Acts of John

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The Acts of John is a 2nd century collection of narratives and traditions ascribed to John the Apostle. It is long known in fragmentary form. Together with the Acts of Paul it is considered one of the most significant of the apostolic Acts in the New Testament apocrypha. It was condemned as a Gnostic heresy by the Church.


The traditional author was said to be one Leucius Charinus, a companion of John, who was associated with several 2nd century "Acts." Conventionally, the Acts of John was ascribed to Prochorus, one of the Seven Deacons discussed in Acts of the Apostles. "It is difficult to know when the Acts of John was composed, but many scholars locate it to the second half of the second century."[1] It may have originated as a Christianized wonder tale, designed for an urban Hellenic audience accustomed to such things as having one's portrait painted (the setting for one episode), living in that part of the province of Asia.

"It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative."[2] The Acts of John was eventually rejected by the orthodox church for its docetic overtones. After this decision made by the Second Council of Nicaea in AD 787, most of the existing copies of the apocryphal book were destroyed, undoubtedly destroying most of the copies in existence at the time.[3]

However, although the Acts of John was condemned as heretical, a large fragment survives in Greek manuscripts of widely varying date. In two medieval Greek versions, the magical survival of John when put to tortures will be familiar to any reader of hagiography: "He was brought before Domitian, and made to drink poison, which did not hurt him: the dregs of it killed a criminal on whom it was tried: and John revived him; he also raised a girl who was slain by an unclean spirit." (James 1924, Introduction).

The surviving Latin fragments, by contrast, seem to have been purged of unorthodox content, according to their translator M. R. James: the Latin fragments contain episodes now missing in the Greek. The Stichometry of Nicephorus gives its length as 2500 lines. An online translation [1] presents the confrontation of John and Domitian during Domitian's persecution of Christians, described as instigated by a letter of complaint from the Jews.


As with the other works of the Acts of the Apostles genre, the text pertains to narratives set within the framework of the years following the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus described by early Christian writings and traditions. Specifically, the account narrates two journeys of John, son of Zebedee, to Ephesus, filled with dramatic events, miracles, and teachings attributed to the apostle.[3]

Existing copies of the manuscript begin in section 19, in which a small group that includes both the author of the work and John is approaching Ephesus, only to be met by Lycomedes, a notable and powerful figure within the city. Lycomedes recounts a vision he received from the God of John, telling him that a man from Miletus was coming to heal his wife, Cleopatra, who had died seven days before from illness. Upon arrival, Lycomedes curses his situation and, despite John's pleas to have faith that his wife will be brought back to life by the power of God, falls dead out of grief. The entire city of Ephesus is stirred by his death and comes to his house to see his body. John then asks Christ to raise the two of them from the dead in order to prove Christ's own might, quoting Matthew 7:7 in his request. Both Cleopatra and Lycomedes are resurrected, leaving the people of Ephesus in awe of the miracle that was performed before them.[4]

Later, during a festival celebrating the birthday of the Greek goddess Artemis, the people of Ephesus attempt to kill John because he wears black, rather than white, to her temple. John rebukes them, threatening to have his God kill them if they are unable to convince their goddess to make him die on the spot with her divine power. Knowing that John has performed many miracles in their city, the people at the temple beg John not to destroy them. John then changes his mind, using the power of God instead to break the altar of Artemis in many pieces, damage the offerings and idols within the temple, and collapse half of the structure itself on top of its priest, killing him. Upon seeing this destruction, the people immediately see the error of their ways and acknowledge the God of John as the only true God.[5]

In a more comical account mentioned in the narrative, John, the author, and their companions stay overnight at an inn plagued with a bedbug infestation. Immediately after lying down, the author and the other men with him see that John is troubled by the bugs and hear him tell the insects, "I say to you, you bugs, be considerate; leave your home for this night and go to rest in a place which is far away from the servants of God!" The next morning, the author, joined by two of his traveling companions, Verus and Andronicus, awakes to find the bugs gathered in the doorway, waiting to return to their home in John's mattress. The three men wake John, who allows the creatures to return to the bed because of their obedience to the will of God.[6]

