I recently read the “Gospel of Nicodemus” in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. The English translation there is what I will quote in this post.
The “Gospel of Nicodemus” is also known as the “Acts of Pontius Pilate.” Scholars have differed about its date, and proposed dates have ranged from the third to the sixth centuries C.E. (see here, here, here, here, and here). Clayton N. Jefford in his article about the “Acts of Pilate” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary states that many medieval manuscripts have added a section to the “Acts of Pilate” about Christ’s descent into hell. According to Jefford, these two writings combined “circulated…under the title of the ‘Gospel of Nicodemus.'”
The “Gospel of Nicodemus” covers the time from Christ’s trial to events after Christ’s resurrection. In this Gospel, the Jewish authorities accuse Jesus before the Roman authority Pontius Pilate of violating the Sabbath. Jewish defenders of Jesus bring in people Jesus healed to testify before Pilate, but Jesus’ Jewish opponents have their excuses to explain those healings away: that Jesus heals people with sorcery or demonic power. Jesus is crucified.
The hostile Jewish authorities imprison Joseph of Arimathea after Joseph arranges to bury Jesus, but an angel delivers Joseph from their custody. After that happens, the Jewish authorities begin to soften somewhat in their stance towards Jesus. Why did this miracle, of all miracles, open them up to the possibility that Jesus may have been from God? My guess is that they were surprised and impressed that Joseph could escape from their secure custody! They could not explain that away, since they were unwilling to admit flaws in their security system!
A priest and a Levite see the resurrected Jesus talking with his disciples and tell the other Jewish authorities about this. Two sons of Simeon (the Simeon in Luke 2 who prophesied about Jesus when Jesus was a baby) were raised from the dead for a brief period of time (a la Matthew 27:52), and they testify that they saw Jesus come into hell and empty it of the souls imprisoned there. The Jewish authorities search the Scriptures and conclude that Jesus is the Messiah, and they become Christians.
Here are some thoughts. In a few cases, I have more questions than answers.
A. Scholars and historians have long discussed the history of anti-Judaism within Christianity, as Christians called Jews Christ-killers. This contributed to the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages, and it may have set the stage for the Holocaust in the twentieth century. Such issues were discussed in 2004, with the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ.
In light of that, it was noteworthy to me how pro-Jewish the “Gospel of Nicodemus” is. In the “Gospel of Nicodemus,” there are Jewish defenders of Jesus. And the hostile Jewish authorities ultimately become believers in Jesus.
The “Gospel of Nicodemus” may have been drawing from themes in the New Testament. Acts 6:7, for example, states that there were many priests who became obedient to the faith. In addition, the “Gospel of Nicodemus” may, in its own way, have fit within an environment of Christian anti-Judaism, since many Christian persecutors of the Jews tried to pressure Jews to convert to Christianity.
B. Jesus’ emptying of hell puzzled me for two reasons.
First of all, Beelzebub and Satan are different characters altogether in the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Beelzebub is the ruler of the underworld, whereas Satan was on earth plotting to get Jesus killed. Beelzebub is upset with Satan because Satan’s plots got Jesus sent to the underworld, which Jesus is now in the process of emptying! This puzzles me because passages such as Mark 12:23, Matthew 12:26, and Luke 11:18 appear to equate Satan with Beelzebub. The “Gospel of Nicodemus” may be sensitive to certain tensions or complexities within the New Testament, however: that not all hostile spiritual powers are in the underworld (see, for example, Ephesians 6:12, which refers to spiritual wickedness on high); and that Satan in the Gospels orchestrates Jesus’ death (Luke 22:3), yet tries to discourage Jesus from dying (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33). Such factors may have encouraged the writer of this part of the “Gospel of Nicodemus” to regard Beelzebub and Satan as two different characters, in different places, with differences of opinion.
Secondly, there is the question of the extent of Jesus’ emptying of hell. Does Jesus only deliver the righteous souls from hell, or does he deliver every soul? The people Jesus delivers from hell are called saints. At the same time, they are said to be burdened under the weight of original sin and guilt over their own unrighteousness, and Beelzebub does appear to be concerned that Jesus is cleaning out the place. Did Jesus make every soul into a saint when he delivered that soul from hell?
C. I grew up in Armstrongism, which denied that people have immortal souls that go to heaven or hell right after death. We believed that people were in a state of unconsciousness until the resurrection of the dead, which would occur after Christ’s second coming.
A challenge to our view was the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 KJV). We argued that the King James Version and other English translations have the punctuation in the wrong place: that it should read, “Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” In our view, Jesus was assuring the thief on the cross that he would eventually be with Jesus in paradise, after the resurrection of the dead, not that his soul would be with Jesus in paradise that very day.
I once heard Garner Ted Armstrong mock or question what he considered to be an inconsistency within mainstream Christianity. On the one hand, he noted, many Christians say that the thief was with Jesus in paradise immediately after the two of them had died—-that very day. On the other hand, many Christians maintain that Jesus went to hell after his death. So which was it? Was Jesus (and the thief) in hell or in heaven right after his death?
A number of Christians have offered solutions to this. A popular answer is that paradise was the righteous section of hell, and Jesus went there after his death (with the thief) and took paradise to heaven.
The “Gospel of Nicodemus” has its own scenario: that the thief went to heaven at the time when Jesus was emptying out hell. This, presumably, was occurring the day that the two of them died. In this scenario, the thief was in paradise the day that he died.
That scenario raises questions in my mind, especially because Jesus in John 20:17 tells Mary Magdalene after his resurrection not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to his Father. Does that mean that Jesus did not go to heaven before that time? If so, would that preclude the thief from being with Jesus in heaven on the day of their death?
That depends on one’s interpretation of John 20:17, and the point that Jesus was trying to make there. Perhaps his point was that his risen, glorified body had not yet ascended to present itself as a wavesheaf offering before God. That does not preclude his soul from going to heaven prior to that point. Or Jesus’ point may be that Mary does not need to cling to him because he has not yet ascended to heaven, so they still have time to see each other and enjoy each other’s company. That, too, does not preclude Jesus’ soul from going to heaven prior to his resurrection. See here for my post about John 20:17.
Yet, something still puzzles me. I do not recall the “Gospel of Nicodemus” saying explicitly that Jesus’ soul went to heaven between the time of his death and resurrection. Jesus liberates souls from hell, and they then go to heaven. The thief on the cross also goes to heaven. Yet, I recall nothing about Jesus going to heaven at that time. In light of that, is the thief on the cross in the “Gospel of Nicodemus” truly with Jesus in paradise on the day of their death, a la Luke 23:43?
D. In John 18:31, we read: “Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (KJV).
The Jews say that it is not lawful for them to put a person to death, and this is why they want Pilate to do so. Many commentators interpret this to mean that the Romans did not allow the Jews to practice the death penalty at that time. C. Marvin Pate, on pages 329-331 of 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus, argues for this position and, using Josephus and rabbinic sources, discusses when the Jewish authorities did and did not have the authority to execute criminals.
The “Gospel of Nicodemus” appears to have a different interpretation of John 18:31, however: that the Jewish law of Moses forbids them to put a person to death, and that is why the Jewish authorities want Pilate to execute Jesus.
The Jewish authorities in “Gospel of Nicodemus” 4:16 say, “Our law commands us not to put any man to death…” Earlier, in 3:5, Pilate says to the Jewish authorities that “The command, therefore thou shalt not kill, belongs to you, but not to me.”
Are the Jewish authorities saying that the law of Moses forbids them to enact the death penalty, under the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13)? The problem is that, in 4:14, the Jewish authorities express to Pilate awareness that the law of Moses allows for the death penalty: “Our law saith, he shall be obliged to receive nine and thirty stripes, but if after this manner he shall blaspheme against the Lord, he shall be stoned.”
There are various considerations in my mind as I wrestle with this:
—-Could Pilate and the Jewish authorities be saying that it is against the law of Moses to put an innocent person to death? Pilate in 5:46 asks, “What will it profit you to shed innocent blood?” The problem is that the Jewish authorities do not believe that Jesus is innocent, at this point.
—-Could the “Gospel of Nicodemus” be acknowledging an aversion within rabbinic Judaism towards the death penalty, which appears in Mishnah Makkoth 1:10, and in the numerous hurdles and safeguards in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 40a-b? Moreover, according to Jacob Milgrom in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on the Book of Numbers, rabbinic Judaism understood the penalty of karet (being cut off) to be something that God does, not something that human beings do: God can kill certain sinners prematurely, or in the afterlife (pages 405-408). Yet, as Milgrom notes, there is acknowledgement within rabbinic literature that the authorities of Israel are allowed by God to carry out the death penalty.
—-Could the discussion in “Gospel of Nicodemus” 4 concern the manner of the death penalty: the Jewish authorities want Jesus crucified, whereas their law only allows them to stone him? They want Jesus, not just to die, but to endure the shame that accompanies crucifixion. This is a tempting solution, since the Jewish authorities stress that they want Jesus to be crucified. But does their law forbid them to hang a person? Deuteronomy 21:22 seems to indicate otherwise.
Perhaps there is some technicality in the law of Moses that prevents the Jewish authorities from applying the death penalty in the specific case of Jesus, even if the law of Moses allows for the death penalty. To execute Jesus, in that case, would violate “Thou shalt not kill.”