The Acts of John and gnostic ritual dances

The apocryphal Acts of John is a curious text which is first attested in the Manichaean Psalm-book in the Chester Beatty collection.[1]

This papyrus manuscript was one of seven Coptic codices which were discovered somewhere in Egypt before 1929.  Naturally they were broken up by the Cairo dealers in order to obtain a higher price, and then sold after much haggling to two wealthy buyers.[2] “The codices include the Manichean psalmbook, a fragment of the Synaxeis, two versions of the Kephalaia, a collection of homilies, the Acts, and a volume of Mani’s letters.”  Part of the collection was bought by Chester Beatty and is in London; the remainder by Professor Carl Schmidt of Berlin.  The Berlin material was looted by the Soviets at the end of WW2, and the location of much of it is uncertain.  A facsimile has been printed of both parts of the Psalm-Book.  There is an edition with English translation of the second part of the Psalm-Book. The text probably belongs to the late 3rd century.[3]

The Manichaean literature in this collection originates from Syriac sources.  There is some evidence that the Acts of John may have been composed in that language, rather than in Greek.  The date of the work is unclear, but seems to be late 3rd century also.  There is a reference to John causing the collapse of the famous temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in which the temple is supposed to stand on high ground.  In fact it stands on the plain, so the author had no knowledge of the region.  Likewise the temple of Artemis was partly destroyed by the Goths in 269 AD, so again this suggests that time had gone by and that the author knew only that the temple had partly collapsed.  But none of this is very conclusive.

Most the Acts of John is story.  So much of it survives in Greek through quotation in later hagiographical material.  No complete manuscript is known, and the order of the bits is somewhat debateable. The Iconoclast council of 754 included it in a list of early works – including works by Eusebius – that condemned the use of images, and the 2nd Council of Nicaea in 787 casually condemned the lot of them for it.  As I wrote 12 years ago, it also condemned the Acts of John to be burned (full material from the council minutes is here).  The Stichometry of Nicephorus gives 2,500 lines for the length of the work, suggesting that only around 70% has survived.[4]

The material now numbered chapters 87-105 are preserved only in a single Greek manuscript, so I understand: Vindobonensis hist. gr. 63.  (A look at suggests that this is not online). The text here makes the gnostic origin of the text fairly clear, with its references to docetic ideas: at one point it states (c. 93):

And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see if his footprint appeared on the ground – for I saw him raising himself from the earth – and I never saw it.

But chapter 94 contains something still more interesting.

94. Before he was arrested by the lawless Jews, whose lawgiver is the lawless serpent, he assembled us all and said, “Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so go to meet what lies before (us).” So he told us to form a circle, holding one another’s hands, and him self stood in the middle and said, “Answer Amen to me.” So he began to sing a hymn and to say,

“Glory be to thee. Father.”
And we circled round him and answered him, “Amen.”
“Glory be to thee, Logos: Glory be to thee, Grace.” – “Amen.”
“Glory be to thee, Spirit: Glory be to thee. Holy One: Glory be to thy Glory.” – “Amen.”

Grace dances.
“I will pipe, Dance, all of you.” – “Amen.”
“I will mourn. Beat you all your breasts – “Amen”.
“(The) one Ogdoad sings praises with us.” – “Amen.”
“The twelfth number dances on high.” – “Amen.”

By the Logos I [.] made a jest of everything and was not made a jest at all.
I exulted: but do you understand the whole, and when you have understood it, say, Glory be to thee. Father.” – “Amen.”

97. After the Lord had so danced with us, my beloved, he went out. And we, like men amazed or fast asleep, fled one this way and another that. And so I saw him suffer, and did not wait by his suffering, but fled to the Mount of Olives …[5]

The gnostic reference is evident.  But what we seem to be looking at is some kind of liturgical circle dance, or round dance.  Apparently the “Gospel of the Savior” discovered a few years ago also contains some kind of hymn section, which might involve dance.

It’s not clear from this whether this indicates that the gnostics or manichaeans responsible for the text had such a dance as part of their liturgy.  There seems to be a certain amount of scholarly literature featuring such speculation.  Dance could certainly feature in ancient society as part of a ritual, and even in the Old Testament.  There is a Nubian text, the Dance of the Saviour, which was found at Qasr el-Whizz, or so I learn from here.  But there is no evidence either way on this question.

