The descent into hell and the preaching to those who sleep

(Evangelium Petri X, 41-42)

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The descent into hell and allusions and references to this episode, in canonical and non-canonical writings, have long challenged scholars. Evangelium Petri concerns a preaching of Jesus, which he gave during the time between His death and His resurrection to those who were sleeping. The aim of my paper is to compare this narration with two references to the descent of Jesus into hell which are to be found in the 1st letter of Peter (the 1st Peter). It follows a re-reading of the rebirth of the dead from the Book of Ezekiel. I believe that these combinations benefit in the understanding of sources, cultural background and meaning of the pseudo-Peter’s writing. Furthermore, these references assist in comprehending the concise formula used in Evangelium Petri.

* * * *

Before getting to the heart of the matter, it is worth noting that Evangelium Petri is an apocryphal gospel, according to several scholars the proto apocryphal narration concerning Jesus’ passion and resurrection [1], dating back to the first half of the second century, depending on the testimony of Serapion (190-211), bishop of Antiochia, quoted by Eusebius of Cesarea [2] (c. 270-c. 339). With regard to the place of origin of Evangelium Petri both the testimony of Serapion and some resemblances between this gospel and chapter 21 of the Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum [3] contribute to envisage Syria as the most probable placement of this work.

* * * *

Chapter X [4] of Evangelium Petri narrates the apparition of the risen Jesus to all the guardians of the sepulchre. It opens with v. 38 which presents a theme, profoundly loved by the author: the presence of reliable and trustworthy witnesses, the two soldiers who were guarding the sepulchre who initially “heard” and then “saw” an event. A loud voice was heard from heaven, the heavens were opened and two young people [5] (angels) went down into the sepulchre, where the stone blocking the entrance had been moved by itself (chapter IX). The soldiers woke the centurion and the elders who also attended this event for as described in v. 39: three men came out from the sepulchre, two of them sustaining the other and a cross following them.

Verse 40 could seem a descriptive verse, but it has a total symbolic character: καὶ τῶν μέν δύο τὴν κεφαλὴν χωροῦσαν μέχρι τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, τοῦ δέ χειραγωγουμένου ὑπ'αὐτῶν ὑπερβαίνουσαν τοὺς οὐρανούς “the head of the early two reached unto heaven, while the head of the person that was led by them surpassed the heavens”.

The value of the height of these characters is ontological, their authority embraces heaven and earth, but all three do not have the same value. This difference is amplified by the correlation μέν...δέ widespread in classical Greek, but not in the κοινή. This is the only time that this correlation is to be found in the text which has survived [6].

In Evangelium Petri, at the conclusion of Chapter X, following the vision of Christ coming out from the sepulchre sustained by two angels and followed by a cross, verses 41-42 illustrate the preaching and leadership of the Κύριος even to the under-world; a voice from the heavens asks if the risen had preached to those who slept and from the cross is heard an affirmative answer:

καὶ φωνῆς ἤκουον ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν λεγούσης· ἐκήρυξας τοῖς κοιμωμένοις; καὶ ὑπακοὴ ἠκούετο ἀπό τοῦ σταυροῦ †ὅτι ναί†. [7] (EvPt X,41-42)
“And they heard a voice out from the heavens saying: ‘Have you preached unto them that sleep?’ And an answer was heard from the cross, saying: ‘Yes’.” (EvPt X,41-42).

The word ὑπακοή indicates the answer to the question asked in v. 41. This word, when found in the New Testament, always [8] defines the obedience due to the evangelical message and so to God. In early Christian literature it is used, especially in the liturgical field, to signify ‘to answer’.[9] In my opinion the writer intends this lexeme to have the same meaning, being conscious of the semantic worthiness of obedience to God that this answer implies.

The answer is pronounced by the cross ‘instrument of the going down to the underworld and, at the same time, of the rise to glory’ [10] and the cross indeed, in my opinion, clarifies the previous choice of the word ὑπακοή. The cross, mainly according to the theology of the cross of St. Paul, is the symbol of the obedience of Jesus to His father γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ [11], therefore the cross is ‘the lowest stage of humiliation, but also the completing of His obedience’ [12]. There must have been a great number of different traditions regarding a theophanic resurrection of Jesus that was flanked to a tradition concerning an empty grave, with many of them quite similar [13], otherwise we would be unable to explain the absence of risen people from sepulchres and their subsequent apparition to all in Evangelium Petri[14]. The Gospel of Matthew , in fact, relates that immediately after Christ died, the earth shook, the veil in the Temple was torn in two, and many people rose from the dead and walked about in Jerusalem testifying. This narration would indeed have been in line with the way of presenting these events by the pseudo-Peter and with the cited of the preaching of Jesus to the dead (EvPt X, 41-42).

