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The Apocryphal New Testament Easy to use collection of English translations of the New Testament Apocrypha.

The Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate

J. K. Elliott

Both these titles are fairly late and are taken from the introductions to be found in some medieval Latin manuscripts. An Acts of Pilate was known in antiquity and mentioned in Justin, Apology, 35, 48 (ed. E. Goodspeed, Die ältesten Apologeten (Göttingen, 1914), pp. 50–1, 59–60). It is unlikely that Justin was referring to the present work: either he knew another treatise of this name or else merely assumed such a document must have existed. Eusebius, HE 9. 5. 1 (Schwartz, GCS 9.2, p. 810 (Greek), p. 811 (Latin of Rufinus, ed. T. Mommsen)) refers to a spurious Acts of Pilate officially published under Emperor Maximin in 311–12 for use against Christians. It is not impossible that the apocryphal Acts of Pilate originated as a Christian reaction to this publication. As so often with apocryphal texts, there is a dispute as to the likely date when the Gospel of Nicodemus was written, although the general consensus seems to be that both parts of the work, the Acts of Pilate proper and Christ's Descent into Hell (Descensus Christi ad Inferos), go back to the fifth‐sixth century.

As with many apocryphal writings, the motive for the original composition was to satisfy the curiosity of those who found the canonical biblical writings inadequate. The role of Pilate in particular obviously intrigued early Christians, and the Pilate cycle in general—not just the Acts of Pilate but the associated literature—reflects the way in which the pious attempted to satisfy their curiosity. The same is true of the Descent: again the New Testament (here in particular 1 Peter 3: 19 ) whetted the appetite of Christians for further information about this aspect of their early history. The period of Christ's descent to Hades between Good Friday and Easter Day gave rise to many imaginative reconstructions. Fanciful and legendary though these stories and the Acts of Pilate are, they cannot be said to be unorthodox, and there is no evidence to connect their composition with heretical sects. In part of the tradition the names of the supposed authors of the Descent are said to be Leucius and Karinus, and Leucius Karinus (Charinus) is the name given by church writers to the author of the apocryphal Acts of John, Paul, Peter, Andrew and Thomas.

The genesis of the stories behind the Acts of Pilate may be much earlier than the fifth century: indeed Epiphanius, adv. Haer. 50.1 (Holl, GCS 31, p. 246), writing c.375, refers to details known to us now from the Acts. The stories were obviously growing over several centuries, and the texts published by Tischendorf represent at least three recensions of the Acts proper and three of the Descent, suggesting a continuing embellishment or abridgement of a common core of stories. Originally both parts were separate: there is no organic link or even natural connexion between them. It was originally only in some medieval Latin manuscripts that the text of one ran directly into the other. Although it is conventional to number the chapters of the Descent to follow the Acts, beginning at chapter 17 , a new sequence beginning with 1 is provided below in parallel with the higher numbering. The Pilate legends became very popular in the Middle Ages and are the inspiration behind many of the legends concerning Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Harrowing of Hell.

The original language of the Acts purports in the preface to be Hebrew, but it was in fact Greek. Tischendorf's edition of the Acts of Pilate and of the Descent prints an eclectic text which is increasingly criticized. For the Acts he gives two Greek texts and one Latin text. Greek A is based on eight manuscripts (not seven, as de Santos Otero claims), 1 Nine according to Lake, who adds to Greek A the text of another MS. Nowadays over fifty Greek MSS (of A and B) are known. and Greek B on three manuscripts. Greek B is a late reworking of A and is medieval in language: none of the extant manuscripts is earlier than the fifteenth century. My translation of the Acts is based on Tischendorf's Greek A. (I have not provided a translation of Greek B.) Tischendorf's Latin of the Acts proper (not translated below) is based on twelve manuscripts. Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian and Georgian versions exist.

For the Descent I translate Tischendorf's Greek and his two Latin versions. His Latin A is preferable to Latin B and is older than the surviving Greek. Manuscripts of the Greek of the Descent are comparatively rare: Tischendorf based his edition on three Greek manuscripts, two of which he used also for the Acts. Most European versions of the Descent were based on the Latin text: many Latin manuscripts of the whole of the Gospel of Nicodemus have survived. 2 More than 350 MSS of the Latin Evangelium Nicodemi have recently been catalogued by Z. lzydorczyk. Tischendorf's Latin A was based on four manuscripts (all used in the Acts) and Latin B on three manuscripts (all used in the Acts). Latin B of the Descent is an abridged version of A although the introduction is longer in B than A. Latin A is closer to the Greek, but shows developments, especially in the conclusion. There are considerable differences between the text, and sequence of stories, in Latin A and Latin B.


Greek and Latin

  • Fabricius, i. 238–98 (Latin text).

  • Jones, ii. 322–40 (Latin text and Eng. trans.).

