
Neither “Simon Magus” nor “Simon Peter” as we have come to know them was a real historical figure. They developed over time as reactions to the historical Simon bar Giora who likely claimed that he was the messianic “rock” prophesied by Moses. That the gospel writer chose to identify him as a “stone” – i.e. kepha - rather than a true “rock” is significant enough. Yet I think it ties into an even more significant play on words in the gospel. For the Aramaic word kepha sounds a lot like the verb to deny, kipha, and, as early as Celsus, Peter is identified as the “denier” of Christ. One of the clear literary purposes of the gospel, at least as far as Marcionites interpreted the text, is to demostrate that Simon was instructed over and over again by Jesus that “little Mark” was to be his messiah, but he steadfastly refused to comply with the Lord’s teaching. We must remember again that Jesus wasn’t the true Christ according to this tradition. The Marcionites went out of their way to show that it was Simon who wrongly identified Jesus in this manner. Take a look at the classic rejection of the “Jesus is Christ” doctrine in the gospel (which is still read in the Marcionite manner by members of the Islamic tradition).
[Jesus] asked them, "Who do people say I am?" They replied, "Some say John … others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny [kiphar] himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, to give up his soul? Or what can a man up give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes [again]."
The structure of the original passage makes it impossible to believe even for a moment that the author did not want to undermine Simon’s status within the community. The idea was that Mark was chosen to witness the events of the Passion over Simon because he was a better disciple. Even so, if the evangelist/apostle Mark was the youth who fled naked from the Garden at Jesus’ arrest, he must also be the lad Jesus uses for an object lesson among the disciples in Mark 9:33-37. He is the child one must “receive,” i.e., whom one must be ready to welcome as Jesus’ successor: the true messiah whose way Jesus has prepared, a role the gospel editors have shifted to John the Baptist as a front man for Jesus himself as the messiah.
Nor let us pass by without notice that our hypothesis allows a natural solution to a puzzle that has long perplexed even the most daring of scholars: why is Jesus quoted as predicting the coming of the Son of Man, a messianic figure, in the third person? The puzzle remains as long as we assume that he refers to himself: then why didn’t he just say so? But what if he didn’t refer to himself and to his own future coming? What if the third person means what it always does: someone else? By now, you know whom: Marcus Julius Agrippa.
The Marcionite reading of the warning “many will come in my name saying, ‘I am Christ’ and will deceive many” (Matt. 24:5) is entirely straightforward: many will come and wrongly say that Jesus is the Christ. This is the very affirmation Simon makes, only to be sternly rebuked, in Mark 8:29. Given the context of the “many will come” warning in the Olivet Discourse, or Little Apocalypse of Mark 13/Matt. 24, one should expect that these people will emerge during the Jewish War. Moreover, given that the prototype of their confession is put into Simon Peter’s mouth in Mark 8:29, it is reasonable to infer that those who hold this position (that Jesus himself was the Christ) would somehow be connected with Simon. This must have been a critical passage in the original Marcionite gospel where Simon makes apparent that he is “Kipha” not merely because he will “deny” Jesus three times (as we would see later), but because it points to a secret doctrine, also mentioned in the writings of the apostle. There are so many other “deny” passages in the gospel which are similarly hinged on this play on words that it is difficult which one to choose to examine in detail. Nevertheless the famous application of Isaiah 28:16 in the Marcionite letter to the Romans.
Because of manipulations of the original Marcionite material we will likely never know what the original words actually were. The Catholic editors changed the words and the very structure of the Marcionite gospel as well the apostolic letters attributed to “Paul.” There is nevertheless an extended discussion in the Epistle to the Romans about the manner in which Israel was led astray by contemporary leadership during the Jewish revolt. The Apostle declares that “[t]hey stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written, ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone [kepha] that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’” This must be a reference to Simon bar Giora whom we identify as “Peter” in our canon. No less an authority than Origen acknowledges at least part of this when he says that Peter “is called a stumbling-stone by Jesus, and which is spoken of as Satan in the passage, ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art a stumbling-stone unto me.’ It is therefore very likely that this later passage recognizing him as a stumbling stone should be similarly rendered. The difference between Romans 9:33 and the passage we just saw in the gospel is that “Simon” is depicted as a “leader” of the Jews who led the people to their destruction. Do we possess nny clue as to who this might be?
We all know that the Marcionites understood their apostle to have despised Simon Kepha. The reference here to a kepha through which the divine vengeance against the Jews would be fulfilled should be equally obvious. All the Catholic editor of our canon has done is to fuse the “negative prophecy” against kepha with a later “positive one” from Isaiah: “and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” The Isaiah snippet was certainly added to the Marcionite original. Even Tertullian seems to know the passage as containing only the one line, “Behold I lay in Sion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.” His commentary on this section of the Marcionite text is simply “this stumbling-stone Marcion retains still.” He follows this up by the alluding to a “divine mystery,” questioning how the Jews were supposed to believe in the true “Christ” but did not. What is he really getting at here?
