Thursday, May 7, 2015

Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate

While putting together a post on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was really intrigued to find two chapels dedicated to figures in the final events of the life of Jesus that I'd never heard of before, Longinus, the Roman soldier who thrust the spear into the side of Jesus while he was on the cross, and Dismas, one of the thieves that was crucified next to Jesus on the hill of Calvary. Both of these names come from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, a writing I'm not sure I've ever heard of before. But it is appended to the earlier Acts of Pilate, or Acts of Pontius Pilate, that I have heard of before. The fact that these two figures are honored and worshiped in the most famous and revered Christian structure in the world really brought home to me how important many of these apocryphal works were to people in prior centuries and perhaps still are to many people today. I decided to learn more about it.

The text of the Gospel of Nicodemus is found here. It is written by multiple authors, but the final version is dated by scholars to about the middle of the fourth century, just about the time the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. Like most apocrypha, it fills in the gaps and adds additional information to the Biblical texts. It is purported to be a public record of Pontius Pilate from the 19th year of Tiberius, Emperor of Rome, and found by the Emperor Theodosius (who was emperor from 379 to 395) in the hall of Pilate.

Nicodemus is found in the New Testament in the Gospel of John on three occasions. First, he is identified as a Pharisee who came to visit Jesus at night and Jesus talked to him about being "born again." [John 3:1-12] Next, he met with the chief priests and Pharisees and recommended that they investigate before making a judgment about Jesus. [John 7:50-51. And finally, he and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with 75 pounds of spices of myrrh and aloes and strips of linen and laid Jesus in his tomb. [John 19:39-42]
This Pieta, by Michelangelo in Florence, shows Nicodemus helping to remove the body of Jesus from the cross. Photo from Wikipedia. 
This mosaic is found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre behind the Stone of Unction. It shows Jesus being removed from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are frequently shown, in iconography, with a ladder helping in this process. I assume Joseph is in red with the white beard and Nicodemus is in green with the brown beard.  
Same mosaic. Nicodemus and Joseph helping prepare the body for burial.
Same mosaic, Joseph and Nicodemus help carry the body of Jesus to the tomb.
The gospel begins with Annas and Caiaphas and other named Jewish leaders going to Pilate and accusing Jesus of crimes and asking for Pilate to have him executed. Pilate asks for Jesus to be brought before him and as he is, the "tops of the [inanimate] standards did of themselves bow and worship Jesus..." Pilate requests new standard bearers and has Jesus approach again to make sure that this was not the standard bearers bowing and the inanimate standards repeated their bows.

Then a large group of witnesses come before Pilate to attest to the goodness of Jesus. First is Nicodemus, followed by the man cured at the Pool of Siloam; a blind man that received his sight; a leper that was healed; a man that was crooked, then made straight; Veronica who touched the hem of Jesus and was healed of issues of blood; a man who witnessed Jesus rebuke the devil out of a man in the synagogue in Capernaum; a Pharisee who saw infirm people come to Jesus and be healed; a man named Centauro who saw Jesus heal a man of palsy in Capernaum; a nobleman whose son was near death and healed by Jesus in Capernaum; and then many others cried out that Jesus is "truly the Son of God." Others tell Pilate of Lazarus who was in the grave for four days and brought back to life. I find two things very interesting about this segment: First is the lineup of many of the recipients of miraculous healings by Jesus, all there to testify with little notice on his behalf; and second, the woman with the issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus is identified by name as Veronica. This is the first historical mention of her name. As I indicated in my post on the Via Dolorosa, Veronica later got linked to the Sixth Station of the Cross where she wiped the face of Jesus with her handkerchief while Jesus was carrying the cross to Calvary and that handkerchief with the imprint of the face of Jesus is now held at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
This statue of Veronica is in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. She is holding the handkerchief. Photo from Wikipedia.
When Pilate sentenced Jesus to be "hanged upon a cross" he mentioned there would also be "two criminals...whose names are Dimas and Gestas." In the Via Dolorosa post, it was noted that crucifixion victims were stripped naked as part of the humiliation process of the Romans. But here it was stated that Jesus was "stript...of his raiment, and girt...abut with a linen cloth..." In "like manner," so were the "two thieves...Dimas on his right hand and Gestas on his left." As they were crucified, Gestas says to Jesus, "If thou are Christ, deliver thyself and us." Dimas "rebuked" Gestas and told him they deserved their punishment, but Jesus had done no evil, and then tells Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Jesus responded to Dimas, "this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Much later, when Jesus visits the "depth of hell," he finds Adam, the patriarchs and prophets, including Isaiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, Seth, David, Satan and the prince of hell. Jesus "broke down the prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound" and "laid hold on Adam's hand" and "ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him." Jesus, "holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the archangel" and "led them into Paradise." Two "ancient men met them," Enoch and Elijah the Tishbite, both of whom were translated and had "not tasted death." Just at this time "came another man in a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders." The saints asked, "Who art thou? For thy countenance is like a thief's; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?" Dimas responds, "I was a thief...and the Jews crucified me with Jesus..." 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, shew him the sign of the cross, and say unto him; Jesus Christ who is now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee." So now Dimas, or Dismas, or Dysmas, as he is sometimes known, is venerated in some Catholic traditions as a saint, although he has not formally been canonized. And close to home, the town of San Dimas, California is named after him. This is the first clear mention of Jesus actually descending to hell between his death and resurrection. It is also referred to as limbo by the Catholics.
This fresco we saw in Chora Church in Istanbul shows Jesus descending into hell to rescue Adam and Eve as he takes them by their hands. Reading about this fresco, after we saw it, was the first time I heard of this event. 
The soldier who took the spear and pierced the side of Jesus while he was on the cross is identified by name as Longinus. Later, a centurian, after "Jesus...gave up the ghost...glorified God, and said, Of a truth this was a just man." Although there is no connection in this document, Longinus was later linked to be the centurian and legend grew that he was converted to Christianity. There is a statue to St. Longinus in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, done by Bernini, and the spear point from the "Holy Lance" is apparently conserved at St. Peter's.
Statue of Longinus at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
After Jesus was laid in the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea was seized by the Jews and put in a chamber with no window, and a fastened door with a "seal upon the lock." Joseph states, "while I was standing at prayer in the middle of the night, the house was surrounded with four angels; and I saw Jesus as the brightness of the sun...Jesus laying hold on my hand, lifted me from the ground" and "kissed me." Joseph asked Jesus to show him the tomb where he'd laid him. "Jesus, taking me by the hand, led me unto the place where I laid him, and shewed me the linen clothes, and napkin...Then I knew that it was Jesus." Jesus then led Joseph to Joseph's home and told him not to go out until the 40th day had passed.

These were the parts of the gospel I found most interesting. The Gospel of Nicodemus is apparently important because it names some of these "bit players" in the passion, such as Veronica, Longinus, Dismas and Gestas. And I realize more and more that much of the statuary and iconography we see in Catholic and Orthodox churches relate to events set forth in apocrypha. 


  1. I love the idea of all the beneficiaries of Jesus's goodness coming to testify in his behalf. At the very least it is a metaphor for our own judgement someday.

  2. Those testifiers of Christ's doings also appealed to me. There's so much interesting material here, and I like the way you've added pictures from other trips. The Pieta by Michelangelo found in Florence is especially touching.

  3. Nice work on your end! I must say that I grow weary of hearing scholars water down the work of one man by ascribing it to multiple people. Anyhow after reading this work for myself I found it also says that Christ died in the CCIId/202nd Olympiad. This agrees with the words of Eusebius who informs us that Augustus came into power in the 184th Olympiad; and Josephus and Hippolytus inform us that Augustus ruled for 57 Years which would place the birth of Christ in the 42nd Year of Augustus; at 12 Years old Jesus speaks with the elders and teachers in the Temple which is the 54th Year of Augustus; and, at 30 Years old in the 15th Year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus Christ is crucified:

    1 Olympiad =4 Years

    202 Olympiads × 4 Years = 808 Years
    184 Olympiads × 4 Years = 736 Years

    808 Years - 736 Years = 72 Years

    Beginning Augustus Caesar's 1st Year
    42 Years (Jesus is born)
    12 Years (Jesus is in the Temple)
    18 Years (Jesus dies at 30 Years Old)
    72 Years (Augustus to 15th Year of Tiberius