This article is part of a series on Gnosticism
The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John) is a 2nd-century AD Sethian Gnostic text of secret teachings. Since it was known to the church father Irenaeus, it must have been written before around AD 180. It describes Jesus Christ appearing and giving secret knowledge (gnosis) to the apostle John. The author describes this having occurred after Jesus "has gone back to the place from which he came". This book is reputed to bear this revelation.
The opening words of the Secret Book of John are "The teaching of the saviour, and the revelation of the mysteries and the things hidden in silence, even these things which he taught John, his disciple." The author John is immediately specified as "John, the brother of James — who are the sons of Zebedee." There are four separate surviving manuscripts of "The Secret Book of John". Three of these were found in the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, while the fourth was found independently 50 years earlier from another site in Egypt. All four versions date to the 4th century. Three of these appear to be independently produced Coptic translations of an original Greek text. Two of the four are similar enough that they probably represent copies of a single source.
Many Christians in the 2nd century CE hoped to receive a transcendent personal revelation such as Paul was able to report to the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) or that John experienced on the isle of Patmos, which inspired his Revelation. As Acts narrates what happened after the time Jesus ascended to heaven, so the Apocryphon of John begins at the same point but relates how Christ reappeared to John.
The remainder of the book is a vision of spiritual realms and of the prior history of spiritual humanity.
To a reader unfamiliar with the Gnostic myth of creation, the countless number of aeons and emanations of a God, more perfect and all encompassing than God, the creator, seem frightfully out of place. In fact the only familiar figure in the whole of the Gnostic creation story as presented in the Apocryphon of John may be Adam, the first human being. In the biblical version of Genesis, Adam is created first, and Eve, his companion and in many ways, as presented in the canon, his ward, is created from him as the second. From biblical interpretations, many conclude or believe that Adam and Eve were in fact historical people who did live, and serve as a model for the rest of humanity. According to Stephan Hoeller's article, "The Genesis Factor," Gnostic texts like the Apocryphon of John portray Adam and Eve as mythical, allegorical figures. In this context, Adam is the embodiment of the soul, the emotional and intellectual aspects of the human condition, while Eve is the embodiment of the spirit, the human capacity for spiritual consciousness. As a result, when one reads passages from the Apocryphon of John such as, "And he sent, through his beneficent Spirit and his great mercy, a helper to Adam, luminous Epinoia which comes out of him, who is called Life. And she assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his seed (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, (which is) the way he came down. And the luminous Epinoia was hidden in Adam, in order that the archons might not know her, but that the Epinoia might be a correction of the deficiency of the mother," it is easy to see how Adam and Epinoia (Eve) are allegorical figures in a larger narrative about gnosis. In addition, the Gnostic depictions of Adam and Eve also seem to refute the assumption that Adam, as a man, was superior to Eve. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. It is Eve who is elevated above Adam as the being who first revealed his true nature to him and attempted to lift the veil of ignorance set upon humanity by God, the creator.
A book called the Apocryphon of John was referred to by Irenaeus in Adversus Haereses, written about 185 CE, among the writings that teachers in 2nd-century Christian communities were producing, "an indescribable number of secret and illegitimate writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish people, who are ignorant of the true scriptures"  — scriptures which Irenaeus himself was establishing as no more and no less than four, the "Fourfold gospel" that his authority helped make the canonical four. Among the writings he quotes from, in order to expose and refute them, include the Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Judas, and this secret book of John.
Little more was known of this text until 1945, when a cache of thirteen papyrus codices (bound books) that had been hidden away in the 4th century, was fortuitously discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The Apocryphon of John was among the texts, in three Coptic versions translated from the Greek. Two of the versions are very similar and represent one manuscript tradition; they incorporate a lengthy excerpt from a certain Book of Zoroaster appended to the Apocryphon (as chapters 15:29 – 19:8f) A shorter version of the Apocryphon found at Nag Hammadi does not contain the interpolation and represents another manuscript tradition. Still another version of this short edition of the text was discovered in an ancient Coptic Codex acquired by Dr. Carl Reinhardt in Cairo in 1896. This manuscript (identified as the "Berlin Gnostic Codex" or BG 8502) was used along with the three versions found at Nag Hammadi to produce the translations now available. The fact that four manuscript "editions" of this text survived—two "long" versions and two "short" versions—suggests how important this text was in early gnostic Christian circles. It should also be noted that in the three Nag Hammadi codices where the Apocryphon of John appears, the text in each case is the first text of the collection.
The Apocryphon, set in the framing device of a revelation delivered by the resurrected Christ to John the son of Zebedee, contains some of the most extensive detailing of classic dualistic Gnostic mythology that has survived; as one of the principal texts of the Nag Hammadi library, it is an essential text of study for anyone interested in Gnosticism. Frederick Wisse, who translated it, asserts that "The Apocryphon of John was still used in the eighth century by the Audians of Mesopotamia" (Wisse p 104).
The Apocryphon of John has become the central text for studying the gnostic tradition of Antiquity. The creation mythology it details has been the object of study of such writers as Carl Jung and Eric Voegelin.
- The Apocryphon of John Collection (at the Gnosis Archive): A comprehensive collection of material about the Apocryphon of John, including introductory material and several translations of the text.
- Early Christian Writings: Apocryphon of John
- Dark Mirrors of Heaven: Gnostic Cosmogony
- list of heavenly beings in the Secret Book of John
- Davies, Stevan, . Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel, Annotated and Explained ISBN 1-59473-082-2
- Logan, Alastair H. B. 1996. Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy. Based on the Apocryphon of John.
- Pagels, Elaine, 2003. Beyond Belief.
- Wisse, Frederick. The Nag Hammadi Library in English.ca:Evangeli apòcrif de Joan
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