by Neil Godfrey
Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:
- The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
- A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
- A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
- More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David’”
- Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
- Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
- Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.
Though I suspect Stevan Davies would re”coil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.
Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention.
The date of interest is not when the Christian elements were added but when the original (and non-Christian) work was composed. This original work was a blend of Middle Platonism and Jewish counter interpretations of Genesis.
Davies informs us that whether this original non-Christian work was “pre-Christian” is debatable.
[M]any scholars think it probably came into being toward the end of the first century CE, but it is possible that it was in writing, in one form or another, a century before that. (p. xiii)
A tell-tale sign of its age is the way so many redactional tidbits from a variety of perspectives have entered the text through its generations of copying. We have wide variations of vocabulary and ideas within it as a result. (This is no doubt the main reason I had always found reading the Apocryphon to be so difficult. I was looking for a consistent flow of thought.)
It is funny how so easily so many take literally the respective metaphors of their respective religions. There are so many indicators throughout the Gospel of Mark that it was written as a metaphor but where an iconic cultural narrative is at stake they are easily overlooked.
Davies is at pains to remind readers throughout the book that despite the mythical narrative involving individual named “persons” interacting with one another they are really only metaphors for psychic processes or the way God is thinking. When he reaches a point that begs for comparison with personified Wisdom in the canonical Book of Proverbs he confidently asserts that “in official Jewish circles” no-one ever thought of Wisdom as a subordinate personal agent of God. That was certainly the view of later Judaism but I don’t know what evidence there is to undergird this claim for earlier periods.
Curiously (tongue in cheek) Davies also makes it very clear that the Apocryphon “falls into the category of midrash” — a Jewish way of interpreting scriptures (p. 120).
We (excluding Davies for a moment) might even conclude that whereas the Apocryphon of John was the formative gospel for the gnostics and was composed as a “midrash” to express a mythology of salvation — and myth necessarily involves narrative, persons, plot — the Gospel of Mark was the formative gospel for what became orthodox Christianity and was likewise composed as a midrash to express a mythology of salvation.
Would it not be ironical if the scholarly inheritors of that orthodox myth, who refuse to concede it is anything more than superficially mythical, failed to see how radically mythical it really is if per chance it originated as an alternative gospel to meet the needs of those who were more culturally attuned to social mythology?
In a future post I’d like to “tell the story” of this myth in the Apocryphon in my own words as I understand it through Davies’ book. That will help me get a firmer handle on what it was all about, too.