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Peter and Miracles

What seems more probable? That Peter, the chief apostle of Jesus, (1) healed the sick by having his shadow fall upon them or (2) made a dead fish resurrect from the dead? Silly question, I know. But millions of people believe the first miracle and no one believes the second. That may seem quite bizarre. But it makes sense when you come to realize that the first miracle is found within a Christian source that is now part of the orthodox canon. This source is the Acts of the Apostles (5:15). The second miracle is found within a Christian source not part of the canon. This source is the Acts of Peter, which tells us that in order to prove to the people that he was a minister of God, Peter gave a sign by raising a fish from the dead. Apparently the demarcation between probable and improbable miracles lies within the decision as to what books are deemed sacred and which ones are not.

Of course, an apologist is going to respond by saying that the Acts of the Apostles is an earlier source and thus more historically reliable than a later source like the Acts of Peter. This is true. The Acts of the Apostles was written approximately fifty or more years after the events that they narrate whereas the Acts of Peter was written one hundred or more years after the events that they narrate. However, this seems to be a weak argument if one wants to establish that one miracle was an historical event and the other was not. I think most of us would agree that, a priori, the choice between Peter’s shadow healings and a resurrected fish is a toss up. And I don’t think that when we come to find out that one of the miracles is contained within a source  fifty or sixty years closer to the life of Peter than the other source, that we would suddenly feel compelled to believe the one miracle and not the other. After all, do Christians actually believe the one miracle and not the other because of a difference of fifty or so years? I doubt it. (See my post on Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis for a more extensive discussion on why historical arguments cannot establish miracles).

The fact of the matter is, neither source in which these miracles are reported is an historical document. Neither was written for the sole sake of relaying historical events to later readers. The authors of both had their own theological motives and purposes for writing. Both show us what later Christians believed about the acts of Peter (and others). Both show legendary development. That one was written earlier than the other only serves to show that the events relayed in them were traditions held by some earlier Christians as opposed to some later Christians. It certainly does not show that one was historically correct and the other not. Some traditions had developed after fifty years, some more after one hundred years.

To complete the comparison, it should be noted that both sources may contain some historical events and traditions that actually go back to the apostles themselves. With regard to this last point, Christians obviously believe this about the Acts of the Apostles. But they should also believe this about the Acts of Peter, even if less so. Why? Because Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians (perhaps Protestants as well) believe that the death of Peter came by way of an upside-down crucifixion. The father of church history, Eusebius, reports this in the fourth century. But our earliest account of it is contained within the Acts of Peter. Apparently then, the Acts of Peter is not completely historically unreliable. So why the easy dismissal by Christians of its other events and teachings? My guess is that theological considerations and not a desire for historical accuracy reigns supreme here (or just ignorance as to the existence of the New Testament apocrypha).

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