The Cross Gospel is an early passion-resurrection text hypothesized by Jesus scholar J.D. Crossan as one of the primary sources behind the 2nd century Gospel of Peter, as well as the four Gospels of the New Testament.
As a “passion-resurrection” text, it tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection.
From a cursory examination, it seems that most accounts of the Cross Gospel go one of two ways: either they are accounts intended for a general audience that provide only a cursory explanation of the Cross Gospel without much detail (for instance, on the Internet), or they are accounts given in publications intended for academic audiences and are therefore not accessible for the average dabbler in Biblical scholarship.
My intent in this essay is to provide an overview of the Cross Gospel for armchair enthusiasts and those with a general interest in Biblical scholarship.
JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN
J.D. Crossan spent most of his career at DePaul University, where he is now a Professor Emeritus. He is widely regarded as one of the premier Jesus scholars alive today, and is both famous and infamous for his conclusions regarding Jesus of Nazareth and the history of early Christianity. Regardless of how one regards his conclusions, there are few who would disagree that Crossan is one of the most prominent, widely quoted, and widely debated New Testament scholars alive today.
THE GOSPEL OF PETER
Crossan has hypothesized what he calls the “Cross Gospel” from a study of the Gospel of Peter – a 2nd century work that has been available to scholars for more than 100 years, but which most average Christians are not familiar with.
Prior to the late 19th century, the Gospel of Peter was known only through a few references and quotations by early Church fathers, who mention it in writings from the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the 1880’s, however, a large fragment of the Gospel was discovered (like so many other lost Christian texts) in Egypt, inside the tomb of a 10th century Christian monk. That 10th century version was itself copied from just a fragment of the text, demonstrating that even in the early Middle Ages, most of the text was already lost.
The surviving text begins just after the arrest of Jesus, follows through his trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, and ends just after his tomb is found empty by Mary Magdalene and her “women friends.” It actually ends in mid-sentence, with Peter (writing in first person) going out to sea to fish together with his brother Andrew and Levi son of Alphaeus (identified in most traditions with the disciple Matthew).
Most scholars, including Crossan, agree that the original Gospel of Peter dates to the mid-2nd century – roughly 150 C.E. Eusebius, writing in the 300’s, refers to another Church historian who wrote about the Gospel of Peter around 190 C.E. So it must have already been in existence, and in wide circulation, by that time.
SOURCES FOR THE GOSPEL OF PETER
There are three obvious conclusions scholars can draw about the sources used by the writer of the Gospel of Peter. The first is that the writer depended solely on one or more of the New Testament Gospels in writing his text. The second is that the writer did not depend on any New Testament Gospel, and thus exclusively used some other source no longer in existence. The third is a combination of the first two – the writer of Peter used both New Testament sources and non-New Testament (or non-canonical) sources.
Very few scholars have argued for the second position. Most agree that the writer of Peter used one or more of the New Testament Gospels, and a fair amount argue that he also used some source not found in the Gospels and no longer in existence.
Crossan falls into the camp asserting that there are both canonical and non-canonical sources in the Gospel of Peter. He points out that if Peter is based only on canonical sources, why is there so much in the existing text that is not found in those four New Testament Gospels? A sizeable portion, perhaps more than half, of the existing Gospel of Peter has no parallels in the New Testament. It seems clear to Crossan and many others that the writer of this text was using some other source in addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John.
THE CROSS GOSPEL
Crossan has formed the hypothesis that this “fifth source” for the Gospel of Peter is a passion-resurrection narrative no longer in existence, which he calls the Cross Gospel. He has dated this Gospel to the early 40’s C.E., roughly 10-12 years after the execution of Jesus. He has further asserted that it not only informed the passion-resurrection account of the Gospel of Peter, but was also the primitive account that informed the Gospel of Mark. Since Mark informed Matthew and Luke, and all three together informed John, Crossan has argued that the Cross Gospel is at the heart of all existing passion-resurrection narratives known to modern Christian scholarship.
This is, without question, a highly controversial view. Crossan himself has stated that when he first proposed it in the late 1980’s, it was met “with almost universal rejection” among his colleagues. I don’t think that “universal rejection” is still apparent – it seems that slowly but surely, more and more scholars are taking his proposal seriously. It remains, however, a distinctly minority view.
The primary argument against the Cross Gospel is not necessarily its existence (many scholars, as I mentioned above, agree that the Gospel of Peter uses a non-canonical source), but rather its unified content and dating.
