Apocryphal Literature, the Characterization of Satan, and the Descensus ad Inferos Tradition in England in the Middle Ages

in Religion and Theology
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This article discusses the role of apocrypha, specifically, the Gospel of Nicodemus in transmitting theological concepts that are not developed in Scripture and considers how such texts were transmitted across the centuries. In particular, this article examines the contribution of the Gospel of Nicodemus and other apocryphal sources to the characterization of Satan, as developed in the descensus ad inferos tradition in England throughout the Middle Ages and also considers how authors’ varying intents, the needs of audiences, and modes of presentation may have impacted the manner in which characters were portrayed and the event was structured.

Religion and Theology

A Journal of Contemporary Religious Discourse




Lee McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 246–258 and 404–420.


Everett Ferguson, “Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon: A Survey of Some Recent Studies,” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin Donald and James A. Sanders (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 299.


McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 251.


McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 406–420; Julio Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible, trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson (Leiden; Brill, 1998), 237–253; and Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament. Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).


McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 413.


Pheme Perkins, “Gnosticism and the Christian Bible,” The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 359. Perkins argues the gnostic challenge was more than any other single cause responsible for the Church Fathers generating a canon. See also Trebolle Barrera, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, 240–241; Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha vol. 2, 14–27; Jens Schröter, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon and the Early Christian Apocrypha,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha, eds. Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 167–184; and Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1989), 102–118.


Trebolle Barrera, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, 243–250.


Ferguson, “Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure,” 299; Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 165; Kent Clarke, “The Problem of Pseudonymity in Biblical Literature and Its Implication for Canon Formation,” in The Canon Debate, edited by Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 442–444, 452; and Lee Martin McDonald, “Identifying Scripture and Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question,” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), 427.


J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal Jesus: Legends of the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Elliot notes that an interest in such “fringe” characters demonstrates an “insatiable interest in the characters’ miracles, and pronouncements, their travels, and, increasingly, their deaths. Believers’ curiosity about these persons fueled a creative literary urge” (3).


M.R. James, “Introduction to the The Gospel of Nicodemus, Or Acts of Pilate,” in The Apocryphal New Testament, trans. M.R. James, corr. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 94–95; Ferguson, “Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure,” 299. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha vol. 1, 501–505; Trebolle Barrera, Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible, 248.


Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan, the Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 191.


M. McNamara, The Apocrypha in the Irish Church (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1984), 68–75; Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha vol. 1, 62–64.


Elliott, Apocryphal Jesus, 3.


Alan Bernstein, “Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: 1100–1500,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 4. Western Europe 1100–1500, Cambridge History of Christianity, eds. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 200–216.


Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture, 4, 5.


Vanchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages, 91. For more on the intersection in spoken and written text in Christian texts and traditions, see Tom Thatcher, ed., Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond the Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), 1–36 and 244–257.


John Miles Foley, “The Implications of Oral Tradition,” in Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages, ed. W.F.H. Nicolaisen, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 112, (Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1995), 35–37, and “Texts that Speak to Readers Who Hear: Old English Poetry and the Languages of Oral Tradition,” in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen, SUNY Studies in Medieval Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 149–150.


Mark Armodio, “Oral Poetics in Post-Conquest England” in Oral Poetics in Middle English Poetry, ed. Mark Armodio, Albert Bates Lord Studies in Oral Tradition 13 (New York: Garland, 2004), 7, and idem, Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literary Culture in Medieval England, Poetics of Orality and Literacy (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2004), 83–97; Albert Lord, “Oral Composition and ‘Oral Residue’ in the Middle Ages,” in Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages, ed. W.F.H. Nicolaisen, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 112 (Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1995), 9–25; and Alain Renoir, “Oral-Formulaic Rhetoric: An Approach to Image and Message in Medieval Poetry,” in Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers, ed. Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 237–244.


Foley, “Implications,” 35–37, and idem. “Texts that Speak,” 149–150.


