April DeConick has written an interesting article, Who is Hiding in the Gospel of John? Reconceptualizing Johannine Theology and the Roots of Gnosticism (published as a chapter in Histories of the Hidden God) that coincidentally ties in remarkably well with the view of Roger Parvus (posted in part here) that the Gospel of John is an orthodox redaction of the Gospel of an apostate from Marcionism, Apelles. Not that DeConick argues Parvus’s thesis. In fact she has a different explanation for the evidence she reads in the Gospel. But I think readers of Roger Parvus’s posts here may well think the doctrines April identifies in the Gospel do indeed match the teachings of Apelles the ex-Marcionite .
The Father of the Jews is the Father of the Devil
The passage that sparked April DeConick’s particular interest in the Gospel of John was the Greek working in 8:44
ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστὲ
you of the father the devil are
DeConick explains (my bolding):
With the article preceding πατρός, the phrase του διαβόλου is a genitive phrase modifying the nominal phrase έκ του πατρός.. Thus: “You are from the father of the Devil.” If the statement were to mean, as the standard English translation renders it, “You are of the father, the Devil,” then ‘the article preceding πατρός would not be present.
Look at the complete verse as it is normally translated into English:
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. (KJV)
“Father of it” does sound a wee awkward. Notice how Youngs Literal Translation treats that last phrase:
. . . . because he is a liar — also his father.
And that’s what April DeConick also points out is the “literal reading of John 8:44f
. . . . because he is a liar and so is his father.
So John 8:44 speaks the father of the Devil.
This is the same god the Jews worship, the one who created the world and gave them the many commandments of the law.
Elsewhere in the same speech (John 8:12ff) in the Temple Jesus proclaims that his own father is unknown to the Jews. If the Jews knew the Father of Jesus they would not be seeking to kill him. So in chapter 8 of the Gospel of John Jesus speaks of two different fathers — one is the father of Jesus and those who believe in him and keep his commandments; the other is the father of the Jews and the Devil.
April DeConick further argues that this claim about the Jews’ parentage is in effect a claim that the Jews by nature sinners — liars and murderers. Christians, or the people of the Church, Jesus is supposedly saying, are by nature sinless because they belong to a different family, begotten by a different Father.
An early step toward gnosticism?
DeConick argues that John 8:44 is evidence of a very early theological system that has hitherto escaped notice. It represents a bifurcation of the Jewish God into
- a good and righteous being who dwelt with Jesus in the upper storey of the celestial spheres (this high god was unknown to the Jews);
- and a lower god, morally flawed, who created and ruled the world. This latter God was the God of the Jews, the one responsible for the law and also for the Devil.
I will leave it to interested readers to unpack the details of DeConick’s argument and the history of the translations of this verse, along with the early theological debates surrounding its meaning.
The point to be made here is that this verse has been used by “Gnostics” to demonstrate that Jesus spoke of the God of the Jews (the Old Testament Creator God) as the Father of both the Devil and the Jews, while Jesus himself came from a higher God, another Father unknown to the Jews.
This was a Jewish development that immediately preceded the “more developed” system of Basilides. Basilides incorporated a “cosmology” from Platonic philosophical concepts in which the highest God (all good and father of Jesus) existed in a “space” completely aloof from the created celestial spheres. At the head of the celestial realm was Abrasax, and well below him, god and ruler of the sublunar region where the world is, is found the malicious God of the Jews.
Later gnostic systems replaced Abrasax with the God of the Jews, some making him fundamentally a righteous deity and others insisting he was immoral. Below him, just above the earth, was the Devil. The ultimately pure and ineffable God (with Jesus) dwelt beyond all of these mutable created places and beings.
Or the system of the ex-Marcionite, Apelles?
Against DeConick’s view that the Gospel of John points to a very early and transitional phase towards the later gnosticism of Basilides, the Valentinians and others, Roger Parvus argues that the same theology April DeConick identifies is actually the one attributed in the patristic record to the an apostate from Marcionism, Apelles.
The system of Apelles has been described more fully by Roger Parvus in an earlier post. Here I will dot-point the details relevant to DeConick’s discussion:
- rejected Marcion’s docetism and taught Jesus appeared in a real human body — although one that was made up from elements from the stars as he descended to the world, and not from Mary or any other human;
- rejected Marcion’s idea of an Alien God totally removed from the created spheres and returned to the idea of a supreme God and creator of angels and the celestial cosmos — but the world itself was created by one of these lesser “angels” — the “Creator” god known to the Jews; the world was not “evil” but only “imperfect”;
- did not reject the Jewish Scriptures totally but quoted from Proverbs and Psalms and believed at least some of the writings in the Law and Prophets were inspired, though generally these were worthless Jewish fables;
- rejected Marcion’s gospel and composed his own, borrowing from other gospels and including a scene in which the resurrected Jesus has a side-wound.
Apelles’ “god-system” appears to fit what DeConick finds in the Gospel of John. The supreme God is the direct creator of the larger universe while a lesser God created the world itself. This lower God was the God of the Jews.
April DeConick discusses the evidence for an argument among those who interpreted the Gospel of John literally and others (led by a “presbyter” who authored the epistle of 1 John) who interpreted the Gospel in a way that is closer to our “orthodox” understanding. Those opposed to the presbyter and author of 1 John taught that the Logos or spirit of Christ came by “water only” — that is, he came into the world through Jesus’ baptism — and not through “water and blood”, or through birth to Mary as well as through baptism.
I think Apelles’ understanding of the way the Word became flesh (by taking on cosmic elements as he descended to earth through the heavens) and then entered the world “by water” (baptism only) qualifies as one side of the argument DeConick identifies. See DeConick’s article for a fuller explanation of her own viewpoint.
DeConick points out the problem of the Gospel Jesus appealing to passages in the Jewish scriptures to verify his words and condemn the Jews: how could he do this if he was saying the God of the Jews, the Lawgiver, was the lesser God and not the true Father? That question would be simply resolved if we see in the Gospel of John the Apellean teaching that there were a few elements in the Scriptures that had been truly inspired.
April DeConick sees the shadow of Cerinthus lurking behind the Gospel of John. Roger Parvus, Apelles. The advantage of Roger’s argument as I see it is that it can explain the unorthodox feartures in the Gospel of John by reference to known evidence. I think April would say the advantage of hers is that it posits a conceptual link between orthodox Jewish ideas about God and subsequent Gnosticism.