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.