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What is the Acts of John?

Acts of John
Question: "What is the Acts of John?"

The Acts of John is a text that claims to record the adventures of the apostle John during the years between Jesus’ ministry and John’s own death. It should not be confused with the Apocryphon of John, a separate work, though both books were thoroughly rejected as heresy by the early Christian church. As with the other Apocryphal Acts, the Acts of John contains strong Gnostic elements, absurdly sensational miracles, and lurid details.

The Acts of John was probably written in the late second or early third century, but it exists now only in fragments and quotations from other writers. Most who cited the Acts of John did so only to condemn it. The extant text appears to be missing a substantial introduction. That content might have included a claim of authorship; the text is written from the perspective of someone traveling with John. Some ancient references suggest the full, original text of the Acts of John was as long as the entire Gospel of Matthew.

Gnosticism strongly flavors the Acts of John, both in content and character. The physical world is treated as inherently evil. At the end of the book, John even willingly lies down in his own grave, ready to shed a physical form he calls “filthy madness.” Sexuality, even within marriage, is condemned, and absolute celibacy is held as an ideal.

Docetism, a heresy that claims Jesus’ earthly form was merely an illusion, is also present in the Acts of John. The text claims Jesus never slept, never ate, did not leave footprints when He walked, and only appeared on the cross as an illusion. Much of this information is said to have been specially, secretly imparted to John by Christ—secret knowledge is also a key theme in Gnostic religion.

As with many of the other Apocryphal Acts, the Acts of John is chock-full of outlandish, comically overdone miracles. In one incident, John commands annoying bedbugs to leave his mattress, and the insects are later seen patiently waiting for his permission to return.

In another episode, John clashes with a priest and worshipers who attack him for wearing the wrong color clothing. John threatens to have God kill his attackers unless they can convince their deity to kill John first. When the people react in fear, John instead prays that the Temple of Artemis would collapse, which it does, killing the priest. This man is later resurrected and becomes a Christian. This is an especially puzzling inclusion, since the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was still standing at the time the Acts of John was written and stood until several decades later, when it was destroyed by invaders.

In an especially lurid story, John is present for no less than three resurrections in a short span. According to the Acts of John, a woman dies out of grief that her amazing beauty is tempting others. Afterwards, a man breaks into her tomb, along with an accomplice, in order to have his way with her corpse. The accomplice is killed by a snake, which then constricts the man. John arrives and resurrects the woman. He brings the man back from the dead merely to ask him questions. The woman is then given the power—and the option—of resurrecting the accomplice, which she does. Unfortunately, that man is unrepentant and soon dies because he still has snake venom in his blood.

Such stories are common in Gnostic and heretical works. As presented in the actual Word of God, true miracles are exceedingly rare, communicate a specific message or purpose of God, and often subtle. In works like the Acts of John, miracles are treated as the product of magical powers wielded by apostolic super heroes.

The combination of late writing, ridiculous content, and open heresy all contributed to the rejection of the Acts of John by the early church. Because of its flaws, the text is not especially useful for historical study. Its sole value is in demonstrating the claims and characteristics of Gnostic and Docetic thinking of the second and third centuries.

Recommended Resource: Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News by Darrell Bock

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