The University of Edinburgh’s Larry Hurtado’s extremely thorough work Lord Jesus Christ lends much insight into this Sect. Since material on the subject is somewhat scarce, I will be quoting from this text frequently to accentuate my points.
The underlying premise of this sect is that they believe they have “an anointing from the Holy One (i.e. a spiritual endowment from God and/or the Son,) and that all of them know the truth well enough to recognize error for themselves… their innovative views came through [direct] spiritual revelation.” Such divine inspiration was referred to as Epinoia.
Hurtado notes that Johannine Christianity “was characterized by a strong appreciation for revelations believed to come from the Spirit and probably received through experiences of prophet like inspiration…[thus] the heart of the secessionist crisis [is that] Johannine Christianity was a religious setting in which the Spirit was expected to inspire new insights, leading believers into ‘all truth’ beyond the things the earthly Jesus had said.”
On p. 411, Hurtado states cogently: “My point is that one major factor involved in the specific innovation in belief that is attacked in 1 John (Epistle) and 2 John (Epistle) (however we portray the innovation) was the effect of religious experiences of inspiration [Epinoia.]” He goes on, p. 415: “[the secessionists] likely thought their own revelations validly superseded all previous understanding of Jesus and his significance…in short, they were religious elitists…[and this] justified their departure from the fellowship of the other Johannine believers…apparently they were not evicted.”
The common scholarly view appears to be that “in one way or another they [the Johannine secessionists] emphasized Jesus’ divine nature at the expense of a real human existence [most often supported by] the influence of Greek Philosophy and/or Pagan religious traditions; the secessionists thus become Gentiles whose religious and conceptual background make a real incarnation of a divine being impossible to imagine.”
In an honorable, non-anti-Judaism manner, Dr. Hurtado goes on: p. 419 “[I wish] to propose, however, that they also could have been influenced by Jewish tradition in formulating the sort of christological view that we are considering here. Thus, they easily could have been Jewish Christians as Gentiles.” Then on p. 420-421, “essentially Jewish angelological traditions’ emphasis on God’s transcendence discouraged the thought of God taking human existence or even being subject to ordinary sensory apprehension.”
However, Dr. Hurtado veers to what I believe is more inline with reality with another theoretical scenario: “a significantly different christological stance is taken.” His entire premise is based on Epinoia: on p. 422, he states “the focus of the secessionists was on a radical claim about their own special and direct relationship to God, which perhaps amounted to a mystical participation in divine things that connoted a spiritual status and nature superior to what they attributed to other believers.” Furthermore, “their christological stance may have involved a correlative emphasis on Jesus as an exemplary (but not unique) ‘Son of God’ who basically illustrated and perhaps revealed in his earthly appearance a heavenly provenance and spiritual status, [one that] the secessionists believed that they shared with him. Jesus may have exemplified and declared the special intimacy with God that the secessionists believed they had come to share, but they may have believed that their own status and nature were effectively conveyed or revealed to them individually through mystical experiences of enlightenment.”
“First, the secessionists’ assertions about their spiritual status may have seemed (and may have been intended as) exclusivist and elitist. That is, they may have claimed to know God, abide in God, and walk in divine light in a sense not shared to those outside their charmed inner circle. Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of such elitist convictions, the secessionists appear to have felt free to treat those fellow believers who demurred at their spiritual claims and correlative revisionist view of Jesus as no longer worthy of their fellowship and fraternal obligation.” I’ll note that this aspect represents a one-hundred and eighty degree departure from that of the Valentinians, who tried (desperately) to incorporate themselves within the Orthodox Church.
Later, he says this innovation in belief is not “purely imaginative, but has certain similarities to the stance reflected in The Gospel of Thomas. [Such common views and linkages] shows that the scenario is by no means implausible.” A serious case could be made that the secessionists either influenced or were the drafters of GosThom, though this would depend upon the timing of when the treatise was written (discussed in The Gospel of Thomas and Dating Its Original Drafting Section.) I’d imagine the secessionists certainly would have loved to have a pseudo-synoptic in their creed, though I do make a case for GosMark’s inclusion in a later Section.
It’s no surprise GosJohn portrays Thomas as doubting, but John is doubting himself in ApJohn. Another possibility, per Misericordia University: “Since there are many of the same sayings in Mark and Thomas, we really have only two explanations to consider. One is that Thomas and Mark are drawing from the same well of tradition, the other is that Mark made use of Thomas.” Regardless, per GosThom Saying 23 Jesus said, “I shall choose you, one from a thousand and two from ten thousand, and they will stand as a single one.”
