It is the 31st of August 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
With all apologies to non-Star Wars people, I’d like you to consider Bobba Fett (the bounty hunting clone who wore Mandalorian armor) and Admiral Ackbar (the Mon Calamari commander know for his “It’s A Trap” meme). Back in the olden days when we only had 3 Star Wars movies these two characters loomed large in fan fiction. They have such small roles, but are very curious and somewhat crucial in the development of the plot. In any kind of storytelling (fiction or nonfiction) it seems we take an interest in the seemingly minor characters and enjoy drawing out their possible origins and destinies.
All of this is to frame the stories of both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea from the Gospels on the 31st of August, the day of their commemoration in many churches.
For a quick refresh: Joseph of Arimathea shows up in all 4 Gospels. He is known as a wealthy and rich Israelite and member of the Sanhedrin. He did not consent to the judgment of Jesus and fled. We read that he was able to get the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and place him in a tomb that he had ostensibly built for himself- thus it was an unused tomb.
Nicodemus only shows up in the Gospel of John and has remained one of the more enigmatic characters in all of the New Testament. He shows up in John 3 for the famous “born again” discussion. He is in the 7th chapter defending Jesus and then in the 19th chapter assisting Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus.
His visit to Jesus in John 3 at night has given us the term “Nicodemite” for one who secretly holds theological positions in opposition to their public confession. It is suggested that he is the same as one Nicodemus Ben Gurion who was a popular saint in Talmudic literature who was known for working miracles. You see the connection, one miracle worker recognizes a clearly superior one and thus goes at night to see what he is all about. Later tradition holds that he would defend Christianity until he was forced to flee into retirement with… wait for it… Gamaliel! Paul’s teacher is said to have become a Christian, too (this is all essentially fan fiction).
The story of Joseph of Arimathea includes the legends of him going to Britain, perhaps with the Holy Grail and that gets you into the Arthurian stuff). We also see Joseph in the Gospel of Nicodemus.
The Gospel of Nicodemus- also called the Acts of Pilate is a non-canonical Gospel that records the death and resurrection of Jesus as well as his descent into Hell. This is likely a collection of stories that date to around the 4th century. Unlike many of the so-called “Lost Gospels,” it is hardly controversial. It’s a retelling and embellishment of the last days of Jesus' life as told from the perspective of others (such as Nicodemus and Pilate).
A quick note about the so-called “Lost” or “suppressed” Gospels. Every few decades it seems the church gets up in arms over the “discovery” of a new lost Gospel. A few notes:
- They are very rarely “lost” in the sense that we have found undiscovered new textual evidence. This happens sometimes, but not in whole texts. New textual evidence from archaeological findings almost always comes in slow drips.
- Many of these texts, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus have been around for a long time, but the church decided against putting it in the canon (the canon meaning the collection of books that make up the Bible- not all traditions agree on everything but none of them have been accepted this text).
- The formation of the canon (even those which slightly disagree) has always been a public decision made by consensus. The stories of nefarious men in back rooms making secret deals to keep YOU from knowing the TRUTH belong in the kind of fan fiction that gives us so much of what makes up medieval hagiography.
And this is good news. At her best, the church has always done its work publicly and with consensus. Fanfiction, hagiography, Joseph of Arimathea having the Holy Grail, and Nicodemus hanging out with Gamaliel might not be historical but tell us something our own historical and theological imaginations.
The last word for today comes from John 3:
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of August 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who has written extensive fan fiction surrounding the later adventures of Arthur the Aardvark and his friends the Smurfs. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man still scarred from seeing the cartoon rat Nicodemus in the Secret of NIHM Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.