  • Birch, i. 1–104.

  • Thilo, i. pp. cxviii‐clx, 487–802.

  • Giles, chs. X and XI.

  • Tischendorf, EA, pp. liv‐lxxvii, 210–432 (Acts: Greek A and B, Latin; Descent: Greek, Latin A and B; Turin Coptic cited in a Latin translation in footnotes to text of Part I Greek A).

  • K. Lake, ‘Some Chapters of the Acta Pilati’, in Texts from Mount Athos (Oxford, 1902), 152–63 (= Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica 5) (Greek text of a Laura MS not used by Tischendorf).

  • G. Philippart, ‘Fragments palimpsestes latins du Vindebonensis 563 (ve siècle?): Évangile selon S. Matthieu. Évangile de Nicodème, Évangile de l'enfance selon Thomas’, Anal. Boll. 90 (1972), 391–411. cf. id., ibid. 107 (1989), 171–88 .


  • F. Rossi, ‘Trascrizione di un codice copto del Museo egizio di Torino’, Memorie della Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino ser. 2, 35 (1883), 163 ff.

  • E. Revillout, ‘Les Apocryphes coptes, ii. Acta Pilati’, in PO 9.2, ed. R. Graffin and F. Nau (Paris, 1913), 57–132.

  • P. Lacau, Fragments d'apocryphes coptes (with French trans.) (Cairo, 1904), 1–12 3 Lacau also prints ( ibid. 13–22) fragments of a possible apocryphal Gospel (Évangile(?) apocryphe’) related to the Gospel of Nicodemus. (= Mémoires publiés par les membres de l'institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire 9).

  • J. W. B. Barns, ‘Bodleian Fragments of a Sa‘îdic Version of the Acta Pilati’, in Coptic Studies in Honor of Walter Ewing Crum, ed. M. Malinine (Boston, 1950), 245–50 (= Bulletin of the Byzantine Institute 2).

  • M. Vandoni and T. Orlandi, Vangelo di Nicodemo (Milan—Varese, 1966) (= Testi e Documenti per lo Studio dell’ Antiquità 15) (new edition of the Turin papyrus).


  • I. E. Rahmani, Apocrypha hypomnemata Domini Nostri seu Acta Pilati: Antiqua Versio Syriaca (Charfat, Lebanon, 1908) (= Studia Syriaca 2). [(German trans. by J. Sedláŝcek in Sitzungsberichte der Kgl. Böhm. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 11 (Prague, 1908).]


  • R. Beylot, ‘Bref aperçu des principaux textes éthiopiens dérivés des Acta Pilati’, Langues orientales anciennes philologie et linguistique, i. (Louvain, 1988), 181–95. [Cf. P. M. A. van den Oudenrijn, Gamaliel: Äthiopische Texte und Pilatusliteratur (Freiburg, 1959) (= Spicilegium Friburgense 4).]

Christian Palestinian Aramaic

  • S. P. Brock, ‘A Fragment of the Acta Pilati in Christian Palestinian Aramaic’, JTS 22 (1971), 157–9 (identifying texts published by F. Schultess in the Abh. Kön. Ges. Wiss. zu Göttingen phil‐hist‐Kl. NF 8.3 (Berlin, 1905), 134–6).


  • Mechitarist's New Testament in Armenian (Venice, 1898), 313–45 (cf. F. C. Conybeare, Acta Pilati (Oxford, 1896) (= Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica 4, 59–132)) (with retroversion of one MS into Greek and trans. of another into Latin).


  • M. N. Speransky, [‘Slavic Apocryphal Gospels’], (Moscow, 1895), 92–133, 144–55 (= [The Work of the Eighth Archeological Conference in Moscow], 1890) (in Russian).

  • A. Vaillant, Evangelium Nicodemi Évangile de Nicodème: Texte slave et Latin (Paris and Geneva, 1968) (= Hautes Études Orientales 2.1).

  • J. H. Charlesworth, The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: A Guide to Publications (Metuchen and London, 1987) (includes several Russian and Serbo‐Croat titles on the Gospel of Nicodemus in his section 57).

  • de Santos Otero, Altslav. Apok. ii. 61–98.


  • Text edited by C. Kurcikidze (Tbilisi, 1985).

Modern Translations


  • Hone, 63–91 (the Latin of Grynaeus’ Orthodoxographa).

  • Cowper, pp. 227–388 (Greek A and B of Acts and Greek of Descent; Latin of Acts I and Latin A and B of Descent).

  • Walker, 125–222 (Greek A and Latin of Acts; Greek and Latin A and B of Descent).

  • A. Westcott, The Gospel of Nicodemus and Kindred Documents (London, 1915), 63–118 (Latin of both parts).

  • H. J. Schonfield, Readings from the Apocryphal Gospels (London, 1940) (selections).

