Many Christians don't realize that dozens of books left out of the Bible circulated in the centuries after Jesus passed. Some of those texts, known as the Gnostic Gospels, reveal a completely different side of Jesus and the apostles. In one, a young Jesus slew another boy. Others declared that Jesus had a secret brother or that Judas never betrayed Jesus. In the most controversial texts, including the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus didn't perish on the cross.
The story of the crucifixion has been told for nearly 2,000 years, in the Bible and in stories. We expect inaccuracies from films like The Passion of the Christ since they're Hollywood adaptations. But what if the Bible itself got the crucifixion wrong? According to these Gnostic texts, Jesus may have hidden in a tree while he watched someone else expire on the cross. Since the 2nd century, mainstream Christians have claimed these texts represent heresy. Is the Jesus portrayed in the Gnostic texts more accurately than the Jesus of the Bible?
According to the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, just before the binding to the cross, Jesus tells Peter, "Me they cannot touch."
Peter, afraid of the sight of people seizing Jesus, says, "What do I see, O Lord? That it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?"
Christ tells Peter, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me."
The text seems to claim Peter saw Jesus laughing in a tree, which has caused some to argue that someone else took his place on the cross.
According to the substitution hypothesis, Jesus swapped places with someone else before the binding to the cross. Who was actually bound? Various theories name Simon of Cyrene, Judas Iscariot, or Thomas the Apostle, who may have been Jesus's twin brother.
Gnostic texts provide evidence for the theory. The author of the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, claiming to be Jesus, writes:
It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the rulers and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.
The Second Treatise of Great Seth mocks those who believe they can truly terminate Jesus. Similarly, the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter suggests Jesus hid in a tree laughing as the Romans eliminated someone else.
Scholar Marvin Meyer notes that two early Christian writers, Irenaeus and Epiphanius, both claimed that the Gnostic Christians believed Jesus was never bound to the cross. Instead, Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Christ carry the cross, was affixed in Jesus's place. The Second Treatise does not make this claim directly, nor does the Apocalypse. But both imply a critical difference between the spiritual Jesus and his physical body.
Jesus could shed his mortal skin and ascend to a higher level, according to the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter. The text fits with a larger Gnostic tradition that portrayed Christ as an "illuminator from the transcendent world," according to Jan Bremmer and István Czachesz.
According to this philosophy, Christ would not have been able to experience suffering on the cross since his spirit would have transcended his body and was not mentally present on the cross. That may explain Peter's description of seeing one Christ on the cross and another laughing in a tree - Jesus existed in multiple forms and left behind his physical body entirely.