I also saw one non-scholarly source on twitter suggesting that this was evidence of gnostics dancing around an altar on which the communion elements were placed.  But I could find no other source for this claim, so it is probably just a confusion or imaginary!

The surviving portions of the Acts of John fall naturally into three sections, of which this is the middle.  Naturally there is speculation that the separate parts are of different origins.  Inevitably there are attempts to date as much of it as possible as early as possible!  But there seems no evidence that any of the material is known earlier than the Manichaean period.

  1. [1]Iranica: The two parts of the psalmbook (Codex A, Chester Beatty Library, 578 pp.) have been published, part I (172 folios) in a facsimile (Giversen, 1988a; 172 folios), part II (117 folios) first in an edition with English translation (Allberry; 117 folios) and then in facsimile (Giversen, 1988b).
  2. [2]Iranica Online: Coptic Manichaean Texts: “At least seven 4th-century Coptic Manichean papyrus codices said, probably erroneously, to have come from Madīnat Māżī (Gk. Narmoûthis, in the Egyptian Fayyūm) were divided into eight parts by three dealers…”
  3. [3]Edition with English translation: A Manichaean Psalm-Book, Part II, ed. C.R.C. Allberry (1938), p.192.33-193.1.  This I have not seen; the reference is note 11 (p.205) in Schneemelcher, NT Apocrypha 2.
  4. [4]M.G. Beard-Shouse, The Circle Dance of the Cross in the Acts of John: An Early Christian Ritual, diss. Kansas (2010), p.10.  Online here.
  5. [5]Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed.), R. McL. Wilson (trans.), “New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses and Related Subjects”, Westminster: John Knox Press (2003) ISBN: 0664227228, 9780664227227. The passage starts on page 182.  I have compressed the formatting because of the limitations of WordPress.

The Acts of John in the minutes of the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

The Greek church during the 8th century became embarassed at the naked worship of icons in the churches.  Eventually the emperor Constantine V called a synod at Hieria in 754 to deal with the situation.  This obediently passed canons condemning the worship of icons.  But over the next few years a reaction took place, and after his death, a fresh synod was  assembled in 787 at Nicaea to reverse the rulings of Hieria.  This is considered as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and is known as Nicaea II.

After my post about the Second Council of Nicaea, a kind reader added a comment advising me that there is indeed a complete English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, made in 1850 by John Mendham, and downloadable from Google Books here.[1]  The passage in which the Acts of John are discussed is on pp.269-276.

Unfortunately the minutes of Hieria are lost, so we must rely on the minutes of Nicaea 2 to get any idea of their process.  It seems that the iconoclasts assembled a dossier of evidence as to the practice of the early church, and included material by anybody they could find, including Jews and heretics.  This was a risky approach, and laid itself open to unscrupulous refutation.

In the fifth session of Nicaea 2, the delegates went through the evidence given at Hieria and debunked it, section by section.  The method chosen was a crude one: if the document could be shown to be heretical in any respect, or its author had ever expressed a view different from that prevailing in Byzantium in 787 AD, then it could be ignored.  In short the whole proceeding was an argument ad hominem.

The sessions were managed by the Patriarch Tarasius, acting for the empress Irene.  Let’s hear how the session proceeded with respect to the Acts of John.

Epiphanius Deacon and Legate of Thomas Bishop of Sardinia reads from the pretended “Itinerary of the Holy Apostles”:

“The painter on the first day, having sketched him in outline, ceased : on the following day he filled up the picture with the colouring, and gave the image to the joyful Lycomedes, which having placed in his own bedchamber he set a crown upon it; which when John afterwards knew he said to him, ‘My beloved son, what meaning have you in thus going from the bath to your bedchamber by yourself? Am not I to pray with you and the rest of your brethren; or would you shut us out?’ Having said this in a sportive manner he entered with him into his bed-chamber, and be saw there the image of an old man crowned, and tapers and altars set before it, on which he addressed him thus—‘ Lycomedes, what have yon to do with this image? Which of your gods is it that is painted here? I see you still live like an heathen !’ And Lycomedes answered him—‘He alone is my God who hath rescued me and my wife from death; but if after God we may call men who have done good to us gods, then thou art the god who is represented in that picture, whom therefore I crown, and love, and reverence, as having been a good guide to me in the way.’ But John, never as yet having seen his own face, said to him, ‘My son, you are mocking me: am I so superior to my Lord in form? How can you make me believe that this picture is like to me?’ On which Lycomedes brought a mirror, and John having looked at himself in the mirror, and having steadfastly examined the image, said, ‘May the Lord Jesus Christ live : the image is like, but you have done amiss in making it.’”