  • James, 94–146 (Greek A with summary of Greek B of Acts, Greek and Latin A and B of Descent).

  • R. Cameron, The Other Gospels (Philadelphia, 1982), 163–83 (selections).

  • Hennecke3, i. 444–81 (contents as for German edition).

  • Hennecke5, i. 501–26 (contents as for German edition).


  • Migne, Dictionnaire, i, cols. 1087–1138.

  • Amiot, 145–56 (selection).

  • F. Quéré, Évangiles apocryphes (Paris, 1983), 125–59 (translates Greek A of Acts; Latin B of Descent).

  • Rémi Gounelle and Zbigniew Izydorczyk, L’Évangile de Nicodème (Turnhout, 1997) (= Apocryphes 9).


  • Hennecke1, 74–6 (A. Stülcken); cf. Handbuch, 143–53.

  • Hennecke3, i. 444–81 (F. Scheidweiler) (Greek A of Acts and Greek of Descent).

  • Hennecke5, i. 395–418 (F. Scheidweiler) (as for Hennecke3).

  • Michaelis, 132–215.


  • Erbetta, i.2, 231–87 (Greek A with a summary of Greek B of Acts; Greek, Latin A and B of Descent).

  • Moraldi, i. 519–653 (Greek A, Turin Coptic, and Latin of Acts; Greek, Latin A and B of Descent).


  • de Santos Otero, 396–471 (Greek A with variants in Greek B of Acts; Greek and Latin B of Descent).

  • González‐Blanco, ii. 237–304.


  • R. Atkinson, The Passions and the Homilies from Leabhar Breac (Dublin, 1887), 113–24, 143–51, 359–71, 392–400 (= Todd Lecture Series 2) (text and trans. of Acts of Pilate found in the Leabhar Breac). [Cf. M. McNamara, The Apocrypha in the Irish Church (Dublin, 1975), 69–75.]


  • A. Lipsius, Die Pilatenakten kritisch untersucht (Kiel, 1871; 21886).

  • L. Maury, ‘Nouvelles recherches sur l’époque à laquelle a été composé l'ouvrage connu sous le nom d’Évangile de Nicodème’, Mémoires de la société des antiquaires de France 20 (1850), 341–92.

  • Variot, 93–107, 233–328.

  • H. von Schubert, Die Composition des pseudo‐petrinischen Evangelienfragments (Berlin, 1893), 175 f.

  • E. von Dobschütz, ‘Der Process Jesu nach den Acta Pilati’, ZNW 3 (1902), 89–114.

  • T. Mommsen, ‘Die Pilatusacten’, ZNW 3 (1902), 198–205.

  • A. M. Vitti, ‘Descensus Christi ad Inferos iuxta Apocrypha’, in Verbum Domini 7 (Rome, 1927), 138–44, 171–81.

  • P. Vannutelli, Actorum Pilati textus synoptici (Rome, 1938) (Greek texts in parallel with varants in Tischendorf's Greek A and Greek B MSS of the Acts of Pilate). G. C. O'Ceallaigh, ‘Dating the Commentaries of Nicodemus’, HTR 56 (1963), 21–58.

  • I. Cazzaniga, ‘Osservazioni critiche al testo del “prologo” del Vangeli di Nicodemo’, Instituto Lombardo: Accademia di Scienze e Lettere: Classe Lettere 102 (Milan, 1968), 535–48.

  • D. D. R. Owen, The Vision of Hell (Edinburgh and London, 1970).

  • H. C. Kim (ed.), The Gospel of Nicodemus: Gesta Salvatoris edited from the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek, MS 326) (Toronto, 1973; 21979) (= Toronto Medieval Latin Texts 2).

  • W. Speyer, ‘Neue Pilatus‐Apokryphen’, VC 32 (1978), 53–9.

  • R. J. Hoffmann, ‘Confluence in Early Christian and Gnostic Literature: The Descensus Christi ad Inferos (Acta Pilati, xvii–xxvii)’, JSNT 10 (1981), 42–60.

  • M. Lowe, ‘Ioudaioi of the Apocrypha: A Fresh Approach to the Gospels of James, Pseudo‐Thomas, Peter and Nicodemus’, Novum Testamentum 23 (1981), 56–90, esp. 86–90.

  • G. W. H. Lampe, ‘The Trial of Jesus in the Acta Pilati’, in E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge, 1984), 173–82.


1 Nine according to Lake, who adds to Greek A the text of another MS. Nowadays over fifty Greek MSS (of A and B) are known.

2 More than 350 MSS of the Latin Evangelium Nicodemi have recently been catalogued by Z. lzydorczyk.

3 Lacau also prints ( ibid. 13–22) fragments of a possible apocryphal Gospel (Évangile(?) apocryphe’) related to the Gospel of Nicodemus.

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