Lifting the rug on heresy in the Gospel of John

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by Neil Godfrey

sweep-under-rugRoger Parvus has published a fascinating study of the letters of Ignatius and proposes that they originated from one who belonged to the breakaway group from Marcionism that was led by Apelles. Towards the end of his book (A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Other Apellian Writings) he addresses the similarities other scholars have observed between the Johannine and Ignatian communities, and suggests that some of those “little contradictions and oddities” in the Gospel of John may also reflect an Apellean origin. (Hopefully I am not stealing too much of his thunder with this post, since I am hoping Roger will be able to argue his case for himself. But a touch of eagerness to write up at least little bit of one facet of his book has got the better of me here.)

I won’t write up much of the detail in the book in this post — just enough to share with others some of the details one can easily read over in John’s Gospel yet fail to notice the contradictions, and the implications of the contradictions, in some of the most familiar passages. Familiarity has a lot to answer for.

This is not an attempt to argue for a particular reading or redaction history of John. That would require much more serious depth. The point of this post is simply to show the possibilities of questions, of alternative understandings, relating to the origin of the Gospel of John from a not widely encountered perspective.

Look at John 10:8 where Jesus says:

All who have come before me are thieves and robbers

All? Most commentators have refused to take this word literally, for obvious reasons. It would immediately condemn all of the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs.

But then what about John 5:37?

You have never heard his voice nor seen his form

I know I felt a little uncomfortable when I first thought about that passage many years ago. The Jewish scriptures did say that the Jews had among them those who had heard God’s voice and saw his form — at Sinai for starters.

And then recall John 3:13

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.

But the Jews read in their scriptures that God took Moses, Elijah and Enoch to heaven, and other literature informed them that Isaiah had also ascended there.

So are we not justified in beginning to question whether an early layer in this gospel did indeed reject the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures, and that this early layer really did mean it when it said that all who came before Jesus were thieves and brigands?

Even those scriptures themselves have the Jewish God ordering Moses to plunder and rob the Egyptians: Exodus 3:21-22; 12:35-36.

But Jesus did not only say that those who came before him were robbers. They also killed. John 10:10

The thief doth not come, except that he may steal, and kill, and destroy

In John 8 we read that Abraham is the father of the Jews, and Jesus accuses the Jews of trying to kill him and of doing the works of their father. (Apelles believed that the God of the Jews was an unjust God. May one infer from this that his command to order Abraham to kill his son Isaac was barbarous?) Has a “proto-Catholic” editor salvaged Abraham in the later version of this gospel by inserting denials such as “Abraham did not do this”?

`I have known that ye are seed of Abraham, but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you; . . . . .


They answered and said to him, `Our father is Abraham;’ Jesus saith to them, `If children of Abraham ye were, the works of Abraham ye were doing;

and now, ye seek to kill me — a man who hath spoken to you the truth I heard from God; this Abraham did not;

ye do the works of your father.’

Similarly for John the Baptist.

Some of the passages referring to John the Baptist look like uncomfortable insertions, especially those in the famous prologue: John 1:6-8, 15.

So what should we make of John 5:34 where Jesus says he does not accept the testimony of any man?

But I do not receive testimony from man

Someone has flatly contradicted that statement by couching it with passages that go ahead and have Jesus talk about the testimony he received from John anyway.

Many familiar with the Gospel are aware of other uncomfortable (for the orthodox belief systems) passages, such as Jesus speaking of the law of Moses as “the Jews’ law” rather than God’s law.

Roger Parvus discusses other passages — e.g. the temple cleansing, the (non-)ascension — that lead to questions in the same direction. Hopefully some more of these can be shared here again soon.

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15 thoughts on “Lifting the rug on heresy in the Gospel of John”

  1. No, I don’t think this will work. GJn is most certainly an early-second-century work, not a late-second-century work. All the details you cite are relics of Samaritan influence–the link between GJn and Samaritanism has been argued elsewhere, and IMO is evident from the text. The anti-Jewish attitude of Samaritanism and their rejection of the authority of the Tanakh outside of the Torah can explain these verses from GJn.