Finally, it is interesting to point out how much Jewish and Christian literature of the early three centuries is close to the narration reported in Evangelium Petri, such as the attribution of an outstanding stature to the characters [15], the narration of the preaching to those who sleep [16], or the personification of the cross [17].

In early Christian literature the verb κοιμάομαι, in the present, aorist or passive perfect participle, refers to the dead.

The New Testament also uses κοιμᾶσθαι for to die (Jn. 11,11; Acts 7,60; 13,36; 1 Cor. 7,39). In Greek it indicates the sleep of death from the time of Homer; in the Septuagint κοιμᾶσθαι it is used for the Hebrew šākab meaning ‘to lie down/to lay oneself down’, e.g. Genesis 47,30; 2 Kings 7,12; 3 Kings 2,10 [18]. We do not know if the pseudo-Peter is speaking about all the dead or only about the just. In this case the brachylogical expression and the lack of further internal reference in the incomplete text that we have is unable to resolve the question by infratextual reference.

EvPt X,41-42 brings to mind two interventions made by God in the life of Jesus, as reported in the canonical gospels. The first of these occurred at the moment of His baptism while the second is to found at His transfiguration [19]. The writer inserts an intervention of God during a crucially important moment in the life of Jesus in order to seal the unity between the Father and the Son. He also does this in order to emphasise that the life of the Son is marked by a complete and definitive acceptance of the will of the Father. God, however, in this case does not make a declaration (as is the case in the previously two cited episodes), but rather poses a question. The answer to this question being the cross.

L. Vaganay [20] considers that the Pseudo-Peter inserts this section of the narration in order to dispel any doubts or rightful questions regarding the actions of Jesus and as to where He was during the time between His death and His resurrection. He does this as he wishes to explain every aspect of the most important and mysterious event in the life of Jesus.

Even if our writer surely has this concern, I am of the opinion that these lines are of the utmost importance for analysing the resurrection in Evangelium Petri, as they prove that the author taps into the tradition of the primitive church.

Several ancient Christian writings, both in the New Testament and among the Fathers of the Church, contain references to the descent of Jesus into hell and His preaching to the dead [21], but if we analyse references in the 1st Peter, we can easily understand links between the theological speculation according to St. Peter and Evangelium Petri.

* * * *

The 1st Peter can be deemed a message for the Church, that was  already contrasting some trials bound to increase [22]. I do not intend to discuss the various hypothesis regarding the authenticity of this writing and the resulting different datings, that are placed however around the second half of the 1st century [23], I wish only to remark that this letter is well inserted among the tradition that all the New-Testamentary epistles have in common and from which they draw upon [24].

The 1st Peter is aimed to ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς Πόντου, Γαλατίας, Καππαδοκίας, ̉Ασίας καὶ Βιθυνίας (1 Pt. 1,1) that is, every country in Asia Minor except those who are more directed towards the South: Lycia and Cilycia [25]. It is interesting to note that, as I have already said, Asia Minor is the most likely area in which Evangelium Petri was written and spread.

In lines 3,13-4,6 the author, while dealing with the pain of the world, inserts a Christological piece (such as is previously found in lines 2.21-25) which is at the origin and explanation provider of the paraenesis about the pain [26], comparing the pain of the Christian with that of Jesus himself. Here a theology of the passion and redeeming action of Jesus are bounded to His resurrection as  a condition of salvation. This theology is similar to that developed by St. Paul, particularly in his Epistle to Romans [27].

18) ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς ἅπαξ περὶ τοῦ ἁμαρτιῶν ἀπέθανεν, δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, ἵνα ὑμᾶς προσαγαγάγῃ τῷ θεῷ, θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζωοποιηθεὶς δέ πνεύματι·19) ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε 20) ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ'ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυκαί, διεσώθησαν δι'ὕδατος. 21) ὅ καί ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκός ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι'ἀναστάσεως ̉Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ, 22) ὅς ἐστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ πορευθεὶς εἰς οὐρανόν ὑποταγέντων αὐτῷ ἀγγέλων καὶ ἐξουσιῶν καί δυνάμεων.

