Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17)

Tensions between the historical Paul and Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) are attested early on, as Paul’s retelling of an incident at Antioch suggests. There, so Paul says in his letter to followers of Christ in Galatia, Paul “opposed [Cephas] to his face” because Cephas had withdrawn from eating with uncircumcized Gentiles after “certain people” came from James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:11-14 [NRSV]). Peter’s concern evidently centred on properly following the Jewish food laws. F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school made this opposition between Paul and Peter the key to interpreting all of early Christianity, as I have mentioned in a previous post in this series (no. 2). Although this reduction of early Christianity to these two camps (Pauline Gentile Christianity vs. Petrine Jewish Christianity) is oversimplified, there are times when the figures of Peter and Paul, as understood by later interpreters, continued to be at odds with one another.

The novelistic stories about Clement of Rome and his conversion under Peter’s direction, which are known as the Pseudo-Clementines, illustrate continuing battles that existed between some who claimed Peter as their founder (Jewish Christians, who can be associated with “Ebionites”) and others who considered Paul as most central (Gentile Christians who no longer followed the Jewish law). Previously I have discussed the notion of false passages ” in scripture that comes up in this writing. (It is important to mention that the form in which we now have this Christian novel comes from two alternate retellings of the fourth century known as the Recognitions and the Homilies, which likely reflect an earlier edition of the mid-200s, the so-called “basic document”; see the introductory material in Strecker’s translation in Schneelmelcher). The full text of both the Recognitions and the Homilies is available online here.

The author of this novel presents a Peter who emphasizes the need to follow the Jewish law and opposes another figure, his “enemy”, who does not (often called Simon the Samaritan or Magician [Magus] but sometimes clearly a cipher for Paul) . In the supposed letter from Peter to James that prefaces the novel, Peter complains that some “from among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid! For to do such a thing means to act contrary to the law of God which was made known by Moses and was confirmed by our Lord in its everlasting continuance. For he said: ‘The heaven and earth will pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall not pass away from the law'”(Epistula Petri 2:2-5; trans. by Strecker in Schneemelcher; cf. Matthew 24:35).

Clearly, the Pseudo-Clementine literature attests to a form of Jewish Christianity (sometimes labelled “Ebionite”) which continued to practice the Jewish law and to oppose those it considered to be neglecting the law, namely the heirs of Paul and a Gentile brand of Christianity (including Marcion). There also seems to be a reference here to some portrayals of Peter which tried to lessen any conflict with Paul by presenting Peter as though he did not require obedience to the law (see, for example, the Acts of the Apostles’ portrayal of a Paul and Peter, whose speeches on inclusion of Gentiles sound very much alike). Later in the Pseudo-Clementine stories of Clement’s journey to Judea and conversion there is a disputation which takes place between Peter and one Simon Magus (the Samaritan), Peter’s “enemy”, which again sometimes clearly serves as a cipher for a “lawless” Paul who had a supposed vision of Jesus (esp. H II 16-17; H XVII 13-19). Paul’s relaxing (for Gentiles) of certain aspects of the Jewish law (including circumcision and food laws) in order to include Gentiles in the Jesus movement was the focus of controversy in Paul’s lifetime (read Galatians) and, long after, continued to arouse the response or anger of some Jewish Christians who felt themselves in continuity with Jewish figures such as Peter.

UPDATE (Oct 21): A relevant article on the fourth-century Recognitions version of the Pseudo-Clementines has appeared. Nicole Kelley argues, among other things, that the author of the Recognitions attempts to establish the authority and ultimate knowledge of Peter (via the True Prophet, Jesus) over against other claims to knowledge (especially astrology’s claims of true knowledge with respect to “fate”, but also claims of knowledge among competing forms of Christianity). And she places this assertion of Peter’s access to true knowledge within the context of religious rivalries in fourth century Syria (among Jewish Christians and followers of Marcion, Bardaisan, and others). The romance (story of Clement’s family) in particular functions in this manner: The old astrologer’s claim that “fate” determined the dissolution of Clement’s family is countered successfully by Peter’ knowledge that God’s providence, not fate, was at work. And the reunion of Clement’s family proves Peter (and the source of his knowledge, the True Prophet) right. See Nicole Kelley, “Problems of Knowledge and Authority in the Pseudo-Clementine Romance of Recognitions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005) 315-348 (online institutional subscription required).

5 thoughts on “Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17)

  1. Phil Harland Post author


    Sacha M. said…

    We must always remember that Paul did not in fact teach ‘dissolution of the Law’ as Galatians clearly points out. Also, if Simon Magus can be considered a consistent cipher for Paul, the numerous confrontations found in Petrine literature indicates that Peter’s (and his school’s) attitude was much more hostile than Paul’s (whose only reference is concerning table habits in Galatians).

    5:50 PM
    Laura said…

    I agree with Sacha in that I find Peter to be more of stickler than Paul (even though i’ve probably read much less of these guys than he has!). The debates between him and Simon we’re great, but just to prove my point, I often found myself rooting for Simon! ha ha =)
    I think it’s because i’ve started to dislike Peter… especially due to his apparant hatred of females.
    I guess i’m biased now.

    8:28 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Sacha correctly observes that the _historical_ Paul did not teach dissolution of the law, only a modification of what aspects of the law applied to Gentiles specifically (see Galatians and ROmans).