      1. Well, I don’t think Jesus could have meant *everyone* who came before him was a thief and robber, since in Jn 5:45 he says to his audience that Moses will become their accuser. Furthermore in 5:39 he says the scriptures testify to him (!), and in 5:46 says Moses specifically wrote about him. Also in 5:35 he calls John a “burning and shining lamp”, and in 5:32-33 he says John’s testimony about him is true.

        As for neither hearing nor seeing God, that’s from Philo, who tries to explain away the various theophanies especially the one on Sinai. The same is true with respect to prophets visiting heaven; Philo agrees that Moses went to heaven, but he doesn’t say he saw God, merely that he became a divine being to men. (Furthermore the assumption of Moses is apocryphal, and Samaritanism didn’t hold the Elijah tradition with the same esteem as Judaism.)

        As for Abraham, I suppose the theory that John is totally anti-Judaistic works, so long as one chops out all the textual evidence that contradicts it…this seems like a rather ad-hoc strategy, however. In 8:39b, John’s Jesus clearly presents Abraham’s ethnic and spiritual fatherhood in counter-factual terms: “*If* you were Abraham’s children…” This means John was suggesting that the Jews had at least abandoned Abraham as their father (and perhaps even that he was never their father in the first place).

        As for John the Baptist, I agree Jesus ultimately dismisses the effectiveness of his testimony, but he still has nice things to say about him. Furthermore, Jesus also says in 5:31 that his own testimony about himself could never be verified. So it looks like he is in real trouble, right? I guess even Jesus must be a thief and a robber! But…the author has a solution to this. Jesus does have a special kind of testimony: his testimony is his *works*–works given to him by the Father. It is the Father testifying through Jesus’ works that John (the Evangelist) argues should inspire belief in Jesus, as well as a correct understanding of God the Father. (For, in 5:37, we see that it’s really the Father who’s doing the testifying about Jesus, though apparently in a mystical way that does not involve seeing him or hearing his voice.)

        It’s possible that I’m wrong and none of this has to do with Samaritanism, but Philo at least is enough to explain it. I think this was combined with at least quasi-Samaritan traditions, but I could be wrong.

        I can at least agree that Pervo’s real proposed date for GJn of c. 140 is within the realm of plausibility, but with Philo (and maybe also Samaritanism) we have everything we need for an earlier date. I don’t see that any association with Apelles is needed to explain GJn.

        But, I’m not trying to be argumentative.

        1. My post was at a very general level to simply show how the question can be raised. As it stands in its final form we do, of course, have a more orthodox document duly acknowledging the positive role of Moses. The question is whether there are contradictions within the text as it stands today, and whether an earlier layer can be detected that is coherent, without such contradictions, and arguably the product of a certain known potential provenance. Then, when we look at those apparently contradictory passages, do we see indications of slight incongruities in their place in the text which opens up the question of later redaction?

          This is Roger Parvus’s argument in principle as I understand it here. Hopefully Roger himself, when he has the time and opportunity, can elaborate on this himself.

          Below he has responded to the date of the Gospel of John for starters.

          1. I agree that we can detect an earlier, coherent layer in GJn 🙂 In fact I think we can detect two earlier layers: one is the Signs Gospel, the other consists of fragments from the Secret Gospel of Mark (itself derived from the Signs Gospel). The rest is Johannine redaction, either invented by the author, or derived from the oral teachings and cultural practices of his community. Any contradictions come from that combination of writing by three different authors with three different agendas.

            Parvus’ contribution is interesting, and I encourage creative investigation into the history of the NT, but this particular argument is probably not going to convince me of anything. I suppose it’s not impossible, though, that GJn underwent more revisions after the original document (as I describe it above) was written. Personally I tend to find such theories needlessly complex, but maybe something can be discovered here.

        2. I am not claiming that the present text of GJn is in the form that left the pen of Apelles. I think that when the proto-orthodox decided to accept it they made significant changes to it to bring it more into line with proto-orthodoxy. But there are rough edges that still remain. And I expect that the proto-orthodox only allowed them to remain precisely because it was thought an acceptable interpretation could be given to them by having recourse to the explanations of people like Philo.