Epiphanius went on to read from the same book where it begins, “At one time wishing to lay hold of Jesus.” And shortly after—

“They laid hands on a gross material body, but at other times when I felt Him, that which I touched was immaterial, incorporeal, and as though nothing at all was there. And when at any time being invited by some Pharisee He accepted the invitation, we went together with Him, and each of us received the appointed loaf from those who had invited us. And among the rest He also received one which, having blessed, He divided amongst us all, and from the very small portion which each received he was satisfied: our own loaves were in this way preserved entire, so that those who invited Him were much astonished. I oftentimes, when walking with Him, wished to see if any mark of His footsteps appeared; but, though I saw Him raise Himself up from the ground, yet never did I see any footsteps.

These things I now relate to you, my brethren, as it were for the sake of your encouragement in the faith; but of His great things, of His wonderful things, let deep silence be preserved, since they are unspeakable—such as could not be uttered, could not be heard. For before He was seized by the lawless Jews—they who had received their law from the lawless serpent—He assembled us together and said. ‘Before that I am delivered up to them let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so let us enter on that which is ordained.

When He had commanded us to make a circle round Him by holding each other’s hands, He Himself being in the midst. He said this, ‘Amen, obey me.’ He began to sing a hymn and to say, ‘Glory to thee, O Father,’ and we who were around Him answered the ‘Amen—glory to thee, O Word: glory to thee, O Grace: Amen—glory to thee, O Spirit: glory to thee, O Holy One: glory to thy glory: Amen—we praise thee, O Father; we give thanks to thee: the Light with whom darkness does not dwell (Amen), in which also we give thanks, saith I wish to be saved and I wish to save: Amen—I wish to be bound and I wish to loose: Amen—I wish to be wounded and I wish to wound: Amen—I wish to eat and I wish to be eaten: Amen—I wish to bear and I wish to be heard: Amen—I wish to be understood being altogether Mind: Amen—I wish to be washed and I wish to wash : Amen—grace leads the dance, I would play the late, dance ye all: Amen—I wish to be lamented, lament ye all: Amen.”

And after other things it is continued thus:

“In this manner the Lord having, my beloved, joined in the dance with us went out, and we as in a maze or in a dream fled some one way some another. But I, seeing Him suffering, could not endure to behold His passion, but fled to the Mount of Olives, weeping at that which had taken place. And when the command was given, ‘Raise up,’ He was suspended thereon about the sixth hour of the day, and darkness was over all the land.

But my Lord having stood up in the midst of the cave, and having shed light round about me, said, ‘John, by that rabble beneath I am crucified at Jerusalem; I am wounded with spears and reeds; I am made to drink vinegar and gall; but it is I that speak to thee, and that which I speak hear thou. It was I that suggested to thee to ascend into this mountain, that thou mightest hear that which it becomes the scholar to learn from his teacher, a man from God.’

Having said this, He showed me a cross of light, fixed, and around the cross a great multitude not having one form, but on the cross was one form and a like similitude : above the cross I perceived the Lord, not having any form but only a voice—a voice, not that which was ordinary with Him, but one that was truly sweet and delightful, and indeed of God Himself, saying unto me, ‘John, it was necessary that one of you should hear these words from me. I would have one to hear of that should come. The cross of light is for your sakes called by me at one time the Word, at another Mind, at another Christ, at another the Door, at another the Way, at another Bread, at another Seed, at another Resurrection, at another Jesus, at another the Father, at another the Spirit, at another Life, at another Truth, at another Faith, at another Grace.’”

Tarasius: “See how the whole of this writing contradicts the Gospel! ”

The Holy Council: “Yes, my lord, it affirms the incarnation to be mere appearance.”

Tarasius: “In the ‘Itinerary’ it is written that He neither eat nor drank, nor walked on the earth with His feet, just as the Phantasiasts teach; but in the Gospel it is written of Christ that He did both eat and drink, and that the Jews said concerning Him, ‘Behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber’ (Matt. xi. 19). Again—if, as they fable, He did not touch the earth with His feet, how is it written in the Gospel, ‘Jesus being weary with His journey sat thus on the well?’” (John iv. 6.)

