The Acts of John

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Written during the latter half of the second century, the Acts of John circulated widely until the eighth century, when it was condemned by the Second Council of Nicaea for its Gnostic or docetic teachings. The Council's objection stemmed from its claim that Jesus did not really suffer at the crucifixion because he did not have a real human body and could not physically suffer.

Despite this decree, however, the Acts of John survived in many monastic libraries. In fact, many modern scholars have argued that the docetic sections might have been later additions to the original text. Indeed, some of the versions seemed to have been redated in order to remove any trace of heretical material. As late as the fourth century, one bishop wrote that these Acts had been improperly excluded from the canon. The work has been found in both Greek and Latin versions.

Few would claim that John of Zebedee was the primary author, but several scholars feel it was probably written by one of his disciples. The most likely candidate is someone named Leucius Charinus, though scholars aren't sure whether he was a real or fictitious character. If real, he might have been connected with the Manichaeans.

The Acts of John comes without a beginning. It starts at section 18. Though scholars have speculated all sorts of beginnings, the fact is that we have no idea what happened in those first 17 sections. It begins with John and his disciples coming from Melitus on their way to Ephesus. They have a vision telling them they will procure the Lord's glory at Ephesus. This immediately segues into a miracle story.

As John approached the city of Ephesus, he was met by a man of means. Lycomedes fell before him (much like Jarius fell before Jesus), and told him that he had had a vision saying John could help him. He begged John to come to his house to heal his wife who was beyond hope, since he had been paralyzed for seven days. When they arrived at the house and Lycomedes saw his lifeless wife, he cried out and "fainted" from despair. Concerned that the townspeople would hold him responsible for both their deaths, John prayed for healing. With people running towards the house, John touched the wife, Cleopatra, on her face. He prayed that everyone would know "the power of the prince of this world." Cleopatra opened her eyes and rose up only to discover her husband had died from grief. So John turned to him, and Lycomedes also rose up. The townspeople were all amazed by this great miracle.

Lycomedes and Cleopatra offered to have John and his companions stay with them, and they did for a while. Their home became a place for old widows; when officials charged that John's healings were nothing but trickery, John healed many of the widows. Then he proceeded to lecture the officials on morality and asceticism.

Sometime later, John led his followers to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Because it was a festival day, everyone was dressed in white, with the exception of John who wore black. This caused a near riot as people thought him to be impious. Nonetheless, John confronted the crowd, reminding them about the many miracles he had performed. He proposed a test: they should pray to Artemis that he would die and he would pray to his God that all of them would die. The outcome would determine whose God was real.

Threatened with the possibility of death, the people eagerly conceded that John's God was greater than their gods. While John prayed for them, he called upon God to show them that they had been deceived. With that, the altar of Artemis split in two and all the sacred vessels fell to the floor, along with several images of other deities. Half of the temple collapsed, killing the Priest of Artemis. Because of this, many of the Ephesians converted to John's God on the spot.

Given this turn of events, John stayed longer in Ephesus, so he could teach the new converts. As a measure of good will, he raised the dead priest, who then became a follower. Numerous other healings are cited, most notably one involving a murderous and adulterous young man. When John raised the father (whom the man had killed), the young man castrated himself out of remorse. John reproved him, forgave him, and the young man also became one of John's followers.

Another interesting story involved bedbugs. John and his companions stayed at an inn where his bed was infested with bedbugs. John prayed, "O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God." In the morning, a huge number of bedbugs were found outside the door of his room. John had had a very peaceful night. When they were ready to leave, John gave the command and all the bedbugs returned to the room he had vacated (presumably, ready to torment the next guest!).

A more serious story, however, involved a love triangle between a noble couple and a "messenger of Satan." The married couple, Andronicus and Drusiana, had decided to remain celibate even though they were married because Drusiana stated she "would rather die than to do that foulness." Things were going well until Callimachus fell in love with Drusiana. Drusiana was convinced she had somehow led him on (i.e. it was all her fault) and in her shame, she died of remorse. Callimachus bribed her husband's steward to open her tomb in order to have sex with her dead body. They began to strip her when a snake suddenly appeared. It killed the steward and then entwined itself around Callimachus.

The following day, John and Andronicus went to the tomb. John commanded the serpent to leave. He then raised Callimachus, who confessed to everything and was instantly healed of his lust. Drusiana was also raised, though she was highly embarrassed by her state of undress. When they found some clothes and she was more comfortable, she asked John to also raise the steward. John empowered her to do it, which she did, but the steward was less than grateful and ran off. They found him a short time later, dying from another snakebite. No one came to his rescue this second time.

A teaching section followed these stories. John reflected upon Jesus' life on earth. Sometimes he was in the form of a child, sometimes an old man. He did not leave footprints when he walked in sand. Sometimes when John touched him, Jesus felt solid; at other times, his body was immaterial. Before his arrest, Jesus shared a dance with his disciples, which resembles a Gnostic hymn of spiritual protection. It was thought that the dance was a formulaic blueprint, enabling the believer to evade demons that might hinder his passage to heaven. In his description of the crucifixion, John claimed no suffering had occurred. Jesus told them that they would hear that he had suffered, but they should know that he "suffered not." Regardless of their many pronged attempts (beating, piercing, hanging, etc.), Jesus' accusers were not able to hurt him. All these things were symbolically contrived to bring men to conversion and salvation.

The final story has John raising more people from the dead and converting thousands of Ephesians to the Christian faith. In an attempt to convert the chief pagan priest, John asked what one thing would convince him to convert. The priest told him to drink poison. To make sure the poison was potent, the priest gave it to several convicts, who immediately died. John, however, drank the poison and suffered no harm. The priest commanded John to raise the convicts who had died in the process. After John complied, the priest believed and was baptized. [Later stories have a slightly different take on this. Instead of this encounter involving John and the chief priest, they have John standing before the emperor, Domitian, who directed him to drink the poison. John was not harmed, but Domitian did not convert.]

Unlike most of the other Acts of the Apostles, John did not die a martyr's death. He laid himself down in a trench where he had placed his garments and "gave up his spirit rejoicing." Other traditions add that manna began pouring from the tomb. Still others claim that the next day the tomb was empty; only his sandals remained. His body had been translated by the power of Jesus Christ.

The Acts of John is thought to be one of the most important of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. In later centuries, there were additional narratives about John, lending credence to his prominence as one of Jesus' closest companions.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha