Question: "What is the Apocryphon of John?"
Answer: The Apocryphon of John was written sometime in the second century AD and was immediately considered heretical by the early church. The text is typical of Gnostic religious beliefs, including a convoluted arrangement of spiritual beings and the claim that some people are gifted with special, secret knowledge. The Apocryphon of John claims—falsely—to be written by the apostle John. Supposedly, this book records a secret revelation given to John by Jesus. In it, the writer gives a dramatic, detailed account of what happened “behind the scenes” of creation, the fall of man, and the ministry of Jesus Christ. The work is sometimes referred to as the Secret Book of John.
As a blatantly Gnostic text, the Apocryphon of John is of little use in understanding early Christian spirituality or culture. It does, however, give great insight into the beliefs of early Gnostics. Early church fathers such as Irenaeus cited the Apocryphon of John as part of their refutation of heresy. The underlying premise of the Apocryphon of John is the same as Gnostic spirituality in general. That is, certain people are given “true knowledge” in the form of secrets that only they can know. And physical things—especially the human body and sexuality—are fundamentally evil and opposed to that which is good. The result of such teachings is an elaborate dualist mythology that contradicts history, inspired Scripture, and Christian doctrine.
According to the Apocryphon of John, Jesus appeared to John shortly after the crucifixion and explained the “true story” of all that had happened before. This tale claims there is a single perfect being—the Monad—who created a group of beings called Aeons. The first of these is a female entity called Barbelo, who works with the Monad to create beings such as Mind and Light. This “Light,” according to the Gnostic text, is Jesus.
The Apocryphon of John continues by claiming one of these Aeons, the female Sophia, breaks the order of creation by forming something without a male spirit’s involvement. The result is a lesser group of spiritual beings called Archons, starting with the wicked Yaltabaoth. Since he is ugly, Yaltabaoth is hidden by Sophia and kept unaware of the existence of the Aeons. He creates an entire world of his own—the world in which we now live—and postures as the god of that creation.
When Sophia admits her mistake to the Monad, he agrees to help as Sophia and others try to restore goodness to Yaltabaoth and his inferior creation. Their contact inspires Yaltabaoth’s attempt to create another class of being, reflecting his vague impression of the Monad. This being is Adam, the first man. Sophia then tricks Yaltabaoth into giving Adam the most crucial part of his spiritual essence. This makes the Archons angry, so they trap Adam in Eden.
In the twisted, Gnostic version of Eden, presented in the Apocryphon of John, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is something legitimately good, but it is concealed by jealous spiritual forces led by Yaltabaoth. Accordingly, the text claims it was Jesus who led Adam to eat of the tree. Not to be outdone, Yaltabaoth tricks Adam and Eve—Eve was accidentally created by Yaltabaoth from Adam—into having sex and making more humans. By suppressing the knowledge of these newly born people, Yaltabaoth seeks to maintain control over an ignorant and imperfect world.
In a series of conversational questions, John then asks Jesus about issues such as sin and salvation. Jesus’ response, per the Apocryphon of John, is to claim that His duty is to rouse people to knowledge. This false version of Jesus contacts people, and those who accept His special knowledge are saved from death.
Clearly, the content of the Apocryphon of John contradicts the Bible and Christian teachings. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it was never considered part of inspired Scripture. On the contrary, early church fathers denounced it as blatant falsehood. Despite its claims, its late dating and unorthodox doctrine disqualify the Apocryphon of John from being written by the actual apostle John. Its most valuable use is as a tool for more fully understanding the claims of early Gnostics, particularly in the context of the second century.