First, as to the unified content. While many scholars argue for non-canonical sources in the Gospel of Peter, most assert that this content may have come from several sources, both written and oral, and may not represent an actual “consecutive” account (that is, an established written story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end). In other words, the content of Peter that does not come from the four Gospels of the New Testament may have been drawn from a number of different textual and oral traditions known to the writer of Peter.
Second, regarding the dating. This is perhaps the most controversial of Crossan’s arguments. Critics argue that while there may well have been some early source known to Mark which no longer exists, it is hard to equate the Cross Gospel with that Markan source.
Crossan responds to the first criticism by arguing that the material at question in the Gospel of Peter (that is, the material that does not come from the New Testament) has all the structural earmarks of a unified account – a beginning, middle, and end, as it were. If it was drawn from numerous written and textual sources, it would not demonstrate that sort of cohesion.
For instance, the text tells us that Herod Antipas, and not Pilate, ordered Jesus’ execution, and that the execution was carried out not by Roman soldiers, but by the Jewish people. Later, however, the Jewish people are stunned by the miraculous signs that take place during the crucifixion (darkening of the sun, the curtain of the holy of holies ripped in two, etc.), and appear to be on the verge of repenting and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish authorities, however, having witnessed the resurrection themselves (and thus, in effect, knowing that Jesus is the Messiah), plot with the Romans to cover it up, lest the Jewish people attack them for leading them to kill God’s promised Messiah.
With the exception of the miraculous signs at Jesus’ crucifixion, none of that is found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Yet it clearly has a narrative cohesion one would expect in a single written story – and which one would not expect from a conglomeration of various written and oral traditions. The Jews execute Jesus on the orders of the Jewish authorities, the Jews are amazed at the miraculous signs during the crucifixion, the Jews are on the verge of repenting, so the Jewish authorities cover up the resurrection to keep their own people from attacking them out of anger that their authorities led them to crucify their own Messiah.
This seems to be (and is argued by Crossan to be) a cohesive and well-established written account being used by the writer of the Gospel of Peter. Furthermore, Crossan points out that while many scholars have disagreed with his Cross Gospel hypothesis, none have managed to show how a conglomeration of oral and written traditions could have resulted in the cohesive narrative found in the Gospel of Peter.
As to the dating issue, Crossan supports his date of roughly 42 C.E. by looking at the context of the story and comparing it to similar situations in Jewish-Christian history. He specifically argues that it was created in Jerusalem during the early 40’s, after Agrippa returned from Rome as the new King of the Jews.
Agrippa was a grandson to Herod the Great, but was raised in the imperial palace at Rome.
Because of those Roman connections, he eventually was given rule of a portion of the Jewish homeland in 37 C.E. Once installed, he deposed the Roman-appointed high priestly family, and re-established the priestly family that had been in favor during the time of his grandfather, Herod the Great. The Roman-appointed family, by the way, had been involved in the deaths of both Jesus around 30 C.E. and the early Christian Stephen around 37 C.E. The Christian Jews would no doubt have been pleased with Agrippa for deposing this priestly family.
Agrippa returned to Rome, however, in 39 C.E. and stayed there for two years. When he came back to Judea in 41, he was granted kingship of the entire Jewish homeland. One of his first actions was to reinstate the Roman high priestly family that he had deposed four years earlier. Shortly thereafter, he had James son of Zebedee (one of Jesus’ disciples) put to death, and arrested Simon Peter (who later escaped). Where Agrippa had been favorable in the eyes of early Christianity before, he now became its enemy.
Crossan argues that it was in this setting that the Cross Gospel was composed. He states: “The Romans were completely innocent then [at the execution of Jesus] because that was how they appeared now [in the early 40’s]. The house of Herod and the Jewish authorities were completely guilty then because that was how they appeared now. The ‘people of the Jews’ were ready to convert then because that was how they appeared now.”
THE CONTENT OF THE CROSS GOSPEL
I have already alluded to the primary content of the Cross Gospel in the points above. Pilate and the Romans are shown to be completely innocent of Jesus’ execution. Herod Antipas orders “the Lord to be taken away” instructing them to “do what I told you to do.” But who did Herod hand Jesus over to? That question is answered a few sentences later: “…he gave them over to the people” – that is, the Jewish people.
The Jewish people then run Jesus through the streets, spitting on him, hitting him with a reed, slapping his cheeks, and whipping him. They also put him in a purple robe and place a crown of thorns on his head.