Constantine Bishop of Constantia: “And this, forsooth, is the book which confirmed that false conventicle.”

Tarasius: “Really, the whole of it is quite ridiculous.”

Theodore Bishop of Catana: “See the book which overthrew the beauty of the Catholic Church.”

Euthymius Bishop of Sardis: “It became that conventicle of mischief to have its support from such a book.”

Constantine Bishop of Constantia: “What blasphemy to assert that John the Apostle took refuge in a cave at the hour of the crucifixion, when the Gospel expressly declares that John ‘went in with Him into the hall of Caiaphas’ (John xviii. 15), and that ‘he was standing by the cross of Christ with His holy Mother.’” (John xix. 25).

The Holy Council: ‘Every heresy seems connected with that book.”

Tarasius: “Alas, alas! by what heretical books do they confirm their heresy.”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea: “This book is worthy of all pollution and disgrace; and yet from this we have their testimony against images in this history of Lycomedes.”

John Legate of the East: “He introduces Lycomedes crowning the image of the Apostle just as the Heathens crown their idols.”

Basil Bishop of Ancyra: “God forbid that St. John the Divine should say anything contrary to the Gospel.”

Tarasius: “Are the sentiments which have been read to you those of the Gospel?”

The Holy Council: “God forbid ! We receive neither that which precedes, nor that which follows, about Lycomedes.”

Tarasius: “He who receives that which comes last must admit that which goes before, just as did that false Conventicle.”

The Holy Council: “Anathema be to it from the beginning to the end.”

 John Legate of the East: “Behold, most blessed fathers, it has been clearly proved that the patrons of this Christianity-detracting heresy are partakers with Nebuchadnezzar and the Samaritans, with Jews and Pagans; and, not only so, but furthermore with the atheistic and accursed Manichaeans, a testimony from whom they have here brought forward; for these things are spoken by those who maintain the incarnate dispensation of God the Word to be mere appearance; but anathema be to them and to their writings.”

The Holy Council said: “Let them be anathema.”

Petronas the Patrician said to Tarasius: “My lord, if it is your pleasure, let us ask the Bishops of Ammorium and Neocaesarea, were the books themselves read at that false Conventicle?”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea and Theodosius Bishop of Ammorium answered: “No, by the Lord, no book was brought forward there, but by false extracts they deceived us.”

Tarasius: “Following their own private views, they brought forward whatever suited their purpose.”

Petronas: “And, moreover, they did everything with the imperial suffrage.”

Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea: “I have often said it, and I repeat it again, that no book or writing of the fathers appeared in our Assembly: nought but false extracts were brought forward; and so this same story about Lycomedes defiled our ears.”

John Legate of the East: “If it seem good to this Holy and Oecumenic Council, let there be an injunction restraining all henceforth from making any copy of this cursed book.”

The Holy Council said: “Let it be no more transcribed. Nor is this all—we furthermore decree that the present copy shall be committed to the flames.”

Peter the Reader cites St. Amphilochius “On the False Inscriptions of the Heretics,” which begins:—

“We account it right to expose in its true colours all their impiety and to publish abroad their deceit, especially as they put forward certain books having the superscriptions of the Apostles, by which they deceive the more simple.” And, shortly after, he continues—“But we will prove that these books, which the Apostates from our Church bring forward, are not the work of the Apostles, but the writings of Devils.” And. after other matters, he continues— “These things the Apostle John would not have said, having written in the Gospel that the Lord said from the cross, ‘Behold thy Son’ (John six. 26, 27): so that from that hour the holy John took Mary to his own house. How, then, could he say that he was not present? But this is not to be wondered at; ‘for, as the Lord is truth, so is the devil a liar; for he is a liar and the father of it, and when he speaketh of a lie he speaketh of his own’ (John viii. 24). Thus far concerning their falsities.”

Tarasius: “Our Father Amphilochius is great, and we shall attend to his words concerning this pretended “Itinerary,” and, therefore, need not be swayed by its title.

Basil Bishop of Ancyra: “Nothing can be more opposed to the Gospel than is this impious compilation. Very fitting was it that such a book should hold opinions contrary to holy images.”

