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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Nicodemus, Gospel of

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(Evangeliunz Nicodemi), sometimes called the ACTS OF PILATE (Acta Pilati), an early forgery which circulated in the 3d and 4th centuries, (See APOCRYPHA), is composed of the two oldest narratives of the Gospel history belonging to the category of the apocrypha, and not tainted with heresy; They are called the "Protevangel of James" and the "Acts of Pilate." The latter consists of two distinct parts: the one treats of the scenes in the praetorium, the other describes the descent of Jesus into hell. These two parts do not bear the same date; the first is earlier than the second, though both belong to a remote Christian antiquity. They were subsequently put together under the name of the "Gospel of Nicodemus." The "Acts of Pilate" come before the "Descensus ad inferos." The two writings are always separated in old MSS. The same facts are differently narrated in them. The words of the thief upon the cross are not the same in both (Tischendorf, Prolegomena, p. 56). The name of Nicodemus, given to the completion of these two writings, dates from the Middle Ages. We have two editions of the "Acts of Pilate." The first is the oldest. Justin Martyr quotes from it directly (Apol. 1:35; 1:48. See also Tertullian, Apol. 21). The "Protevangel of James" narrates the circumstances which preceded the birth of Mary, the mother of Christ. The narrative is a parody on the birth of John the Baptist. Joachim and Anna, two pious Israelites advanced in years, are made, by the special favor of God, fruitful in their hoary age (Protevang. Jacobi, c. 6). This miracle is the foreshadowing of the high destiny awaiting the child, who is none other than Mary. She grows up like a lily beneath the shadow of the altar, in the midst of young companions pure as herself. She is the favorite of the priests, who watch over her education till the day of her marriage. In order to ascertain to whom she is to be entrusted, the high priest assembles a number of pious Israelites. A white dove springs from the rod of the old carpenter Joseph, who is marked out by this miraculous sign as the chaste guardian of the young virgin (ibid. c. 9). The annunciation takes place as in the Gospel. The circumstances of the birth of Christ are borrowed from St. Luke, with this difference, that Mary brings forth the divine child in a cavern and not in a stable. The sole design of the narrative is to give emphasis to the dignity and virginity of Mary. We have in it the first attempt to draw her out of the wise obscurity in which she is enveloped in the canonical Gospels, an attempt characterized by the asceticism which pervades all the sacred legends. The apocryphal gospels of the following age, such as the "Pseudo- Matthew;" the "Coptic Gospel of the carpenter Joseph;" the "Arabic Gospel of the Childhood of Mary," and, lastly, -that of the Nativity, enlarge upon those of the earlier period, and exalt more and more the part assigned to the mother of Jesus. We mention them only to show in what direction the Christian legend was tending from its very first essay in the "Protevangel of James."

The "Acts of Pilate" do not bear the stamp of any particular school. The anonymous writers endeavor to make the Jews, Christ's contemporaries, also his apologists. His trial before the Roman proconsul is expanded by the addition of a multitude of details. The sick whom he has healed appear at the bar of the tribunal, and one after another make their depositions in his favor, relating what he has done for them. His resurrection is afterwards established by the testimony of the soldiers placed as a guard around the sepulcher, and further by the evidence of Joseph of Arimathea, to whom Christ appeared in the prison into which the Jews had thrown him and from which he was delivered by miracle. This outline is filled up in a very ingenious manner. It is just possible that some true incidents of the trial of Jesus may have been preserved by tradition, but it is impossible to distinguish with any certainty the true from the false. Nicodemus plays in all these scenes the part of the impartial judge the character assigned to him in the fourth Gospel. The second part of this curious writing is occupied with the events that took place in the abode of the dead, during Christ's descent into it. This narrative is ascribed to the two sons of the aged Simeon, who came out of their tombs in the train of the risen Redeemer. While hell and its king are confounded and crushed beneath the foot of the Redeemer, the saints of the old covenant hail him with rapture; each one of them, from Adam to John the Baptist, recognizing him as the long-expected object of their hope. The great prophets repeat in his presence their most sublime oracles, in order to show how in him all are fulfilled. All the scenes of the invisible world are described in strains of glowing grandeur, almost Dantesque. The writing closes with a juridical comparison made by Pilate between the sacred writings of the Old Testament and the events which have just taken place at Jerusalem. This is the legal apology; the question of Christianity is debated after the fashion of an ordinary law case. We subjoin a specimen, describing the entrance of the converted thief into Hades:

"5. And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold there came another man in a miserable figure. carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulder.

6. And when all the saints saw him, they said to him, Who art thou? for thy countenance is like a thief's; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?

7. To which he, answering, said, Ye say right, for I was a thief, who committed all sorts of wickedness upon earth.

8. And the Jews crucified him with Jesus: and I observed the surprising things which happened in the creation at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.

9. And I believed him to be the Creator of all things, and the Almighty King; and I prayed to him, saying, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

10. He presently regarded my supplication, and said to me, Verily, I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.

11. And he gave me this sign of the cross, saying, Carry this, and go to paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of paradise will not admit thee, show him the sign of the cross, and say unto him, Jesus Christ, who is' now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee.

12. When I did this, and told the angel who is the guard of paradise all these things, and He heard them, he presently opened the gates, introduced me, and placed me on the right hand in paradise,

13, saying, Stay here a little time, till Adam, the father of all mankind, shall enter in with all his sons, who are the holy and righteous servants of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.

14. When they heard all this account from the thief, all the patriarchs said with one voice, Blessed be thou, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who hast shown such favor to those who were sinners against thee, and hast brought them to the mercy of paradise, and hast placed them amid thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen."

The Anglo-Saxons likewise possessed in their native idiom this pseudo- gospel. Probably it was considered a valuable supplement to the inspired records of the blessed Savior's life. See Soames, Anglo-Sax. Church, p. 252; Pressense, Early Years of Christianity, vol. iii (Heresy and Doctrine), p. 175 sq.; Fabricius, Cod. Apoc. N.T. 1:213; Tischendorf, Evangelia Apocrypha, p. 293. The best edition is by Thilo, Cod. Apocr. 1:478. (See GOSPELS, SPURIOUS).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nicodemus, Gospel of'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/nicodemus-gospel-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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