Jesus is then crucified together with two criminals. The Jews (not the Roman soldiers, as in the Gospels) cast lots for his clothes. One of the criminals derides the Jews for executing Jesus. The people respond not by torturing the criminal, but by ordering that Jesus’ legs are not to be broken, so that he will die more slowly and suffer more.
By midday, the sky goes dark and the people aren’t able to tell whether it is evening or not. They fear breaking Mosaic Law by allowing a corpse to remain crucified after sunset and the start of the Sabbath. So they give Jesus a mixture of gall (poison) and vinegar to hasten his death. It works, and Jesus cries out “My Power, O Power, you have forsaken me!” The text does not actually say Jesus dies, however. Instead it uses a euphemism and says that Jesus was “taken up.”
After this, the curtain of the Holy of Holies is torn in two and there is a great earthquake. The darkness then dissipates and the sun reappears, showing it to be the “9th hour” (that is, 3 o’clock in the afternoon). The Jews are happy because they have not broken Mosaic Law.
Because of the miraculous signs during his execution and death, “the Jews,” “the elders,” and “the priests” – that is, all the Jewish people including their leaders – realize they have made a grave error and begin to “beat their breasts” and lament over the fall of Jerusalem, which must surely be coming from an angry God.
The Jewish authorities (“the scribes and Pharisees and elders”) become concerned that if Jesus’ disciples break into his tomb, revive him, and take him away, the Jews will become convinced that he has risen from the dead. So they urge the Romans to put guards at the tomb for “three days” – the time period Jews believed it took to ensure that a person was truly dead. Pilate agrees and sends a centurion named Petronius, together with his soldiers (presumably 100 of them), to guard the tomb. The Jewish elders go to the tomb as well. Once there, they roll a stone in front of it and seal it with “seven wax seals.” They then “pitch a tent” and literally camp out in front of the tomb. On the Sabbath (Saturday), large crowds come by and see the sealed and guarded tomb.
Early in the morning on Sunday, while it is still dark, there is a “loud voice in heaven.” The heavens open and “two men” descend in a shining light and approach the tomb. The stone rolls away by itself and the two men enter the tomb. The soldiers quickly wake up the centurion and the Jewish leaders and tell them what just happen. While they are telling the story, three men suddenly emerge from the tomb. The first two men are on either side of the third man, regally sustaining him with their arms the way a king might be led by his courtiers. The heads of the two men reach to the heavens, but the third man’s head goes “beyond the heavens.” The three men are being followed by “a cross.”
At this moment, a voice from heaven says: “Have you proclaimed to those who have died?” Jesus doesn’t respond, but the cross does: “Yes.”
This scene, of course, has made the Gospel of Peter and its Cross Gospel source infamous for those familiar with it. A walking, talking cross? Crossan, however, has argued persuasively that when taken in context, it is clear that the “cross” is not the cross that Jesus was crucified on, but rather a “cruciform procession” of the Holy Ones of Israel’s history that Jesus had just freed from hell. This “harrowing of hell” is an idea that has a long tradition in Catholic Christianity. The ancient Israelites, living before the time of Christ, must, by the definitions of Christian doctrine, have been in hell. So Jesus went there during his time in the tomb and freed those “Holy Ones” from their eternal torment. In the Cross Gospel source of the Gospel of Peter, Crossan argues that these freed Holy Ones exit the tomb with Jesus, forming a “cruciform procession” behind him. He uses this to argue that the earliest passion-resurrection accounts of Jesus viewed his death and vindication as a communal event rather than simply a personal event that happened to Jesus. Jesus, together with all of Israel, was vindicated upon his resurrection. Furthermore, the heads of Jesus and his courtiers are already up in the heavens because Jesus has already been exalted to God – he’s already resurrected and ascended, in other words.
After the resurrection scene, the centurion and his soldiers, together with the Jewish authorities, report to Pilate and proclaim that “truly he was God’s son.” The Jewish authorities, however, beg Pilate to cover it up and not allow his soldiers to tell anyone. The authorities fear that the people will “stone them” if they find out that they were led by the authorities to crucify the son of God. Pilate agrees.
ANALYSIS OF THE CROSS GOSPEL
The above story is what Crossan proposes was contained in the Cross Gospel. There are a number of scenes and events in the Gospel of Peter that I did not illustrate above, including a scene where Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus, then buries it, and where Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty. These stories, by Crossan’s account, were drawn by the writer of Peter from the New Testament Gospels, and not from the Cross Gospel source.