          Nor am I claiming that the denials of the Old Testament that still remain in the text are clear enough — by themselves — to identify Apelles as the original author. It is the denials together with a number of other features of the text that make him an excellent candidate. Here are some examples:

          1. GJn’s emphasis on the signs (miracles) of Jesus has led many scholars to see a Signs Source or Signs Gospel as one of the components of it. The signs of Jesus are presented by GJn as a way that Jesus manifested his glory: “This the first of his signs Jesus performed in Cana of Galille, manifesting his glory, and his discples believed in him.” (Jn. 2:11).

          Now consider that Apelles called his gospel the “Manifestations” (Greek: “Phaneroseis”). That would be an apt title for the type of gospel that GJn is.

          2. GJn also betrays in a number of places that it drew upon the revelations of someone who lived after the time that Jesus supposedly lived. Thus, when the Johannine Jesus said “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who came down from heaven,” he had not yet ascended! So it is clear that these are post-ascension words that someone was claiming to have received from Jesus. Likewise when the Johannine Jesus said to his disciples “I sent you to reap that on which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered in to their labors,” he had not yet sent them out to reap anything! And others had not yet labored, especially since all who went before him were thieves and robbers. So, again, these must be words that someone was later claiming to have received from Jesus after he had returned to heaven.

          Now consider that Apelles is said to have written the “Manifestations” using the revelations of his prophetess associate Philumena (whose name means ‘Beloved.’). And Philumena claimed that she received her information from a phantom who appeared to her “dressed as a boy and who sometimes stated he was Christ, sometimes Paul.” So an Apellean origin for GJn would give us the Jesus-to-prophetess line of transmission that the text requires. (Since Apelleans were aware of how their gospel was being written, there would have been no need for Apelles or Philumena to change “I sent you to reap etc” to “I will send you to reap etc.” But I wonder whether the later proto-orthodox redactors may have slipped up and overlooked what texts like these reveal.)

          3. The story of the man born blind in chapter 9 of GJn seems to presuppose belief at least in some kind of preincarnation; a state of existence where people, before their present life on this earth, could commit sins that would affect them in this life.

          From a comment that Tertullian makes in his “De Anima” we know that Apelles believed in preincarnation: “Apelles tells us that our souls were enticed by earthly baits down from their super-celestial abodes by a fiery angel, Israel’s God and ours, who then enclosed them firmly within our sinful flesh.” (23).

          4. There are indications in the present text of GJn that it once contained an ascension scene. It mentions the ascension several times. And the Johannine Jesus says: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending back to where he was before.” (Jn. 6:62). But in GJn there is no description of anyone actually seeing him ascend back to where he was before! Why was it apparently left out — or deleted?

          Now consider that Apelles is the only figure in the early church associated with an ascension doctrinal error. He taught that, although Jesus rose from the dead with a real human body (not just an appearance of one), he did not ascend back to heaven with it. He apparently set aside his body in the course of his ascent. The extant record doesn’t provide additional details about this Apellean doctrine but, to judge from what Epiphanius says about it, the proto-orthodox were not impressed: “And tell me, what was the point of his abandoning it (his body) again after the resurrection, even though he had raised it? …If he raised it to destroy it again, this is surely stage business, and not an honest act.” (Panarion 44,5,10). Apellean authorship of the original GJn would explain why its ascension scene didn’t make the final proto-orthodox cut.

          And somewhat related to that:

          5. The author of GJn was anti-docetic. (e,g, Blood and water flows from the side of the crucified Jesus. Thomas is invited to put his hand into the side of the risen Christ. Etc). Yet he apparently does not believe in a future resurrection of the body. His eschatology is a ‘realized’ one. He who believes in Jesus “has already passed from life to death.” As Bultmann pointed out long ago, this was unacceptable to the final redactor who inserted – four times in the space of fifteen verses – the words “And I will raise him up on the last day,” in order to correct the error (Jn. 6: 39, 40, 44 and 54).

          Now consider that the early record knows of no one besides Apelles and followers who were both strongly anti-docetic and yet at the same time did not believe that there would be a future resurrection of the body. They held that Christ truly rose from the dead bodily – if only briefly – but no one else will. Salvation is only for the soul. This curious combination of teachings is uniquely Apellean.

