Discovery of unpublished letter by Eastern bishop on Easter, from the time of Nicaea, mentioning the Acts of Pilate

There are still treasures out there, slumbering in forgotten manuscripts in the collections of the west.  French scholar Pierre Chambert-Protat today announced on Twitter that he has discovered a previously unknown ancient text in manuscript Montpellier 157.  This 9th century manuscript, copied in 848, is a collection of extracts on Easter, assembled by Florus of Lyons.

Dr C-P is researching Florus, which is how he came to look at this manuscript, and to realise that the first item in it was unknown.

He has generously uploaded pre-prints of two articles on the subject at the French HAL repository.  The first here discusses the manuscript and its contents.  The second, here, is entitled, “Une source inédite sur la question pascale au concile de Nicée : le Liber Timothei episcopi de pascha[1].

The letter is by a certain bishop Timothy to an unidentified group.  His intention is to specify how they should calculate the date of Easter, and avoid falling into the errors of a certain Stephanus (recently condemned and otherwise unknown) and four other types of error.  In the process he attacks those who want to fix the date of Easter to the Roman Julian calendar – shades of our own time! – and those who reference the apocryphal Acts of Pilate.

The language is Latin, and contains various hellenisms, not well-understood always by the Latin translator.  The subject matter seems to belong to Asia Minor or Syria, where many different methods of calculation were known.  However the work seems to be known to St Augustine, which indicates that copies were in circulation in the south of Spain or in African in the second half of the 4th century.

He intends to publish the text with French translation in the Sources Chrétiennes series.  In the mean time he gives a summary of the contents, which seems well worth reproducing here (translation mine):

§ 1 — The love which community receiving this letter have for the Gospels, as well as their faith, deserve congratulations.

§ 2 — Though now separated from them by his office, the author desires anyway to increase and strengthen the faith of this community.

§ 3 — First important reminder: there is no other truth than Christ.

§ 4 — More precisely, this letter aims to recall the meaning of Easter at a time when some are emptying this festival of meaning, as for example Stephanus did.

§ 5 — Easter must be related to 1 Cor. 5:7-8:  Nam and Pascha nostrum immolatus is Christus: ita solemnia celebremus not in fermento malitiae and nequitiae, sed in azymis sinceritatis and ueritatis.

§ 6 – The figure of this sacrament was given in Exodus, along with the main rituals.

§ 7  — The Jews sacrificed only in figure, because the true sacrifice is that of Christ, the true lamb. [Quoted in the Liber XXI Sententiarum]

§ 8 — The rituals set forth in Exodus prefigured the Christian Passover typologically. [Quoted in the Liber XXI Sententiarum]

§ 9 — These days the Jews can no longer even follow the concrete provisions of the Law, and therefore they are in contravention of them on all points.

§ 10 — But it is the case of Christians that must be examined. For it is not enough to remember Christ: it must be done at the right time. The redeeming virtue of the sacrament is at stake.

§ 11 — Some people want to hold to the fourteenth day of the month, because of the Mosaic Law. But this is to cancel the sacrifice of Christ who freed us from it, as Paul has already said.

§ 12 — Furthermore, they cannot conform to the other precepts of the Mosaic Law, and therefore cease to be Christians without becoming Jews again. They are not anyone anymore.

§ 13 — And why do those who sanctify Sundays all year long refuse to sanctify the first Sunday of the year, the root and foundation of all others?

§ 14 — Basically, it is as if they do not even believe in the resurrection. If they believed in it, they would not neglect the day of his suffering. We must fast and rejoice at the right time. And these times, according to the evangelical precept, are days: not lunar cycles, which are right for the Jews.

§ 15 — The fake “Acts of Pilate” cannot be invoked either: their testimony is incompatible with the Gospels. Now the Gospels check the prophecies; while the fake Acts, well, we do not even know where they come from. From private or public hands? But which ones? It’s a low-grade swindle.

§ 16 — In a certain sense, they fall into the error of those who don’t intercalate a month to keep the solar and lunar calendars in step: to celebrate the Easter on a different day is like celebrating the Easter of a different Christ.

§ 17 — They fear that this intercalation may make them celebrate the Passover/Easter of the unclean. But it’s because they did not understand the calendar. Intercalation is not there to introduce disorder, but to restore order: it is the law of nature. And those who want to fix Easter according to the Roman calendar create an absurdity, since the Passover/Easter is a Jewish holiday, not a Roman holiday.

§ 18 — It is not a question of celebrating Passover with the Jews, but on the contrary, that the Christian perpetuation of this feast constitutes an accusation against the Jews. The calendar shift must serve this purpose.

