This week in my graduate seminar we discussed one of my favorite-of-all-time-non-canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Nicodemus. I am devoting an entire chapter to one of its episodes in the book I’m working on now (on “otherworldly journeys” in early Christianity), which describes Jesus’ “descent into Hades” between his death and resurrection, the most famous “Harrowing of Hell” narrative in the early Christian tradition (Jesus descends in order to save people who had died before his crucifixion).
I haven’t said much about the Gospel on the blog before. This is how I discuss and explain it in the book I co-produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels. In later posts, I’ll give some excerpts from the account itself.
Scholars have long debated whether any of the earliest Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death were devoted exclusively to his passion. Source critics in the nineteenth century argued that there were (no longer surviving) written accounts behind the passion narratives of Mark and of John. More recently, some scholars have seen a distinctive passion narrative lying behind the Gospel of Peter (see Crossan, The Cross that Spoke). When we move into later periods of Christianity there can be no doubt about the matter. The Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate, is preserved in multiple versions in the surviving manuscripts. But we have it as a complete text, from beginning to end, and it is a Gospel that deals exclusively with the events surrounding Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection.
One of the complications of this writing is knowing even what to call it. Ancient Christian sources mention an account of Jesus’ passion told from the perspective of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. In our earliest reference (ca 160 CE), Justin Martyr refers to …
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