Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thoughts on the Apocryphon of John

Saint John the Evangelist,
Evron (?), France (c.1330) (LACMA)
Nothing captures the imagination quite like the Apocryphon of John (ApocJohn), or the Secret Book of John,* an important second century gnostic text that continues to be popular today. It has a sort of “shock and awe” effect on many commentators, translators, and editors. They marvel at its complex cosmology – spirit beings with multiple identities, heavenly genealogies, lengthy lists of demonic names, etc. To modern ears, the tangled mess may sound a bit like an origins story for a video game “universe” that only a preteen could make sense of. I nearly gave up until I noticed it had a very simple message: Man is superior to his Creator. Readers who dwell on the details of the text – the androgynic nature of Barbelo, various numerical patterns, etc. – are simply missing the forest for the trees.

In a nutshell, the ApocJohn is a revisionist mythology written to justify humans rejecting the authority of their creator, who historically would’ve been recognized as having the power to command worship from his creation and judge all people. In the book, Jesus appears in a vision to share this information with John, as it becomes pertinent for his and everyone else’s salvation. While some gnostics were known for glorifying “Wisdom” (Sophia), here, she is the spirit world’s Pandora, who brings “Mindlessness” into existence. This ignorant and arrogant one is the demiurge Yaldabaoth, responsible for the created physical world and intentionally associated with the God of the Bible through various Old Testament quotes and references. Through the trickery of the heavenly beings, the created man actually becomes greater than his mindless creator. Filled jealousy, Yaldabaoth and hoards of demonic henchmen use the physical body and physical pleasures (e.g., sex, wealth) to blind and imprison man. It is only by recognizing his true identity – his superiority over his creator – that man is saved.

A few centuries before the ApocJohn was written, the prophet Isaiah reported the words of the Lord on this sort of narcissism:
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?Isaiah 29:16 (ESV)
In Sunday School, the correct answer was “Of course, not!” We assumed it’s stupid for the clay to question the potter’s intelligence. And rather ironically, most of the ApocJohn also assumes that a creator, father, or mother being is naturally greater than any creation or offspring. It is only in the case of humanity when the tables are turned. The result is a religion that preaches the virtue of boosting one’s self esteem. The serpent’s lie becomes a central doctrine of faith, and people are praised for turning up their noses at God.

* Irenaeus, bishop of present day Lyons, France, criticized the myth presented in the ApocJohn in his infamous Against Heresies (Chapter XXIX), available on CCEL. Online editions of this “Sethian” gnostic text are available at I prefer the translation by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer included in their The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds to Stevan Davies’ printed edition, which tends to clutter the notes with interpretations that I find extremely inconsistent with the text.