Peter and the Sorcerer – a 4th Century Christian Novel?

At the west door of Peterborough Cathedral, in England, the visitor is greeted by this graphic medieval pillar base. It depicts St Peter conquering the magician, Simon Magus, who had offered Peter money if he would empower him to transmit the Holy Spirit like the apostle did (Acts 8:9-24). From here we get the sin of “simony” (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). The strategic placement of such a sculpture at Peterborough was a statement: as you enter these holy precincts, abandon all thought of selfish human gain.

But why is Simon represented in the sculpture as being cast head first into hell? This does not come from the New Testament account but from the pages of an Early Church work that I am inclined to call “the first Christian novel”.

A definition of a novel today is “a fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters” (Free Dictionary). It may be entirely fictitious or based on a true story. That being so, a question arises: could there be a novel from Early Church times? It sounds fanciful, but there is indeed a curious 4th century Christian text that ticks most of these boxes – at least in a rudimentary form.

Centuries ago, scholars gave it the off-putting name Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. Today, we might call it Peter and the Sorcerer: the Showdown, and people might read it. Because that’s what it is. It takes the characters of Simon Magus, the sorceror in Acts 8:9-24, and the Apostle Peter, and constructs an imaginary disputation between them over several days. That much is standard Early Church fare.

There is another story line, though: how Peter’s disciple Clement is reunited with his scattered family. On the shores of the island of Aradus, Peter encounters a beggar woman, who has lost the use of her hands. After evading his questions at first, a recognition (hence the title) takes place: the woman is Clement’s long-lost mother. They are reunited and Peter heals her of her ailment. The party travels to Laodicea, where two men with new names (given by the church) turn out to be Clement’s brothers, whom he supposed to be dead.

Mediaeval depiction of a debate between theologians

Mediaeval depiction of a disputation between theologians

To this day, scholarly opinion is divided on the Recognitions, but some things are clear. It was penned in Syria around AD 350 and reworks some other known material called the Clementine Homilies, removing bits that had been condemned as heretical. It was written in Greek but we have it only in the Latin translation by Rufinus. However, there is ample evidence that it draws on much earlier material, in all likelihood from the early Jewish Christian camp. Some experts link it to the group known as Ebionites.

You can read the full text of the Recognitions via this link. Don’t expect a gripping read, though: much of the material is theological and the translation is into very stilted English.

 

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

One response to “Peter and the Sorcerer – a 4th Century Christian Novel?”

  1. John Vagabond says :

    I’m reminded of Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ set in the same kind of dialectical school. A novel? I have read that it may well be because of the duological aspects. Fascinating.

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