More Secret Scriptures 4: The Martyrdom of Pilate and the Lament of the Virgin

(The latest in a series of posts about little-known Christian Apocrypha that could not be included in my recent book, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the the Christian Apocrypha, now available in Europe and to be released in North America in November, 2013)

Many readers of the Christian Apocrypha are aware of the large corpus of texts known as the Pilate Cycle—most prominent among these is the Acts of Pilate (also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus). There is one other text that describes Pilate's involvement in Jesus’ death, though this one is not discussed in connection to the Pilate Cycle, likely because so few scholars are aware of it. The text is the Martyrdom of Pilate, and it forms the second of two interrelated homilies ascribed to a certain Cyriacus, bishop of Behnesa (known earlier as Oxyrhynchus), though we have no other records of such a bishop.The two homilies—today available only in Ethiopic, Garshuni, Arabic, and Coptic fragments—seem to draw upon an apocryphal text in which Gamiliel, the first-century rabbi featured in Acts 5:34–40, is the narrator. Some scholars have called this source the Gospel of Gamiliel.

In the first homily, called the Lament of the Virgin, Jesus’ mother is stricken by grief at the suffering of her son. She weeps for him, first at the foot of the cross as in John 19:25–27, and then at the tomb, where she sees Jesus raised. The Virgin Mary thus replaces Mary Magdalene as the witness to the risen Jesus in the garden from John 20:11–18. Pilate then comes to the tomb, having been directed there by a dream. He sees the tomb empty save for the discarded shroud. This is used to heal a one-eyed centurion. The Jewish leaders arrive and claim Jesus’ followers came and took the body, which has been dropped into a well in the garden. The body is placed in Jesus’ shroud and placed back in the tomb. Pilate prays and the man, revealed to be the good thief of Luke 23:39-43, rises from the tomb. The Jewish leaders flee for their lives.

The story resumes in the Martyrdom of Pilate with the Jewish leaders recruiting Barabbas, here said to be the brother-in-law of Judas, to kill Pilate. Barabbas is caught and Pilate orders him to be crucified upside-down. In retaliation, the Jewish leaders conspire to crucify Pilate on Jesus’ cross—they cry out “O Pilate, your life is like His life, and your lot is similar to His lot” (p. 255). He is rescued from the cross only to meet his end at the hand of Tiberius. As in the Handing Over of Pilate, the Prefect is beheaded (though here after a second crucifixion), Procla dies on the spot, and Tiberius orders the destruction of the Jews.

To read more on these texts see the translation of the Garshuni version of the homilies of Cyriacus in Alphonse Mingana, “Lament of the Virgin” and “Martyrdom of Pilate,” in Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni, vol. 2 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 163-332.

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