“Tarasius: “The father clearly exposes over the disgraceful and vain prating of this volume.”

The Holy Council: “He does, indeed, my lord.”

Nicephorus Bishop of Dyrrachium: “My lord, this ought to have been read for the full satisfaction of all; but not the other, for it contaminates our ears.”

The Holy Council: “Yet, by way of warning, it was not amiss that even this should be read.”

Tarasius: “They who were so garrulous against holy images have brought Eusebius forward in their favour in a letter which he wrote to Constantia the wife of Licinius. Now, let us see what were the sentiments of this Eusebius.”…

And on they go, to revile Eusebius of Caesarea himself, labelling him an Arian in order to disregard his testimony to the practice of the church in the 4th century.  The translator comments freely in the footnotes on the terrible logic involved.

It is amusing to see the passage where Nicephorus, in his eagerness to comply, rushes ahead of what Tarasius wants done, and is mildly reproved.  Servility must often meet with such snubs.

It’s very interesting, at any rate, to see the official record of events.

  1. [1]John Mendham (tr), The Seventh General Council: the second of Nicaea, held A.D. 787, in which the worship of images was established: with copious notes from the “Caroline books” compiled by order of Charlemagne for its confutation, London, 1850.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Canon of the New Testament

Why on earth would anybody suppose that the Second Council of Nicea / Nicaea in 787 was responsible for deciding which books went into the bible?  It’s absurd on the face of it, considering the vast mass of patristic testimony and physical bibles that survive.

However I keep seeing ignorant people online who either state this, or seem genuinely uncertain whether they mean the First or Second councils of Nicaea.  There is a much more common myth that the canon was decided at the First council in 325, but that’s another story.

Quite by accident today I found what seems to be the source.  It is none other than Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003.  It’s a popular book, not a scholarly work, so it probably circulates among atheists.  The reference I was given was to pages 41-43, in which Ehrman talks about the apocryphal Acts of John, as an example of works in which celibacy is praised.  In chapter two, pages 41-42 we find this interesting statement:

A comparable message appears in another of the Apocryphal Acts, the last we will consider in this chapter. The Acts of John narrates the legendary adventures of John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples in the New Testament Gospels. He continues to be an important figure after Jesus’ death, according to the early chapters of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, but he quickly drops out of sight in that narrative as the book turns its entire attention to the missionary activities of Paul. Later Christians, not content with the silence shrouding John’s later life, filled the gap with numerous stories, some of which have made it into this second-century Apocryphal Acts of John.23  Once again we are handicapped by not having the complete text. It was, of course, a noncanonical book, and parts of it were theologically dubious to the proto-orthodox. It was eventually condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century, so that most manuscripts of it were either destroyed or lost.24

(Highlighting is mine) Buried at the back, on p.262, where few will read them, are the notes:

23. It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–4. For a translation of some of the more intriguing accounts of the Acts of John, see the excerpts from Elliott in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 93–108; that is the translation I am following here.

24. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–7.

This, I suspect, is indeed the source for the modern legend.  Because of course if the Second council was condemning the Acts of John, it’s “obvious” to a certain type of mind that they were discussing what should be in the New Testament.

Looking at Elliot’s excellent single volume on the NT Apocrypha, we find that the Acts of John are first attested with Eusebius in the 4th century.  On the date of the work, Elliot states (p.306):

This is normally given as late second-century, but some scholars (e.g. Zahn) who argued that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria [6] gave an earlier date. Modern scholars tend to agree that there is no firm evidence that the Acts of John was known before Eusebius.

Schneemelcher concurs (vol. 2, p.152):

It is not possible to demonstrate any use of the Acts of John in the Christian literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries.

On page 305, Elliot states:

(e) The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) are contained in several Greek and Latin manuscripts, and also in the Latin version by Anastasius.5 Citations in them from the Acts of John 27-8, 93-5, and 97-8 are valuable for establishing the Greek text at these points (see Junod and Kaestli CCA, pp. 344-68).

The condemnation of the Acts of John by the Second Council of Nicaea meant that the ancient Acts could only survive in clandestine copies after 787. Parts survived in the rewritings of the story of John found in Pseudo-Prochorus, and (in Latin) in Pseudo-Abdias and Pseudo-Melito.