§ 19 — But the worst of all are those who make Easter on the fourteenth of the month and commemorate the passion on the following Friday: they celebrate the passion after the resurrection, as if they suffered because Christ was risen!

§ 20 — This disruption of Easter disturbs all the rest of the liturgical calendar: these Christians fast when we rejoice, and vice-versa. Their behaviour is a denial of all faith, a denial of Christ himself.

§ 21 — It is necessary, indeed, a terrible audacity not to observe the great day upon which all of the sacred history converges; the day of divine victory; the day that so many miraculous signs have saluted; the day when, for Christians, everything begins; the day of true sacrifice. Who neglects it excludes himself; who observes it saves himself.

§ 22 — And that is all that should be said about it, in a few words so that the assembly standing up is not tired out too much.

It sounds extremely interesting!  Well done Drs. Chambert-Protat and Camille Gerzaguet for making this known!

  1. [1]Pierre Chambert-Protat et Camille Gerzaguet, “Une source inédite sur la question pascale au concile de Nicée : le Liber Timothei episcopi de pascha“, in: Revue bénédictine 128, 2 (2018), p. 225–229. DOI : 10.1484/j.rb.5.116420.  Preprint here.

Further notes on the “Cura Sanitatis Tiberii”

Yesterday I wrote some notes on this curious Latin apocryphal text.  There is a whole cycle of medieval texts about what happened to Pilate after the gospels, often attached to the Gospel of Nicodemus in Latin versions, of which the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii is one.

Today I discovered a few more bits of information, especially that Z. Izydorczyk’s The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus: Texts, Intertexts and Contents in Western Europe (1997) is online here.  It contains some interesting information.

Given the absence of concern for textual integrity and definitive textual boundaries in manuscript culture, it is hardly surprising that the Gospel of Nicodemus provided both a source and a point of gravity for a host of minor, often derivative compositions. Known collectively as the cycle of Pilate, those texts are quite diverse in form and content, and include private and official letters, reports, narratives, and legal pronouncements. What links them all is the emphasis on the person of Pilate, textual and thematic links to the GN, and frequent co-occurrence with the GN in manuscripts (in fact, they are sometimes fully integrated with it). Most of them were originally written in crude Greek or Latin and later translated into various Eastern and Western languages.

The notion of the cycle of Pilate is rather loose and has never been unambiguously defined. There is no absolute agreement as to which texts should be included in it and which should not, but there is a general consensus that the cycle constitutes the immediate textual milieu for the AP. Since the Pilate cycle will occasionally enter the discussions of the apocryphon in this book, it may be worthwhile to mention its main texts here….

He then gives a useful list, with a short summary of the contents of each.  He indicates that his list is derived from Mauritius Geerard, Clavis apocryphorum Novi Testamenti, Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum (Tumhout: Brepols, 1992), no. 64 onwards.

Cura sanitatis Tiberii: Tiberius is miraculously healed by an image of Christ, Peter confirms the truth of Pilate’s report on Jesus, and Nero exiles Pilate, who commits suicide. The work was composed in Latin, possibly in northern Italy, between the fifth and the eighth centuries.

A more detailed discussion appears on p.57-9, in which the date of the piece is given as between the 5-8th centuries; the latter being the date of the first extant manuscript, while the former is the date of the Latin translation of the Gospel of Nicodemus, to which the Cura is “textually indebted.”

The CANT indicates that the Cura is CANT 69 (BHL 4218-4220), that there are two recensions, and the edition is by Dobschutz, as we saw yesterday.  I learn from Izydorczyk that an Old Czech version of the Cura exists; and Old English, Middle English, and German versions.  A google search informs me of a volume of Old French and Middle French versions of Pilate texts, including the Cura.[1]

It is curious, tho, that no modern translation exists.  It seems clear that a volume which edits the entire cycle, with translations, would be very useful to have.  Would it be so hard to do?

Update (24 April 2022): Since this was written, an English translation by Tuomas Levänen has appeared and is online here.

  1. [1]A.E. Ford (ed.), La Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur, 1993. ISBN: 978-0-88844-115-7. Info from Brepols here.

The death of Pilate: a text and some notes on the “Cura Sanitatis Tiberii”

A correspondent enquired whether I knew of a translation of a text named the Cura sanitatis Tiberii.  Never having heard of this text, I looked into it.  Here is what I found.

