First page of "Gospel of Thomas" coptic manuscript. (Photo Courtesy of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University)

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(Above image of the Gospel of Thomas courtesy of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University)


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The Apocryphon of John Collection
(The Secret Revelation of John - The Secret Book of John)

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Excerpt from the Introduction:

The Secret Book of John, translation & annotation by Stevan Davies
Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005, pp ix-xiv



The Secret Revelation of John, by Karen King

The Secret Book of John
by Stevan Davies

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The Secret Book of John is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion. Written in Greek during the early second century CE by an unknown author, the Secret Book of John became the source of a host of other Gnostic texts, myths, and cosmic systems. In Greek its title is Apocryphon Johannis and it is known in scholarship as the Apocryphon of John. The word apocryphon means "secret" or "hidden." The Secret Book of John tells the story of the devolution of God from perfect Oneness to imprisonment in the material world. If you look at some of its sections it is Christian, in others it is a version of Platonic philosophy, frequently it is a book of Jewish commentary on Moses's Torah. It is all of these things in ways that the authorities of orthodoxy in Christianity, Platonism, and Judaism totally rejected. It is the foundation of something else, something supported by the historical tripod of Christianity, Platonism, and Judaism, but it is none of those. It is the expression of a whole new point of view, new in its own time, and new in our time, for the full version of the Secret Book of John was only discovered recently, although its existence was known long before.

Around 180 CE a bishop of Lyon, a man named Irenaeus, decided to write a book attacking all forms of Christianity he knew of that differed from the form of which he approved. All other forms were, in his mind, heresies and most fit into the very broad, ill-defined category of religion we call Gnosticism. His five-volume book, entitled Against Heresies, takes a violently negative view of its subjects. Fortunately, Irenaeus does describe in considerable detail what he despises. In chapter 29 of his first volume, Irenaeus outlines some sections of the Secret Book of John in detail. This tells us that the Secret Book of John must have been written well before 180 CE (although not in the exact form we have it now) and we know that its circulation included Gaul (today's France), in order for Irenaeus to have read it.

In Cairo in 1896, German scholar Carl Reinhardt bought an ancient book written in Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language written in mainly Greek letters. That book, which is now known as the Berlin Gnostic Codex, turned out to contain three important Gnostic writings: the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, and the Wisdom of Jesus Christ. Because of the two world wars, these texts were not made generally available until the 1950s. By that time an even more important discovery had been made.

In Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, local workers stumbled upon a very large jar in which were hidden thirteen books containing a total of fifty-two documents of ancient Gnostic wisdom. Some were very badly damaged, some were slightly damaged, and some remained in excellent condition. For the study of early Christianity in its unorthodox forms, and probably also in its orthodox form, this was the most important manuscript discovery ever made.

The document that appears most frequently in the Nag Hammadi collection is the Secret Book of John. Three copies were found there; no other text is found more than twice. In all three cases, the Secret Book of John is the first document bound into its volume. Book II of the Nag Hammadi Library begins with the Secret Book of John, which is then followed by the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and four other texts. Book begins with the Secret Book of John, followed by the Gospel of the Egyptians, earlier and later versions of the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, and finally, the Dialogue of the Savior. Book IV starts with the Secret Book of John, which is followed by the Gospel of the Egyptians. This prominent placement clearly shows that the Secret Book of John provided the context in which much of the Nag Hammadi Library was read. For example, people who read Book II read the Gospel of Thomas in light of what they had just completed, the Secret Book of John. By contrast, today most people who read and study the Gospel of Thomas do so with the canonical Gospels in mind.

Ancient books were sometimes bound in covers made from glued-together pieces of papyrus: trash pages from worn-out books, thrown-away letters, out-of-date commercial documents, and so forth. This material can be painstakingly separated and read, providing valuable historical context for the text enclosed. When the covers of the Nag Hammadi books were taken apart in this way, it turned out that the scraps of papyrus in them sometimes contained dates, the latest of which is 348 CE. Some of that papyrus seems to have originated in a Christian monastery. There were ancient monasteries in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi, and some scholars are convinced that the Gnostic library found hidden in 1945 was once part of an orthodox Christian monastic library. Others are skeptical, saying that the discarded papyrus used for book covers could just as well have come from a community trash heap where monks and others threw scraps of paper away. Be that as it may, we can be sure that most of the Nag Hammadi books were copied and bound in the middle of the fourth century CE; the Berlin Gnostic Codex comes from the same period.

We now have four copies of the Secret Book of John: three from Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and the fourth in the Berlin Gnostic Codex from an unknown place in Egypt. All are written in Coptic, but like the other Nag Hammadi documents, they were originally written in Greek, as evidenced by the many Greek words that remain untranslated in the Coptic manuscripts. Specialists have concluded that these four copies represent three different Coptic translations. They fall into two categories: a long version of the Secret Book of John (found in Nag Hammadi Books II and IV) and a shorter version (found in Nag Hammadi Book III and in the Berlin Gnostic Codex). The difference is, basically, that the long version contains two sections that do not appear in the short version: a detailed exposition of the creation of primordial Adam by many different demons, and a three-part poem about the Providence of God journeying into this world. Apart from these, the longer and shorter versions generally agree on main points while differing in details.