If we are serious about making sense who Simon “Kepha” really was, all we have to do is to look to the original prophecy in Isaiah. The Marcionites tended to follow the content and context of the original material from the prophets much better than their later Catholic counterparts. Isaiah speaks of one who would come from among the Jews who:
will be a kepha that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured." Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.
The fact is that only because of the clever addition of Isaiah 28:16 by the Catholic editor have scholars been misled, thinking the prophecy applies directly to “their Christ,” that is Jesus. Only the Marcionites, who know only the one line from Isa 8:14 here, know the real object of prophecy: Simon called Kepha, the epithet implying that he must lead Jerusalem to destruction despite himself.
“PETER” AS SIMON BAR GIORA
Once we get past these preliminaries, we end up with a critical view of the Marcionite interpretation of the letter to the Galatians, which was first in order in their canon. Suddenly we see the Apostle storming Jerusalem with “Titus” at his side. There he meets Peter and – if we can follow what was likely the original argument – “condemns him to his face.” This is exactly what Mark – the apostle like Moses – necessarily did in 70 CE.
The same metaphor appears in what is now called the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where the “coming of Titus” is celebrated by the adherents of the Apostle. Elsewhere in our canon (Ephesians 2:14-22) there is a clever little analogy where the enemies of the faith surround a wall built to keep out the new faith, just as the Pharisees sought to keep a fence around the Law. Originally Mark compared the fortifications of Jerusalem as being exactly like a syaga – the word for “fence” in both the Mishnah and the second chapter of Ephesians. It is the flimsiest of barriers whece – once the Apostle and Titus breach its separation – the “blessings of Christ” will finally reach the Jews.
It would be nice if we could dig up some piece of paper some day where Simon bar Giora simply “confessed” to being our “Peter,” but that isn’t going to happen. So we are left to careful inference. To secure our identification of Simon Kepha as Simon bar Giora, we need only compare the accounts of each at the end of the Neronian period. Both go from Palestine to Rome, and bith are executed there. Josephus makes it very simple. “Simon, the son of Gioras, … had then been led in this triumph among the captives; a rope had also been put upon his head, and he had been drawn into a proper place in the forum, and had withal been tormented by those that drew him along; and the law of the Romans required that malefactors condemned to die should be slain there.” Simon was thrown off the Tarpeian Rock (a clear play on his title Kepha). Mark and Titus were in attendance no less than Vespasian and Domitian. Compare with this scene John 21b:18-19a, which lists the intitial steps of Simon’s execution, matching Josephus: “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ This he said to indicate what sort of death by which he would glorify God.” But there is another version of the death in the Acts of Peter. A later writer has developed it into a crucifixion, assimilating his death to that of Jesus, so that Peter was supposedly hanged upside-down on a cross. The word for “upside down” in Aramaic is interesting: kepha, the very title pinned on the enemy of the Apostle once again.
However if any discerning reader can still hear the rustle of the air as Peter falls to his doom in the description where the author implores us to:
Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was. For the first man, whose race I bear in mine appearance, fell head downwards, and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore: for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down -who also cast his first state down upon the earth- established this whole disposition of all things.
The simple reality of Peter “falling” from the Tarpian Rock is “mystified” by references to the creation, the crucifixion. He is compared to the Gnostic Primal Man, or Man of Light, who was lured and drawn into the darkness of the material world of the Demiurge. Once there, he was sundered, the fragments functioning (as we should say) as DNA to provide self-replicating order in the new world. This Purusha-like self-sacrifice of the Primal Man was also historicized as the crucifixion of Jesus, not at the hands of spiritual archons and Powers, but rather Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. And now it is historicized in Simon, who has obviously become a second Christ.
Look carefully at the Acts of Peter. Who is the executioner? Who do we expect, especially when our apostle says he condemned Peter (Gal. 2:11)? The Acts of Peter speak of an Agrippa, the prefect who watches as the Peter performs healing after healing to prove that Peter is the true Christ. Through these great acts Peter is said to have converted also “the concubines of Agrippa the prefect” because
they, hearing the word concerning chastity and all the oracles of the Lord, were smitten in their souls, and agreeing together to remain pure from the bed of Agrippa they were vexed by him. Now as Agrippa was perplexed and grieved concerning them -and he loved them greatly- he observed and sent men privily to see whither they went, and found that they went unto Peter. He said therefore unto them when they returned: That Christian hath taught you to have no dealings with me: know ye that I will both destroy you, and burn him alive. They, then, endured to suffer all manner of evil at Agrippa's hand, if only they might not suffer the passion of love, being strengthened by the might of Jesus.
I think there is enough here to see at least the beginnings of how Simon “Kepha” was the same as Simon bar Giora. For those who wish to understand why Justus would have transformed Simon’s low estimation in the original Marcionite gospel, consider for a moment Josephus charges that he was really fighting on the side of Simon the rebel leader (Vita 12, 65, 73 etc.).
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller