The Secret Book of John
(Apocryphon of John
) is a second-century AD Sethian Gnostic
text of secret teachings. It describes Jesus Christ
reappearing after his Ascension
and giving secret knowledge (gnosis
) to the apostle John
. 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."
One of the two distinct surviving versions is thought to be the original, of which the other was a lengthy embellishment. The later version is also so restructured that, although both versions have the same themes, few words and verses are had in common.
Many Christians in the second century AD 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.
A book called the Apocryphon of John
was referred to by Irenaeus
in Adversus Haereses
, written about 185 AD, among the writings that teachers in second-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 fourth 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.
, 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.
References in popular culture
drew on the Gnostic mythology described in the Apocryphon of John
in her album, The Beekeeper
- 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.