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 …

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.

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?