A social critique of Roman rule in revelatory language
120 CE to 185 CE
Christian and Gnostic
Apocrypha and Rewritten Bible
Title of work:
The Apocryphon of John
Thematic keywords in English:
The Apocryphon of John is preserved in four versions, three from the collection of Coptic Christian texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, in 1945 (Codices II, III, and IV, in which the text appears as the first text in each), and one from Codex Berolinensis Gnosticus (BG) 8505 (commonly known as the Berlin Codex). The text has been interpreted as offering an indirect critique of Roman dominion through its narrative of inferior, malevolent cosmic rulers and their control over the world, which is understood as in direct opposition to the will of the one true Deity. The text is extremely complex, and often multi-layered in terms of meaning, but the extract given here provides a base from which to discuss the notion that its author/s sought to both explain and condemn Roman imperial power, which in the second century CE was frequently in conflict with Christianity. First, however, a brief introduction to the text. Although our witnesses for the text are from much later (the fourth century CE), it was probably originally composed during the second century CE in the urban school setting of a city such as Alexandria (see Karen King, Secret Revelation, p. 9-17). The text presents a mythical narrative about the Divine Realm as well as striking re-interpretations of popular Genesis narratives such as those of Adam and Eve and Noah. The author frames the message within a revelatory speech given by the Saviour to his disciple, John (see Gerard Luttikhuizen, Gnostic Revision, p. 17).
The Divine Realm starts out as perfectly unified, and as such is given the name “the All” (plhroma, plēroma); this realm provides the template for everything that is to be formed in the earthly realms below. Unfortunately, however, the image of perfection becomes broken when Sophia (the female personification of wisdom) wishes to conceive offspring without the involvement of her divine male consort. She succeeds, but her choice to act independently greatly backfires (see 10:3-7). As described in the present passage, her offspring, which she names Yaltabaoth is a hideous, ignorant abomination. Yaltabaoth is also known as Saklas and Samael, and frequently referred to as the Demiurge, from the Greek term δημιουργός, dēmiourgos, literally meaning a workman or craftsman. This is reflected in the fact that it is this being who is credited in the Apocryphon of John and other so-called “Gnostic” writings with the creation of the material world. However, the problem is that even though Yaltabaoth does not possess the same level of power and knowledge that Deity does, he nonetheless has some degree of power due to the spark of light that remains inside him from his mother. He therefore fancies himself a “God,” and attempts to mimic the Deity by creating his own version of the Divine Realm and placing his own authorities to rule over its various components. This is how the world and humanity come into being – it is not the supreme Deity who creates the world (as in general Jewish and Christian understanding), therefore, but a malevolent, imperfect being.
For certain scholars, such as Karen King, the assertion in the Apocryphon of John that those who rule over the material world are “arrogant, unjust, and malicious, was a bold and subversive position to take in a world whose rulers (i.e. the Romans) styled themselves as servants of the gods and purveyors of justice” (Secret Revelation, p. 157). As King rightly notes, the Romans viewed their empire as a clear expression of their favour in the eyes of the gods. Therefore, by portraying those who govern the world as poor imitations of the true Divine Realm, the author of the Apocryphon of John may be making a veiled criticism of the Roman government, which despite having a great deal of power, as do Yaltabaoth and the authorities (ecousia) which he creates to assist him, this is nothing in comparison to that of the true transcendent Deity. Yaltabaoth and his assistant powers represent all that has gone wrong in the material cosmos – they are greedy, jealous, arrogant and power-hungry. This is shown in the present passage through Yaltabaoth’s insistence that he is the only god, and his appropriation of God’s announcement in Exodus 20:5 that he is a jealous God – with Yaltabaoth blatantly in ignorance of his inferiority to the true Deity.
Elsewhere in the text, Yaltabaoth and his minions attempt to lead humanity astray, sending a “despicable spirit” to cloud their minds with ignorance of truth and goodness, and with temptations of sexual promiscuity, gold, and silver (see 22.22-24; 24.1-16; 25.11-20). Their actions are motivated by their own lust for power, not the wellbeing of those over which they rule, and in this sense they are the antithesis of the Divine Realm which they seek to mimic. As King explains, the text frequently narrates the inadequacies of Yaltabaoth and his archons, and their malicious actions which result from this; for instance, when they create the first man and realise his intelligence surpasses their own, they seek to drive him into ignorance out of pure jealousy; see 15.12-20; 18.3-20). That the governance of the archons is built on moral deficiency, ignorance of their own inferiority, and deception of their subjects, emphasises the illegitimacy of their rule, and through this, the author of the text can be interpreted as making a statement about the power relations in his own society (Secret Revelation, p. 158).
