Apocryphon of John, Part II of Ineffable God: The Jewish (rather than Platonic) Roots of Gnosticism


In the previous post, I provided an overview of this series, in which I will look at Platonic thought, Philo of Alexandria and the gnostic text Apocryphon of John in order to argue that gnostic thought, although it may have utilized philosophical terms to explain its concepts, was not a philosophical system based on Greek philosophy.

In this section, I will look at negative theology (explained in the last post) in Apocryphon of John. For a more complete look at the entire Apocryphon of John text, please look here.

Of the books found at Nag Hammadi, Apocryphon of John contains the most detailed “Sethian” creation myth among surviving texts (Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 23). Surviving in only four Coptic manuscripts (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 25), Apocryphon of John probably existed in some form prior to 180 CE based on the summary of a version of the text in Irenaeus (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 24). The framing device for the myth takes the form of the popular “apocryphal acts of the apostles” after the Greek “romances”, a pseudepigrapha attributed to the disciple John, son of Zebedee (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 24). Experiencing a crisis of faith, John enters the desert and experiences the theophany of a “multiform image” (NHC II 2:6) who announces that he has come to teach John “the mystery of the immovable race” so that he may write down his vision and share it with those who are “secretly” like him “in spirit” (NHC II 31:28-31). The myth that follows is the “gnosis”:  acquaintance with the otherwise unknowable truth, accessible only by this revelation and available in secret only to those who have been chosen to receive it.

The myth begins with the “monad“, described as “a unitary principle” and “a ruler, over which nothing can rule,” called both a “god” and a “parent” over all that exists. Its nature is described as an “uncontaminated light, toward which no vision can gaze”, an “invisible spirit” that exists beyond human understanding, “superior to deity”. It exists “alone”, lacking “nothing for it is utter fullness”, its nature “always utterly perfect” (NHC II 3:1-7). The monad is “unlimited”, “unfathomable” (incomprehensible), “immeasurable”, “eternal”, “unnamable”, “ineffable” and “far superior” to concepts of corruptibility. It is neither corporal nor incorporeal and not quantifiable by known standards of physical measure or “in spans of time”. “It is acquaintance, as bestowing acquaintance”; or, as such: gnosis imparting gnosis (NHC II 4:5).

Three things interest us here for this discussion: the structure of the description, the concepts conveyed and the terms employed. First, the monad is described paradoxically in pairs of cataphatic and apathetic terms (defined in the previous post), ultimately moving beyond both designations by explaining that the monad is beyond binary categorization. This structure conveys the concept that language is impotent to describe the monad. Terms like “unnamable”, “ineffable” and “unfathomable” come closest to concrete descriptions, yet these words clearly emphasize the monad’s unknowable nature. As a result, the monad, the source of all being, can only be known through revelation, gnosis bestowed by gnosis. In this way, the concept of an ineffable God, the language of negative theology, and knowledge accessible only through revelation are mutually exclusive elements of “gnosis” in Apocryphon of John. While it will be obvious in the next post that Apocryphon of John (and related gnostic literature) owes terms of description to Greek philosophy (primarily Platonism, Stoicism and Pythagoreanism), gnostic texts are primarily mythological, rewriting a Hebraic cosmogony in terms that better explain the fallen state of the world, the ignorant demiurge and the fully transcendent monad.

In the following post, I will survey Platonism and Middle Platonism, as pertains to negative theology and possible influences on gnostic texts.


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