Essentially, the Johannine secessionists “seemed to have believed that they had been given a new and superior insight, whatever that insight actually comprised” (p. 424.) To restate this fundamental premise, GosJohn’s Paraclete (Advocate) is quite similar to ApJohn’s Epinoia, and these aspects of the Holy Spirit could be the foundation of the secessionists’ superior insight. GosThom also expresses this notion differently, right at the very beginning in Sayings 1 & 2:
- And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”
- Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]”
As Dr. Hurtado sums up on p. 425, there was “serious religious crisis in the late First Century.” Per Karen King’s SecJohn, p. 155: “[Christ] models for the reader the path of spiritual development—from ignorance and doubt to secure knowledge, from disturbance of heart to confidence, from student to teacher.”
Raymond Brown—an American Catholic Priest, a member of the Sulpician Fathers, and a prominent biblical scholar has passed away but was regarded as a specialist concerning the Johannines—added even more insight into the secessionist community in The Legacy of John: Second-Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel, edited by Tuomas Rasimus: he believed they were in the majority. Those who wrote the Epistles and engaged with the other Pistic (Orthodox) churches were in the minority. He believed the Sethians were ultra-high christologically thinking people who completely agreed that the spirit via true baptism was much favored over blood.
In Brown’s book The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times, Phase Three of the development of the Johannines involved “the life-situation in the now-divided Johannine communities at the time the Epistles were written” (A.D. 100?) Brown appeals to 1 John 2:19 to describe the tragic division that occurred between the Gospel and the Epistles, which he explains in this fashion: “the struggle is between two groups of Johannine disciples who are interpreting the Gospel in opposite ways, in matter of christology, ethics, and pneumatology. The fears and pessimism of the author of the Epistles suggest that the secessionists are having the greater numerical success.”
Given these points, I further believe that the secessionists were the drafters of both Apocryphon of John and Trimorphic Protennoia. Therefore, a solid case can be made that the Johannine secessionists represent the same group that scholars traditionally refer to as the Sethians. The apostolic wing of the Johannine Sect most likely brought GosJohn’s christology inline with the more dominant apostolic church, as they emphasized the saving significance of Jesus’ ministry.
Further support for the Johannine secessionists having been the drafters of the Apocryphon (and TriProt) comes from Dr. Alastair Logan in Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy, p. 30: “It is the Christian Platonists Saturninus and Basilides of Antioch, with their virulent anti-Judaism, who develop the kind of theogonical and cosmogonical speculations which most resemble those of our Gnostics. However, Tardieu’s allusion to the Fourth Gospel does seem more convincing. Further comparison with Saturninus and Basilides brings out both the common Antiochene milieu and the developing influence of The Gospel of John and the Johannine community with their hostility to Judaism and concern for their Christian identity. Yet it is worth pointing out that the former’s influence is indirect both in the case of Basilides and the Gnostics of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.29 and of the Apocryphon: both subordinate Logos to Nous in their account of the heavenly world, and the secondary character of the influence of the Johannine Prologue is even more obvious in the exegesis of it supplied by the Valentinian Ptolemy.
On the other hand, the continuing influence of John’s Gospel on the myth underlying Irenaeus 1.29 in particular seems to illustrate both certain features of it (e.g. the role of Logos destroying the original ternary scheme, the descriptions of Christ and Autogenes, the Light motif) and of the Apocryphon and related and dependent treatises from Nag Hammadi such as Trimorphic Protennoia. And the concern of the author of the Johannine Epistles with the themes of Christian identity, of chrism and knowledge, of Christ and counterchrists (i.e. the Antichrist,) of the true and false Spirit, uncannily mirrors that of our Gnostics, while Ignatius of Antioch may be including them among those who claim to be Christian but abstain from Catholic rites and believe in Jewish-type fables. Finally, the comparison with the christological and soteriological interests of another Syrian Christian, Tatian, around the mid second century, and his use and exegesis of John’s Gospel, proves instructive. Again central are the problems of cosmology and soteriology: (a) how to understand the relation of God to the world in terms of prevailing mediatory models (e.g. Sophia, Logos, Holy Spirit); and (b) how to understand the problem of salvation–was it by natural endowment or by divine gift?”
It would appear that the Johannine secessionists were the original Gnostics of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.29 & 1.30. They predate the Valentinians, who of course tried quite hard to incorporate themselves into the Orthodox Church such that they caused the entire movement to collapse circa 325CE at the Nicene Council. The secessionists did not care about the Orthodox Church, or at worst they despised it given the forerunners to the Catholics hostilely took over their own Church. Personal Salvation (via Epinoia and/or the Paraclete) was of primary importance to the secessionists—not religious authority.
I believe Irenaeus saw exactly what the Johannines were doing. He explicitly wrote off ApJohn in Against Heresies, but in the same volumes claimed GosJohn was the greatest of all. He might have even sympathized regarding the OT, but ApJohn was over the top, and perhaps truly this secret teaching was never meant for his canon in the first place.
Was ApJohn a pseudo-political work? I do not believe this was the treatise’s primary intention, inline with Harvard’s Karen King’s analysis; however, GosJohn certainly seems to be a pseudo-reinterpretation of the Synoptics (though GosMark supplements GosJohn well.) I wonder if the Orthodox Church Founders even contemplated just GosJohn + GosMark at the Nicene Council, though GosLuke is the most gentile of the lot (even with its countless explicit OT references, similar to GosMatt.) Just like the Sethians, I’m not certain the Johannine secessionists would have cared. Personal salvation was of primary importance to them.
Is it possible the Johannine secessionists wanted to rid the canon of the OT, GosLuke & GosMatt, and the Pauline Letters? Did they want the secret teaching found in GosThom & TriProt included in their own personal canons? After all, it was not known that the likes of ApJohn would be burned along with all the other treatises the Orthodox Church deemed heretical, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria sent out his infamous Easter Letter (the Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter of 367) that listed the only twenty-seven works that constituted the New Testament portion of the Orthodox Canon (twenty-two books comprised the Old Testament.)
It’s rather ironic that he was exiled (even excommunicated) from the Orthodox Church itself five times! Evidently Roman/Byzantine Emperor Constantine even said to him the next year: “Since you know my will, grant free admission to all those who wish to enter the church. For if I hear that you have hindered anyone from becoming a member, or have debarred anyone from entrance, I shall immediately send someone to have you deposed at my behest and have you sent into exile.” Athanasius caused this horrific history.
As Harvard’s Dr. Karen King states on p. 160 of The Secret Revelation of John, “Perhaps surprisingly the Secret Revelation of John evinces a strong commitment to the ideals of Greek and Roman political theory, showing more clearly its portrait of the Divine Realm. In portraying evil as overturned hierarchy, the Secret Revelation of John is not rebelling against the values of its day but affirming them in the strongest terms.”
In a very real way, Constantine’s conversion of the Roman/Byzantine Empire to Christianity was Providence in action, a move that was officially enacted by Theodosius I. The Pachomian Monks knew quite well what they were doing in burying the extremely important treatises to save them over time. They were that important as they represent the primary tenets of Original Christianity. It’s not surprising that we discovered them after WWII. It’s now up to us to piece this puzzle together.
As ApJohn says in the Long Redaction, the Pronoia Monologue, and notice how similar this Verse is to TriProt:
“Still for a third time I went — I am the Light which exists in the Light, I am the remembrance of Pronoia — that I might enter into the midst of darkness and the inside of Hades. And I filled my face with the Light of the completion of their aeon. And I entered into the midst of their prison which is the prison of the body. And I said, ‘He who hears, let him get up from the deep sleep. And he wept and shed tears. Bitter tears he wiped from himself and he said ‘Who is it that calls my name, and from where has this hope come to me, while I am in the chains of the prison?’ And I said, ‘I am the Pronoia of the pure Light; I am the thinking of the virginal Spirit, who raised you up to be honored [in this] place. Arise and remember that it is you who hearkened, and follow your root which is I, the merciful one, and guard yourself against the angels of poverty and the demons of chaos and all those who ensnare you, and beware of the deep sleep and the enclosure inside of Hades.”
As Dr. Karen King states on pp. 237-238 in her book, The Secret Revelation of John (SecJohn/ApJohn,) “another purpose might be exegetical. The fact that The Secret Revelation to John is framed as the return of Christ to complete his revelation and show the way back to the Divine Realm makes it possible to read it as the completion of Christ’s revelation in The Gospel of John, the fulfillment of his promise to return and show them the way back to the Father. ApJohn is filling in the gaps in Christ’s revelation in GosJohn, offering a fuller narrative of the Divine Realm [Pleroma,] the creation of the world and humanity; the condition of humanity in the world, and salvation. The ascription of the work to John overtly places ApJohn in the tradition of Johannine Christianity and it has the effect of asking readers to interpret GosJohn within the framework of Christ’s revelation.”
Lastly, and quite importantly, Verses 3:1-8 contain the key message to this Gospel, if not the whole body of Christianity itself. As Rudolf Bultmann states on pp. 133-142 of The Gospel of John: A Commentary:
The Mystery of Rebirth: [Chapter 3]
“…it is hardly probable that Nicodemus is intended to represent one of the unreliable “believers.” Jesus’ miracles have, it is true, made an impression on him also, but this does not mean that they have moved him to “faith;” they have drawn his attention to Jesus and set him asking questions. Nicodemus himself is otherwise unknown. The description given of him is important, for in him Jesus is confronted by a representative of official Judaism. He is a Pharisee and a ruler and, as is suggested, a scribe. This then, is the kind of man on whom Jesus’ appearance has made an impression, and it comes to him by night.
The words which he addresses to Jesus have the form of a simple statement, but in fact they contain a question, as shown by Jesus’ reply. It would be wrong to give a psychological or individual interpretation of this question. Nicodemus comes with the one question which Judaism, of which he is a “teacher,” has to put to Jesus, and must put to him. It is the question of salvation (soteriology.) Jesus replies by giving the conditions for entry into the rule of God, and in doing so he proceeds on the self-evident assumption that for the Jews the question of salvation is identical with the question of participation in the rule of God. It is typical that Nicodemus should use the form of an indirect question, starting from what is safe ground. This much one could say with certainty on the basis of Jesus’ miracles; he is an accredited “teacher”–for this is the only title which the Scribes could have given him–and Nicodemus accordingly has addressed him as “Rabbi.”
If Nicodemus’ question has been based on an understanding of the matter formed in accordance with traditional standards of judgement, Jesus’ answer tears him away from his rational considerations and makes him listen to something which he cannot understand. He may well consider Jesus, a man accredited by miracles, to be a superior teacher to him; the Revealer, however, is not quantitatively, but qualitatively superior to the human teacher, and the criteria which the latter has at his disposal are not capable of providing an adequate basis for understanding him.
The reply in GosJohn 3:3 reads: “Unless a man be born anew, he cannot see God’s rule.” Thus right at the beginning it is stated uncompromisingly that man, as he is, is excluded from salvation, from the sphere of God; for man as he is, there is no possibility of it. Yet at the same time it is said in such a way that a hint is given that salvation may be a possibility for him, inasmuch as it is possible for him to become another man, a new man. The saying therefore also contains an injunction; not, however, of a moralistic sort, but rather the injunction to put oneself in question. This is emphasized and made clear by Nicodemus’ misunderstanding in 3:4; for the Evangelist chooses this grotesque way of making it abundantly clear that rebirth is in no sense a natural process, an event which can be set in motion by man himself. In the human sphere it is impossible for there to be anything like a rebirth. For rebirth means–and this is precisely the point made by Nicodemus’ misunderstanding–something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself. For everything which it lies within his power to do is determined from the start by his old origin, which was the point of departure for his present life, and by the person he has always been. For it is one of the basic ideas of Johannine anthropology–as was hinted in the Johannine Prologue (see later Section)–that man is determined by his origin, and determined in such a way that, as he now is, he has no control over his life, and that he cannot procure his salvation for himself, in the way that he is able to procure the things in this life. Moreover the goal of man’s life corresponds to his origin. If his way is to lead to salvation, it must start from another point, and man must be able to reverse his origin, and to exchange the old origin for a new one. He must be “reborn!” [Note the strong resemblance to ApJohn’s Autogenes Process/Spirit of Light.]
Nicodemus cannot see that there is such a possibility, and Jesus’ reply in Verse 3:5, which is made with great emphasis, repeats again the condition for participation in salvation; and yet he repeats it in a slightly different form, which suggests an answer to the riddle. In the first place this means that the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle since the root word refers to the power of a miraculous event. Secondly, however, it suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass…man is ultimately a stranger to his fate and to his own acts; that is, as he now is, he does not enjoy authentic existence, whether he makes himself aware of the fact of whether he conceals it from himself. The miracle of a mode of being in which man enjoys authentic existence, in which he understands himself and knows that he is no longer threatened by nothingness, [represents this state.]
Man stands, as it were, between these two possibilities of existence, in that he knows, or is able to know, that his proper place is in the other-worldly being, whereas in fact he has become entangled in the this-worldly. The statement in 3:6 is intended to make the man, who, like Nicodemus, is searching for salvation realize that these two possibilities of being are not open possibilities between which he can freely choose; that the alternatives by which man is confronted are not governed by choice, but by destiny. It is intended to make him aware that his goal is determined by his origin, and that his end will be nothingness, because it is nothingness that he has his origin. He must realize that everything that he can achieve, and everything that can happen within the sphere of life in which he has existed till now, will come to nothing. Nor will the sphere of this worldly, human life provide him with the miracle he is looking for. If he is to enjoy a miracle at all, his whole being from its very origin must be changed into a miraculous, other-worldly being. Once he has understood this, he will no longer be surprised by talk of rebirth (3:7.) For he will then understand that the attainment of authentic existence can for him be only a miracle–just as the “becoming like little children” which, according to the Dominical saying in the Synoptics, is the condition of salvation, cannot be achieved by deliberate action on the part of man, but can only be received by him as a divine gift.”