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Art. 3b, Epistle a Claudie l’emperour: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); BnF: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris); CUL: Cambridge University Library; MED: Middle English Dictionary; NLW: National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth); PL: Patrologiae cursus completus . . . series latina (Migne).

This addendum to the Gospel of Nicodemus is made to seem an official letter written by Pontius Pilate to Emperor Tiberius Caesar in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection, wherein he relays a true account of events in his capacity as governor of Judea. Speaking essentially as an impartial observer, Pilate narrates the happenings among the Jews: their prophesied Son of God, Jesus’ divisive appearance among them, and the turmoil caused thereby. As a rhetorical exercise in first-person, the item allows an imaginative glimpse into the mind of Pilate and a different perspective upon the Gospel account. It puts Pilate in the interesting position of reporting secondhand Jesus’ many performed miracles and firsthand the Jewish complicity in the Crucifixion. In the end, he verifies, matter-of-factly, the miracle of the Resurrection — “As they guarded him, he raised himself” (lines 16–17) — seeing mainly here a legal issue in how the Jews bribed the guards to suppress the truth. Pilate sends this letter, he asserts, so that the Roman Emperor will have the real facts before he receives hearsay reports of the events in question.

[Fol. 39rb. ANL 497 (joined to art. 3). Scribe: A, with title inserted by B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 4. Initials: Scribe A left a space for large opening initial; a red C (two lines high) was inserted by Scribe B. Layout: Two columns. Editions: None. Other MSS (Anglo-Norman Version): See list given for the Gospel of Nicodemus (art. 3). Translations: None, but compare Clough, pp. 95–96; and Elliott, pp. 206–08.] 1 Tyberye. Written by Scribe B over an erasure. The Paris MS, fol. 59ra, reads Claudie. Tiberius Caesar was Roman Emperor from 14–37 A.D., succeeding his stepfather Augustus. According to the (non-historical) opening of art. 3b, Tiberius ruled jointly with Claudius because he was gravely ill. The confusion that arises, then, between the titles of arts. 3a and 3b — that is, the implication that two different letters are referred to — is created by the Ludlow scribe’s erasures and additions. (See explanatory headnote to art. 3b.) Epistle a Claudie l’emperour / The Letter of Pilate to . . . Claudius [art. 3b] This apparent “second” letter is actually a sequel to the Gospel of Nicodemus. It provides an apocryphal narrative of Roman events occurring post-Resurrection, informing a reader about the eventual fates of Tiberius, Pilate, and Nero. Tiberius, Roman Emperor during the Crucifixion, falls gravely ill and seeks, via the diplomacy of his priest-envoy Volusian, to be healed by Jesus. But when Volusian arrives in Judea, he learns of Jesus’ death and Pilate’s part in it. He returns to Rome with Pilate on board his ship, and also with Veronica, who possesses a sanctified portrait of Jesus’ countenance. The portrait conveys the healing power of Jesus to Tiberius, miraculously curing him. Pilate is then sent into exile in Tuscany. Tiberius and Volusian convert to Christianity, but the Roman consulate resists doing the same. Angered by this, Tiberius becomes cruel and oppressive, and soon dies by drowning in the Tiber. Yet, in the end, it is said that, as a Christian, he “left this world in peace” (line 206).

Claudius succeeds Tiberius, and, upon his death, Nero becomes emperor. The plot here grows rather entangled as it combines three different elements: (1) Pilate recalled from exile to testify in person regarding Jesus’ miraculous deeds; (2) testimony given via a letter “that Pontius Pilate sent to Emperor Claudius Caesar” (line 184), which refers to the epistle already cited (art. 3a), even though it was earlier said to be addressed to Tiberius — but the author has worked to clarify this by explaining that Tiberius and Claudius ruled together (line 1); and (3) a new plot involving the rivalry between Nero’s magician Simon and the apostle Peter, a story told in more detail in The Passion of Saint Peter (art. 7). The letter is examined, Peter bears witness to Jesus’ deeds while exposing Simon as an impostor, and Pilate affirms that “In what Peter has recounted to you . . . there’s not one word of a lie” (lines 200–01). The account then ends with Pilate sent back into exile, where he stabs himself to death. The wicked Emperor Nero meets a lonely and violent death too: shot with an arrow and eaten by lions.

The letter in art. 3a is thus the authenticating document that anchors the account given here. There is only one letter — the epistle written by Pilate to Tiberius (and thus jointly to Claudius) — but there is also the portrait-cloth of Veronica, and the eyewitness testimonies of Pilate and the apostle Peter, set against the lying magician Simon. All of these documents and testimonies serve to verify the miracles of Jesus as being absolutely true. The Letter of Pilate to Emperor Claudius also brings the story of Pilate to a close and advances events to the reign of Nero, which will also serve as the temporal endpoint of The Passion of Saint Peter (art. 7).

Like its companion text, the Anglo-Norman Gospel of Nicodemus, this item was composed in the thirteenth century. And it appears, like the other contents of Harley’s booklet 2, in the two other related manuscripts: London, BL MS Egerton 2710 and Paris, BnF MS français 19525.

[Fols. 39va–41va. ANL 498. Scribe: A, with title inserted by B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 4. Initials: Scribe A left a space for large opening initial; a red Q (two lines high) was inserted by Scribe B. Layout: Two columns. Editions: None. Other MSS (Anglo-Norman Version): Aberystwyth, NLW MS 5028C, fols. 130v–131r; Cambridge, CUL MS Addit. 2751 (8), Fragment 1 (or a), fol. 1ra–rb; London, BL MS Egerton 2710, fols. 13v–21r; London, BL MS Egerton 2710, fol. 132rb–va; and Paris, BnF MS français 19525, fol. 59ra–61rb. Translations: None, but compare Clough, pp. 97–98; James 1924, p. 146; and Elliott, pp. 205–06, 213–17.]

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