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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 Revelation of John, by Karen King
Harvard University Press, 2006, pp 1-9.


The Secret Revelation of John, by Karen King

The Secret Revelation of John
by Karen King

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At the beginning of Christianity, nothing of what would later define it existed: no fixed canon, creed, or ritual, no established institutions or hierarchy of bishops and laity, no church buildings or sacred art. The story of Christian origins is the story of the formation of these ideas and institutions. It is a story fraught with conflict and controversy. Early Christians hotly debated the meaning of Jesus' teachings and his violent death; they experimented with ways of organizing their communities and determining who should be in charge; they disagreed about the roles of women and slaves; and they constructed boundaries between themselves and others in different ways, especially with regard to Judaism and Roman power. They developed distinct ways of contesting orthodoxy and heresy, and in so doing they created discourses of identity and difference that would pervade the West for millennia to come.

Until recently, our information about these controversies came largely from the writings of the side that won and claimed for itself the title of orthodoxy. The views of other Christians were either refracted through the accounts of their detractors or lost to history. But this situation has changed dramatically with the discovery of ancient manuscripts written by the historical losers, the "heretics." Beginning in the eighteenth century, archaeologists and scholars exploring Egypt and the Ancient Near East or traveling the silk route to China returned to Europe with ancient manu­scripts containing lost works written by these early Christians. European wealth also created a lucrative market in antiquities, and locals began stocking it with finds of their own. Many of these documents found their way into the libraries and museums of London, Paris, Berlin, and other European cities. In 1945, the most important single discovery for the his­tory of early Christianity was made. A peasant digging for fertilizer in the hills near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt uncovered a clay jar con­taining a collection of fourth-century papyrus books. As it turned out, these books contained a wealth of early Christian writings that had been buried by monks from the local Pachomian monastery in order to save them from the censors of the fifth-century Church.

Almost immediately scholars touted this discovery as a Gnostic library,' but that characterization is misleading for a number of reasons. First of all, the collection itself is extraordinarily diverse, containing known works such as a fragment of Plato's Republic alongside new and widely ranging works of Christian thought. Wisdom literature, revela­tions, gospels, letters, prayers, and ritual texts are all to be found. This diversity complexities any simple characterization. Second, the term "Gnostic" is an anachronism ultimately stemming from hindsight. It belongs to modern attempts to classify certain types of ancient Christianity as heresy, but the lines of orthodoxy and heresy were not so clear in the second to third centuries when these texts were composed.' In order to comprehend the dynamic processes by which Christianity was formed, it is necessary to set aside the winners' account of that period and attempt to place ourselves in the midst of debates whose outcome was not yet certain. Already the work of Elaine Pagels has masterfully produced sketches of what such a portrait might look like. My hope is that this book will contribute to that larger project by examining in greater detail one of the most fascinat­ing of the newly discovered works, the Apocryphon Johannis, in English titled the Secret Revelation of John.

The Secret Revelation of John was the first writing to formulate a comprehensive narrative of Christian theology, cosmology, and salvation.' In fewer than sixty manuscript pages, it describes Christ's revelation of God and the divine world, the origins of the universe and humanity, the cause of evil and suffering, the nature of the body and sexuality, the path to sal­vation, and the final end of all things. At the heart of this deeply spiritual story lies a powerful social critique of injustice and a radical affirmation of God's compassion for suffering humanity. In contrast to Roman rulers who declared themselves the authors and enforcers of universal justice and peace, the story describes the world as a shadowed place ruled by ignorant and malevolent beings. It exposes their lies and violence as violations of the true God's purpose, and offers sure knowledge of humanity's true spiritual identity and destiny. Divine emissaries frequent this dark world, bringing revelations and working in secret to lift the soul out of ignorance and degradation, and restore it to its rightful place in the world of light.

As the story opens, the Savior's disciple John is going up to the temple. He encounters a Pharisee named Arimanios who taunts him, charging that John's teacher has led him astray from the traditions of his fathers and now has abandoned him. John is so deeply disturbed by the Pharisee's charges that he goes out alone into a mountainous place in the desert, feeling lost and perplexed.

Suddenly the heavens open, a heavenly light shines, and the Savior ap­pears to him in multiple forms. The Savior comforts him and reveals to him the entire nature of the universe. He discloses the completely perfect and utterly transcendent nature of God the Father and describes the ap­pearance of a multitude of divine beings who derive from Him. He explains that first of all appeared Pronoia-Barbelo, the Mother. From her came forth the Son, the divine self-generated Christ (Autogenes). He brought forth four great Lights, each with three androgynous (male and female) pairs of eternal Aeons. The last of the eternal Aeons to appear is called Sophia, whose name in Greek means "wisdom."

She desired to produce a likeness of herself, but acted without the consent of the Father or her male partner (the male side of her aeonic pair). Although her intention was good, she acted in ignorance and as a result her product was an ignorant and evil being, a lion-faced serpent with eyes that flashed fire. This is the creator God of Genesis; his true name is

Yaldabaoth and he is called "the Chief Ruler." Possessing only a soul but not the higher power of the Spirit, Sophia's offspring is arrogant and igno­rant of his own mother. His first act is to steal some of her Spirit in order to create seven minions to serve him along with a host of angels and arch­angels. Yaldabaoth then shapes the world below. Although he uses the Divine Realm as a pattern, the lower world is deficient like its creator.

The Chief Ruler demonstrates his profound ignorance by boasting to his minions, "I am a jealous God and there is none except me." When Sophia hears this lie, she realizes her error and repents. In an attempt to comfort her, Autogenes-Christ descends to instruct the lower creation. His luminous image is revealed in the form of a human being in the waters below, and immediately Yaldabaoth and his minions seek to possess it. They now create a human likeness according to the image that they have seen in the waters, but their molded form cannot move because it has no life in it. Surreptitiously the divine Lights persuade Yaldabaoth to breathe into the human form, and Adam becomes a living being, for the breath that Yaldabaoth breathes into Adam is the Spirit he had stolen from his mother, Sophia. Left again with only soul substance, the spiritually bereft world rulers immediately see that their creation is superior to them, and they imprison Adam in a body of flesh in order to strengthen their faltering hold over him. As a result, humanity comes to be composed of Spirit from the mother, Sophia, soul from the psychic substance of Yaldabaoth and his angels, and flesh from the four elements of the earth. Humanity is thus made in the image of the Divine, but formed in the likeness of the lower world rulers. Enclosed in matter, Adam is temporarily ignorant of his true nature and origin, and becomes subject to passion, suffering, and death.

In order to save humanity from this fate, the divine Mother Pronoia sends down a female savior, the Epinoia of Light, to instruct Adam, en­lightening him about his true nature and the existence of the Divine Realm above. The world rulers dimly perceive her presence within Adam, but they do not understand exactly who and what she is. They foolishly attempt to remove the female savior from Adam surgically, which results in the birth of Eve, who is "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh." Taking the form of an eagle on the Tree of Knowledge, Epinoia continues to in­struct them both in the true knowledge. But now the world rulers try a new strategy to maintain their domination over the humans; they invent food, wealth, and labor. They rape Eve and attempt to trap humanity with sexual lust. But again they fail, for Adam recognizes his own spiritual es­sence in Eve and their sexual union produces Seth, a child in the image of the true Human. In contrast to the sexual violence and lust of the false world rulers, true sexuality consists in spiritual generation following the pattern of the Divine Realm.

At last Pronoia sends down her own Spirit of Life to instruct humanity. Those souls who receive her Spirit reject the things of this world and cultivate the Spirit within them; those who do not become subject to the counterfeit spirit which binds humanity to the power of the wicked world rulers. They chain people to fate in order to blind them further and lead them into sin and suffering. Rather than despair, however, the Secret Revelation of John offers hope, for in the end all humanity will be saved and brought into the eternal light. After a period of instruction and purifica­tion, each soul will ascend up to the Divine Realm, taking its rightful place in the Aeons of the great Lights. The situation of alienation in the world does not signal hopelessness and nihilism, because salvation awaits all those who recognize the true Spirit within, renounce evil, and grasp the living hope.

When Christ has completed this revelation, he commands John to write it down and pass it on to his fellow spirits. No longer in doubt or sorrow, John immediately goes forth to his fellow disciples and tells them everything the Savior had revealed. With this happy ending, the book closes.

Buried for more than 1500 years, this revelation has now once again come to light. What are we to make of it? The text claims to provide salvation to humanity. But salvation from what? and for what?

At the beginning of the story John is filled with doubt and perplexity. By the end he is confident, knowing the truth. Like John, those who gain salvation know who they truly are, where they belong, and how to gain peace and stability in a world of violence and deception. They know that they are the undimmed light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Their goal is to be freed, no longer to be pawns and dupes of the powers that rule the world, but purified from all sin and evil. Baptismal ritual conveys the power of the Spirit, sealing and protecting humanity against the evil machinations of the world rulers and against all suffering.

Certainly it is reasonable to suppose, as scholars have long proposed, that such a negative assessment of life in the world would reflect attitudes of alienation and disappointment. The text itself, however, actually offers little concerted preoccupation with these themes. Rather it focuses repeatedly upon exposing the injustice and illegitimacy of those who created and rule the lower world, and upon humanity's dire and immediate need for salvation. The Secret Revelation of John's "logic of salvation" requires people to reject unjust domination in order to be oriented ethically and spiritually toward God. Its message clearly challenged the ruling order of its day, which claimed that the current arrangements of worldly power were divinely sanctioned and hence natural, just, and good. The Secret Revelation of John perceived instead a nearly unbridgeable gap between the utopian ideals of its age and the less-than-ideal realities of lived experience. By contrasting the perfection of ruling power in the Divine Realm with the flawed violence and deception of the lower world rulers, the Secret Revelation of John launched a wide-ranging social critique of power relations in the world. Although this critique was couched in the language of cosmology and revelation, at least some people in antiquity understood this criti­cism of current social arrangements sufficiently well to be outraged, and they objected stridently to its portrait of the world ruled by ignorant and arrogant pretender-gods.

