The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as The Acts of Pilate, claims to be authored
by Nicodemus who is mentioned in the Gospel of John as a
member of the Sanhedrin who privately visited and spoke with Jesus and paid for Jesus' burial expenses.
The Gospel begins with Jesus' trial. Some variants of this Gospel
(Ch XV-XIX) include an
account of the descent of Jesus’ spirit into Hell
(actually Sheol) in the time between his death on the Cross and supposed resurrection ~36 hours later.
This addition is interesting in that it provides a potential back story to the earthquakes in Matthew’s Passion narrative. If the earthquakes in
Matthew are entirely fictional, this back story in the Gospel of Nicodemus could partially explain why the author of Matthew or his
source inserted two earthquakes into the narrative. The descent of Jesus’ spirit into and later out of Sheol would
necessarily be accompanied by a splitting of the earth which would manifest in the form of earthquakes; one on the way down and
another on the way up. The Gospel of Matthew also describes graves being opened from the first earthquake
with the occupants of those graves coming out after Jesus' Resurrection which would presumably coincide more or less with the second earthquake.
This back story would thus indicate that these were souls released from Sheol by Jesus during his time there.
The language used by Matthew suggests he was alluding to a passage titled "The Valley of the Dry Bones"
in the 37th Chapter of The Old Testament Book of
Ezekiel. This prophecy, although seemingly a prophecy about the coming return of the Jewish People
to Zion after the Babylonian Captivity,
also contains the first mention of Resurrection in the Old Testament.
The author of Matthew and others may have seen the vision of "The Valley of the Dry Bones" as having a second prophetic meaning
foretelling the resurrection of the dead. Credit to New Testament Scholar Dr. David Sloan for this exegesis.
As the Gospel Of Nicodemus shows evidence of having been cobbled together by more than one author and possesses a number of variants,
assigning a single definitive date to it's composition is a difficult and messy exercise. A common estimate is that one version of
the Gospel in its final form was completed sometime in the 4th century CE.