APOCRYPHON OF JOHN
The apocryphal work dealing with the risen Christ. A Coptic version of this “secret book” appeared in Berlin Papyrus 8502. It was then noted that Irenaeus may have used a Greek version in his treatise Against All the Heresies (1.29) written before A.D. 180. Notably, the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY contains no fewer than three other versions, each placed at the beginning of a codex, thus demonstrating the importance of the work.
Although the four texts present important variations, one may recognize a short version (the Berlin Papyrus and that of Nag Hammadi Codex III) and a long one (that of Codices II and IV of the Nag Hammadi Library), the latter unfortunately badly damaged. The question arises whether the longer version—in which the Christian elements are more numerous—constitutes a “Christianization” of a treatise that originally contained nothing of Christian character. According to other hypotheses (e.g., Giversen, 1963), it is the longer version of Codices II and IV that is the older.
The work purports to be a revelation from the risen Savior to John son of Zebedee. The Revealer pronounces terrible curses upon anyone who dares to divulge the mysteries to be revealed, a customary feature of “apocalypses” of a Gnostic type. The subject of the revelation is the creation both of the world and of man, as well as the origin of evil and the saving power of knowledge (gnosis).
To summarize the contents, we note that from the Invisible Spirit there emanated twelve aeons of light of whom the last, Sophia, wished to produce by herself—without her heavenly consort—a copy of the Adam of light. She produced only an abortion, a demiurge named Ialdabaoth. Guarding jealously the power that he derived from his mother, he created the world of darkness, including archons, powers of evil, and so forth. Thinking to produce an image of the Father, the archons fashioned a human body.
But being purely psychic, it was incapable of moving until Ialdabaoth was led by a ruse to breathe a particle of light into it. The man immediately showed himself superior to the frustrated demiurge, who with his archons then fashioned a purely material body, in which he imprisoned the man, as in a “tomb” and covered his senses with a veil to make him forget his divine nature. A long struggle then ensued between the Holy Spirit and the powers of evil, until the Savior was to come to convince men of their divine origin. We note also that the Revealer declared himself to be at once the Father, the Mother, and the Son, a typically Gnostic triad.
Although this document is an essentially Gnostic work, it is difficult to determine the sect to which it belonged. At its base we may find the mythological cosmogony described by Irenaeus (1.29), who designated the adherents of this doctrine by the general term “Gnostics.” Because of the important place occupied by the first aeon, Barbelo, his followers have often been termed “Barbeloites,” as if a separate sect actually existed under this name.
Moreover, a certain kinship between the Apocryphon of John and some other texts from Nag Hammadi—particularly the Hypostasis of the Archons (II, 4), the Gospel of the Egyptians (III, 2, and IV, 2) and the Trimorphic Protennoia (XIII, 1)–has lead to the supposition that here is a connection with a Sethian text, even though the name Seth does not appear. However that may be, we possibly have here a witness to a very ancient gnosis, pre-Christian according to some hypotheses. Irenaeus presented it as an ancestor of the doctrines of the Valentinians. Some elements common to Valentinianism already appear in it: aeons, the fall of Sophia, the birth of an abortion, archons, the ignorance of the demiurge, the material and the psychic body, the spark of light, and so forth.
The “basic document,” if one may so call it, is followed by a Gnostic commentary on the early chapters of Genesis. The biblical elements are almost always accompanied by the denial, “Not as Moses said. “
Apart from the possible “Christianization” mentioned above, other influences may have come together in the text as we now have it. Some have noted occasional allusions to Iran (S. Giverson and R. Kasser). For instance, the demiurge Ialdabaoth, “darkness of ignorance,” may be modeled on Ahriman, the principle of evil in Zoroastrianism, of whom Plutarch wrote that he was like “darkness and ignorance” (Isis and Osiris 46). Further, at the very beginning of the text, a Pharisee named Arimanios insidiously suggests to John that the “Nazorean” has deceived them. Notably, in Greek literature the name Arimanios appears only in connection with Zoroaster. Hence it might well be symbolic in our text. Additionally, there is even explicit reference to a “Book of Zoroaster,” which is said to give precise information about the role of the angels.
Incidentally, at the very end of the long version in Codex II there appears a series of self-revelations in “I am” style that has led to comparisons with the Isis aretalogies. On the whole, the Apocryphon of John is a very important source both for the study of gnosis and very possibly for the primitive Gnostic mythology.
- Broek, R. van den. Autogenes and Adamas: The Mythological Structure of the Apocryphon of John. Nag Hammadi Studies 17. Leiden, 1981.
- Giversen, S. Apocryphon Johannis: The Coptic Text of the Apocryphon Johannis in the Nag Hammadi Codex II, with translation, introduction, and commentary. Copenhagen, 1963.
- Janssens, Y. “L’Apocryphon de Jean.” Le Muséon 83 (1970):157-65; 84 (1971):43-64; 403-432.
- Kasser, R. “Le Livre secret de Jean.” Revue de théologie et de philosophie 14 (1964):140-50; 15 (1965):129-55; 16 (1966):163-81; 17 (1967):1-30.
- Krause, M. and P. Labib. Die Drei Versionen des Apokryphon des Johannes im Koptischen Museum zu Alt-Kairo. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, Coptic series, Vol. 1. Wiesbaden, 1962.
- Till, W. C. Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502, 2nd ed., ed. H.-M. Schenke. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der alterchristlichen Literatur. Berlin, 1972.
- Wisse, F. “The Apocryphon of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson. San Francisco, 1977.