The footnote:

5. J. C. Thilo, Colliguntur et commentariis illustrantur fragmenta actuum S. Johannis a Leucio Charino Conscriptum, i. in Universitatis Literariae Fridericianae Halis consociatae programma paschale (Halle, 1847), 14f.

This suggests that Elliot is also repeating from elsewhere, just as Ehrman was.  Is it possible that nobody ever actually looks at the statements of Nicaea II?

Schneemelcher is rather clearer:

The most important evidence of all is provided by the Nicene Council of 787, already mentioned. Its fifth session dealt, among other matters, with the Acts of John, to which the Iconoclastic Council of 754 had appealed. Here AJ 27 and the first half of AJ 28 were read out from the pseudepigraphical ‘Travels of the Holy Apostles’ as a document hostile to images, together with a large part of AJ 93-98 as a general indication of the book’s heretical character.42


42.  Con. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi XIII, cols. 168D-172C); critical edition of the quotations from the Acts of John in Junod/Kaestli 361-365 (Greek text) and 366-368 (Latin translation of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).  [‘Junod/Kaestli’ is the standard edition, Acta Johannis, in the Corpus Christianorum, series apocryphorum, vols 1-2, Turnhout 1983]

This gives us the reason why the book was discussed – that it had been used in the Iconoclast disputes – and a source for the council text.  There is actually an English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), under that title in two volumes, from Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 68 (2018), translated by Richard Price, and available for only $175.  Unfortunately this is inaccessible to me, or we might hear what the council said.

The older pre-critical text of Mansi is thankfully available online here, in a very poor scan from microfilm.  Col. 167 has a section starting Ex falsis superscriptionibus itinerariorum sanctorum apostolorum, (On the false attributions of the “itineraries of the holy apostles”).  But the good stuff appears in column 171C, and continues to 175.  The delegates read out some short quotes which contradict the Gospel of John, and so must be heretical. Especially good:

Gregory of Neocaesarea said, “This codex is worthy of every condemnation and dishonour.  And they produced out of it testimonies against images!! which were copied by Lycomedes!”

John the most reverend monk and vicar of the oriental patriarchs, said, “Lycomedes brings in the crowned images of the apostles as if they were pagan idols!”

Basil bishop of Ancyra said, “God forbid that St John seem to speak contrary to his own well-established gospel!”

I don’t know who Lycomedes was – evidently an iconoclast leader – but I don’t think they liked him.

The section ends with:

John, most reverend monk and vicar of the orient pontiffs said, “If it please this holy and universal synod, let this be the sentence, that nobody henceforth shall make copies of this sordid book.”

The holy synod said, “Let nobody make a copy: not only this, but we judge that it is right that it must be thrown in the fire.

Let’s finish, for the benefit of Ehrman readers, with another quotation from him about the formation canon of the NT.  This time it’s from Truth and Fiction In The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.74:

Teabing’s conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. … (75) … It was a process that took many years—centuries, actually. It was not (contrary to Teabing’s view) the decision of one person, or even just one group of persons (for example, a church council); …

Indeed so.


The destruction of the apocryphal Acts of John

Burning books with which one disagrees is such fun!  At least, we might infer this, from the universality of the practice in all ages, including our own.   A discussion on this subject elsewhere raised the question of the apocryphal Acts of John, and caused me to read the relevant sections in volume 2 of Schneemelcher’s “New Testament Apocrypha”  (2003).  Page 156 indicates:

At its fifth session the Nicene council of 787 pronounced on the Acts of John: “No-one is to copy (this book): not only so, but we consider that it deserves to be consigned to the fire.” 49

49. Conc. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi vol. 13, col. 176 A)

In the West Leo the Great had given a similar verdict to the entire compass of the apocryphal literature used by the Priscillianists: “The apocryphal writings, however, which under the names of the apostles contain a hotbed of manifold perversity, should not only be forbidden but altogether removed and burnt with fire.” 50

50. Leo the Great, Letter to Turribius of Astorga on 21 July 447, c. 15; PL 54, col. 688A.

These judgments sufficiently explain why the Acts of John have survived only in fragmentary form.

