The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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'”
  5. 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.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would recoil 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 perchance 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.

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17 thoughts on “The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)”

  1. I think you’ve done a good job summarizing my book.

    As for the Apocryphon of John being a midrash cf. pg. 120 I actually point out a) that AJ regards Genesis itself as a midrash on primordial myth and b) Moses, author of Genesis supposedly, has gotten it wrong! So AJ is a corrective midrash on the primordial myth which is, to quote, “Not as Moses said, but….”

    As for Mark being a midrash, it isn’t one except in the minds of a few later twentieth century people whose reasoning I dassn’t characterize with an adjective.

    Edwin Yamauchi has spent a lot of effort arguing that there is no probative evidence for chronologically pre-Christian gnosticism, although he seems to concede that there was Gnosticism before there was Christian gnosticism. He’s not wrong about this, although I think there was chronologically pre-Christian gnosticism anyhow. Here’s an essay by Yamauchi that you might find interesting. http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_gnosticism_yamauchi.html

      1. In “The Gospels According to Michael Goulder,” p. 138 MG writes that “I have ultimately learned to be wary of the term midrash , because many people do not understand it, and because think [sic!] that I understand it.” This comment of his is, in turn, a midrash on Matthew 7:12-17.

        1. I understand Michael Goulder’s reservations against using the term (as he is quoted) to be primarily diplomatic or strategic. His student John Spong appears to have thought so, too. I don’t think there is the same sensitivity over the word among a few of the Jewish scholars whose works on midrashic literature I have read

    1. It’s easy to say what Mark isn’t; it’s quite another thing to say just what it is. That it had no relationship whatsoever to midrash I find difficult to accept, even if that relationship was a reaction against. There was a lot of searching for the true meaning of scripture going on at the time, a lot of it in opposition. The author of Mark seems to have gone his own Way, as it were.

    2. If the birth and passion narratives in the gospels are midrash as many scholars — including Jewish specialists in midrash say they are — then we know that Mark is riddled with midrash, too, and I base this on not only New Testament scholarly observations (the tomb story, the Elijah-Elisha adaptations, the John the Baptist presentations, etc etc etc etc etc — but on Jewish scholars addressing midrash themselves. I began a series investigating in particular a couple of Jewish scholarly studies on midrashic literature beginning @

      1. Some definitions:

      2. From some scholarly debates:
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/midrash-and-the-gospels-2-debates-in-the-scholarly-sphere/ (this one cites a number of your peers you might not wish to characterize with an adjective)

      3. What some Jewish scholars say:

      Also: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/birth-and-death-of-the-messiah-two-jewish-midrash-tales/

      But it’s only a word. A rose by any other name, etc. I find the way some biblical scholars are so sensitive to its particular usages while seemingly unaware of what Jewish scholars themselves say about the Gospels overall as midrash quite curious.

      Thanks for the Yamauchi reference.

      1. Neil: “But it’s only a word.”

        Is it just me or do the rules change, depending on the desired outcome? By that I mean, do scholars apply strict or loose criteria to define terms in conformance with their own predispositions?

        Is Mark midrash or does it contain midrashic elements? Well, according to the very narrow definition held by McGrath, absolutely not!

        But is Mark a biography? According to a rather loose definition held by scholars like Bauckham, sure — why not?

        1. Of course the subtext is that once ‘midrash’ is too easily conceded to Mark then Mark becomes too easily understood as a creation sourced from Jewish literature rather than “oral traditions”. Oral traditions must remain even if they can be nicely dressed up with reverentially inspired literary allusions (but not midrash!).

  2. “There are so many indicators throughout the Gospel of Mark that it was written as a metaphor”

    I would appreciate it if you could be so kind as to refer me to some materials treating of this.

    1. Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel is not bad: http://www.librarything.com/work/25054/book/7606757

      Some interesting thoughts raised by Kelber in several of his publications, the easiest intro being Mark’s Story of Jesus: http://www.librarything.com/work/263088/book/7606783

      Not quite so good despite the title, but at least a start that will nonetheless invite some criticism from a thoughtful reader is Dale Miller’s The Gospel of Mark as Midrash: http://www.librarything.com/work/1678387/book/7634508

      There are a number of bibliographies of Mark around. (My own very small set of readings is at http://www.librarything.com/catalog/neilgodfrey&tag=Bible.NT.Mark — that links to other sources such as the Second Exodus theme and binding of the strong man) Others here may have them more quickly at their fingertips. I have also discussed it in an essay or two I have placed on http://vridar.info.

      Oh yeh — Kata Markon lists resources: http://www.ibiblio.org/GMark/

      And especially Michael Turton’s commentary: http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark_index.html

      1. Forgot to add that I’ve written at least a dozen posts on this blog and a few elsewhere attempting to demonstrate the parabolic or symbolic character of many of Mark’s episodes. They make no sense at the surface level.

        1. Thanks Neil. Sometimes it slips my mind to do such a simple thing as type ‘Mark metaphor’ into a search engine. I’m embarrassed but grateful.

  3. Birger Pearson noticed that already Philo Alexandrinus was aware of Jews in Alexandria who exaggerated allegorical and haggadic exegesis in a downright unlawful manner.

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