18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. [28]

(1 Pt. 3,18-22)

I have, in addition, indicated above lines 21-22 that follow the narration concerning the descent into hell as they can assist our understanding of the chronological succession of the events as reported in the epistle. These can be described as follows: the death of Christ (1 Pt. 3,18: ἀπέθανεν, θανατωθείς σαρκί), the survival of the soul free of material bond (ibidem: ζωοποιηθείς πνεύματι), the descent to the hell (1 Pt. 3,19: πορευθείς), the proclamation to the dead (ibidem: ἐκήρυξεν), the resurrection (1 Pt. 3,21: δι'ἀναστάσεως ̉Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ) and finally the ascension (1 Pt. 3,22: πορευθείς εἰς οὐρανόν).

The two aorist participles θανατωθείς put to death and ζωοποιηθείς made alive are in relation with ἀπέθανεν died: first Christ dies and subsequently comes back to life. This relation of succession, but also of opposition is taken up by the words σαρκί and πνεύματι according to the opposition of the concept of the corruptible mortal body and spiritual being. I do not think, however, that one can simply say that the thought of the author of 1 Petri relates to a vivification of the soul of the Saviour [29]. The word ζωοποιηθείς made alive indicates that the resurrection is a deed of God and this concept is expressed in the biblical sentence by the verb ἠγέρθη instead of ἀνέστη [30]. This formula is accepted as being antique and one which is rarely used.

Following the text, it narrates that Christ went πορευθείς and preached to the spirits who were in prison. The semantic worthiness of κηρύσσειν to proclaim and the topic and the feel of the pericope make me think that the announcement brought by Christ is not that of a praedicatio damnatoria, even if ἐκήρυξεν used in an absolute way, without any indications regarding the object of the announcement has lead to the birth of several speculations and conjectures about it [31].

The original meaning of κηρύσσειν is ‘to cry out in a loud voice’, this was indeed the main activity of the κῆρυξ the herald. However in the New Testament, this verb does not mean simply ‘make a speech aloud and with the right words’, but it indicates the announcement of an event. The same preaching is not a communication of facts, but an event. It is an event because what is proclaimed occurs [32]. In 1 Petri κηρύσσειν is found only in this verse and it is the same verb used by the author of Evangelium Petri.

Regarding the spirits who are in prison, some scholars see them as the fallen angels of Genesis 6,1-6, which are referred to in the Epistle of Jude v. 6 as well, in the 2 Pt. 2,4 and in several passages of the Book of Enoch, especially 106,13-17. Other scholars believe them to be the souls of the men that refused to convert at the time of Noah.

In the New Testament’s lexicon πνεύματα [33] is used for spirits, angels or demons, as well as human souls. According to the first interpretation, ‘the spirits in prison’ are the sons of God of Genesis 6,1-6, that, depending on the myth, united with the daughters of the men and by them beget the giants. These sons of God are angelic creatures that were chained and hedged in nether prison in retribution until the judgement day.

According to the Book of the Watchers [34] (that is a Jewish pseudepigraphon, to be more precise, the second oldest book in the Enochic Corpus, it is commonly considered to be written around 200 B.C.), Enoch himself announced to the fallen angels that they will not be forgiven, this is why some scholars [35], as the papyrologist Rendel Harris, corrected the beginning of the line 19 of the 1st Peter ἐν ᾧ καὶ in order to ̉Ενώχ [36] making it become the subject of the sentence. Although during the first century Jews awaited, without doubt, for the return of Enoch and the judgement day, in my opinion, it is arbitrary to introduce the name of Enoch into a writing about the redemption activity of Christ. According to this interpretation, 1 Pt. 3,19 is talking about angels disobeyed at Noah’s time. In the chapter 6 of Genesis, narration about angels and that about Noah are consecutive, but these stories are not consecutive conventionally, although we cannot know if in the late Judaic tradition and in the 1st Peter these were thought to be contemporary.

According to K.H. Schelkle [37], the reason for the interpretation which says that Christ went to preached to the same spirits to whom Enoch had already preached is that the writer wishes to compare the might of Christ to that of Enoch. The latter could have announced only the never-ending damnation, whereas Jesus preached an announcement of salvation to them.

Considering the possibility that the sinners are men contemporaries to Noah, it is useful to remember that several writings of the low Judaism [38] attest God’s patience with the sinner men at Noah’s time. Furthermore, 2 Pt. 2,5 gives to Noah the name of justice’s preacher supporting the idea that this patriarch did a great preaching to his contemporaneous.

The spirits in question are called ‘in prison’, the word φυλακή indicates the š e’ôl, the Hades, the place in which souls that have been disobedient are kept as in prison, according to Lk. 16,22-23 and Apoc. 20,7 as well. Καί however indicates that the souls who disobeyed at the time of Noah are not the only recipients of the preaching of Christ in the š e’ôl: this καί enlarges the redemptive activity of the Saviour.