Leaving aside the somewhat doubtful logic of the latter, I thought it might be useful to examine these references.  Leo the Great, Letter 15 (to Turribius, against the Priscillianists) is online in English here:

And on this subject your remarks under the fifteenth head make a complaint, and express a well-deserved abhorrence of their devilish presumption, for we too have ascertained this from the accounts of trustworthy witnesses, and have found many of their copies most corrupt, though they are entitled canonical. For how could they deceive the simple-minded unless they sweetened their poisoned cups with a little honey, lest what was meant to be deadly should be detected by its over-nastiness?

Therefore care must be taken, and the priestly diligence exercised to the uttermost, to prevent falsified copies that are out of harmony with the pure Truth being used in reading. And the apocryphal scriptures, which, under the names of Apostles, form a nursery-ground for many falsehoods, are not only to be proscribed, but also taken away altogether and burnt to ashes in the fire. For although there are certain things in them which seem to have a show of piety, yet they are never free from poison, and through the allurements of their stories they have the secret effect of first beguiling men with miraculous narratives, and then catching them in the noose of some error.

Wherefore if any bishop has either not forbidden the possession of apocryphal writings in men’s houses, or under the name of being canonical has suffered those copies to be read in church which are vitiated with the spurious alterations of Priscillian, let him know that he is to be accounted heretic, since he who does not reclaim others from error shows that he himself has gone astray.

I can never read materials of this date, expressing themselves in these terms, without hearing an echo of modern political correctness and the exaggerations that this creates.  Every right-wing politician in the UK is labelled “fascist” more or less by reflex; yet in truth there are no politicians known to me who advocate the Fuhrerprincip or the policies of Il Duce!  The label is intended to demonise, not inform; and somehow I tend to wonder about some of the 5th century denunciations, as being examples of the same phenomenon.

Nothing in Leo’s letter leads us to suppose that any actual burnings took place, nor does it refer specifically to the Acts of John.

The other reference is to the 5th session of the acts of the Council of Nicaea II in 787, the council that condemned iconoclasm.  Mansi, vol. 13 is here.

As far as I can make out, the Fifth Session of the synod was spent listening to extracts from the Fathers on the question of icons. On p.90 (col. 167D) there seems to be the start of the discussion of this text. The Acts of John are quoted twice, although not named — the text refers to bogus itineraries of the apostles.  The first passage condemns icons; the second asserts various gnostic ideas about Christ.  Various members of the synod then point out the obviously heretical nature of the text.

Our bit is right at the bottom of p.93/top of p.94 of the PDF. I find the Greek almost unreadable in this PDF; the Latin translation reads:

Joannes reverendissimus monachus et vicarius orientalium pontificum dixit: Si placet sancta ac universali huic synodo, fiat sententia, ne ulterius scribant aliqui sordidum istum librum.  Sancta Synodus dixit: Nemo scribat: non solum hoc, sed igni eum dignum judicamus fore tradendum.

The most reverend John, monk and Pontifical Vicar of the East said, “If it pleases the Holy and Universal Synod, let this be the sentence, that nothing of this sleazy book be copied (lit. written) any more.”  The Holy Synod said: “Let no-one copy it; not only that, but we judge it deserving to be thrown into the fire.”

Yet again this does not seem to me to be a general decree; so much as a rejection of the book as evidence for the purposes of the council (which indeed it could not be).

Schneemelcher is an odd book, isn’t it?  In some ways it’s very good, but in others quite dreadful.  Something must be allowed for the awkwardness of translation from the German.  Indeed there are some horribly tangled sentences, which almost suggest that the English editor did not read it carefully enough!  But the introduction by Schneemelcher himself to the five surviving apocryphal acts is not very good at all.  It consists of a rambling survey of the opinions of various scholars, on subjects that the reader has yet to encounter.  It is, indeed, otherwise fact-free.  In the English version the prose is nearly unreadable, to make matters worse.  A survey of the scholarship is not a bad idea; but this is not well achieved.

I learn from the book that Photius is our source for gathering the five together, as all composed by one Leucius Charinus, and all used by the Manichaeans; the acts of John, Thomas, Paul, Peter and Andrew.  Yet it must be questioned whether the text today known as the Acts of Paul is the same text that Photius used.  It is, after all, a very different document from the others, all of which have gnostic leanings and would be amenable to Manichaean purposes.  It may be telling that the Acts of Paul is condemned separately in the Decretum Gelasianum from the “writings of Leucius”.  Was there, perhaps, another “Acts of Paul”, which has perished?