Peter’s Release from Prison
St. Peter’s Release from Prison by an Angel (1616-1618); by Gerard van Honthorst, the Netherlands (1592 – 1656); in the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson July 17–23: Acts 10–15
Acts chapters 10-15 relate the stories of many miracles and visions from the early days of the Church. Many of the events, such as the visions of Cornelius and Peter, could fall under my discussions of visions last week. However, the events of Peter’s release from prison, as outlined in Acts 12:1-19, in which an angel kicked Peter in the side and told him to get up and loosed the chains around his hands (verse 7), then caused the gate to open “of his own accord” (verse 10), cannot be explained by radio or television waves, at least to my present knowledge. Of course I have no explanation of what happened other than to believe the story as presented. However, I will attempt to discuss those events in the light of what I think could have happened.
We are told in Acts 12:7 that, “…the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison…” This is apparently a common occurrence when a heavenly messenger appears, such as the visit of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith History 1:27-43). However, Peter was apparently, and understandably, quite perplexed by the experience. We are told in Acts 12:9, “And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.” Only after they were completely out of the prison, the angel had departed, and Peter was left standing alone in the street, did he, “…come to himself, he said, Now I know of a surety, that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” (Acts 12:11)
According to Acts 12:3-4, those events occurred at Passover. Most English translations of the Bible say that after the Passover (Greek: πάσχα, pascha, Passover), Herod planned to bring Peter before the people. The King James Version is unique in referring to this time as Easter (Acts 12:4). Apparently, by 1611, when the King James Version was published, the 47 scholars who translated the Bible wanted to emphasize the Christianity of this season. It is not clear from the context how many Easters had passed since that first Easter, when Christ was resurrected. However, Herod Antipas died around 39 AD, so the event must have occurred sometime before that date—perhaps as much as five or six years after the first Easter.
Our Bible Dictionary says of angels: “These are messengers of the Lord and are spoken of in the epistle to the Hebrews as ‘ministering spirits’ (Heb. 1:14). We learn from latter-day revelation that there are two classes of heavenly beings who minister for the Lord: those who are spirits and those who have bodies of flesh and bone. Spirits are those beings who either have not yet obtained a body of flesh and bone (unembodied) or who have once had a mortal body and have died and are awaiting the Resurrection (disembodied). Ordinarily the word angel means those ministering persons who have a body of flesh and bone, being either resurrected from the dead (reembodied), or else translated, as were Enoch, Elijah, etc. (D&C 129).” (churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/angels?lang=eng)
Joseph Smith stated in the 129th section of the Doctrine and Covenants (verses 1-9), “There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory. When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you. If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand. If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message. If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him. These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.”
We are told in Acts 12:7 that, “…the angel of the Lord …smote Peter on the side…” The description of angels in Doctrine and Covenants section 129 suggests to me that the angel who visited Peter in prison and “smote” him must have had a body of flesh and bones—therefore was a resurrected being. We are told in Matthew 27:52-53 that after Christ’s resurrection, “…the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Therefore, there were resurrected angels available at the time of Peter’s imprisonment.
We also are told in Acts 12:7 that, “…his chains fell off from his hands.” And in verse 10 that, “…the iron gate that leadeth unto the city…opened to them of his own accord…” Bible Hub (biblehub.com/acts/12-7.htm) states that the word translated as “chains” in the King James Bible is ἁλύσεις (halyseis), means a (light) chain, bond, fetter, or manacle. Those events sound like miracles that fall into the realm of magic. Our Bible Dictionary states, under the heading “Miracles,” “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power. Some lower law was in each case superseded by the action of a higher.”
Given that both miracles and magic can be understood if we know how they were done, what would we have seen had we been there in the prison that night? Did the chains fall off Peter’s hands without any antecedent action—and did the gate open without any other perceived manipulation? Probably not. Did the angel point a finger and zap the chains and lock with a bolt of lightning? Maybe the angel used some sort of laser beam or corrosive acid. A simple pair of modern bolt cutters could easily cut through the relatively soft, iron-age iron chains of the manacles that held Peter and the soft iron padlock locking the prison door. Are angels able to carry around bolt cutters from a future era?
I shared all this speculation with one of my first cousins once removed at our Stephens and Stones family reunion a couple of days ago and she said, maybe the angel just picked the locks. I hadn’t thought of such a simple explanation—sure the old lock mechanisms in first century Rome were very simple—referred to as warded locks (as opposed to tumbler locks), which are locks with obstructions, called wards, that require a key with the right notches or slots to slide past the wards and rotate to open the lock. Warded locks are fairly easy to pick.
The photo below is of one half of a set of Roman manacles from the 2nd or 3rd century. The round “cuff” to the left would fit around the prisoner’s wrist and was secured by two chain links, one looped through the other. A locking device, much like a modern carabiner, would pass through the link of the left cuff and that of the right cuff (not shown) to hold the cuffs closed and together. Some sort of pin apparently would fit through the hole that can be seen at the lower left of the “carabiner” and into the body of the lock (the thick area at the bottom of the photo), locking the manacles into place. A key, perhaps inserted into a hole on the right side of the lock body, could turn and release the pin.
Manacle, Roman, 2nd to 3rd century AD - Landesmuseum Württemberg - Stuttgart, Germany.
I believe the miracle of Peter’s release from prison happened but I have no sure idea how—even with the simple explanation of perhaps the angel picking the locks. However, my mind is such that I continue to ponder and speculate on such questions, even though they are trivial in the grand scheme. The important issue here is that James’ mission on earth was over, and he was allowed to return home (Acts 12:1-2). Peter’s mission, on the other hand, was not over, so his life was miraculously spared.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD