The end of the "Apocryphon of John" and the beginning page of the "Gospel of Thomas" coptic manuscript. (Photo Courtesy of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University)


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Visit the Bookstore for a complete selection of translations and books about Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi Library.

The Fifth Gospel, by Stephen Patterson


 

The Secret Teachings of Jesus, edited by Marvin Meyer


 

Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing


 

The Gnostic Scriptures, by Bentley Layton


 

Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas, by Elaine Pagels


The Gnostic Society Library

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

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"I have come to teach you about what is, and what was, and what will be
in order for you to understand the invisible world, and the world that is visible,
and the immovable race of perfect humanity".
The Apocryphon of John

 

Introduction

Among the several dozen ancient Gnostic manuscripts rediscovered in modern times, the Secret Book of John is generally agreed to be the most important. It has been called the locus classicus for the Gnostic mythological system – in sum, it is the preeminent “Gnostic Gospel”, a sacred reservoir for the defining essence of Gnostic myth and revelation.  It breathes with the life of vision that vitalized early Christianity, a life suppressed and then largely forgotten in later ages. From a modern reading of this crucially important and recently rediscovered "Gospel", we are granted fundamental insights into the lost foundations of Christian tradition.

Apocryphon Iohannis – the Apocryphon of John – is the title that appears on the original manuscripts, and by this title the text has been known in scholarly circles over the last fifty years. In Greek, apocryphon literally means “hidden” or “secret”, thus in recent popular literature the title is usually translated as either the Secret Book of John or The Secret Revelation of John.   

Saint John the Evangelist, by El GrecoBy its own declaration, the Secret Book of John is a sacred text intended to be shared only with individuals properly prepared to receive its revelation. In second-century Christian communions circulation of the text probably remained restricted.  Amazingly, despite limited circulation and  the effective later efforts by evolving Christian orthodoxy to destroy all such “heretical” scriptures, four separate manuscripts of the SBJ have survived into our own age. Three of these were found among the Nag Hammadi codices discovered in 1945, while a fourth copy was independently recovered fifty years earlier from another site in Egypt. All four versions date to the fourth century. Three of the four appear to be independently produced Coptic translations of an original text in Greek. Two of the four manuscripts (NHC II and NHC IV) are so similar that they most likely represent copies of a single common source.

To put in context the uniqueness of finding four complete copies of a document of this extreme antiquity, note that we possess only two fairly complete manuscripts of the canonical gospels of equal age (the Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus).  Only a few fragments of canonical texts with dates of creation earlier than the fourth century have survived. These four manuscripts of the Apocryphon of John represent some of the oldest known surviving books. From the ancient sands of Egypt, they come to our modern age bearing a timeless message.

The Secret Book of John is the one Gnostic text every student seeking to understand the roots of ancient Christianity must read.  At first reading it will seem unlike anything encountered in the New Testament -- excepting perhaps the Apocalypse of John. Like the Apocalypse, this too is a revelation text, a secret and sacred vision.  It is the story of God, and by reflection, the story of Humankind -- a penetrating psychological reflection on the source of consciousness and the existential predicament of an eternal light indwelling life. It is not an intellectual curiosity, nor is it a text to be "surfed", in the perverse sense of modern internet reading.  As Prof Karen King notes:

In antiquity, readers studied the Secret Revelation of John in order to perfect the divine image of their souls; it was composed, translated, and distributed largely to further salvation—or to refute its claims to aid in salvation. In the modern world, however, it has rarely been read with such goals in mind. It usually finds its place either in the theology of orthodox Christianity as a chapter on Gnostic heresy or in disputes about the historical origins and definition of Gnosticism. Within the academy more narrowly its value largely has to do with intellectual production and prestige, including concerns about tenure and promotion—salvation, if you will, of a rather different sort. As the Secret Revelation of John becomes known more widely, we may expect it to have new and varied impacts on early Christian historiography, constructive theology, and personal appropriation. In any case, modern readers do not stand outside the work's history, but take it up on a new historical stage. (King, p 23)

The resources in this collection are intended to assist study of the Secret Revelation -- the Secret Book, the Apocryphon -- of John, to help it become more widely known, to aid the "personal appropriation" by modern readers who now surprisingly find themselves part of its history. 

In addition to the materials presented here, we strongly advise serious students obtain two excellent books.  The first is Stevan Davies' superb new translation of The Secret Book of John.  Davies has produced a readable translation that is profoundly true to the source material:  it is both accurate and beautiful.  Davies' translation is accompanied by an excellent verse by verse commentary on facing pages.  For any reader, this is the place to start.  The second book is Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John.  This is an extensive and scholarly -- but still very readable -- study of the text and the cultural milieu that influenced and in turn was influenced by the Apocryphon Iohannis.

-- Lance Owens
 

Online Editions of the Apocryphon of John

The Secret Book of John, by Stevan Davies
The Secret Book of John
by Stevan Davies

Four translations of the Apocryphon of John are available in our Library collection.  It must be remembered that there are four separate manuscripts of the text, each with some variation.  Most translations reference the text of all  four to develop a single coherent English version. This is the case with the first two translations listed. 

Stevan Davies Translation -- Davies renders the text in a free-verse format that greatly enhances its beauty and intelligibility.  This is the translation we recommend to readers meeting the text for the first time.

Frederik Wisse Translation -- Prepared for the Nag Hammadi Library in English, this is an accurate and widely-referenced translation, however the 1995 Wisse & Waldstein scholar's edition (below) provides what we judge to be a much improved rendering of the texts.

It is instructive  to see how and where the different manuscripts vary textually.  To allow this, we provide editions of the Waldstein and Wisse translations of both the long version (from NHL Codex II,1 and Codex IV,1) and short version (from NHL Codex III,1 and Berlin Codex BG 8502,2) of the Apocryphon of John.

Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse Translation -- This is the scholar's edition, providing comparative translations of each of the four surviving manuscripts of the Apocryphon of John.

Short Version (NHL Codex III,1 and Berlin Codex BG 8502,2)

Long Version (NHL Codex II,1 and Codex IV,1)

 

Print Editions of the Apocryphon of John

In addition to the materials presented here, we strongly advise serious students obtain one or two of the following print editions of the Apocryphon of John.  Each of these three volumes has a different scope and focus.

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

Our first recommendation is Stevan Davies' superb new translation of The Secret Book of John.  Davies has produced a readable translation that is profoundly true to the source material:  it is both accurate and beautiful.  The author provides a useful and detailed verse by verse commentary on facing pages.  For any reader, this is currently the place to start. (Dr. Davies has given us permission to include his translation in this collection, however the commentary is only available in the print edition.)  Stevan Davies is Professor Religious Studies, College Misericordia.  Buy the Book

Read an excerpt from the Introduction.

The Secret Revelation of John, by Karen King, Harvard University Press, 2006

The Secret Revelation of John, by Karen King
The Secret Revelation of John
by Karen King

The second recommended book is Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John.  This is an extensive and scholarly -- but still very readable -- study of the text and the cultural milieu that both influenced, and in turn was influenced by, the Apocryphon Iohannis. Included are translations of the "short" and "long" version of the text (based on the Waldsein and Wisse edition), an in-depth analysis, an extensive multi-faceted commentary, and copious academic notes and citations. Karen King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Harvard University. Buy the Book

Read an excerpt from the Introduction.

The Apocryphon of John: Synopsis of Nag Hammadi Codices II,1;III,1; and IV,1 with BG 8502,2 by Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse, Brill Academic Pub, 1995

The authoritative academic translation of the Apocryphon of John, prepared by two leading Coptic scholars.  All current translations of the manuscripts reference this edition.  While not suited for the casual student, every serious scholar will be eventually wish to consult this text.We have included a translation of both the long and short versions of the Apocryphon of John  base on this edition in our online collection. (Like all the academic books published by Brill, this volume usually sells for around $100.)   Buy the Book


The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus,
edited and translated by Marvin Meyer,
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005

This is our top recommendation for readers beginning their exploration of the Gnostic scriptures. Over the last three decades Prof. Marvin Meyer has distinguished himself as a singularly talented translator and commentator. In this new collection,  the best of several  that he has now published, Meyer presents twelve key Gnostic "gospels"-- including the Secret Book of John -- in succinct, accurate and highly readable new translations. Each text is given a useful explanatory introduction. If you do not already own a collection of the principal Gnostic scriptures, you will want this book.  Buy the Book

 

Gnostic Texts from the Tradition of John

In early Christianity there existed traditions, often geographical localized, that honored a specific Christian apostolic figure as primary patron and initiatory source.  The tradition of John was prominent among these. Scholars generally accept that several voices conveyed the  traditions and authored the texts attributed to the apostolic figure of John -- and they recognize in this tradition a distinctive vision of Christ and His message. Of course, even the most casual students note that the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse of John are unlike anything else in the New Testament.   

During the second and third century, some factions within the early Christian movement considered the tradition of John to be dangerously admixed with Gnostic heresy to the point of rejecting the Gospel of John as a Gnostic forgery. For many centuries it was argued that the Revelations of John should not be part of the canon of Christianity. That extreme view reflects a fact well recognized by modern scholarship: the tradition that claimed to speak in the name of John was intertwined with esoteric, visionary inclinations associated with Christian Gnosticism. Orthodox Christianity has perpetually labored to embrace John, and at the same time, extract John from the deep running Gnostic currents that suffused Johannine tradition.

