By Robert Price
As far back as the fourth-century faction of the Alogoi who wanted to bar the Fourth Gospel from the emerging New Testament canon,[i] the Gospel of John has now and again been suspected of being Gnostic in character. The greatest modern exponent of this view has been Rudolf Bultmann.[ii] I will attempt to set forth the basic case for a Gnostic (or Gnostic-influenced) John, drawing largely on the work of Bultmann.
First, just what is Gnosticism? It is not a sharply defined set of doctrines, since there were so many Gnostic sects, schools, and gurus, but there are certain recurrent ideas that enable scholars to construct an ideal type.[iii] Here it is in broad outline.[iv] There is an anti-cosmic dualism. This world is considered as absolutely evil, irredeemable, and under the despotic control of evil powers and demons. Certain individuals may be saved from this vale of tears. They are the rare ones who harbor a true soul or spark of the divine light. To them God has sent a Redeemer or Revealer, who saves them by revealing to them the hitherto unsuspected fact of their heavenly identity. Knowing who they truly are, destined for better things, they will be able to slough off the gross body at death and ascend to heaven. This is basically the soteriology of Gnosticism. Conjoined with it was usually a set of doctrines seeking to explain how things had come to such a pass. This was the Gnostic theodicy. According to it, the world was evil because matter is inherently evil, and the material world could not have been created by a good God, and thus was the work of an insane and incompetent “demiurge,” identified with the Old Testament YHWH.
Often Gnostics inferred from all this that when the Revealer appeared in the world, he must have only “seemed” to take on flesh; it was in fact an illusion (hence “docetism,” which means “seem-ism”). I will suggest that the Gospel of John does contain Gnostic soteriology but lacks the attendant theodicy. This is a vital distinction to make. For failure to draw it, many scholars have rejected Bultmann’s thesis, being unable to find enough Gnostic cosmology in the document. On the one hand, we will see that not all even of classic Gnostic writers employed all the items described above, so to lack them does not disqualify a text as Gnostic. On the other hand, we do not find even the Gnostic soteriology in the other New Testament Gospels. We can also see John’s distinctiveness in, e.g., his pre-existence Christology, unique to the canonical gospels.
- The World
The Johannine writings are apparently ambivalent about the world and whether or not it is properly an object of love by the righteous or by God. On the one hand, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). On the other, the same writer exhorts his readers to “Love not the world nor the things in the world, for if anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15), because “we know that the whole world lieth in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19).
The world-God enmity, for John, is not the result of world-creation by an evil power. Rather, his demiurge, the Logos, is a part of the divine being, what later Gnostics would call one of the Aions (among whom, by the way, they, too, numbered the Logos). The trouble was that the world had perversely turned away from God to the Evil One, God’s opposite number. He now rules the world as a usurper. The Gospel calls him “the Prince of this World” (12:21). I see this as simply a variation on the typical theme of Gnosticism. Marcion’s lack of a multiplicity of Aions in the Godhead is a comparable variation. John’s implied otherworldliness and bitter sectarianism[v] seem to me typically Gnostic.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the Gospel of John for modern readers is its attitude toward non-Christian Jews. For John, Jesus’ enemies are simply “the Jews,” while the occasional Jesus-friendly Jew is called an “Israelite”(1:47; 3:10). Similarly, we notice that Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament is not unambiguously positive. He calls it “your Law” (8:17) and seems to argue from it in an ad hominem fashion, appealing to it as an authority his opponents will accept, not that he does, so as to beat them at their own game.
All this strikingly recalls the double-edged attitude taken toward Judaism and the Jewish scriptures in the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts. It is clear that Gnostic mythology grows out of Old Testament exegesis (once A.D, Nock[vi] said that all one would need to come up with Gnosticism is the early narratives of Genesis and a wild imagination!), yet Gnostics took a hostile, jeering attitude
towards Jews and Judaism. One way to read this phenomenon is the theory of C.K. Barrett[vii] that Gnosticism grew out of a disappointed apocalyptic Judaism. The focus would have shifted from oft-debunked hopes for external redemption to an unfalsifiable, inward-looking mysticism.
- Realized Eschatology
Historically, when a religion has made the mistake of predicting the near end of the world, it has had to find some sort of face-saving rationalization, or else disintegrate. Usually the strategy is to claim that the End did in fact come but in a hidden, spiritual manner, accessible only to the eye of faith. Any subsequent visible coming of the apocalypse was deferred into the ever-receding future or simply dropped altogether. Whether because of disappointment or not, Gnosticism seems to have lacked a futuristic eschatology. The only resurrection was the one to be experienced here and now in mystical initiation or baptism. As Bultmann points out, in the New Testament Paul and John are both already beginning this process of realizing eschatology in the present. While Paul still also expected an external coming of the Christ, Bultmann reads John as dispensing with it entirely. Certain passages in John seem to imply not only that John had dropped the idea but that he meant to disabuse his readers of it. That is, he not only assumed a realized eschatology, but he sought to make it explicit. Such texts include John 5:24-25; 11:23-26; 14:22-23.
There are, as any reader knows, also various passages in the Gospel which seem clearly to teach a futuristic eschatology. These include 5:28-29; 6:39, 54; 21:22. What are we to make of these? Bultmann suggests they are the work of an “ecclesiastical redactor,” a later editor who sought to “rehabilitate” the Gospel for more congenial use by the orthodox church. Such “correction” in the interests of orthodoxy is a well-attested phenomenon in the ancient church (cf., Rufinus’ redaction of Origen, and 2 Peter’s of Jude), and it is not arbitrary to suggest in the case of John since on entirely distinct grounds we have signs of redaction and reshuffling.
The Gnostic Revealer came into the world, much like the Christ of later Calvinism, to save only a select group. According to classical Gnosticism the elect were those who possessed one of the
fragments of the divine nature of the Primal Man, a heavenly being captured and devoured by the evil beings of the material world. John shows no knowledge of such a myth (unless John 1:9 is a vestige of it), but, again, this simply means that he lacked or rejected this particular set of inferences from the Gnostic soteriology. All he says is that the Revealer has appeared in the world on behalf of his own, not why they are his own and others are not. At any rate we do indeed find a textual basis for the idea of a predestined elect in John. Primarily we find this in the Good Shepherd Discourse, where Jesus taunts the Jews thusly: “you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me, and I give them eternal life, etc.”(John 10:26-27f). Note that he does not say they are not among his flock because they do not believe, but just the opposite. They lack the option to believe in the first place. And in view of all this, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep and for them only (10:11).
Bultmann himself seeks to distance Johannine predestinarianism from the Gnostic variety by characterizing the former as a “dualism of decision”[viii] rather than as an unalterable metaphysical sentence. For John, as Bultmann reads him, it is one’s decision for or against the Son of God that renders him destined to hear the truth or not. One is tempted to ask whether that is not rather just the opposite of predestinarian doctrine, whether John’s, Gnostic, Calvin’s, or any other kind. But the contrast is illusory: the truth is that all ostensible predestinarian language is a rhetorical strategy designed to affright the hearer and urge him to get on the right side now! In the Markan Parable of the Soils/Sower (Mark 4:2-9, 13-20) the point is obviously not to gloat over the destined salvation of the minority and the inescapable doom of the rest; no, the point is to make the hearers get busy becoming receptive soil! Ebenezer Scrooge got the point exactly right when he looked up from the gravestone, emblazoned with his name, to the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, saying, “Why show me these things if I am past all hope?”
I have already observed that many Gnostics drew the inference from their dualistic cosmology that the Revealer could not have become truly incarnate, since the flesh was altogether corrupt, totally depraved. Some have ruled out any Gnostic character for John in view of John 1:14, “The Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
In the first place, we must note that not all Gnostic texts are thus docetic. The Gospel of Truth says the Risen Christ gladly “divested himself of these perishing rags”(20:30-31). Similarly, the Hymn of the Pearl has the reascending Christ declare, “I stripped off the filthy garment and left it in their land” (line 63). These statements do evidence an ascetic contempt for the flesh, but the sentiments are not so different from those of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4. (In fact the disparaging reference to the fleshly body as a mere “tent”–cf. also 2 Peter 1:13-14–recalls the word used for the temporary incarnation of the Logos in John 1:14, “and tabernacled, pitched his tent, among us.” Is the idea, then, that the fleshly covering of the Logos was a mere veil? At any rate, the references in the Gnostic texts make it sufficiently clear that Gnostic texts need not expound docetism (and conversely we could show that docetism could occur in otherwise orthodox, non-Gnostic texts, like the Acts of John).
Finally, we should note that the picture of John as non-docetic is not entirely unambiguous. Ernst Kasemann[ix] has argued that John is in fact guilty of a “naive docetism” in that he doesn’t seem to take the implications of a real incarnation very seriously. For example, those[x] who deny a Gnostic coloring to John are quick to point out the scene in John 4:7-8 where Jesus is thirsty and sends the disciples into the town to buy food. Ah! There is a truly human Jesus, we are told. Yet when we come to the end of the story, the disciples urge Jesus to eat, and he will not! “I have food to eat that you know not of. My food and drink is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (vv 32, 34). The crucified Jesus says, “I thirst,” but he is only mouthing the lines prophecy has scripted for him (John 19:28). Thomas insists on touching Jesus’ wounds and is invited to do so (John 20:25, 27), but apparently he doesn’t.
- The Revelation Discourses
By far the most striking evidence for some kind of Johannine dependence on Gnostic sources is the parallels between the “I am” discourses (found only in John of the New Testament Gospels) and similar discourses attributed to other revealers in the scriptures of Mandaean Gnosticism. These texts must be used with some caution, as we have only medieval copies to work with,[xi] but it seems to many scholars to be quite strong evidence just the same. Note the “Johannine” flavor of this self-revelation: “I am the Messenger of Light, whom the Great One sent into this world. The true messenger am I, in whom there is no falsehood… I am the Messenger of Light: whoever smells at his scent is quickened to life. Whoever receives his word, his eyes are filled with light.” It is hard to miss the characteristic Johannine structure of an introductory “I am” followed by a declaration of the benefits accruing to the one who will accept and follow the Revealer. Note also the familiar phrases “sent into the world” (cf. John 3:16) and “in whom there is no falsehood” (1:47).
Even more startling are the parallels between the Mandaean writings and particular Johannine discourses. Compare John’s True Vine discourse (15:1-11) with these words of the Mandaean Revealer: “A vine am I, a vine of life, a tree in which there is no falsehood. The tree of praise, from which everyone who smells of it becomes alive. Whoever hears his word, his eyes are filled with light… The vine which bears fruit ascends, the vine which bears nothing is cut off here from the light. Whoever is enlightened and instructed by me rises and beholds the place of light. Whoever is not enlightened and instructed by me is cut off from the light and falls into the great ocean of Suf.”
With the Johannine discourse of the Good Shepherd (10:1-18) compare, “I am a shepherd who loves his sheep, I protect the sheep and the lambs. The sheep are upon my neck, and the sheep do not go away from the villages. I refresh them not on the sea shore, so that they do not see the whirlpool… I carry them and give them water to drink from the hollow of my hand, until they have drunk their fill.” (All these texts come from the Mandaean Book of John, i.e., of John the Baptist, though he is not the speaker).[xii]
The Johannine “I am” discourses are so unlike anything to be found in the Synoptic Gospels, and so much like what we find in the Mandaean texts, that Bultmann felt the author of the Gospel must have used as source material a collection of revelation discourses derived from a rival Gnostic sect. Specifically, Bultmann guessed that the Fourth Evangelist had been an adherent of a group which viewed John the Baptist as the Revealer. Converting to Christianity, the Evangelist took over some of the sacred traditions of the Sect of John, reapplying them to Jesus Christ. I do not believe we need to go the whole way with Bultmann in order to recognize the Gnostic sources and features of John, though neither is Bultmann’s complete theory implausible.
Article originally appeared in The Gnostic 4
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[i] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 51, referring to the fourth-century Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis.
[ii] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Trans. G.R.Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J..K. Riches. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), “The Relation to Gnosticism,” pp. 7-9. Cf. also Elaine H. Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary on John. .Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 17 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
[iii] Some recent scholars have sought to dismantle the category of “Gnosticism” simply because not all ostensible instances of it are exactly alike. They appear to have been absent on the day their professors explained what an ideal type is. One might as well argue there is no such thing as Protestantism, or Buddhism.
[iv] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Trans. Kendrick Grobel (NY: Scribners, 1951), pp. 164-183.
[v] J. L. Houlden, Ethics and the New Testament (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 35-41, 68. “It is hard to believe that a work such as this is not to be rightly considered as Gnostic in tendency” (p. 35).
[vi] Oral tradition via Professor David M. Scholer, 1977 or 1978.
[vii] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel of John and Judaism. Franz Delitzsch Lectures, 1967 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975). A similar case is set forth in Hyam Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), Chapter 1, “Gnostic Anti-Semitism,” pp. 1-35. Maccoby posits Gnosticism as a bitter parody of Philonic-type Judaism to which some Alexandrians were temporarily attracted, but thought better of it and, ashamed of their near conversion, belittled the Jewish scripture, especially Genesis.
[viii] Bultmann, Gospel of John, pp. 158-159, 316-317.
[ix] Ernst Käsemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17. Trans. Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 26.
[x] Udo Schnelle, Anti-Docetic Christology in the Gospel of John. Trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1992).
[xi] Edwin Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), goes so far as to disqualify any and all Johannine use of the Mandaean materials on this basis. On the same basis should we refuse to date the canonical New Testament gospels before the earliest manuscripts of them we have?
[xii] This text is included in my The Pre-Nicene NewTestament: Fifty-Four Formative Texts (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,