(Above image of the Gospel of Thomas courtesy
of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate
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Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi Library.
The Apocryphon of John Collection
(The Secret Revelation of John - The Secret Book of
“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
and the immovable race of perfect humanity.”
– The Secret Book (Apocryphon) of John
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
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.
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
Five 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 three translations
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.
Marvin Meyer Translation – Dr. Mavin Meyer was the preeminent authority on Nag Hammadi texts and translations. He has contributed this beautiful and authoritative combined translation to our collection.
Frederik Wisse Translation – Originally prepared for the Coptic Gnostic Library Project, this is an accurate and
widely-referenced translation. However the above editions, and the 1995 Wisse & Waldstein
scholar's edition (below), provide what we judge to be much improved
renderings 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
Read an excerpt from the
The Secret Revelation of John, by Karen King, Harvard
University Press, 2006
The Secret Revelation of
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
Read an excerpt from the
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 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
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.
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
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
Highlights from the
Acts of John: The Nature and End of Suffering (mp3 format, 80
The Gospel of Thomas and the Hermeneutics of
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?"