Gospel of Nicodemus

Gospel of Nicodemus


From “The Apocryphal New Testament”
M.R. James-Translation and Notes – Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924


We have as yet no true critical edition of this book: one is in preparation, by E. von Dobschutz, to be included in the Berlin corpus of Greek Ante-Nicene Christian writers. A short statement of the authorities available at this moment is therefore necessary.

Tischendorf in his Evangelia Apocrypha divides the whole writing into two parts: (1) the story of the Passion; (2) the Descent into hell; and prints the following forms of each: six in all:

1. Part I, Recession A in Greek from eight manuscripts, and a Latin translation of the Coptic version in the notes.

2. Part I, Recession B in Greek from three late manuscripts.

3. Part II (Descent into Hell) in Greek from three manuscripts.

4. Part I in Latin, using twelve manuscripts, and some old editions.

5. Part II in Latin (A) from four manuscripts.

6. Part II in Latin (B) from three manuscripts.

Tischendorf’s must be described as an eclectic text not representing probably, any one single line of transmission: but it presents the book in a readable, and doubtless, on the whole, correct form.

There are, besides the Latin, three ancient versions of Part I of considerable importance, viz.:

Coptic, preserved in an early papyrus at Turin, and in some fragments at Paris. Last edited by Revillout in Patrologia orientalis, ix. 2.

Syriac, edited by Rahmaui in Studia Syriaca, II.

Armenian, edited by F. C. Conybeara in Studia Biblica, IV (Oxford, 1896): he gives a Greek rendering of one manuscript and a Latin one of another.

All of these conform to Tischelldorf’s Recession A of Part I: and this must be regarded as the most original form of the Acta which we have. Recession B is a late and diffuse working-over of the same matter: it will not be translated here in full.

The first part of the book, containing the story of the Passion and Resurrection, is not earlier than the fourth century. Its object in the main is to furnish irrefragable testimony to the resurrection. Attempts have been made to show that it is of early date-that it is, for instance, the writing which Justin Martyr meant when in his Apology he referred his heathen readers to the ‘Acts’ of Christ’s trial preserved among the archives of Rome. The truth of that matter is that he simply assumed that such records must exist. False ‘acts’ of the trial were written in the Pagan interest under Maximin, and introduced into schools early in the fourth century. It is imagined by some that our book was a counterblast to these.

The account of the Descent into Hell (Part II) is an addition to the Acta. It does not appear in any Oriental version, and the Greek copies are rare. It is in Latin that it has chiefly flourished, and has been the parent of versions in every European language.

The central idea, the delivery of the righteous fathers from Hades is exceedingly ancient. Second-century writers are full of it. The embellishments, the dialogues of Satan with Hades, which are so dramatic, come in later, perhaps with the development of pulpit oratory among Christians. We find them in fourth-century homilies attributed to Eusebius of Emesa.

This second part used to be called Gnostic, but there is nothing unorthodox about it save the choice of the names of the two men who are supposed to tell the story, viz. Leucius and Karinus. Leucius Charinus is the name given by church writers to the supposed author of the Apocryphal Acts of John, Paul, Peter, Andrew, and Thomas. In reality Leucius was the soi-disant author of the Acts of John only. His name was transferred to the other Acts in process of time, and also (sometimes disguised as Seleucus) to Gospels of the Infancy and narratives of the Assumption of the Virgin, With all these the original Leucius had nothing to do. When his name came to be attached to the Descent into Hell we do not yet know: nor do we know when the Descent was first appended to the Acts of Pilate. Not, I should conjecture, before the fifth century.