          6. The situation of the Johannine community as described in the 3 Johannine letters is precarious. Though they themselves are Gnostic-tinged, they feel threatened by and are losing members to a docetic community. On the other hand they are being rebuffed by a non-docetic community they wish to be on friendly terms with. They seem to be caught in the middle. As Raymond Brown describes them, they had “tendencies toward sectarianism” but “had not really become a sect.” (“The Community of the Beloved Disciple,” p. 90). They appear to be under the leadership of ‘The Elder.’

          The above seems to aptly describe the situation of the Apelles and his followers after their break away from Marcion. They would have felt threatened by Marcion and always in danger of losing members back to his docetic community. Yet because Apelleans rejected much of the Old Testament, they would have been kept at arms length by many of the proto-orthodox. I see no reason, too, why the “Elder” who wrote 2 and 3 John could not be Apelles himself. The word ‘Elder’ can denote a leadership function but it can also simply refer to age. According to Rhodon, Apelles prided himself on his advanced age. Someone that proud of his age may well have affectionately referred to himself as “Old Man” – the “Elder.”

          So, to finish up: I do think there are very clear indications that the original author of GJn had a negative attitude to the Old Testament. So clear that Robert M. Price, in his “The Pre-Nicene New Testament,” can see the hand of a strict Marcionite at work. But I’ve given above some of the reasons why I think the ex-Marcionite Apelles makes a better candidate.

          1. Sorry I’m getting back to this a bit late–nevertheless:

            Apelles may be a candidate, I suppose, but this all seems like a “what if” scenario more than anything else. As I mention in my comment to Roger above, however, I’m willing to consider the possibility that GJn underwent multiple revisions after being composed around 100CE, though these seem mostly unnecessary to explain the text.

            I have a hard time imagining that Apelles just so happened to have a theology that was perfectly in line with that of Philo. It’s far more likely that the author of GJn was exactly what scholars have concluded: a Christian with direct knowledge of Philo. I see no reason to assume that was Apelles.

            And certainly GJn was written well after Jesus lived. But modern critical scholarship does not deny this–a GJn written c. 100CE would also have been written well after Jesus lived.

            The Essenes (and possibly also the Pharisees) appear to have believed in a form of reincarnation, according to Josephus.

            The Signs Gospel is probably what contained an ascension scene. Anyway it’s certainly wrong that Apelles was the only person during the first century or two of Christianity to teach a suspect doctrine concerning the ascension: Marcion beat him to it, and so did Cerinthus.

            John is anti-Docetic, but only just barely; he seems uncomfortable with scenes of people touching Jesus (GJn lacks a baptismal scene, for example), and he’s clearly uncertain about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body. For example, the apostle Thomas never actually touches Jesus. John is certainly not “strongly anti-Docetic”. And he also only makes an exception to a future resurrection for the Beloved Disciple. What he’s reacting to is Secret Mark–in Secret Mark, Jesus resurrects the young man, and John has to explain this. So he has Jesus make an exception for the Beloved Disciple (=the young man of Secret Mark) in Jn 21. But this is clearly an exception, and not a rule.

            The fact that Price can conclude GJn was written by a “strict Marcionite” at the same time that you conclude the author was anti-Docetic leads me to suspect that this line of inquiry is not going to lead anywhere.

            But, as I say to Roger, in general I encourage creative thinking about NT history–but not *too* creative…still, I am intrigued by your ideas about Pseudo-Ignatius. It’s just that I don’t see that this has anything to do with GJn.

            1. You wrote: “John is anti-Docetic, but only just barely; he seems uncomfortable with scenes of people touching Jesus (GJn lacks a baptismal scene, for example), and he’s clearly uncertain about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body. For example, the apostle Thomas never actually touches Jesus.”

              That Thomas never actually touches Jesus is beside the point. If Jesus invites Thomas to touch him it is because, in the eyes of the author of GJn, there was something to touch and Jesus was not a mere phantom. By the way, I’m not sure if you are aware that in the extant record Apelles seems to have been the first to make reference to this incident. And since the incident is found only in GJn, Apelles is arguably among the earliest – if not the very earliest – witness to the existence of GJn (which, of course, would not be surprising if it was he and Philumena who wrote the gospel that underlies it.)