    To put things briefly on the time after Paul, Gentile Christianity began to have its own life and own interpretation of Paul thereafter — let’s call him the “legendary Paul” for the moment– which was likely to be less nuanced, let’s say, with the view of Jewish law (mainly rejecting it more fully). Alongside this situation, later perceptions of Paul among those who did continue to practice Jewish law would not likely be responding to the _historical_ Paul as much as the legendary Paul with their own “legends” attached to him as well. And in the Pseudo-Clementines there is considerable freedom taken by the author in providing a caricature of a “lawless” enemy (with Paul in mind). The author feels free to attribute a variety of opinions to the enemy that Paul himself never held.

    Also, to engage with Sacha’s other comment: as Pauline, Gentile-focussed Christianity gained the upper hand (and gradually moved towards the dominant, “proto-orthodox” position, so to speak), there would be less need for stories of Paul refuting Peter from the other side of the “battle”. Instead, the tendency might be to envelop Peter within the Gentile-focussed Christianity, thereby marginalizing Jewish Christians who claimed Peter as their founder (who then countered by reclaiming him overagainst Paul, on this theory). These are just some musings on the possibilities rather than detailed arguments here. But perhaps they engage with some of your comments. Phil

    9:10 PM
    Angela said…

    While I think it is right to suggest as Sasha does that Peter’s school is more hostile than Paul’s, perhaps we should ask why. I am not trying to take Peter’s side, but I could understand why he might be hostile to individuals or movements he thought were “corrupting” or “distorting” his line of Christianity. He certainyl would have thought that abandoning the Jewish Law was out of the question and played a role in Christianity. We also need to remember that at times, other non-Jewish early Christian movements were hostile as well (this isn’t only a Peter thing)!

    8:08 AM
    glaserildiko said…

    Just to play the Devil Advocate (I seem to be doing that alot!), let’s take a look at Peter. There’s a reason why Simon was renamed Peter. Throughout Christian literature, whether it be canonical or non, Peter was known to be hotheaded, stubborn, argumentative and bullish; hence the name “Rock” (Cephas/ Petro). He would undoubtedbly be conservative, and perhaps even fearful about abandonning his faith. Jesus was Jewish, and if he preached to be more like Jesus, then logic would follow that the followers would have to be Jewish. Maybe I’m over simplifying, but it seems to me that Simon Magus would have represented those who were impressed with the stories of the Jesus movement and wanted to buy salvation and power, as oppose to a type of roman a clef for the conflict between Peter and Paul. (It’s also interesting that Simon Magus is a source of the Faustian legends!)

    1:59 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Simon Magus was many things to many people, as were these other figures Paul and Peter. We have to keep very clear in our minds a separation between the actual historical figure (Simon Magus, Peter, Paul, or what have you) and the ways in which these figures were subsequently (usually after their deaths) represented by a particular author or group with a specific purpose in mind (who in turn may themselves be claiming to represent Peter or some figure). And in Simon Magus’ case, we basically know nothing of the actual historical figure; instead, we have plenty people using him as the stereotypical “heretic” (or even father of all heretics) with different characteristics given to this figure depending on who was doing the stereotyping and what “battles” they were fighting. In the Pseudo-Clementine case, Paul (and/or Marcion) are among the “heretics” and are therefore cast as Simon Magus (from the perspective of Jewish followers of Jesus who continued to practice the Jewish law). Phil

    5:12 PM
    Turriff said…

    Isn’t interesting that despite the importance given to the Apostles in the early Church and later that Paul still comes out ahead? One would think that the question of Peter vs. Paul would have been settled on that point alone. But Ildy’s point about conservatism/Peter may point to one of the reasons that Paul comes out ahead. When the group formally known as “orthodox” came into the lead, the bulk of them were already gentiles, and firmly in the camp of the Pauline view of things. I’m sure they were in no mood to shift the argument because of Apostolic issues alone.

    6:27 PM

  2. Moreh Zedek ben Cephas

    Peter was not sexist as some people think. Actually if he was in any way against women, it was because of the fact that he strove to practice celibacy. Therefore he didn’t like to associate with women because he was afraid that it might lead to fornication. Paul taught that faith and not the Law saves you, which is contrary to what all the real apostles taught. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”[James 2:19-20] “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”[James 2:24] “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”[James 2:26] “And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”[1 John 2:3] So, you see it was not just Simon Peter who was apposed to Paul but all of the true Apostles. The True Church no longer exists. As for the real apostles, you have forgotten them. “As for Saul (Paul) he made havoc of the church.” [Acts 8:1-3]

  3. Moreh Zedek ben Cephas

    I have just found something else to say. Laura, you implied that Peter was sexist and said you were rooting for Simon. If anyone is sexist it is Paul. “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”[1 Corinthians 14:34-35]

  4. luc goossens

    By reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the preface of the Pseudo Clementines (the Kerigmata Petrous) there is only one conclusion to make: both men were each others ennemys, nothing more, nothing less.Rome has always attempted to conceal this animosity but in vain. An other thing is clear when we read the accusations of both men. They use the apostle James as their witness.James was the first bishop of Jerusalem and not Peter. That means James was the first Pope instead of Peter.

Comments are closed.