At first, this narrative may appear very strange to contemporary readers, but its ideas are not so far removed from the version of the story adopted by other forms of Christianity and promulgated through sermons, literature, and art for centuries. The better-known Christian heav­ens are also filled with a divine Trinity (although a Father-Son-Holy Spirit rather than the Father-Mother-Son of the Secret Revelation of John), as well as angels, archangels, and all the hosts of heaven. Below, the lower world is ruled by fallen angels, headed by Satan and his demonic minions. So, too, the story of Adam and Eve replays all that is wrong with humanity, its sin and suffering. And most centrally, God acts to save humanity through the sending of his son Christ.

Yet despite these familiar elements, the Secret Revelation of John can be daunting on a first reading. Not only are there many strange new characters, but the familiar story takes unfamiliar twists and turns, putting well-known materials such as the Genesis story of creation into fresh relief, and often giving it shockingly different meanings. The main difficulty for modern readers, however, is that the text assumes a knowledge of ancient traditions that most do not possess. Readers are clearly expected to hear allusions to a wide variety of materials that were well-known in antiquity but are less well-known today, including Jewish Wisdom literature and Plato's dialogues, especially the Timaeus and Parmenides, alongside better-known works like the Gospel of John and Genesis. Modern readers are most likely to know the story from Genesis and immediately hear its resonances in the Secret Revelation of John, but ancient readers would have recognized a much wider range of allusion. A major goal of this book is to introduce readers to the most important of those materials. We need to understand not only what cultural resources were used to tell the story but also what story was told, how it was told, and why it was told the way it was. The first question, however, is Who wrote and read such a work? What kind of Christians were these?

Who Wrote and Read the Secret Revelation of John?

We can start to answer the question of who may have written and read this work by tracing the history of the Secret Revelation of John from its rediscovery in Egypt back to the time and place of its composition and then forward through history to the present.

The Secret Revelation of John was completely unknown to the modern world until 1896, when a fifth-century papyrus book appeared on the an­tiquities market in Cairo. It was purchased by the German scholar Carl Reinhardt and taken to Berlin.' It contained not only the Secret Revelation of John, but three other works as well: the Gospel of Mary, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and the Acts of Peter.' All were written in the Coptic language, which is the last stage of ancient Egyptian transcribed into Greek letters (with a few additional letters from Demotic). The Egyptian dealer from Achmim who sold the book to Reinhardt told him that a peasant had found the book in the niche of a wall. This story cannot possibly be true, since no manuscript could survive for 1500 years in the open air, and in­deed the first editor, the Egyptologist Carl Schmidt, assumed that the manuscript had been found in the ancient graveyards of Achmim or in the area surrounding the city.

Once in Berlin, the book was placed in the Egyptian Museum and given the official title and catalogue number of Codex Berolinensis Gnosticus (BG) 8505 (commonly referred to as the Berlin Codex). Schmidt un­dertook to produce a critical text and German translation of the new find. This work was delayed, however, first by broken water pipes that de­stroyed his first edition, then by the ravages of World War I, and finally by his own untimely death in 1938." The task of continuing the edition fell to Walter Till, but it was now interrupted by World War II. Then at the end of the war, just as Till was preparing to send the manuscript to press, fabulous news reached Berlin: the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices. They contained nor one, but three additional copies of the Secret Revelation of John. Realizing that he would have to consider these manu­scripts as well for his critical edition, Till delayed publication again. In the end, however, he decided that it was likely to be a long wait before the Nag Hammadi texts reached his hands, and he gave up. He confided his exasperation to his readers: "In the course of the twelve years during which I have labored over the texts, I often made repeated changes here and there, and that will probably continue to be the case. But at some point a man must find the courage to let the manuscript leave one's hand, even if one is convinced that there is much that is still imperfect. That is unavoidable with all human endeavors: At last in 1955, the first printed edition of the text of the Secret Revelation of John finally appeared with a German translation.

In 1996, Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse published a complete synoptic edition of all four copies of the Secret Revelation of John (the Berlin Codex and the three Nag Hammadi versions), along with an English translation. Although several editions of individual codices appeared between these two works, the edition of Waldstein and Wisse will no doubt be the standard work for years to come. It is the basis for my translation in this book.

Who wrote and read the Secret Revelation of John in antiquity? The four surviving manuscripts yield multiple clues that let us place the work in at least four different settings during its five hundred year history: composi­tion in an urban school setting, probably in Alexandria, Egypt; use by the Christian polemicist Irenaeus for purposes of refutation in second-century Rome; circulation in Egypt; and collection and burial by Pachomian monks. In addition, we need to look more carefully at the history of the Secret Revelation of John after its recovery in the modern period.



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