              Here is what Hippolytus says in “Refutations” 7,26:

              “And he (Jesus) showed them – so Apelles taught – the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh.”

            2. You wrote: “The Signs Gospel is probably what contained an ascension scene. Anyway it’s certainly wrong that Apelles was the only person during the first century or two of Christianity to teach a suspect doctrine concerning the ascension: Marcion beat him to it, and so did Cerinthus.”

              Quite right. I should have explained myself more clearly. What I should have said was that, in the extant writings of the proto-orthodox heresy hunters, Apelles is the earliest figure whose beliefs in regard to the ascension receive specific condemnation. The proto-orthodox, of course, condemned Marcion and Cerinthus for many of their beliefs. But I am not aware that they ever specifically condemned their ascension beliefs or lack thereof. If that is not the case, I would be grateful if you would provide me with the pertinent references. To be clear: I’m not looking for some kind of general condemnation of, for example, their docetism. I’m looking for something that clearly finds fault with what they believed or did not believe regarding the ascension of Jesus.

              Here is what Epiphanius had to say about the ascension doctrine of Apelles:

              “But your lie is nowhere mentioned by one of the holy apostles, you Apelleans – it is not so. The apostles saw two invisible men in visible form, and himself ascending to heaven and received by a shining cloud, but they did not see his remains left anywhere – there was no need for that, and it was not possible. And Apelles, and his school of Apelleans, are lying.” – Panarion 44, 3, 7.

    1. If Apelles was the author of GJn, the time of composition would be the mid-second-century –- not late-second-century.

      Rhodon says that that Apelles was already an “old man” when he conversed with him and that, in fact, Apelles “prided himself on his manner of life and his old age.” Harnack is probably correct in his determination that their conversation occurred sometime during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. That would seem to indicate that Apelles was born around 100 CE. And so whether we accept 144 CE to be the date of Marcion’s break with the Roman church (Harnack’s position) or as the date of Marcion’s death (Barnikol’s position), Apelles could have been Marcion’s disciple as early as the late 120s if Marcion was already actively proselytizing at that time.

      However the dating of Apelles’ activity can be homed-in on even more precisely if I am correct in my contentions that the author of the so-called Ignatians was Peregrinus and that he was a follower of Apelles. For by using the information Lucian provides about Peregrinus, it can be determined that his time as a Christian fell in the 140s or perhaps a little earlier. So Apelles obviously must have already formed his own sect by that time. So I would date GJn to about 140 CE. Or at least the beginning of its composition; for since Apelles depended for much of it on the ongoing revelations of his prophetess associate Philumena, it may well have been a work-in-progress for a couple of years.

      Tertullian says that Apelles, after his split from Marcion, spent some time in Alexandria before returning to Rome. Since this would have been about the same time that Valentinus went from Alexandria to Rome, the two of them would likely have known each other. And this would explain why the Valentinians were early users and commentators on GJn.

      I think the proto-orthodox church of Rome finally okayed GJn around 155 CE (after extensive reworking of it) as part of a reconciliation with Apelles and his followers. Irenaeus, in his “Against Heresies” says ““He (Polycarp) it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus, caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics (Valentinus and Marcion) to the church of God…” (3.3.4). I think the Marcionites referred to in that quote were – more precisely – Apelleans. Because of their early association with Marcion, many continued and still continue to think of Apelles and his followers as being, even after the split, some kind of moderate Marcionites. But it should be obvious that, due to their rejection of Marcion and his ditheism, docetism and rigorism, no group of Marcion–tainted people were more ripe for merging back with the proto-orthodox.

      To me, one confirmation of this reconciliation scenario is the fact that Irenaeus, in his “Against Heresies,” nowhere mentions or condemns Apelles, Apelleans, or distinctive Apellean doctrines even though he does not hesitate to condemn by name many lesser heretical figures and teachings. It was only after Apelles’ death that the proto-orthodox – in the person of Tertullian – first targeted Apelles.

  2. The quotation is incomplete and deliberately twisted. Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil.” That same devil is the author of whatever confused tripe this is supposed to be.

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