Peter’s Daughter

28 Dec

To anyone attentive to portrayals of women, the first scene in the Acts of Peter is so offensive, it resists all attempts at sympathy. After Peter publicly heals a group of sick people, one person in the audience asks him why he hasn’t healed his own daughter, who lies in a corner, completely paralyzed on one side. He then proceeds to heal her, just to show God can (much to the rejoicing of the crowd) and then re-paralyzes her. After all, God once told him that she, being so beautiful, “will harm many souls, if her body remains well!”

What follows isn’t much better: a story about a gardener’s only daughter, whom God kills because she’ll run away with an older man if she stays alive. Death is “expedient for her soul.” In spite of this “blessing,” her “distrustful” father wants her alive again, and she’s resurrected. And, in a world where God can’t be wrong, she runs off.

The Acts of Peter should not be creatively interpreted without attending to these extremely violent, sexist scenes; at least, it won’t be by me. Although centuries later and continents away, women’s bodies still function as contested spaces where politics and power play out. In the Acts of Peter, they’re sites for God’s power to manifest, but at women’s expenses just the same. Reduced to a one-dimensional, sexual object, Peter’s daughter is physically punished for her own attractiveness (Why will she harm many souls? Doesn’t that responsibility reside in the people who’d act “sinfully” while attracted to her?), and blamed in the way rape victims are wrongly blamed (e.g., “She was asking for it.”).

In light of the jabs at the gardener (a “distrustful old man” who does not “recognize the worth of the heavenly grace”), the two stories of daughters together show, not how good the gardener is in wanting his daughter to live in spite of her future deeds (okay, one sympathetic reading: a praise of free will regardless of fate), but instead, how wrong the gardener is in comparison with the “wiser” Peter, who chooses abuse over risk.

Part of this project is to offer readings that don’t reduce these texts to mere stories of miracles, “entertainment” lacking intrigue, or manipulative fear-mongering to inspire repentance or conversion. While it’s clear these readings are relevant, there are more possibilities to explore by attending to the striking images that abound in these texts. Regardless of one’s reaction to the Christian theologies presented alongside them, these images, in their peculiarity, in their idiosyncrasy, are worth carrying, sitting with, and contemplating.

But theology is impossible to bracket in these scenes from the Acts of Peter. Is the image of the two lovely daughters–one paralyzed and one murdered, both at the will of God–simply a feminist nightmare?

A similar atrocity occurs in a poem by the 13th-century Sufi, Rumi, called “The King and the Handmaiden and the Doctor.” After the doctor kills the handmaiden, the narrator offers this gloss:

When someone is killed by a doctor like this one, it’s a blessing, even though it might not seem so. Such a doctor is part of a larger generosity. Don’t judge his actions. You are not living so completely within the truth as he is.

Is there room for awe when confronting the treatment of Peter’s and the gardener’s daughters? Maybe there’s a possibility of humility in the face of an immensely mysterious God, whose blessings confound so deeply they seem like curses. Perhaps there’s even a subtler message here that us mere mortals can understand: we break down, we die, and must wrestle with the inevitable suffering of innocence in this world.

But I am not living “so completely within truth.” And what if the doctor isn’t either? What if God isn’t in the Acts of Peter?

Let’s just leave it a nightmare.

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