Both Christian writers during the early centuries and also modern scholars are not in agreement with the interpretation. The writer is talking about a preaching of salvation bound to all the dead without distinctions or restrictions. Regarding this Clement of Alexandria [39], Origen [40] and in general ‘the School of Alexandria’ are in agreement. Others scholars however, such as Irenaeus [41] and Hyppolitus [42], think that there was an announcement of salvation made only to “the just spirits” and this was an after effect of the sacrifice of the Redeemer. Also Augustine [43] refused to admit a possibility of conversion and salvation for the dead who were sinners during their life. He interpreted these verses referring to a preaching that Jesus made to those who were contemporaneous to Noah, closed in by ignorance and sin as if in a prison. This interpretation will be taken up by St. Thomas [44].

In chapter 4 of the 1st Peter there is a verse that seems to clear 1 Pt. 3, 19: [45]

εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη, ἵνα κριθῶσι μὲν κατὰ ἀνθρώπους σαρκί, ζῶσι δὲ κατὰ θεὸν πνεύματι.

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

(1 Pt. 4,6)

In this verse the dead referred to are, by all means, people without physical life, perhaps the same as 1 Pt. 3,19. Following then the reason for this preaching (to live in regard to the spirit) and the chronological difference between κριθῶσι and ζῶσι says that the first comes before the latter. The last sentence, introduced by ἵνα, applies only to the second verb and there is an antithesis between them, marked by μέν and δέ.

The meaning of verse 6 appears to be that the good news has also been announced to the dead. However, according to some scholars this is only in a figurative sense: the good preaching is announced to people who were spiritually dead because of sin or, according to other scholars, this preaching was to sinners who were still alive (such as blasphemers at 1 Pt. 4,5) and after they are dead. According to another interpretation [46] Christ descended into limbo to the just of the Ancient Alliance, therefore the δικαῖοι are the souls of the good people of the Ancient Testament. It seems clear, however, that the dead and the living people spoken of in these verses are people who truly live and die a natural death and not a death due to sin.

The writer of the 1st Peter speaks about the descent of Jesus into hell and a preaching of salvation to the dead present there. This belief is in other writings of the New Testament, but in different shapes and never in an explicit form. [47]

In addition, regarding the tradition of the Deluge, the 1st Peter (such as Jd. 6 and 2 Pt. 2,3-4) reflects a more ancient state of the Christian appropriation of this tradition, in which the emphasis seems to fall exclusively on the condemnation of the angelic disobedient spirits and the salvation only of Noah and his family. [48]

In my opinion, it is evident that the author of the 1st Peter wants to communicate that Jesus after His death and before His resurrection descended into hell and there He preached the good news: His victory over death and sin. The writer does not want to explain any additional aspects. Neither in this writing nor in Evangelium Petri is there any other aim present if not to indicate the Lordship of Christ over hell, heaven and earth. Evangelium Petri follows the 1st Peter not only in time, but also in the theological speculation by which it is influenced.

* * * *

I believe, however, that in order to deeply understand the position regarding this argument as found in the writings until now presented, it is useful to focus on the narration of ‘the rebirth of the dead’ from the Book of Ezekiel. The text of chapter 37 is read, in the synagogal worship, during the Passover week. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in 1932 wall paintings were found representing this exact narration in the Synagogue of Dura-Europos.[49]

Dura-Europos is a city which stood between Damascus and Bagdad, on the right bank of the Euphrates river. I remind once more that Syria is the native environment of Evangelium Petri. The Dura Synagogue is the first major Jewish artistic monument ever to be found, dating back to the 2nd century A.D.; its paintings are the earliest known significant continuous cycle of biblical images.[50] On the North Wall of the Synagogue are depicted Ezekiel’s Vision and the Resurrection of the Dry Bones. This is proof that this episode was known not only by all the Hebrews, but was also part of the collective figurative culture.

It follows the English translation of chapter 37,1-14 from the Book of Ezekiel.

1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"
I said, "O Sovereign Lord, you alone know."

4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.' "

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' " 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.' "

(Ez 37,1-14)

This narration begins with a scene which appears to seal the victory of death, but in this bleakness emerges the surprising question of God: “Can these bones live?”. The answer of the man is a declaration of faith: a man can only entrust this hope in God. He fulfils it, entrusting to man a decisive role in the realisation of it.

Ezekiel prophesies and from the separated and dried bones, bodies reform themselves. But this is not enough. As can be seen in Genesis, breath is required in order for them to come to life with the result that, in the end, these bodies form a vast army.

