The Secret Book of John

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Given that this is our last apocryphal book and that many of them have derived from the Gnostic discovery at Nag Hammadi, it might be interesting to review a bit about Gnosticism. It helps to remember that many things were going on during the rise of Christianity in the 2nd to 4th centuries. Christianity might have been viewed as one movement among many and was not the only one to rely upon the teachings of Jesus. It is also true that many of these groups modified their teachings over time – for good or ill.

Gnosticism was certainly one of these "other movements," but it should not be seen completely separate from what was already happening in Christianity. They were both rooted in Hellenistic ideas and Jewish traditions. Gnostics certainly didn't see themselves as heretical during these centuries. They would have identified themselves as Christians who had additional knowledge. Additionally, there were two main groups of Gnostics — the Sethians and the Valentinians.

When Jesus came preaching that he was the holy son of God, he changed Jewish thinking that had prevailed for thousands of years. Yet, Christians did not jettison the Hebrew Bible; they added a New Testament and studied them both. They also believed that since Jesus had come, things were different. There was a need for fewer rituals and traditions but a closer and more direct communication with God. Gnosticism built upon these premises.

In evaluating the Old Testament, the Gnostics were able to show where things started going wrong. When Moses was communing with God, he didn't realize that there was actually a higher God. The God that he interacted with in the Old Testament was a lesser god. Gnostics referred to this god as Yaltabaoth and thought he was an evil, subordinate god. This was not unlike Plato's theory that maintained a higher truth existed. The Gnostics, especially those who aligned themselves with Seth (the third son of Adam and Eve), believed in an inherent divine spark that preceded birth. Upon death, this spark would allow them to ascend to the Pleroma — the fullness of the Divine Being and the highest spiritual realm.

Jesus' teachings fed in to these notions. As the son of God, the true Divine Being, Jesus showed an elect few the actual truth. Sethian Gnostics believed that a lesser god, an inexperienced god, created the flawed material world. And Jesus showed his followers how to escape to the higher realm. Plato and Hellenistic philosophers, who saw a distinction between Good and Evil, had already voiced such ideas. The divine spark was needed in order to transcend this world and achieve the spiritual level required for attaining the Pleroma.

To the uninitiated, The Apocryphon of John might be dismissed as simply one more Gnostic text. However, by using a revelatory framework, the author was able to explain the fundamental concepts of Gnosticism. This revelation described the creation and the fall, explained how God became imprisoned in the world of matter, and provided the means for people to learn about their divine nature and salvation, thereby enabling them to become one with God. This was an ardent call for reflection and self-awareness. Only then could people understand that the way of salvation was not to worship gods in a material world but to recognize the intrinsic divinity within themselves. Relying upon the early chapters of Genesis, the author developed his mythology.

The book opens with John, the son of Zebedee, being questioned by a Pharisee. Supposedly, his name is Arimanios, possibly related to an evil spirit in Zoroaster. The Pharisee asked, "Where is your teacher, whom you have been following?" John replied, "he has returned to the place from which he came." The Pharisee, then began to criticize Jesus' teachings, calling them lies that went against tradition. These words were very upsetting to John who went off to pray in solitude. While John was pondering the questions of Jesus' origin and purpose, he witnessed the opening of the heavens and all creation was lit up. Needless to say, he was terrified. Suddenly, the light was standing next to him. At first he saw a child in the light, then the image went through several transformations. Altogether three forms appeared. One of the forms spoke to him, asking why he was filled with doubt. The voice then identified himself as the Father, Mother, and Child – the incorruptible and undefiled one who came to explain about the invisible and the visible, as well as perfect Humanity.