Barry Schwartz, “Christian Origins: Historical Truths and Social Memory,” in Memory, Tradition, and Text. Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, Semeia Studies 52, ed. Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 44.


Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture, 193.


Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer, the Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). The problem of who in fact the infidels and sinners were, and who the elect who were saved by Christ were, is a question commonly reflected upon in medieval descensus ad inferos texts and commentary up the event, Russell, Lucifer, 104.


F.M. Biggs and J.H. Morey, “ ‘Gospel of Nicodemus,’ the Apocrypha,” in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture: The Apocrypha, ed. F.M. Biggs, Instrumenta Anglistica Mediaevalia 1 (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), 30–31.


Biggs and Morey, “ ‘Gospel of Nicodemus,’ ” 30–31.


Russell, Lucifer, 174.


Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: Univerisity of Chicago Press, Press, 1986), 17–19.


Boyce and Grenet, History of Zoroastrianism, 440.


Boyce and Grenet, History of Zoroastrianism, 446. Zoroastrians believe in the bodily resurrection followed by a judgment.


David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 37, 43, 46–47. See Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1987) on Yaldabaoth’s ignorance of who created him 78–79, 83–84, and on vague parallels to Zostrianos, 150.


Hans G. Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 1–23.


Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 106. See also 101 and 107. Boyce and Grenet state Plutarch shows an accurate knowledge of Zoroastrianism, and the doctrine of the emanation of lesser aeons by the Supreme Being and a form of ethic dualism appear to be some of the contributions Iranian religion made to Gnosticism, History of Zoroastrianism, 460.


Russell, Lucifer, 161. Russell also explores the Bogomil heresy, which presents the devil as God’s first son and Christ his second. He argues that these beliefs persisted in folklore, especially among Slavic people, in the 10th through 15th centuries long after the disappearance of their religion. This Bogomil dualism is believed to have encouraged rebellion against the socio-political conditions of Catholic orthodoxy (45–48). This mythology foregrounds Satan’s jealousy not of God and man, but of Christ.


Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture, 195, 209.


Peter Dendle, Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001), 10–11: “He often appears just long enough to deliver his familiar diatribe [or plaint on his torment] before scurrying off again” (40).


Dendle, Satan Unbound, 68.


Hulme, The Harrowing of Hell, vii–xv. The four versions of the Gospel of Nicodemus begin with the the writer saying, “a cleric in England had made these rhymes to make the unlettered people understand” (10–12). Nine prose versions of part or the whole of the Gospel are still in existence (Hulme, The Harrowing of Hell, xxxiii).


Thesesa Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 102.


Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints, 46–128.


Langland, Piers, 225. The lines translate as, “ ‘here is a letter [deed]’ said Peace, ‘together in peace, and this deed is valid forever.’ ”


Langland, Piers, 230. The line translates as, “and with that breath he broke [the gates of] Hell.”


Langland, Piers, 231. The line translates as: “guile is destroyed through grace.”


Langland, Piers, 230–231.


Taylor, “Harrowing Hell’s Halfacre,” 154–155.


Langland, Piers, 232. The lines translate as “all that are part of my brotherhood, in blood and baptism, shall not be damned to the death that is without end.”


Langland, Piers, 233. The line translates as “my prison, Purgatory.”


Vanchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages, 23.


Vanchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages, 24.


Erika Fisher-Lichte, “The Medieval Religious Plays – Ritual or Theater?” in Visualizing Medieval Performances: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts, ed. Elina Gertsman (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 254. Sarah Beckwith, “Sacrum Signum; Sacramentality and Dissent in York’s Theatre of Corpus Christi,” in Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages, ed. Rita Copeland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 270, 278.


Fisher-Lichte, “The Medieval Religious Plays,” 257–258.


R.M. Lumiansky and David Mills, Chester Mystery Cycle Vol. 1 (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1974), lines 1–112 and 229–276. All quotations are from this edition of the Chester: “The Harrowing of Hell.”


Heather Hill-Vasquez, Sacred Players, 2, 18–21.


Hill-Vasquez, Sacred Players, 21.


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