JMC : Witness of the Gospels / by A.S. Barnes

4. The Passion Document

Abrupt Alteration of "Source" in Passion Narrative

Almost all through his Gospel, as has already been said, St Luke uses the work of St Mark as a framework, to which he adds materials gathered from other sources. He treats St Mark with great respect, and makes him his primary authority. But when he comes to the Passion of our Lord his procedure is suddenly and abruptly altered. In this portion of his narrative it is evident that he is possessed of some other information, which he believes to be as authentic, or rather, indeed, more authentic, than that which he could collect from St Mark. When we consider the tradition which tells us that St Mark's Gospel is nothing else than St Peter's preaching, so that all its statements must have come to St Luke with the highest possible Apostolic authority, it is certainly very remarkable that he should have so largely neglected it in this portion of his work. It says much for the great importance and value he assigned to this other authority that he should have used it so exclusively in this most important section of his Gospel, and our curiosity is at once on fire to know whether any light can be thrown on the source from which he derived this information.

This "Source" of Hebrew Origin

I have very recently discussed the subject in the pages of The Dublin Review, and have put forward my reasons for thinking that this source was an account of the Passion, put forth in Hebrew, at an exceedingly early date, which was believed to be the work of Nicodemus. It would be quite impossible to go into the whole of the argument in a lecture of this kind, for it rests on a good deal of more or less minute comparison between documents, so I can do no more here than to state my conclusions, which are, however, supported by a good deal of evidence and by coincidences which it is difficult to explain in any other way. These conclusions are as follows: --

At some period before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and quite possibly a good many years before that event, this account of the Passion of Christ was drawn up for the use of Christians of Jewish origin, and was circulated in the Church at Jerusalem. We can even with some plausibility conjecture the name of the document. It was entitled "Things done under Pontius Pilate," and was confined to the events of the last three days of our Lord's life. In the next century, when the true story of its composition had been forgotten, a confusion arose, and it came to be looked upon as the official report made by Pontius Pilate, as Procurator of Syria, to the Emperor Tiberius at Rome.

"Acta Pilati"

The origin of the mistake is plain enough. It arose, no doubt, from a misunderstanding of the title, which was thought to imply that the whole document was actually the work of Pilate; whereas in reality it only meant to express that it was a record of events that happened during the period of his Procuratorship and by reason of commands given and judgement passed by his authority. It is less easy to understand how such a document as this must have been, if this theory is correct, could possibly have been, mistaken by even the most uncritical of readers for the work of a heathen and of a Roman Magistrate; but we have to remember that it was not a critical age, and also that a belief was already prevalent that Pilate had before his death become a Christian. Still, that the confusion did actually arise, and that it prevailed even in the most educated circles, is definitely proved by the very curious fact that both Justin Martyr and Tertullian, in the Apologies for the Christian religion, which they respectively compiled for the acceptance of the Roman Emperors, actually do appeal to a report made by Pilate, which they assume can be found among the Archives. The details which they quote, and in confirmation of which they make their appeal, are such as to leave scarcely any doubt that they are referring to an actual document which was known to them, which they, no doubt in all good faith, believed to be the work of Pilate, but which was in fact not only a Christian document, but one which had exceedingly close affinities with the canonical Gospels, and in particular with the Gospel of St Luke. The suggestion which I ventured to put forward in The Dublin Review, and which I now make to you, is that this Christian document may, perhaps, not have been altogether lost, but that it is possible, and even probable, that we still possess it, at least in substance, since it was the unknown authority upon which St Luke depends for his Passion narrative, which he has preferred even to the account given by St Mark, and which he has preserved for our edification by incorporating it, more or less entire, in the pages of his Gospel.


No doubt it is true that there is not enough evidence to justify us in regarding it as proved that the author of this document was Nicodemus, but there is some ground for the statement to be found in tradition; and the thing is not by any means impossible, since the document in question seems to have been composed at a very early date and to have been originally put forth in Hebrew. But, however this may stand, it will at least assist our imaginations and help us to keep our ideas clear and definite, if we accept the suggestion for what it may be worth, and for these purposes attach the name of Nicodemus to this one of St Luke's sources, just as we did in the last case that of St Philip the Deacon.

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