This latter moment of the ‘resurrection’ is almost indescribable. How to describe the mystery of life that is for man fleeting, but real like a breath and the Spirit that a man cannot give to himself, but that he can invoke. There is a condition and this is the role that God gives to Ezekiel: the creature has to give her consensus to the deed of the Creator. This is why it is clarified ‘these bones are the whole house of Israel’, because the after-life as well as life on earth are bound to a judgement and to the freedom of man, although they are an exclusive power of God.

The narration of Ezekiel does not want to testify to the faith of the Hebrew concerning the resurrection: beliefs concerning it are much more complex and diverse. This narration is the emblem of the certain faith in Jhwh, Lord of life and death and Lord merciful. The vision about bones is a judgement about the people of Israel, because forgiveness and judgement do not contradict each other.

This vision becomes “an indication of the decisive breakthrough beyond the forces of death by which the mediator of fellowship with God is presented as king of kings and lord of lords not only to Israel but to the whole human race”.[51] Therefore this story can help us to understand the meaning of the descent of Jesus into hell. We cannot say that a text expresses something that is not contained therein. However at the same time, one cannot but look at the history of Israel as indicative and prophetic in relation to Christian history and faith which acquire from it a deeper clarity and profoundness. Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus implied the victory over death and sin, a victory that a part of the Jewish people believed possible, but only to God. This victory, however, and the resultant redemption could not be separated from the judgement and mercy for a man with a Judaic conscience and for  man who was living the Christian experience as well.

The biblical anthropology, in contrast with the dichotomy soul-body, cannot conceive human being without his body; the soul nefesh does not own a self-sufficient existence: it animates the body and enables it to be a living being (such as it is clear in the narration from Ezekiel). The victory over death implicates a revivification of the body.[52]

* * * *

Finally, in the New Testament, the descent of Jesus into hell is a way for explaining His true human death, according to the ancient belief which recounts that the death of a man occurs when his soul descends into hell. But, the effectiveness of the action of Jesus means that His power extends itself everywhere, even to the depths of the underworld.

The descent of Jesus into hell has provoked several vexed questions - whether or not these sentences proclaim the revealing word or if they are mere attempts to answer the unavoidable questions concerning the place in which Jesus was during the time between His death and His resurrection.

Since its founding, the Church has guarded and maintained this event of the descent of Jesus into hell and his preaching to the dead. It is explained in the catechism of the Catholic Church as follows: “«By the expression ‘He descended into hell’, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has he power of death’ (Heb 2,14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him».[53]

The early doctrinal sources concerning the descent of Jesus into hell appeared in the 4th century during the 4th Concilium of Sirmium (359 AD). Afterward, at the 4th Concilium of Toledo [54] (633 AD), it was pronounced that Christ descended into hell in order to set free the just who had lived before him. At the Concilium of Rome (745 AD) it was confirmed that Jesus set only the just free and not those who had been previously damned.

Evangelium Petri demonstrates a knowledge of the ancient Christian tradition, but, as I have said, it does not specify who are the κοιμωμένοι, to whom the preaching of Christ is addressed. The author of Evangelium Petri usually wanted to narrate and explain zealously the ‘indemonstrable’ facts of the life of Jesus. The fact that, although briefly, he does not pass over this episode, is probably because this event was widely known and shared by the faithful and thus does not need further explanations. In Evangelium Petri such as in the 1st Peter (at least for 1 Pt. 3,19) it is not specified if the object of the preaching is ‘salvation’ or ‘damnation’, but only the power of Jesus over the angelic spirits.

Furthermore, as communities addressees of the letter were adequately taught orally, thus the early Christians did not notice a contradiction about these verses and the declaration of Jesus about the fate of the sinners.

The analysis of the above-mentioned verses of the 1st Peter and the narration of Ezekiel confirm my conviction that the author of Evangelium Petri was well acquainted with Christian theological speculation, mainly that belonging to Peter (that he knew certainly better than historical events about the life of Jesus) and the Pseudo-Peter breathed all the religious, social and political awaitings which characterise the Jews. The author of this apocryphal gospel demonstrates a deep understanding of Jewish and Christian literature, the theological speculation of his time along with the different social, cultural and religious realities of the early Christian communities.

Notwithstanding this, he was in the position of picking up amid the oral and written traditions of the I/II century what he thought fundamental for him and his community’s concerns.

The descent of Jesus into hell is really important for Christians because it is the beginning of the victory over death that will mean the possibility of resurrection. But these texts are not different from the knowledge we have that “early Christians writers were less clear about the condition and place of the dead in the interim between the death of individuals and the final {{…}} resurrection of all humanity”.[55] Early Christians had not the cult of the empty grave of Jesus, they had the cult of the certain faith in his resurrection that was the main topic of their predication.


Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt
Corpus Apologetarum Christianorum Saeculi Secundi
Corporis Haereseologici
Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum
Fontes Christiani
Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller
Journal of Biblical Literature
The Loeb Classical Library
Nouvelle Revue Théologique
Revue des études grecques
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

1 Cor.
1 Kin.
2 Kin.
1 Pt.
2 Pt.
Acts of the Apostles
1 Corinthians
Evangelium Petri
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Peter
2 Peter
  1. Cfr. M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, p. 90, quoted by L. Moraldi, Apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento, Torino 1994 (Classici delle religioni, 50), p. 506.

  2. E. Schwartz – Th. Mommsen (hrsg.), Eusebio, Historia Ecclesiastica VI,12, GCS 6,2 (Neue Folge), pp. 544.546.

  3. Exempli gratia: the sentence of Jesus given by Herod (EvPt 1,2; 2,5); the resurrection happened during the night (EvPt 9,35); the mention of Levi (EvPt 14,60).

  4. Following the first division of the text into 14 chapters, proposed by Robinson (A. Robinson – M.R. James, The Gospel according to Peter and the Revelation of Peter, London 1892[2], p. 40) and into 60 verses by Harnack (A. von Harnack, Bruchstücke des Evangeliums und der Apokalypse des Petrus, in Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur IX, Leipzig 1893).

  5. οἱ νεανίσκοι v. 37.

  6. L. Vaganay, L’Évangile de Pierre, Paris 1930 (Études Bibliques, XXIII), p. 299.

  7. r. 12 †ὅτι ναί†, Ms: τιναι, Bruston: γύμναι, von Gebhardt, Swete: τὸ ναί.
    The text of the manuscript is indistinct. It appears that a correction has been made to it.
    The version ὅτι <<ναί>>, as chosen by Kraus and Nicklas (TH. J. KRAUS - T. NICKLAS, Das Petrusevangelium und die Petrusapokalypse. Die griechischen Fragmente mit deutscher und englischer Übersetzung, Berlin - New York 2004 (GCS, Neue Folge, 11: Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, I), p. 70), and also by Mara [M.G. MARA, Il Vangelo di Pietro, Bologna 2003 (Scritti delle origini cristiane, 30)], Blass and Klostermann [E. KLOSTERMANN, Apocrypha N.T. I, Lietzmann 1933 (Kleine Texte, 3)], is better, in my opinion, as it takes into account the context in which is inserted: it is an explicit answer to a direct question.
    The failure of omission, moreover, could be justified because ου (σταυροῦ) and ο (ὅτι) were homophones. The copyist while transcribing the text could have committed haplography i.e. omitting one of  two similar adjoining sounds.

  8. Except for  Epistle to Philemon, 21.

  9. VAGANAY, L’Évangile..., p. 303; G. KITTEL, s.v. ὑπακοή, in TDNT, vol. I, pp. 224-225.

  10. “Strumento dell’affondamento agli inferi e, al tempo stesso, dell’innalzamento alla gloria” MARA, Il Vangelo..., p. 102.

  11. The Epistle to the Philippians 2,8 “He obeyed God, even died on a cross”.

  12. J. SCHNEIDER, s.v. σταυρός, in TDNT, vol. VII, p. 575.

  13. Cfr. MARA, Il Vangelo di Pietro, p. 99.

  14. Mt. 27,51-54.

  15. M. WHITTAKER (hrsg.), HERMAS, The Shepherd, Similitudo IX, 6,1, GCS 48,1, pp. 80-81; F. OEHLER (ed.), EPIPHANIUS 1,1, Panarion, 30,3, CH 2,1, pp. 244-247.

  16. IO.CAR.TH. OTTO (ed.), JUSTIN, Dialogue, 72,4, CAC 2, 1,2, Iena 18773, p. 258; M. WHITTAKER (hrsg.), HERMAS, The Shepherd, Similitudo IX, 16,5, GCS 48,1, p. 90; N. BROX (hrsg.), IRENAEUS, Adversus Haereses 3,20,4, FC 8/4, pp. 186-189; 4,22,1-2, FC 8/4, pp. 186-189; 4,33,12, FC 8/4, pp. 270-173; A. REIFFERSCHEID – G. WISSOWA (ex rec.), TERTULLIAN, De Anima, 55, CSEL 20,1, pp. 387-389; 1Pt 3,19; 4,6.

