The “Gospel of Nicodemus” was a very popular work throughout the middle ages, both in its Latin form (which existed in various versions, translated from the Greek probably in the fifth century) and in many vernacular adaptations. More than sixty manuscripts in Old and Middle French, for instance, contain prose versions, and French verse translations existed from the thirteenth century onward. The narrative is in three parts, beginning with the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, then following Joseph of Arimathea (the rich man who had buried Christ, and in this account was then imprisoned by the “Jews”), and finishing with an account of the Harrowing of Hell (as told by two men who had returned from Hell to life). The text is one of many that retell and embellish the Passion narrative. Though scribes consistently acknowledged its apocryphal nature, the narrative was frequently read alongside the canonical Gospels, and was appreciated for its added details and colorful personalities, which could be considered historical though they were not canonical. The trial scene, for instance, is far longer than in any of the canonical gospels, and introduces characters from throughout the life of Christ, such as the woman healed of bleeding and other witnesses to events in his life, while also giving a larger role to Pontius Pilate and to Nicodemus himself.
Partly because there are so many manuscripts of this narrative – in prose and in verse, in Latin and in the vernacular – its identification can be confusing. In this manuscript, it is called “La Passion de Nostre Signor Iesu Crist.” It is elsewhere named La Passion Jhesu Christ, Apocryphe, andEvangelium Nicodemi. Furthermore, in some modern works the components of the narrative have been separated: the Passion narrative and the account of Joseph of Arimathea are together calledGesta Pilati (for the strong and sympathetic role Pontius Pilate is given), while the Harrowing of Hell is called Descensus Christi ad inferos.
For the manuscript tradition see:
L’Evangile de Nicodeme: Les Versions Courtes en Ancient Francais et en Prose. Ed. Alvin E. Ford. Publications Romanes et Francaises, 125. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1973.
For brief discussions of this manuscript see:
Robson, C.A. Maurice of Sully and the Medieval Vernacular Homily: With the Text of Maurice’s French Homilies. Oxford: Blackwell, 1952. Pp. 68-69.
Paris, Paulin. Les Manuscrits François de la Bibliothèque du Roi. Paris: Techener, 1838. Pg. 106.
For a discussion of the place of the text in medieval culture see:
Izydorczyk, Zbigniew, ed. The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus: Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts in Western Europe. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 158. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, 1997.