Shuck and Jive

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Secret Book of John

The Secret Book of John is considered the foundational text for Gnostic Christian mythology. Like Paul's letter to the Romans defines his theology,
The Secret Book of John lays the theological foundations for this early Christian tradition. This is no text to breeze through or skim.

The Gnostic Society Library has translations and helps to understand this work. According to its website:

Among the several dozen ancient Gnostic manuscripts rediscovered in modern times, the Secret Book of John is generally agreed to be the most important. It has been called the locus classicus for the Gnostic mythological system – in sum, it is the preeminent “Gnostic Gospel”, a sacred reservoir for the defining essence of Gnostic myth and revelation. It breathes with the life of vision that vitalized early Christianity, a life suppressed and then largely forgotten in later ages. From a modern reading of this crucially important and recently rediscovered "Gospel", we are granted fundamental insights into the lost foundations of Christian tradition.
Karen King, who has published a book on The Secret Book of John suggests that this text may provide more than merely historical interest:
As the Secret Revelation of John becomes known more widely, we may expect it to have new and varied impacts on early Christian historiography, constructive theology, and personal appropriation.

There are at least two accessible on-line translations. One by Frederik Wisse and another by Stephen Davies. The Davies translation is easier to follow. I quote a piece here:

I am the Providence of everything.
I became like my own human children.

I existed from the first.
I walked down every possible road.

I am the wealth of the light.
I am the remembering of the fullness.

I walked into the place of greatest darkness and on down.
I entered the central part of the prison.

The foundations of chaos quaked.

I hid because of their evil.
They did not recognize me.

I came down a second time
continuing on.

I emerged from among those of light
I am the remembering of Providence

I entered the middle of darkness,
The inner part of the underworld
To pursue my mission.

The foundations of chaos quaked.
Threatening to collapse upon all who were there
And utterly destroy them

I soared upward again
To my roots in light
So as not to destroy them all yet.

I descended a third time.

I am light
I am dwelling in light
I am the remembering of Providence

I entered the midst of darkness
I came to the deepest part of the underworld.

I let my face light up
Thinking of the end of their time
I entered their prison
The body is that prison

I cried out:
“Anyone who hears,
Rise up from your deep sleep!”

And the sleeping one awoke and wept
Wiping bitter tears saying
“Who calls me?”
“Where has my hope come from
As I lie in the depths of this prison?”

“I am the Providence of pure light,” I replied,
“I am the thought of the Virgin Spirit
Raising you up to an honored place.
Rise up!
Remember what you have heard.
Trace back your roots
To me.
The merciful one.
Guard against the poverty demons.
Guard against the chaos demons.
Guard against all who would bind you.
Stay awake!
Rise out of the depths of the underworld!

I raised him up
I sealed him with the light/water of the five seals.
Death had no power over him ever again.

I ascend again to the perfect realm.

I completed everything and you have heard it.

In some respects it sounds like the
Gospel of John or the Revelation to John, both in the canon. For some time, the various groups lived alongside one another, influencing each other. Alistair Logan, author of Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy,
...argues that the Gnostics were the first Christian Platonists, the first to develop a Trinity (of Father, Mother and Son), and the first to make post-baptismal chrismation central to Christian initiation. (Book Description)

Hal Taussig will introduce us to this fascinating work Saturday afternoon at our Jesus Seminar on the Road, September 12-13.


  1. What kind of isolated culture produced this, John? Were they like the ones who put together the Didache.

    Reading it eerily sounds like some of the Baghavad Gita. I'm wondering if it is a bridging/syncretising document that tries to merge ancient eastern philosophy with young Christian thoughts.

  2. You know, Stushie, you are asking the right question. What or who produced this and why? This is the question that is being asked about the canonical gospels as well. Why were the stories shaped the way they were? What do the stories say and say about those who produced them?