The Secret Book of John is one evidence of this supressed "Gnostic" view and veneration of John.  In complement to the Secret Book of John, another remarkable "voice of John" has survived within a text known as the Acts of John

The Hymn of Jesus and The Mystery of the Cross  from the Acts of John

These two readings are taken from the Acts of John, a text dating from the early second century (perhaps as early as A.D. 130) and preserved for two millennia within orthodox archives. The passages here, comprising sections 96 to 102 of the Acts of John, unfold a movingly poetic statement of the Gnostic vision of Christ, presented through the voice of the Apostle John.

For a detailed introduction and commentary on the texts, see The Hymn of Jesus by G.R.S. Mead.  

The Hymn of Jesus by G.R.S. Mead. A commentary and analysis of the Hymn text in the Acts of John.

The Acts of John --  Complete text of the Acts of John.
 

The first known Gospel commentary was a commentary on the Gospel of John written around 170 AD. It was authored by a prominent Gnostic Christian and disciple of Valentinus, Heracleon.  While the Secret Revelation of John and the hymn text in the Acts of John reflect the esoteric and visionary side of the John tradition, Heracleon's commentary illustrates the public exegetical energy of the Gnostic memory of John.

Heracleon: Fragments from the first Commentary on the Gospel of John  

Though the complete text of Heracleon's commentary has been lost, portions are preserved in the surviving sections of Origen's commentary on John, written about fifty years later (perhaps around 230 AD).  In his commentary, Origin extensively quotes and then responds to Heracleon.  For an extensive analysis of Heracleon's Commentary, see: Elaine H. Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1973).  This was Dr. Pagels first book, and is based on her doctoral dissertation.  Buy the Book

In addition to Heracleon's commentary, we find one of the earliest commentaries on the Prologue to the Gospel of John was authored by Ptolemy, another late-second century Gnostic Christian and prominent disciple of Valentinus.

Ptolemy: A Gnostic Commentary on the Gospel of John Prologue

These fragments from Ptolemy's commentary are preserved by Irenaeus in his Adversus Heraeses (section 1.8.5), written around 180 AD. (Remember, the earliest known quotations from the Apocryphon of John appear in this same work by Irenaeus.)

The Questions of John. The medieval Cathar tradition was deeply devoted to the traditions of John, and preserved a very important Johannine text: the Interregatio Iohannis ("The Questions of John," also sometimes referred to in translation as "The Book of John the Evangelist"). This text most likely preserves a work from the Johannine tradition with origins in a very early period of Classical Gnosticism, conjecturally dating to a first source as early as the second century.

 

Commentary on The Secret Book of John

Academically inclined readers may find useful this extended paper by Dr Karen King: "Reading Sex and Gender in the Secret Revelation of John", The Journal of Early Christian Studies 19:4 (Winter 2011), pp. 519-538.

 

Online Audio Lectures about The Secret Book of John

The following lecture series presented by Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller, a noted authority on Gnosticism, is available for purchase and download online in MP3 format.  This series of lectures is based on the excellent new "reader's edition" of the The Secret Book of John by Dr. Stevan Davies. 

Gnostic Theory and Practice - A Commentary on the Secret Book of John  (Available at www.bcrecordings.net)

  • Lecture 1 -- In the Beginning: The roots of consciousness and of being. (86 minutes)
     
  • Lecture 2 -- The Structures of Divine Consciousness: The threefold structures of Divine mind, from whence all knowledge proceeds. (43 minutes)
     
  • Lecture 3 -- The Story of Sophia: How the demiurge fashioned creation. (81 minutes)
     
  • Lecture 4 --  How Humanity Began: The mysterious origins of human nature, its esoteric psychology and philosophy. (79 minutes)

Highlights from the Acts of John: The Nature and End of Suffering (mp3 format, 80 min).

Detail - Saint John the Evangelist, by El Greco

The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision

And essay on vision and Gnostic textual traditions, addressed specifically to the the Gospel of Thomas but also relevant to the Secret Book of John

In its opening words the Gospel of Thomas offers a stunning hermeneutic challenge: "whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death." Unfortunately, modern readers comes to this incipit devoid of a technique of interpretive reading -- an hermeneutics -- that grants entry into the mysterious meaning vouchsafed by such words.  This essay, The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of Vision by Dr. Lance Owens, explores answer to a compelling question:  "Was there an original tradition of interpretation – a hermeneutic technique – implicit in early transmissions of the Thomas tradition that gave an organic coherence to readings of the text, and if so, is that hermeneutic method still accessible? Can modern readers meet the challenge of the Thomas incipit?"

 

 

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