  17. IO.CAR.TH. OTTO (ed.), JUSTIN, Apologia I, 55,60, CAC 1, 1,1, Iena 18763, pp. 150-163; Dialogue, 90-91, CAC 2, 1,2, Iena 18773, pp. 328-335;  N. BROX (hrsg.), IRENAEUS, Adversus Heareses 2,24,4, FC 8/2, pp. 202-205; 5,17,3, FC 8/5, pp. 142-143; Apocalypse of Peter in KLOSTERMANN, Apocrypha N.T., A. Markus – E. Weber, Bonn 1908-1929 (Kleine Texte für Vorlesungen und Übungen 3), I, p. 8.

  18. Cf. R. BULTMANN, s.v. θάνατος, in TDNT, vol. III, p. 14, footnote 60.

  19. Cf. Matthew 3,17; 17,5.

  20. VAGANAY, L’Évangile..., p. 301.

  21. In the New Testament: Mt. 27,52; Eph. 4,9; 1 Pt. 3,19; 4,6; among the Fathers of the Church: B.D. EHRMAN (ed.), IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH, Letter to Magnesians, 9, in The Apostolic Fathers 1, LCL 24, pp. 248-251; M. WHITTAKER (hrsg.), HERMAS, The Shepherd, Similitudo IX, 16,5, GCS 48,1, p. 90; IO.CAR.TH. OTTO (ed.), JUSTIN, Dialogue, 72,4, CAC 2, 1,2, Iena 18773, p. 258; N. BROX (hrsg.), IRENAEUS, Adversus Haeraeses 3,20,4, FC 8/4, pp. 186-189; 4,22,1-2, FC 8/4, pp. 186-189; 4,2,2; 4,33,1.12, FC 8/4, pp. 255-255; 270-173; 5,31,1, FC 8/5, pp. 232-235; O. STAHLIN (hrsg.), CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Stromata 2,9,43-44, GCS 15,2, pp. 135-136; 6,6,45-46, GCS 15,2, pp. 454-455; Adumbrationes in I Petri 3,19 e 4,6, GCS 17,3, p. 205; Adumbrationes in I Jn 2,2, GCS 17,3, p. 211; A. REIFFERSCHEID – G. WISSOWA (ex rec.), TERTULLIAN, De Anima, 55, CSEL 20,1, pp. 387-389; P. KOETSCHAU (hrsg.), ORIGEN, Contra Celsum 2,43, GCS 2, p. 166.

  22. K.H. SCHELKLE, Die Petrusbriefe. Der Judasbrief, (Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament XIII,2), Freiburg 1964, p. 3.

  23. For a report about studies and bibliographies concerning the 1 Petri refering to J.H. ELLIOT, The Rehabilitation of an Exegetical Step-Child: I Peter in Recent Research, «JBL», 95(1976), pp. 243-254. This article, while being from 1976, offers a clear and all-round panoramic of different opinions. Among the most complete studies and commentaries cf. J.H. ELLIOT, 1 Peter, (The Anchor Bible 37 B) New York 1964, 200010.

  24. Cf. E.G. SELWYN, The First Epistle of St. Peter, London 19552, pp. 17-24; 365-466; in these pages the author explains a  vast array of  the words and motifs recurring in the New Testament.

  25. Presently scholars are almost in agreement with the thinking that in this verse the author is talking about provinces and not about regions of the Asia Minor. Although if we consider them regions, their territory is smaller and so more corresponding to our knowledge concerning the mission in Asia Minor in 60 AD. But we know that, according to St. Paul as well (Romans 15, 19.23), a country is Christian when communities had been founded in its great cities.

  26. H. BALZ – W. SCHRAGE, Die «Katholischen» Briefe, Göttingen 1973, p. 187.

  27. SCHELKLE, Die Petrusbriefe…, pp. 5-6.

  28. The english translation of 1 Pt. 3,18-22; 1 Pt. 4,6; Ez. 37,1-14 are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version, New York 1978.

  29. Cf. s.v. ‘Pierre (saint) 1re Épitre, doctrine’ in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, XII, 2, coll. 1767.

