Everyone goes to Hell eventually.
Orpheus, Hercules, Virgil, Dante, Bill, Ted, Goku…. the list goes on and on. Trips to the underworld are so frequent that there’s even a technical term for it, Katabasis. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Nazereth’s most famous son gets his turn.
I get the impression that this text was cobbled from a variety of sources. The first half describes the crucifixion and resurrection from the perspective of Pilate and the Jewish authorities. Needless to say, there’s a lot of regret coming from these people. The Gospel genre’s tendency towards antisemitism is again made visible in the text’s tendency to refer to anyone antagonistic towards Jesus as Jewish. To be honest, this part didn’t exactly grab me. Although the episode in which images knelt before Jesus does point to the ambivalence in which Abrahamanic religions hold those objects.
‘PART II. THE DESCENT INTO HELL’
During the three days in which he was dead, Jesus rescued all the Old Testament notables from Hell and delivered them to paradise. The text doesn’t make it clear whether this paradise refers to Eden or a Heaven, but given the presence of Adam and Seth and I’ll wager it’s the former.
If I’m understanding this somewhat archaic translation correctly, the narrators are two recently resurrected brothers called Karinus and Leucius, who witnessed first-hand all the harrowing of Hell.
We don’t get much of a description of Hell, beyond ‘in the deep, in obscurity of darkness’ – suggesting perhaps a great abyss or even the depths of the ocean. This vagueness recalls the miserable underworld of The Gilgamesh Epic.
All the sympathetic Old Testament crew witness Jesus coming to rescue him, covered in typically grandiose glory. Anyone who had ever said anything that a Christian could persuade themselves referred to Jesus repeats themselves here, with a hint of I Told You So. This goes for longer than I’d recommend, presumably this part of the gospel was aimed towards a Jewish audience.
Satan interrupts this chorus of self-congratulation by talking to Hell. Yes, he talks to Hell. This bamboozling personification of an abstract concept is like that time in Paradise Lost where Satan interacts with Sin and Death. It really doesn’t gel with a monotheistic ‘verse. Here Hell is presented as something between a prison warder and primal chaos. The gist of their conversation is that Satan engineered the crucifixion to trap Jesus in Hell, he messed up, and now they’re both in for it. Or as the Prince of Tartarus awesomely puts it ‘Shut ye the hard gates of brass and put on them the bars of iron and withstand stoutly, lest we that hold captivity be taken captive.’
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Satan, the ultimate underdog. Jesus throws Satan into Hell, presumably as a prisoner.
Jesus follows Michael and leads the rest of the sympathetic Old Testament people to Paradise. There they meet Enoch, as in The Book of Enoch, and ‘Elias the Thesbite [who] was taken up in a chariot of fire’. (I think this is another rendering of Elijah, not sure on that point.) Both of these men did not die the normal way, instead being directly transported to heaven by God. Now that I think about it, Moses does not appear in this segment…
Later one of the thieves crucified with Jesus shows up at the gates of paradise, as well. Which is nice.
The Descent into Hell section is written in bombastic and operatic tone, with paragraphs that devour entire pages.
The penultimate section tries to tie in a Christian history of the universe to the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant. Not exactly thrilling reading.
The final segment is a letter Pontius Pilate supposedly sent to the emperor Claudius, telling him that there was a conspiracy among the temple authorities to spread a story that the resurrection was faked, telling him not to ‘believe the false tales of the Jews’.
The older I get, the more antisemitic Christianity seems to me. Especially the unnamed mob of the Passion and the name Judas. The religion would be more palatable if the core idea of Borges’ essay The Three Versions of Judas was made canon, and if those who wanted Jesus crucified weren’t solely referred to in terms of their ethnicity. I’d make elements of text canon as well, otherwise Jesus’s resignation at the thought of being crucified comes across as disturbingly suicidal.
The Gospel of Nicodemus will be chiefly of interest to biblical scholars. Everyone else should skip to the Descent into Hell part for some of the most operatic prose I’ve ever read.