The Gnostic Gospel

The Secret Book of John is "The Gnostic Gospel" in the sense that Paul meant when he wrote of there being many gospels, although, of course, Paul believed only his own gospel came from God. Paul uses the word gospel to mean a message about the nature of God and Christ and Salvation not a narrative biography of Jesus, as we now often use the word. The Secret Book of John has no biographical narrative apart from its opening lines. Nevertheless, because it is a message about the nature of God and Christ and Salvation it is a "gospel," although certainly not one that Paul would have approved.

It is a "Gnostic" gospel because it teaches that salvation comes from knowledge, or "gnosis": knowledge of our divine nature, our divine origin, and our ultimate goal, which is to be restored to our rightful place within God. And it is "the" Gnostic Gospel because it has first place among Gnostic writings both literally (in three Nag Hammadi volumes) and figuratively. It gives the basic Gnostic message, one that other Gnostic texts, many of which are extensive and creative revisions of sections of the Secret Book of John, also give in their varied and creative ways.

The Secret Book of John begins with a brief narrative passage telling us that what we are reading is a revelation of the ascended Jesus Christ to his disciple John, son of Zebedee. The revelation itself occupies the text until the end, when Jesus and John appear once again to bring the book to its conclusion. Because of these beginning and concluding passages, the whole text presents itself as Christian: a revelation by Jesus to one of his disciples. However, these sections were added to a preexisting mythological book that was not Christian at all. It was mythologized Middle Platonism combined with a Jewish inversion of the Genesis story and a Gnostic theory of fall and salvation. Whether this non-Christian version of the Secret Book of John was chronologically pre-Christian is debatable; many scholars think it probably came into being toward the end of the first century CE, but it is possible that it was in writing, in one form or another, a century or more before that.

Because the Secret Book of John was so important to the Gnostics, over the centuries many scribes added clarifying comments to it. Because the Gnostics valued change and creativity, which the orthodox condemned as the matrix of heresy, the Secret Book of John went through many copies, versions, and editions. Accordingly, the copies we have today contain wide variations of comments and vocabulary blended into the main text. It does not flow smoothly, but when you get used to it, it's not so confusing.

The Secret Book of John tells the history of God, beginning with passages that stress God's incomprehensible nature. At first we hear that God, "the One," cannot be discussed in words, but as we move along in the myth, the One becomes increasingly comprehensible. Soon we hear that the Godhead apprehends itself in the surrounding supernal light and twoness emerges: God and God Aware of God or God and the self-consciousness of God.

As the myth continues, the self-consciousness of God asks for and receives a set of mental faculties that appear to be structured in the manner of mandalas, circular diagrams with four different quadrants surrounding a more important central element. These mental faculties are described as if they constitute the royal court of heaven. We are reading about the gradual emergence of God's mind, a set of interacting capacities that come into being below, as it were, the ultimate level of the Incomprehensible One. This is a developmental psychology, a descriptive Middle-Platonic philosophy, and most importantly, a cosmic mythology all rolled into one.

After the full development of the mind of God—a fullness called pleroma in Greek—has been outlined, a crisis occurs. One aspect of God's mind, its wisdom—Sophia in Greek—seeks to know an image of herself apart from the fullness. Sophia's individual effort has disastrous results.

She discovers an image that is not the full mind of God at all, but a monster named Yaldabaoth who appears to exist outside of God. This is a mistake on God's part (for God's wisdom is part of God at all times) and is perhaps even God going insane and imagining reality outside of God that cannot be. The consequences of this mistake occupy the rest of the Secret Book of John.

We hear that Yaldabaoth, the being brought into existence by Sophia, begins to construct a world based on his inadequate, half-witted knowledge of the higher realms of God's mind. This is an artificial world, a bad imitation of the real world, a world that becomes our world. Yaldabaoth brings beings into existence who are his subordinate rulers: demons who dominate this lower, artificial world. The divine powers of the wisdom of God, without whom nothing could exist, also act within this lower world.

To return Wisdom's stolen power to God, a plan comes down from the whole fullness of the mind of God. Yaldabaoth will be deceived so that he blows his power into a creature who will in turn restore that power to the higher realms. The divine realms are clearly revealed to Yaldabaoth and his demons, and they decide to construct a being modeled on that revelation. That being is Adam; he gains life and mobility only after Yaldabaoth's power is blown into him.

The higher realms of God send down mental power symbolized as Eve to assist Adam; both are, of course, symbolic beings and not real people. Yaldabaoth and his demons scheme to imprison Adam and Eve in matter in this world, but the higher realms send down revelation to assist them. The book concludes with a three-part hymn wherein revelation, called Providence, comes into the world to release us from bondage, for we all are Adam and Eve.


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