New College, University of Edinburgh

When Scripture Becomes Heretical

“I will give to my called and my elect whomever they ask of me out of punishment, and I will give them a good baptism in the salvation of the so-called Acherusian Lake in the Elysium Field, a part of righteousness with my holy ones” (Apocalypse of Peter, Rainer Fragment).[1]

This scene of the post-mortem salvation of the wicked in hell at the request of the righteous is from the 2nd century text known as the Apocalypse of Peter and was considered Scripture in some early Christian communities. While it ultimately was not included in the New Testament canon, the debate within the early church on the canonical status of the Apocalypse of Peter lasted at least through the 5th century and bears some interesting implications on how the early church read such disputed texts.

We might assume that the Apocalypse of Peter was excluded from the canon because its form of universalism was deemed heretical. In the early fifth century, Augustine criticises a group of “compassionate Christians” in The City of God 21.18, 24 who, according to Richard Bauckham, may have taken their theology from the Apocalypse of Peter.[2] Yet while Augustine seems to consider this group’s theology heretical, the extant literature that discusses whether the Apocalypse of Peter belongs in the canon never mentions any theological objections to the text. This then raises the question: Is the Apocalypse of Peter not in the canon because it is heretical or is it heretical because it is not in the canon?

Some of our earliest evidence for the canonical status of the Apocalypse of Peter comes from Clement of Alexandria, who cites the text as Scripture (graphē) in Excerpts from the Prophets 41 (ca. 200–215 CE). It is also listed as part of the canon in the Muratorian fragment (ca. 180–200 CE), but with an interesting caveat: “We receive only the apocalypses of John and Peter, though some of us are not willing that the latter be read in church.”[3] The text does not state why some do not want the Apocalypse of Peter read in church. It is possible that they considered the text too recent, as this is the reason given for not reading the Shephard of Hermas in church, but such rationale is by no means certain.

Eusebius also includes the Apocalypse of Peter in his discussion on canon in Ecclesiastical History 3.25 (ca. 265–340 CE), but he lists it among the spurious books. While Eusebius’ classification of the text as spurious places it outside of the canon, he concludes his discussion of the spurious books by saying they are all disputed. Bruce Metzger clarifies that this apparent confusion in terminology is due to a desire within Eusebius to separate non-canonical writings that are orthodox from those that are heretical.[4] As such, the Apocalypse of Peter may not be canonical for Eusebius, but neither is it heretical.

Finally, Sozomen records in his Ecclesiastical Histories 7.19 (ca. 439–450 CE) that the text was still read on Good Friday in some churches in Palestine even though it “was considered altogether spurious by the ancients.”[5] Thus, while it retained its popularity in some church lectionaries in the fifth century, the more widely held view, according to Sozomen, was that it was a spurious, non-canonical book.

The only explicit reason given for excluding the Apocalypse of Peter from the canon is that it was not actually written by the apostle Peter. We have no record of any theological objections to the text’s inclusion in the canon in the early church. As such, it would appear the Apocalypse of Peter was considered orthodox until it was no longer canonical for the majority of Christian communities. It was thus only after the majority deemed the text non-canonical that the universalism within it was further classified as heretical.


Written by Eric Beck



[1] Translation is my own.

[2] Richard Bauckham, “Augustine, the ‘Compassionate’ Christians, and the Apocalypse of Peter,” in The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, NovTSup 93 (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 149–159.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009), 307.

[4] Ibid., 204–205.

[5] Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical Histories 7.19 (NPNF2 2:874).




  • CSCO Team,
  • 24th January 2017

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