King reads the Apocryphon of John’s critique in the context of Platonising philosophy, which remained a powerful theoretical framework in the Roman period (see Secret Revelation, p. 158-159). As has been extensively argued by John Turner (see, for instance, his “Platonizing Sethian Treatises”; see also Karen King’s “Distinctive Textuality” for a recent discussion of the Apocryphon of John in relation to Platonism), the influence of Platonism on so-called “Gnostic” texts such as the Apocryphon of John was significant. This can be seen in the text’s critique of the upturned hierarchy of power which Yaltabaoth and his rulers have caused. Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, stresses hierarchically ordered exercising of power at all levels of the cosmos, which is characterised by unity and justice. Stoic ideologies combined with these notions to understand legitimate kingship as that which successfully manages passions and has at its centre the well-being of those who are being ruled over. The virtuous life was that which was in accord with the natural laws of the universe and divine justice, and human laws should aspire to imitate this (for a comprehensive discussion of such ideologies of order in the divine and human sphere in late antiquity, see F. Gerald Downing, Order and (Dis)order; for the Apocryphon of John, p. 75-76). The author of the Apocryphon of John makes clear that this is precisely what the demiurge and his authorities have failed to do. The Romans’ insistence on their divinely given power and wealth bought into the notions mentioned above, and as such, left them open to opposition when they were perceived as violating the terms of their legitimate rule. King offers one example of Roman understanding of divine sanction for its successes in the form of the Latin Panegyric X (part of a collection of twelve panegyrical orations) from the late-third century (289 CE), which offers an indulgent praise of the emperor Maximian (who is compared to Hercules), and refers to Jupiter as “close at hand, visible and present” (see Secret Revelation, p. 161) (see similar ideology in, for instance, Virgil, Aeneid I.257-296; Ovid, Fasti I.587-616; Horace, Odes I.12.49-60).
Critics, including Christian apologists such as Justin and Tertullian, were quick to appeal to the Roman emperors when they felt Roman rule was not functioning justly and upholding the standards which it claimed. For instance, Justin in his First Apology V.1, which appeals to the philosophical sensibilities of its addressees, the emperor Antoninus Pius and his adopted sons, accuses the Roman authorities of judging Christians with “senseless passion” rather than the required “sober judgement.” Tertullian in his Apology II states that “the power of which [Roman rulers] are servants is a civil, not a tyrannical domination.” Moreover, the book of Revelation (see the discussions of 13:11-18; 16:1-19; and 17:1-18) equates the Roman empire directly with Satan, and predicts its downfall in graphic detail. The Apocryphon of John, however, employs a slightly different tactic than direct address to Roman rulers to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. The author voices the notion of the “gap between ideals and existence” through a cosmological battle and a rupturing of the divine order, which has left the world at risk of injustice. The critique takes the form of a more general condemnation of universal disorder where rulers are not always capable of living up to the standards required of them. Considering the hostilities Christians faced in the course of the second century when the text was composed, this is hardly surprising. The author, representative of an intellectualising, philosophising form of Christianity, which viewed certain members of the human race (referred to as “immovable race,” to whom the message of the text is directed; 27.1-10) as the chosen recipients of the saviour’s revelations, has left it up to the reader to make parallels between Yaltabaoth and his archons and the Roman rulers. This may have been due to unjust treatment of Christians or other members of the populace by local officials, the claims made by the imperial cult (which could be seen to mirror Yaltabaoth’s false claim that he was a god), or any expression of imperial power which was deemed arrogant, tyrannical, or otherwise in contradiction of “just rule” (see King, Secret Revelation, p. 164). Similarly, the Trimorphic Protennoia 41.2-20, also from Nag Hammadi, makes explicit the need for salvation from kings and tyrants.
The form of resistance expressed by the Apocryphon of John does not explicitly advocate political resistance or even overtly mention Rome, but rather rationalises oppression and injustice through fantastical mythologies, and concentrates on spiritual progression as the method of salvatory escape from the material world. In this sense, the text represents one particular response by a certain group of early Christians to living under imperial rule.