Was there an early tradition of a speaking cross?

(Updated; see comments below)

In his latest post, Dr. Mark Goodacre throws out a suggestion for resolving the most exceptionally strange aspect of the non-canonical, pseudepigraphical Gospel of Peter. In it, the cross of Jesus is apparently placed in his tomb, and somehow follows Jesus out when he is resurrected; not only that, but when asked, it affirms that it has preached “to those who sleep.” This latter activity is, oddly enough, attributed to Jesus himself in the canonical epistle of 1 Peter (3.18-19). Here is Goodacre’s conjecture:

One of the difficulties with the Gospel of Peter is that the only major textual witness (P.Cair. 10759) is late (eighth century), unreliable and riddled with errors, including many in this passage.  And so I have begun to wonder whether there might have been another error in the scribe’s transcription of his text here.  My suggestion is that we conjecturally emend the text from σταυρον to σταυρωθεντα, from “cross” to “crucified”, so that it is no longer a wooden cross that comes bouncing out of the tomb but rather Jesus, the “crucified one” himself.

This might at first sound like a bit of a stretch.  But what if our scribe’s exemplar here used the nomen sacrum στα?  It is worth bearing in mind that another second century Greek Passion Gospel, the Dura-Europos Gospel Harmony fragment (0212), uses the nomen sacrum στα for σταυρωθένταin a similar context (the burial). Perhaps our scribe’s exemplar had the nomen sacrum στα and the scribe incorrectly assumed that it stood forσταυρόν. It would be an easy mistake to make, and it is quite reasonable to assume that the scribe’s source text might so abbreviate.


The only problem I noticed is the preposterously hard reading that substitution of “cross” for “crucified (one)” gave: here we have a walking, talking cross — would any copyist worth his salt have seen an abbreviation that looks like a nomen sacrum and inferred such a novel idea as that? I suppose if we imagine the choice of stauros to have been wholly unconscious, it makes sense, but that seems unlikely given its multiple appearances in the same passage; one would have thought he’d have caught on to the sense of it by the time he wrote it a second time. Why, if even his subconscious alone were paying attention while he copied, would he make such an unprecedented mistake?

Then something occurred to me. The Dream of the Rood is one of the oldest Old English poems, thought to have been composed in England as early as the seventh century and no later than the early ninth. This imaginative poem’s narrator is the rood or cross of Jesus. Now, while the Gospel of Peter was almost certainly not a direct contributor to this rather orthodox, albeit creative, poem, I find it not at all unlikely that both bespeak an earlier mystical tradition of unknown origin. Essentially the idea of the cross being animate was perhaps not such a novel concept, either for the author of Rood or the copyist of the Gospel of Peter.

Interestingly, Goodacre’s suggested emendation has the potential to reconcile and, indeed, link up that one feature of these two pseudo-Petrine writings, namely Jesus’ preaching in Sheol.

In the comments at Goodacre’s post, Peter Head takes issue with Goodacre’s proposal under the grounds that the personification of the cross appears in other early literature as well. He cites Apoc Peter [Eth] 1; Epist Apost 16; Elijah 3.2; Gos Nic 26; Acts of John 98f; Gos Phil 84.33; Acts Pionius 13.

I have not checked these out, but even if they all do show such a feature, on the whole Goodacre’s reading makes more sense than the attested text, as Head acknowledges. The sources cited are actually an answer to the question posed in the title of this post, and do not themselves topple the suggested emendation in that they actually may help to explain such a scribal mistake.

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