In the medieval Greek and Latin manuscripts, there are preserved a whole cycle of fictional stories known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Acts of Pilate, and various other texts connected to Pilate, including letters, and accounts of his death.  Both J.K. Elliot in his Apocryphal New Testament[1] and W. Schneemelcher[2] group this material together, rather hopelessly; and those who read through it, to get an overview of the corpus, will find their patience strained.  The texts were all published originally Tischendorff[3] and both Elliot and Schneemelcher refer to the pages of his edition using abbreviations like “Ea.”

The literature contains three different accounts of the death of Pilate, taking different views of his attitude to Christianity.  All are medieval.  Schneemelcher mentions them on p.530 and 532-3.

The first of these is the Paradosis or Handing over of Pilate (text in Ea. pp. 449-455), which is found appended to another text, the Anaphora, which itself is an appendix to the Acts of Pilate.  The Paradosis treats Pilate as a saint, and has an eastern origin.  It is translated by Schneemelcher (p.530-532), and Elliot (p.208-211) with an extensive list of other translations.

The next account is the Mors Pilati or Death of Pilate (text in Ea. pp.456-458).  In this the Emperor Tiberius is sick.  He sends out an envoy, Volusianus, and is cured by the Veronica.  Pilate is punished.  This is a very late western text, based by Tischendorff on a 14th century manuscript.  Elliot (p.216-7) gives only a summary plus a list of editions and translations.  The English translations are: Cowper, 415-19[4]; Walker, 234-6[5]; Westcott, 131-5.[6]

The final account is, so Schneemelcher says, the Cura sanitatis Tiberii or Cure of the illness of Tiberius (text in Ea. 471-486), and summarises it (p.532-3).  But at this point confusion creeps in.  For there are two texts involved here, related but different.  For Schneemelcher also refers to the Vindicta Salvatoris or Vengeance of the Saviour, as if it was the same text.  This is also discussed by Elliot, but without reference to the Cura.  Elliot gives a summary and translation of the Vindicta (p.213-6), and lists the modern translations as Cowper, 432-47; Walker, 245-55; Westcott, 146-59; and M.R. James, 159-60 (summary).

A real modern critical edition of the Latin Cura sanitatis Tiberii is to be found in E. Dobschütz, Christusbilder: Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende (Leipzig, 1899)[7], in the second volume with the curious page numbers 157**-203**.  Examining this, it is clear that the text translated by Walker is not the same work as that published by Dobschütz.

The text edited by Dobschütz is based on a range of manuscripts, from th 8-15th centuries.  He dismisses the 14th century date – for obvious reasons – and suggests that this text is in fact the earliest witness to the legend of the Veronica, the piece of cloth with which Christ wiped his face while carrying his cross.  He states that the Vindicta is not the same text; and that Tischendorff simply ignored the Cura, in favour of the Vindicta and the Mors, which he discovered and described as older.[8]

An edition of the Cura was given by Schoenbach in Anzeiger für deutsches Altertum II 1876 (= Zeitschrift XX) p.173-180, based on a younger manuscript.  Dobschütz sneered at this edition for using a smoothed, modern text, rather than grappling with the difficulties of 8th century Latin and reproducing its orthography.  (I confess, after OCRing Dobschütz’s effort, so that I could read what the text said, I found myself short of sympathy for his point of view).

I thought that I would end by giving the Latin text, as best I could, from Dobschütz, stripped of his apparatus.  Here it is:

Anybody fancy making a translation?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a paper on the Cura sanitatis Tiberii and the Vindicta Salvatoris is accessible online: Remi Gounelle, « Les origines littéraires de la légende de Véronique et de la Sainte Face: la Cura sanitatis Tiberii et la Vindicta Saluatoris », dans A. MONACI CASTAGNO (éd.), Sacre impronte e oggetti « non fatti da mano d’uomo » nelle religioni…., Turin, Edizioni dell’Orso, 2011, p. 231-251.  It’s good stuff!

  1. [1]J.K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford, 1993.  The “Pilate cycle” begins on p.164.  See esp. p.216.
  2. [2]W. Schneemelcher, Tr. Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, 1991.  The material of interest to us begins on P.501 ff.  See esp. p.530, 532.
  3. [3]C. Tischendorff, Evangelia Apocrypha, Leipzig, 1876.
  4. [4]B. H. Cowper, The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents relating to the History of Christ (Edinburgh and London, 1867).
  5. [5]A. Walker, Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Revelations (Edinburgh, 1870) (= A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (eds.),Ante-Nicene Christian Library 16).  This is the ANF translation.
  6. [6]A. Westcott, The Gospel of Nicodemus and Kindred Documents (London,1915).
  7. [7]Online here.
  8. [8]Giving as reference the Ea., 2nd edition, 1876, p.LXXXII and seq.