  30. Cf. SCHELKLE, Die Petrusbriefe…, p. 104; A. OEPKE, s.v. ἐγείρω, in TDNT, vol. III, col. 24.

  31. For a report cfr. J.H. ELLIOT, 1 Peter, pp. 659-662; 730-734.

  32. Cf. G. FRIEDRICH, s.v. κηρύσσω, in TDNT, vol. III, pp. 697.703.

  33. Cf. E. SJÖBERG, s.v. πνεῦμα, πνευματικός, in TDNT, vol. VI, pp. 396-450.

  34. The Book of the Watchers, 16.

  35. In 1763 J. Bowyer was the first who thought ΕΝΩΚΑΙ to be instead of the original ΕΝΩCHΚΑΙ. He wrote it in his edition of the Greek New Testament. At the beginning of 1900 J. Rendel Harris [A further note on the use of Enoch in 1 Peter, «Expositor» 6/4 (1901), pp. 346-349; On a recent emendation in the text of St. Peter, «Expositor» 6/5 (1902), pp. 317-320; The history of a consectural emendation, «Expositor» 6/6 (1902), pp. 378-390] hypothesized a text with the letters ΕΝΩΚΑΙΕΝΩCH, where Enoch was omitted by a copyist who had committed haplography. Many scholars shared this hypothesis, among these: K. GSCHWIND, Die Niederfahrt Christi in die Unterwelt, Münster 1911.

  36. I refrain from giving my opinion about the plausibility of this choice from a philological and papyrological point of view, as I am unable to confer directly the manuscripts of the 1st Peter.

  37. SCHELKLE, Die Petrusbriefe…, pp. 106-107.

  38. H.ST.J. THACKERAY (ed.), FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Antiquitates Iudaicae, I,3,1, LCL IV, pp. 32-35; J. GEFFCKEN (hrsg.), Oracula sibyllina 1,129,150-198, GCS 8, pp. 12-15; Midrasch Bereschith Rabba 30, HÛse’t Jabneh, Tel-‘AbÐb 1971, pp. 9-16 .

  39. O. STAHLIN (hrsg.), CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Adumbrationes in 1Petri 3,19-20, GCS 17,3, p. 205; Stromata 6,6,44-46, GCS 15,2, pp. 454-455.

  40. E. PREUSCHEN (hrsg.), ORIGEN, Commentario a Giovanni, framm. 79, GCS 10,4, pp. 545-547.

  41. N. BROX (hrsg.), IRENAEUS, Adversus Haereses, 4,22,1-2; 4,33,1.12, FC 8/4, pp. 186-189; 255-255; 270-173; 3,20,4, FC 8/3, pp. 250-253; 5,31,1, FC 8/5, pp. 232-235.

  42. H. ACHELIS (hrsg.), HYPPOLITUS, De Christo et antichristo, 26, GCS 1,2, pp. 18-19.

  43. AL. GOLDBACHER (ex rec.), AUGUSTINE, Epistula 164 ad Evodium, CSEL 44, pp. 521-541.

  44. R.P.J. NICOLA (ed.), THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologica 3, q. 52  ad 2 in S.Thomae Aquinatis opera omnia tomus IV, Parma 1854, pp. 229-230.

  45. Among the scholars who do not think that there is a direct connection between 1 Pt. 3,19 and 1 Pt. 4,6 there is: J.W. Dalton, The interpretation of 1 Peter 3,19 and 4,6: light from 2 Peter, «Biblica» 60 (1979), pp. 547-555 and J.H. Elliot, 1 Peter, p. 660.

  46. Cf. J. Galot, La descente du Christ aux enfers, «NRTh», 83 (1961), pp. 471-491.

  47. Cf. Acts 2,24-31; Rom. 10,6-7; Col. 1,18; Apoc. 1,17-18.

  48. Cf. also J.H. Elliot, 1 Peter, pp. 661-662.

  49. Cf. W. Dorigo, Pittura tardoromana, Milano 1996, pp. 90-94. C.H. Kraeling, The Synagogue, New Haven 1956 (The excavations at Dura-Europos. Final report VIII/I), pp. 385-398, tables LXIX-LXXII.

  50. J. Gutmann, Early Synagogue and Jewish Catacomb Art and its Relations to Christian Art, «ANRW» II, 21, ii, 1984, p. 1314.

  51. W. Eichrodt, Ezekiel. A Commentary, London 1970 (Der Prophet Hesekiel, Das Alte Testament Deutsch 22/1-2, Göttingen 19843), p. 511.

  52. M. Gilbert, s.v. resurrezione dei morti, in Dizionario critico di Teologia, p. 1132.

  53. Catechism of the Catholic Church, London 1999,  nn. 636-637.

  54. Concilio di Toledo IV, capitulum 1: DS 485.

  55. B.E. Daley, Death, the Afterlife, and other last things, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England 2004,  p. 493.