As for the Cross Gospel itself, it is made explicit that the Jewish authorities urged the Jewish people to crucify Jesus, and then those people recognized their error and were on the verge of repenting. The Jewish authorities, fearing for their own safety, covered up the resurrection so that the Jewish people wouldn’t find out about it.
What is perhaps most significant, and unique, in that Cross Gospel text is that we have our only Christian story of the actual resurrection itself. In the four canonical Gospels, the resurrection has already occurred when the women find the tomb empty. Jesus then later appears. In the Cross Gospel, however, we have a story of the resurrection itself. Jesus is regally led out of his tomb by two heavenly men, their bodies already being exalted to heaven, followed by a procession of Israel’s Holy Ones who have been freed from the torments of hell. Furthermore, it is not the disciples or any of Jesus’ followers who witness this resurrection, but the Jewish and Roman authorities! The Jewish authorities are depicted as actually knowing from first-hand experience that Jesus rose from the dead, but covering it up to save their own skins.
The theological implications are fairly obvious there, and I alluded to them earlier in the context of Jerusalem in the early 40’s C.E.
Crossan argues that this text was the primitive passion-resurrection account used by Mark when developing his own, much more extensive, narrative. And following Mark were Matthew, Luke, and John. Thus, Crossan argues that familiar New Testament themes such as the purple robe, the crown of thorns, the beating and whipping, the two criminals – one of whom supports Jesus, the gall and vinegar, the decision not to break Jesus’ legs, the earthquakes, the harrowing of hell and the opening of the tombs of the Holy Ones, the sepulcher with a rolling stone door, the belief of the centurion, the “cry of dereliction” by Jesus on the cross, the heavenly messengers at the tomb – Crossan argues that all of this was original to the Cross Gospel, and informed the four canonical Gospels which were written after it.
Crossan, of course, does not argue for a literal interpretation of this Cross Gospel. He argues that it was theologically designed to show that the Romans were innocent of Jesus’ blood, the Jewish authorities were guilty of Jesus’ blood and of keeping the Jewish people from repenting, the resurrection of Jesus was a communal event of vindication for all rather than a personal event that happened to Jesus, and he argues finally that it was drawn not from “history remembered” but from “prophecy historicized.”
On that last point, “history remembered” would be an account drawn primarily from the memories of those who experienced it. Crossan, and of course numerous other scholars, have argued that the various Gospels of Jesus, both canonical and non-canonical, are not “history remembered,” but primarily “prophecy historicized.” That is, they are not based on memory, but are based on what the early Christians believed Jesus’ death meant, based on prophecy and scripture from the Jewish holy texts. Our accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection (including the Gospel of Peter), are unanimous in their assertion that Jesus’ followers abandoned him after his arrest. They weren’t there for the trial, the persecution, the execution, the burial, or even the resurrection. They do not reappear in our various texts until the women report that they found the tomb empty.
Most scholars, therefore, agree that Jesus’ closest companions didn’t really know what happened to Jesus after his arrest. Thus, the stories we get from Christian history are accounts drawn “according to the Scripture” (as stated by Paul), rather than accounts drawn from personal memory. Crossan argues that the same is true of the Cross Gospel, and that it was designed to fit the common Jewish wisdom stories of persecution before and vindication after execution (found in texts such as Isaiah, 2 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon). In effect, Crossan argues that the story is an early written account reflecting the early Christian belief that Jesus had been vindicated after his death and exalted to heaven by God.
As I made clear at the start, the Cross Gospel is a hypothetical text that has long been in wide contention among scholars. Many agree that the Gospel of Peter used non-canonical sources, but not all agree that this source was a single, consecutive narrative predating the Gospels of the New Testament.
The debate is sure to continue, but it is worth noting that when the hypothetical “Q Gospel” was first proposed by scholars in the 19th century, it was met with wide and almost universal rejection. Now, of course, it is accepted widely among scholars, and numerous arguments, conclusions, and historical reconstructions of early Christianity have been based upon it. One has to wonder if the Cross Gospel won’t enjoy the same sort of slow but sure acceptance in decades to come, as more information comes to light.
One thing seems sure: it will either become widely accepted, or it will finally be shown to be misguided. But for the time being – as Crossan has pointed out – no scholar has yet been able to show convincingly why and how it is wrong, or to make a counter-proposal that makes more sense.