Peter (in the Pseudo-Clementines) on “false” passages in scripture (NT Apocrypha 4)

From the beginning, Christians and Jews have taken a variety of approaches to passages in scripture which they find difficult to interpret or troubling in some other way. One common approach taken by an adherent of a religion is to cite the passages the interpreter likes, and to ignore or at least avoid the passages the interpreter finds problematic. In a sense, it is not uncommon to develop a canon (authoritative writing) within the canon, so to speak.

Many among the highly educated in Roman times found descriptions of God which rang of human emotions and physical daily behaviour (anthropomorphic passages) particularly distasteful. This is due in part, to the influence of Platonic philosophy, which emphasized the transcendence of God (in contrast to the very anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks generally). In other words, God was as far away as possible from the imperfect world around us, including the emotions and daily behaviours of humans (the “passions”). For Jews and Christians who adopted similar notions, several passages in the Hebrew Bible became very problematic (any that had God showing human emotions such as anger, or God changing his mind, or God seemly not foreseeing all), and there were different strategies for solving the conundrum.

One interpretive technique was allegorizing. Namely, you read a passage and explained a deeper, almost hidden meaning beyond the literal (thereby avoiding the literal in many cases). Philo of Alexandria is most known for this approach, but he is certainly not the only one.

Another very interesting approach is taken by the Jewish-Christian author of the so-called Pseudo-Clementine writings, which purport to be the autobiography (so to speak) of Clement, the bishop that succeeded Peter at Rome (dating to the fourth century but reflecting earlier materials). Here “Clement” presents Peter in a debate with Simon Magus, both of whom make use of scripture to support their points. Simon points to passages in the bible which speak of “gods” plural and then goes on to expound the view that the creator god is in mind in those passages of the Bible which speak of that god’s “dubious passions” and inability to know exactly what is going on in a situation (H III 38:1-3). But, argues Simon (in a “gnostic” manner), there is indeed another god not mentioned in scripture who is transcendent, who “foresees the future and is perfect, without needs, good and free from all dubious passions” (38:3). Peter’s refutation of Simon is quite fascinating: “Those statements of the Holy Scriptures which are in keeping with the creation wrought by God must be counted as genuine and those which contradict them as false” (42:3). In essence, Peter’s approach here is to take away his opponent’s passages: “All these passages. . . are shown to be false and are overturned by others which assert the opposite” (43:3). Further on in the so-called “preachings of Peter” (Kerygmata Petrou) section, the author explains that it was in the process of the Law being written down and subsequently passed on and copied that “false pericopes” (false passages) were introduced. And the author considers among the false passages those which portray God acting much like a human in lying, being ignorant, grieving, mocking, and craving after offerings and sacrifices (H III 48-52; H II 43-44).

Saying that there are false passages that have been inserted into the bible is not an approach often taken within most of Christianity today (the canon within the canon is the favourite, so to speak), but it was among the options in antiquity. However, there may be affinities here with some moderns who do pick and choose what they consider true or false in the Bible, but they are usually not imagining interpolation conspiracy. More about the Pseudo-Clemetines later.