Gospel of Nicodemus
The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate) is an apocryphal Gospel which contains a supposedly official report of the procurator concerning Jesus. Both Justin Martyr (ca. 150) and Tertullian refer to a report supposedly made by Pilate to Emperor Tiberius. In these references and in the Gospel of Nicodemus is seen the tendency to use Pilate as a witness to the history of the death and resurrection of Christ. This Gospel in the first 16 chapters contains an elaborate account of the trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Part II, which has 13 chapters of varying length, is an elaboration of the sentence, "He descended into hell," from the Apostles' Creed. This book cannot be older than the fourth century, although the central idea, the delivery of the righteous Fathers (Patriarchs) from Hades, is exceedingly ancient and was common in the second century (James, 95). Quasten states, "During the Middle Ages, the influence of the Acts (of Pilate) in the field of literature and art was tremendous" (118).
During Reformation times a German translation was published by Philip Ulhart in Augsburg in 1525. Schottenloher conjectures that Viet Bild translated it, and that he also was the author of a book which appeared in the same year which set out to prove the descent of Christ into hell and to convince those who were in doubt about this article in the creed (Philip Ulhart, 120).
The descensus ad inferos idea occurs in Pilgram Marpeck's Verantwortung (317), and has a crucial significance for him, for it is through Christ's death, resurrection and ascension that the believers of the Old Covenant were forgiven and put on a par with those of the New. In this way Marpeck was able to vouchsafe salvation to the patriarchs and yet retain a basic distinction between the Old and New Covenants. The descent into Hades was an issue between Marpeck and Schwenckfeld, as well as between the former and Bucer. For Schwenckfeld the descent must be interpreted spiritually, which meant it should be removed from the realm of history (Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum V, 421). Marpeck's view of the descent into hell is biblically derived and maintains the same simplicity and lack of detail found in the New Testament. He insists on it for theological reasons, and the closest affinities to the Gospel of Nicodemus occur in his confession (Mennonite Quarterly Review 12, 1938, 176, 180), and it is at this point that Bucer strongly criticizes Marpeck's interpretation of Ephesians 4:8 and 1 Peter 3:19 (compare the report of this in the Strassburger Täuferakten (unpublished) under Nos. 55, 56, and 75 of the report on Marpeck's views by Bucer). If he had read the Gospel of Nicodemus he does not quote it as Scripture, not even in the same way as he uses the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.
In more recent times the book has found some popularity among Mennonites. The two Ephrata editions of 1748 and 1764 were read and one 19th century edition of Philadelphia was used among the Mennonites. According to Friedmann, a Canadian Mennonite proposed its translation into English in 1941 in order that it might be accessible to a generation not able to read German. The preface to that work begins: "Everybody who has read this book must admit that it is very close to the truth, and it rightly can be said that Nicodemus is its author since it is drawn up with such beautiful and true details" (Friedmann, 222). As in the second century, so among the Mennonites this type of literature was used as Sunday afternoon reading and was a major source of entertainment.
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite piety through the centuries: its genius and its literature. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949.
James, M. R. The apocryphal New Testament being the apocryphal gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses, with other narratives and fragments. Oxford, 1954.
Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. Westminster, Maryland, 1950-1960: I, 115-118.
Schottenloher, Karl. Philipp Ulhart: ein Augsburger Winkeldrucker und Helfershelfer der "Schwärmer" und "Wiedertäufer" (1523-1529). München: F.P. Datterer & Cie. (Sellier), 1921.
Schwenckfeld, Caspar. Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Haertel, 1907-1961: V, 421.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 871-872. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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