Acts of Pilate


PILATE, ACTS OF. This work falls into two distinct and independent parts: (1) the Acts of Pilate, extant in two Gr. recensions (A and B) and also in Latin, Coptic, Syriac and Armenian, dealing with the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus; (2) an account of the Descensus ad Inferos, extant in two Lat. recensions and in MSS of the later Gr. recension B, but not in recension A or in any Eastern VS. Recension B, in which the two parts were first combined, presupposes the Council of Ephesus (a.d. 431), but may be considerably later (according to James, no known copy is earlier than the 15th cent.). Recension A, according to its prologue, goes back to a.d. 425. The alternative title, Gospel of Nicodemus, is late, and found only in Lat. MSS after the 10th century. In Part II, Lat. A and the Gr. VS go together, but Lat. B shows several modifications.

Patristic evidence.

Justin Martyr twice refers to Acts recording the trial before Pilate, and attempts have been made to identify these Acts with Part I of the present work. Against this it is argued that Justin simply assumed that such records must exist (so James, ANT 94f.). Scheidweiler, however, notes that the book (a) presupposes the earlier form of the Panthera story, (b) adheres solely to Matthew in its account of the resurrection and ascension; and (c) disregards the forty days of Acts 1:3. Accordingly he argues for an earlier Grundschrift, and claims that “the possibility that apocryphal Acts of Pilate were already available to Justin cannot seriously be disputed” (NTAp. I. 447).

Tertullian mentions a dispatch from Pilate to Tiberius, which indicates his knowledge of an apocryphal document under Pilate’s name; but Eusebius, though mentioning Tertullian, makes no reference to Christian Acts of Pilate (Hist. II. 2), although he does speak of “certain spurious acts against the Savior” (Euseb. Hist. I. 9; cf. IX. 5). It is commonly held that the present work was a counterblast to these pagan Acts published under the emperor Maximin, but the possibility remains that its author made use of an older work already known to Tertullian, and even to Justin. This however, is in the realm of speculation. The first firm evidence is provided by Epiphanius, who says that the Quartodecimans claimed to determine the exact date of the Passion with the aid of the Acts of Pilate (Heresies 50. 1). As this dates from a.d. 375 or 376, a Grundschrift was already in existence half a cent. before the Gr. recension A.


This writing, as noted above, consists of two sections.

Acts of Pilate.

The prologue claims the document to be a tr. of the Heb. record drawn up by Nicodemus, and gives an elaborate but not entirely consistent date for the crucifixion (see NTAp. I. 450 n. 2). The book proper begins with the accusations laid against Jesus by the Jewish leaders. When He is brought before Pilate, the images on the military standards do Him reverence, against the will of the standard-bearers. In its main lines the narrative of the trial follows the canonical story, but with considerable expansion. Pilate’s wife, described as a God-fearer, sends him a warning (cf. Matt 27:19). The charge that Jesus was of illegitimate birth is denied by twelve Jews. Nicodemus speaks on His behalf before Pilate, and several of those whom Jesus healed seek to testify in His favor. Finally Pilate yields to Jewish pressure and orders the execution. Joseph of Arimathea buries the body, and is himself imprisoned by the Jews. When they assemble on the first day of the week to condemn him, however, his prison is found empty, though the doors were sealed and Caiaphas had the key.

The guards from the tomb report the resurrection, and are bribed into silence. Three men from Galilee who report having seen Jesus with His disciples there are hurriedly sent away. At Nicodemus’ suggestion the Jews search for Jesus, but in vain. They do, however, find Joseph at home in Arimathea. Invited to Jerusalem, he tells his story; the three men from Galilee are brought back to tell theirs; one almost expects to read of the repentance and wholesale conversion of the Jews, but the book does not go quite so far.

There are variations among the VSS in the final sections. In particular, recension B and the Lat. have to make considerable changes to provide a transition to the Descensus.

The descent into hell.

This begins with a speech by Joseph affirming that Jesus was not raised alone but others with Him, including Simeon (Luke 2:25) and his two sons. Their tombs are open and empty, “but they themselves are alive and dwelling in Arimathea.” On investigation the claim is found to be true. The men are brought to Jerusalem and there write their testimony, which is signed and sealed in the presence of the Jewish authorities, after which they vanish. The testimony describes the tumult in hell, and the mutual recriminations of Satan and Hades. In the Lat. VSS, Simeon’s sons are named Leucius and Karinus, a point both of interest and of perplexity, since the Acts of John are reputed to have been written by one Leucius Charinus.


ANT 94ff.; NTAp. I. 444ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

See following article, 4, and APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS.

See also

  • [[Apocryphal Gospels

  • Apocryphal New Testament