Immediately following John's encounter with the bedbugs, the traveling party journeys to the house of Andronicus in Ephesus in section 62. Here, the reader learns that Andronicus is married to Drusiana, a devout believer in God who remains chaste even in marriage out of piety. However, her celibacy does not prevent the advances of Callimachus, a prominent member of the Ephesian community and "a servant of Satan." Shortly after learning this, Drusiana falls sick and dies because she believes she has contributed to Callimachus's sin. While John is comforting Andronicus and many of the other inhabitants of Ephesus over the loss of Drusiana, Callimachus, determined to have Drusiana as his own, pays Andronicus's steward, Fortunatus, so that he may gain access to her tomb and rape her corpse. However, Callimachus discovers that the tomb is guarded by a poisonous snake, which bites and kills Fortunatus. Callimachus still attempts to rape the corpse of Druisiana, only to find a beautiful youth, protecting the body of Druisiana. The youth commands Callimachus to, "die, that you may live."[7]

The next day, John and Andronicus enter the tomb of Drusiana and are greeted by the beautiful youth, which the narrative later identifies with Christ, who tells John he is supposed to raise Drusiana back to life before ascending into Heaven. John does so, but not before resurrecting Callimachus in order to learn what had occurred the previous night. Callimachus recounts the events of the night and is repentant of his misgivings, surrendering to the will of Christ. After both Callimachus and Drusiana are resurrected, Drusiana, feeling sorry for the other aggressor involved in the conspiracy to molest her dead body, is granted the ability to raise Fortunatus back from the dead against the wishes of Callimachus. Fortunatus, unwilling to accept Christ, flees from the tomb and eventually dies due to blood poisoning brought about by the snake from the initial bite.[8]

In the final portion of the text, John offers a long and mysterious discourse to the people of Ephesus concerning the nature of Christ and faith.

It also contains the episode at the Last Supper of the Round Dance or Circle Dance of the Cross initiated by Jesus, saying, "Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father and so go to meet what lies before us". Directed to form a circle around him, holding hands and dancing, the apostles cry "Amen" to the hymn of Jesus.

Embedded in the text is another hymn (sections 94 – 96), "which no doubt was once used as a liturgical song (with response) in some Johannine communities" (Davis). In the summer of 1916 Gustav Holst set his own translation from the Greek (Head), influenced by G.R.S. Mead, as The Hymn of Jesus for two mixed choirs, a semi-chorus of female voices, and a large orchestra (Trippett).

Most of its docetic imagery and overt gnostic teachings are concentrated in a few chapters (94–102 and 109), which may be interpolations, or they may simply reflect the diverse nature of the sources that were drawn upon to assemble this episodic collection, which falls in the genre of Romance.

See also


  1. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (Pbk. ed.). New York: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-19-514182-5.
  2. ^ Ehrman, Bart. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. pp. 262–263.
  3. ^ a b Ehrman, Bart D. (2005). Lost christianities : the battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew (Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-19-518249-1.
  4. ^ Ehrman, [edited by] Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (1. issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 94–96. ISBN 978-0-19-518250-7.
  5. ^ Ehrman, [edited by] Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (1. issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 95–97. ISBN 978-0-19-518250-7.
  6. ^ Ehrman, [edited by] Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (1. issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-19-518250-7.
  7. ^ Ehrman, [edited by] Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (1. issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 97–100. ISBN 978-0-19-518250-7.
  8. ^ Ehrman, [edited by] Bart D. (2003). Lost scriptures : books that did not make it into the New Testament (1. issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 99–103. ISBN 978-0-19-518250-7.

Further reading

  • Jan N. Bremmer (editor), The Apocryphal Acts of John (1995) brought together a series of eleven essays by various authors on the Acts of John and a bibliography (Kampen, Netherlands: Pharos). On-line as a series of pdf files

External links

  • Early Christian Writings: Acts of John e-text consisting of 115 brief chapters, translated by M.R. James, and introductory material (1924).
  • Glenn Davis, "The development of the Canon of the New Testament": Acts of John
  • Gnostic Scriptures and Fragments: Acts of John
  • David Trippett, "Gustav Holst (1874–1934)"
  • Head, Raymond. "The Hymn of Jesus: Holst's Gnostic Exploration of Time and Space", July 1999
  • Church Fathers: Acts of John: abbreviated translation of the Latin version
  • "Acts of John" in Japanese: a Japanese translation of Chs. 62 - 86 by Mark Waterman.
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