If you asked someone to think of St. Peter they’d probably tell you that he was an apostle, a close confidant of Jesus, the first pope, and a martyr. They might mention the idea that when you die, he’s the person who opens up the pearly gates of heaven to you and decides whether or not you can come in. Not many people could tell you that Peter was married and even fewer that he had a child. Hardly anyone could tell you about the ancient Christian tradition that Peter had a daughter that he deliberately paralyzed.
The idea that Peter was married is in the New Testament itself. According to Mark, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum. We don’t hear anything about Peter having children in the New Testament but there’s no reason to think that he didn’t.
We don’t know much about Peter’s activities after the death of Jesus from the New Testament, but a second century apocryphal text called the Acts of Peter attempts to fill in the gaps. As Tony Burke, professor of early Christianity at York University and co-editor of New Testament Apocrypha, told the Daily Beast the composition of this story was part of a trend “around the end of the second century, imaginative writers created these texts to fill a need to learn more about these iconic figures. They probably drew on some older traditions, but the finished texts promote a rigid ascetic lifestyle popular among early Christian groups.”
The Acts of Peter, like so many of these apocryphal texts about the apostles, is a riveting read that contains Harry Potter-style battle between Peter and a flying magician called Simon. One of the strangest parts of the tale, however, is when Peter heals and then paralyzes his own daughter.
The story begins with Peter healing people brought to him by the crowd. One of the bystanders asks Peter why—given that he has dedicated so much time to curing the sick— he has not helped his “virgin daughter, who has grown up beautiful and believed in the name of God” and “is quite paralyzed on one side, and lies there stretched out in the corner helpless.”
Peter smiles and responds that it is clear to God why her body is unwell, but that in order to demonstrate God’s power he would heal her. To the amazement of the crowd he instructs his daughter to get up and walk around, which she does, before instructing her to “Return to your place, sit down there and be helpless again, for it is expedient for me and you.”
We are given a little more information about the girl (whom later tradition calls Petronilla) and her history. Peter says that when the girl was born he received a vision in which he was told that she would be a source of distress for him. Furthermore, if her body was healthy, he is told she would “harm many souls.” The manuscript in which the story is preserved is damaged but when it picks up again in the story we learn more about the girl’s history and the origins of her condition.
Both the crowd and Peter tell us that Petronilla is very beautiful. When she was younger, at the age of 10, a wealthy man named Ptolemy saw her bathing. He had her abducted and intended to forcibly marry her. Ptolemy’s servants brought her to his house and left her on the doorstep but when Ptolemy discovered her, she was lying there, paralyzed on one side. Ever since that day, the girl had been paralyzed.
As for Ptolemy, he cried until he turned himself blind and decided to hang himself. He was interrupted by a bright light that reprimanded him for his attempted mistreatment of a virgin and instructed him to go to Peter. Apparently, Peter healed his eyes and soul and we might assume he went on to lead a good Christian life. When he died, Ptolemy left the girl a portion of land in this will. Peter then sold the land and gave the money to the poor.
To the modern reader there’s a lot to be angry about here. Why is the way to solve the problem of male sexual predators to literally restrict a woman’s mobility in the world? Doesn’t the statement that the girl would “harm many souls” imply that a woman, a child no less, is somehow responsible for the lust of men? Seriously, how is she harming anyone by existing? Moreover, how is it that paralyzed women are no longer sexual targets? Is this just a kind of fiercely naive ableism that focuses on the perceived undesirability of disabled people rather than the fact that people with mobility impairments are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault? She is actually described as “helpless” and “beautiful” at the beginning of the text. Doesn’t Ptolemy seem to get off a little too easily? Finally, does the girl have any say in how the compensation she receives is used? Maybe she wanted to give the money to the poor, but we don’t know because she never speaks.
There are all kinds of ancient conventions that can normalize many of these questions: very young girls were regularly married in the ancient world and thus the age of the girl is less extraordinary to ancient readers than to us. Girls and women were, generally, considered the property of their fathers and husbands and thus Peter’s redistribution of her property was entirely normal. And, of course, women have been held responsible for the sexual misconduct of men for thousands of years.
But the paralysis is still incredibly strange. Dr. Meghan Henning, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton and author of the Journal of Late Antiquity article “Paralysis and Sexuality in Medical Literature and the Acts of Peter,” explained to the Daily Beast that “Many readers of this story assumed for years that the reason that paralysis was ‘expedient’ for Petronilla is because it made it impossible for her to have sex. But this is not necessarily a symptom of paralysis, even if it was thought to be one in the ancient world. Instead, one of the ableist assumptions about persons with disabilities—that they can't have sex—has dominated the way we read the story.”
It's more complicated than that, she explained. In antiquity paralysis was supposed to render a woman sexually undesirable because she would now be considered infertile: “[paralysis was] thought to be connected with improper blood flow, and uterine imbalances, which in turn could make a woman unable to conceive a child.” Generally, for ancient Romans, a woman’s economic worth was connected to her virginity and her ability to produce legitimate heirs. These two things were connected: legitimacy could only truly be assumed if a woman was a virgin when you married her. Thus, Henning told me, “A woman who was paralyzed and could have sex but not children may be less valuable from the Roman perspective of making heirs for the empire, but from the early Christian perspective that we find in the Acts of Peter, such a woman is more valuable because her chastity is protected from unwanted suitors.”
The purpose of the story then is to encourage young women not to have sex. There’s even another episode involving a young virgin in the Acts of Peter that confirms this. A gardener asks Peter to pray for the best for his daughter after which the girl drops dead. Understandably “distrustful” of the outcome of the prayer he asks for the girl to be brought back to life. Peter raises her from the dead and several days later she elopes with a “fake Christian.” The moral of the story: it is better to be a dead virgin than sexually active and alive.
The Acts of Peter is not in the Bible so, in many ways, devout Christians need not worry at all. Burke told me that “over time the church moved away from the asceticism championed in the acts” and preserved only the parts they found valuable. It might, additionally, come as some consolation that the story almost certainly has no basis in fact. Henning said “the whole awful story was likely made up as a way to protect Peter’s reputation.” Originally there was a brief nugget of a story about Peter not healing his daughter and saying that it was “expedient” for him. But that original story wasn’t about sexual violence or chastity; it developed in order to explain why Peter would say something like this and fail to heal his child. “Worst PR job ever,” added Henning.
This isn’t to say that the story doesn’t have modern relevance. At the conclusion of the episode the wealthy Ptolemy is forced to pay his former victim compensation. Even in the ancient world church leaders like St. Peter, the first pope, recognized the importance of financial compensation for victims even when the perpetrators are dead. Something to think about in an age in which the sexual abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful dominates our headlines.
Although modern guidebooks to the site have cleaned up her memory—erasing her paralysis and the story of near-sexual assault—those who want to pay homage to Petronilla might be interested to know that she hasn’t slipped out of Christian tradition altogether. Her relics are contained in an altar dedicated to her in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Once a year, on May 31, a mass is said in her honor.