Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

April 2001
The passion of the kung-fu messiah
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column THE FOUR "OFFICIAL" Gospel narratives are often criticised for their many differences and inconsistencies, but, as anybody who's spent time reading some of the stories thatweren't included in the Bible will tell you, the amazing thing is not that the four Gospels are so different, it's that they're so similar.

Once you put the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John back on the shelf and start reading the reject pile of stories about Jesus, you come across many departures from the usual story. Which brings us to the very unusual Gospel of Nicodemus. This Gospel isn't interested in the birth, life or teaching of Jesus. Instead, it cuts to the chase and gives us Jesus's trial (in great detail) and an account of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection.

HERE'S THE STORY. The Jewish authorities go directly to Pontius Pilate, demanding that he get rid of Jesus. Pilate, unable to understand what their problem is, says to them, "Tell you what, I'll get someone to go get him and I'll interview him."

So Pilate sends out a messenger who goes and tells Jesus that Pilate wants to see him, and Jesus obligingly walks right into the governor's palace. Through the front door. There's no betrayal, no last supper – in fact, the disciples make no substantial appearance at all, treacherous or otherwise.

As soon as Jesus arrives, the two Romans holding the legionary standards bow down at his feet. The Jewish elders get rather upset at this, and Pilate, asking Jesus if he'd mind waiting outside for a moment, asks the legionaries why they did it. They tell him that it wasn't them, it was actually the standards themselves that bowed down and they were forced down with them.

Pilate, confused, replaces the two standard bearers with two young and really big Romans, who, despite their strength, are left powerless by a pair of subservient flagpoles the moment Jesus comes in. Pilate can't find anything wrong with Jesus, so he lets the Jewish authorities have him.

AFTER THE TRIAL (which is filled with long, boring legal bits) and the crucifixion (which is surprisingly short), the Gospel of Nicodemus dives underground. Jesus, having been crucified, descends to Hell, where Satan is currently sharing a house with Hades (who appears to be representative of Death). It's made clear that Hades and Satan don't get on, although Nicodemus doesn't tell us why. One can only assume that Satan doesn't do his washing up, or something.

Anyway, Satan, in typical hand-rubbing baddie mode, asks Hades to get ready a special cell so Satan can have his way with Jesus, but Hades refuses, saying he's a bit scared of this Jesus bloke. Before Satan can convince Hades otherwise, Jesus arrives, along with a horde of saints, and with the aid of David, Elijah, Moses and the others, Jesus breaks down the doors of Hell, rescues a whole bunch of people (including Adam) from eternal torment and faces Satan down.

An astounding stand-up fist fight ensues, resulting in Jesus beating the living daylights out of Satan, finishing by stamping on his head and chaining him up. He then hands Satan over to Hades and clears off to Heaven.

Hades lays down the law with Satan – "From now on, things are going to be a bit different around here, bucko..." – who, utterly defeated, faces a few thousand years in chains.

THE GOSPEL OF NICODEMUS is interesting because of its emphasis on certain details above others. There's no mention, for example, of pretty much anything important Jesus said, or of who saw Jesus when he rose from the dead, but Nicodemus seems to think you'll want to know the name of the legionary who pierced his side (it's Longinus, by the way).

Boring legal language sits uncomfortably alongside Jesus' eschatological kung-fu antics. And yet, the Gospel of Nicodemus was popular enough to get translated into Latin and be circulated around the Roman Empire. So what was its appeal?

Well, maybe when it all boils down to it, there's nothing people like in a story so much as a bit of wholly gratuitous violence. Just like today, really.

The question of whether Jesus went to Hell or not is even today hotly disputed in some theological circles, but it seems to have been a common, if slightly unorthodox belief by the end of the second century AD. But I doubt that many of the charismatic theologians who hold this view ever imagined Jesus beating up the opposition.

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