“I Turned away from the Temple”: Sethian Counterculture in the Apocryphon of John

in Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies
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In the myth as well as the frame story of the Apocryphon of John, Sethian conflict with others is narrativized. For instance, Adam and Eve withdraw from the biblical creator just as John turns away from the temple in Jerusalem after an altercation with a Jewish antagonist. The gnostic authors of the text portrayed the creator so negatively that he is incomparable with most demiurgic figures in Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. Their ignorant, boastful, jealous and apostate Ialdabaoth was shocking to their ancient opponents. And for modern scholars, this countercultural vilification of the creator makes it difficult to categorize the authors of the apocryphon in Platonic, Jewish, or Christian terms.



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E.g. Pleše 2006, 219–221. For the larger issue of early rabbinic reports about ‘two powers’ in heaven, see Segal 2002/1977. Among Segal’s conclusions (2002/1977, 262): “the key factor in separating radical gnosticism from earlier exegesis is the negative portrayal of the demiurge.” See also Dahl 1981.


In Tardieu’s commentary 1984, 31, 38, the design of the apocryphon is “fondamentalement antijuif,” and the opponents are “à la fois les judéochrétiens et les chrétiens.” John’s Jewish antagonist is supposed to be a Pharisee. His name, Arimanias, could also have pagan significance: the ‘evil spirit’ in Greco-Roman conceptions of Zoroastrianism; see e.g. Giverson 1963, 152–153. This seems more likely to me than the idea in Barc and Funk 2012, 184, that the name refers to Joseph of Arimathea.


Matt 5.17–20. King 2006, 239–240, argues: “In its revisionary mode, the Secret Revelation of John fits solidly within the Christian hermeneutical project. . . . If we moderns should feel the audacity of this sweeping cultural project more fiercely in the pages of the Secret Revelation of John than we do with Paul or the Gospel of Matthew, that is only because the latter’s historical success has domesticated their boldness.” But neither Paul nor Matthew ever vilified the biblical creator. And King 2006, 241 goes on to recognize: “Certainly its ridicule of the God of Genesis as an arrogant and ignorant pretender strikes at the core of Jewish piety. . . . [I]t is impossible to gainsay the willingness, even gleefulness, of the Secret Revelation of John’s ridicule of the most cherished beliefs of Jews. Surely this must be evidence of some kind of real animosity.” I think the bitterness would have been towards most Christians also given that they too believed in and worshipped the God of Genesis.


Pleše 2006, 18, and Luttikhuizen 2006, 19, stress the continuity between the frame story and the myth, and they tend to understand the authors of both as Christians. Logan 1996 argues for a Christian understanding of the myth in the apocryphon and its related texts too. I am stressing a general continuity of Sethian conflict with others, although I think it’s possible that the myth was written against Jewish tradition first, then Christian tradition also, with the added Johannine frame story; cf. Barc and Funk 2012, 34.


E.g. M. Williams 1996, 64–75.


E.g. Pearson 2007, 107; Rasimus 2009, 105, 125–126; also Barc and Funk 2012, 246.


As Tardieu 1984, 327, comments, “le diable traditionnel a été remplacé par le Dieu de la Genèse.” Luttikhuizen 2006, 58, is starker: “In his wickedness and ferocity he [Ialdabaoth] even surpasses the Satan of apocalyptic Jewish and (non-Gnostic) Christian traditions.” King 2006, 170–172, compares and contrasts the apocryphon with Justin Martyr’s anti-pagan use of the watchers traditions, and with the cosmic struggle in the New Testament book of Revelation, stating: “However much other Christians might object, the framers of the Secret Revelation of John placed themselves within the Christian camp, not least by making the Savior the hero of their story.” But it seems to me that by having the Savior identify the leader of the fallen angels as the biblical creator, the gnostic authors of the apocryphon hoisted Christians like Justin Martyr with their own petard.


Tardieu 1984, 327, comments: “Ce qui sous-entend que cette timidité du couple promordial ne doit plus avoir cours aujourd’hui car la révélation écrite de la gnose proclame l’ignorance et la malédiction du démiurge.” The authors of the apocryphon did proclaim the ignorance and cursedness of the demiurge. If it were the case that Adam and Eve’s timidity no longer ought to apply, though, I think the authors would have written under their own names without fear.


Irenaeus, Haer. 1.29–30. In 1.30.7, it is not Ialdabaoth himself but his lackeys that rape Eve. For the biblical creator’s remote-control execution of Jesus, compare 1.30.13 with Gos. Jud. tc, where the betrayal is astrologically determined; see e.g. Adamson 2009.


Pleše 2006, 199: “Ialdabaoth is a ‘blind’ and incompetent pretender, moved by the impulses of his irrational soul and therefore capable of producing only deceptive semblances of ideal forms.”


Origen, Cels. 6.27.16–19 (Borret 1969, 246; Chadwick 1965/1953, 343; translation modified); see also 6.28.7–10.


Origen, Cels. 6.29.4–17 (Borret 1969, 250; Chadwick 1965/1953, 345).


Origen, Cels. 6.24–40, esp. 6.29.


See e.g. M.A. Williams 1996, 195–198.


Cahana 2014, 60, discusses Ap. John as an example of what he calls ‘gnostic antitraditionalism,’ which he understands to be the rejection of the Greco-Roman cultural premise that older is better and more reliable. About the Johannine frame story he states: “Christ seems to imply . . . that one should indeed turn away from tradition.” I concur that the authors of the apocryphon did not deny the charge of apostasy from Judaism and Christianity. But I don’t think they were against tradition qua the old. They claimed that their beliefs—revealed again however lately by the Savior—were those of the first humans, before Moses, before Plato. For the classic gnostic appeal to Seth, see Rasimus 2009, 194–198.


See Mansfeld 1981.


M.A. Williams 1996.


King 2003.


King 2006, 162, applies the cross-cultural comparative work of social scientist James C. Scott to her study of the apocryphon: “Scott has argued that resistance is more likely to arise from among those who have bought heavily into a society’s dominant ideology and feel betrayed than from those who reject the values of their society. The myth of the Secret Revelation of John expresses this sensibility of betrayal.” For King 2006, 167, the apocryphon’s social critique is largely aimed at Rome, even though she admits that the text “doesn’t actually mention any local or imperial figure or office.” It seems to me too that the resistance arose from among insiders. But I think they were Jews and Christians invested in biblical tradition, and that the critique of the biblical creator and his angels is first and foremost a critique of Judaism and Christianity.


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