John wasn't sure he would be able to understand it, but Jesus assured him. He went on to explain that the One is sovereign, the Divine and Father of all. He is not only invisible, but also does not exist within anything inferior because, in fact, everything exists only within him. He is eternal, needing nothing because he is complete. He is illimitable, immeasurable, unutterable, and without a name. He is greater then perfection, bigger than little and smaller than big. He is without time or existence. The Perfect One is the World that gives a world, Life that gives life, Good that gives goodness, Mercy that gives mercy, etc. He is the head of everything and we could have no knowledge of him at all without the Father's revelation through Jesus. Inconceivable perfection is one way of expressing this divine principle.

From this divine principle came a thought, a feminine divine entity, named Barbelo. Though typically referred to as "she," this thought is really the elemental father and mother, completely androgynous. She is known as the first of the Aeons and the consort of the Divine Principle (which is also a feminine word). Together, Barbelo and the Divine Principle, the Monad (the word means "one unit") brought forth the other Aeons, which were actually further emanations of the Monad. Light (another word for Christ) and Mind were among the first to be created and, under the direction of the Monad and Barbelo, they, in turn, started creating other aeons. Eventually, there would be 365 aeons. The last one to be created was Sophia (Wisdom). Wisdom believed she was wise enough to try creating something on her own. Without any direction or consent from the Monad or Barbelo, she created Yaltaboath, who had "the form of a lion-faced serpent with eyes that flashed like lightning."

Because he was grotesque and did not turn out as Sophia expected, she tried to hide him from the other aeons. She quickly cast him out of the Pleroma into a cloud. Unaware of his defects, the Pleroma, or other aeons, Yaltaboath began exercising his creative powers. His creatures were known as archons, and soon also numbered 365. But they were all incomplete, limited, and known as demonic entities. Since he had no knowledge of the Pleroma, Yaltaboath created a world for them to live in. Obviously, this world would reflect the basic deficiencies of their characters and be greatly inferior to the Pleroma. Whereas the Pleroma was only Light, this world would be comprised of darkness and some light (stolen from Sophia).

After gazing upon the work of his hands, Yaltaboath declared himself the sole God of this inferior creation. By now Sophia was more than remorseful and confessed her deeds to the Monad. Not only did they forgive her, but the Monad and the other Aeons also tried to redeem the illegitimate creation. Yaltaboath and his archons heard the voice of the Spirit of the Monad. It left a trace on the "waters" that formed the roof of their realm. Without knowing its source, Yaltaboath tried to copy it, which resulted in the creation of the first human, Adam. Yaltaboath was then tricked into blowing his own spirit into this man. This resulted in the animation of man and the loss of the spirit/light that he had stolen from Sophia.

Yaltaboath and his archons quickly realized the power of Adam, and from then on tried to dispose of him. First, they attempted to confine him to the Garden of Eden, telling him that the fruit of all the trees was bad. The tree in the middle, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, concealed the fact that its fruit would allow the forces of the Pleroma into Yaltaboath's evil world. Christ, then, revealed to John that he was the one who caused Adam to eat the fruit. In fact, Eve had been sent by the aeons of the higher realm to make sure he did so. When Yaltaboath created Eve, he was trying to recover the light out of Adam. This turned out to be not only unsuccessful, but also had unintended consequences. Upon seeing Eve, Adam then had a counterpart and was free from the machinations of Yaltaboath.

Obviously, Yaltaboath was not about to give up. He continued his quest to regain control over Light, creating many human bodies – all of which had a counterfeit spirit. That spirit was employed to keep them ignorant of their divine spark. That wicked spirit is the reason for evil, confusion, and death. The book continues with a series of questions about who can be saved. The basic answer is anyone who recognizes the true Spirit. Those who remain in the clutches of the counterfeit spirit will not. Christ reaffirmed his role as the revealer of the Pleroma and the one who brought light into the darkness of Yaltaboath's inferior world.

The book concludes with a warning that anyone who profits from sharing these revelations will be cursed. "And these things were given to him in a mystery. And immediately [the Christ] disappeared before him. And John went to his fellow disciples. He related to them the things that the Savior had said to him."

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha