The Acts of John, and The Polymorphism of Jesus

From the lecture series: The Apocryphal Jesus

By David Brakke, Ph.D., The Ohio State University

An early Christian work called the Acts of John is one of a set of early Christian writings collectively called “the apocryphal acts of the apostles.” In this text, the apostle John raises six people from the dead, bedbugs obey the apostle’s command, and a lusty young man cuts off his own genitals. The text also contains serious ideas, however—ideas about the divinity of Christ, about his ability to bring salvation to people who suffer, and about the need for moral living.

"St John the Evangelist" by Domenico Zampieri, 1620s
St John the Evangelist, oil on canvas, by Domenico Zampieri, 1620s

Two Places at One Time

In the Acts of John we meet Christians who hold to docetic views.  In fact, according to John in this text, Jesus appeared to him in a cave at the same moment that he was supposedly dying on that cross. The crowd thinks Jesus is hanging on the cross, but, Jesus says, “in reality, I am addressing you here.”  Jesus later tells John flatly, “You hear that I suffered; in fact, I did not.”  Now, the author does not want to completely deny the existence of any suffering at all.

After all, we have seen that he hearkens back to Jesus’ death and resurrection, which he considers the source of life and salvation.  But he has Jesus say that he went through suffering and death as the divine Word.  “I have accommodated human weakness,” Jesus says.

This is a transcript from the video series The Apocryphal Jesus. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

This seems to mean that weak human beings would not have been able to understand Jesus’ message of salvation – that he saves people from suffering and death – if he had only proclaimed this message with words.  Instead, he had to show himself going through these things. Human weakness required that the divine Jesus demonstrate victory over death.

The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross is a c. 1890 watercolor painting by the French painter James Tissot.
The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross, c. 1890 watercolor painting by the French painter James Tissot.

How Jesus Appears

Jesus’ true divinity manifests itself in the fact that he is polymorphic – that is, he can assume a variety of forms, even simultaneously.  In the New Testament gospels, it seems that, after his resurrection, Jesus appears in ways that his disciples do not recognize.  For example, in Luke, disciples do not recognize the risen Jesus until he identifies himself, and in John he suddenly appears in a locked room.  But in his earthly human life, it seems that Jesus just looks like the human Jesus.

In the Acts of John, however, Jesus is said to have appeared in diverse forms all the time, even during his ministry.  According to John, when Jesus called him and his brother James to be his disciples, James saw a child, and John saw a handsome young man.  Then John saw Jesus morph into a bald man with a beard, while James saw a youth who had just begun to get facial hair.  John says that, when Jesus walked around, he seemed to be suspended above the ground.  “I never saw a footprint,” the apostle claims.

12-year-old Jesus in the temple, depicted by Heinrich Hofmann, 1884
12-year-old Jesus in the temple, depicted by Heinrich Hofmann, 1884

Jesus’ polymorphism expresses what the author calls “his abundant grace, his oneness under many forms, and his wisdom that never turns his gaze from us.”  As God, Jesus appears to different people differently and to the same person in different ways, so that he can communicate his grace to whatever condition people are in.  From this perspective, his suffering and death is just another example of his polymorphism.

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Why John is Heretical

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as a dove, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (d. 1553)
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as a dove, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (d. 1553)

But not only this, Jesus really is completely and fully God, to such an extent that there is no difference between Jesus, the Son of God, and God the Father.  “I and the Father are one,” Jesus had said in the New Testament Gospel of John, and Christians agreed that Jesus is somehow God just as his Father is.  And yet most Christians thought the Father and Son must also be distinct.  Justin Martyr, an important theologian of the second century, said that the Father and Son are “distinct in number, but not in mind.”

Not so for the Acts of John.  There is only one God.  That God is Jesus, and Jesus also has the title “Father.”  “All that I am is with the Father,” Jesus says, “and the Father with me.”  In technical language this idea is often called modalism.  Christian modalism teaches that there is one God, and the Father and Son are simply different modes in which the one God reveals himself.  They really aren’t different.  Just as I can be “professor” when I’m lecturing to you and “son” when I’m visiting my mother, so too God is “father” when he is creating the world and “son” when he is saving people as Jesus.

In the end, however, most Christians would reject modalism.  They believed that Jesus, the Son of God, really did suffer and die on the cross, and so they insisted that the Son must be separate from the Father.  The Father did not suffer, only the Son did.  So the Christology or teaching about Christ of the Acts of John came to be seen as heretical.

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What The Acts of John Can Teach Us

Heretical as it may have been, the Acts of John communicates a profound spirituality – above all, in i`ts so-called hymn of the dance.  As the apostle John remembers Jesus’ final hours, he recalls that, just before he was arrested, Jesus invited his disciples to join him in a hymn.  John says:

Jesus had us join hands and form a circle.  Placing himself in the middle, he said, “Respond to me with ‘Amen,’” and he led off the song.

What follows is a hymn and dance that an early Christian community most likely once performed.  The leader begins with praise of God: “Glory to you, Father,” and the people in the circle, as they move around, say, “Amen.”  As the responsive hymn continues, the distinction between the leader, who speaks as Christ, and the singing people begins to fade:

I wish to be saved, and I wish to save.

Amen.

I wish to be freed, and I wish to free.

Amen.

I am a mirror to you who perceive me.

Amen.

And eventually the leader says:

In response to my dance, see yourself in me as I speak.

Learn what suffering is, and you will possess the capacity to escape it.

Throughout the Acts of John, John proclaims Jesus, who is God, as the one who delivers and saves those who are suffering.  Through this dance, worshipers become fully united with the divine Jesus, the one who did not really suffer, and in this way they too escape their own suffering.

The Acts of John has scenes that are funny and scenes that weirdly grotesque, but in the end it offers hope to those who live amid suffering and death – the God Jesus has come to rescue you from evil, suffering, and death and to give you righteousness, peace, and life.

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Common Questions About the Acts of John

Q: Who was the apostle John?

John was a young apostle, supposedly banished by the Roman authorities, and wrote the book of Revelation.

Q: Where did the apostle John come from?

The apostle John came from the shore town of the Sea of Galilee in Bethsaida.

Q: Are the apostle John and St. John the Baptist the same person?

No, the apostle John and St. John the Baptist were completely different people.

Q: How did the apostle John die?

It is said the apostle John ascended directly into heaven, while other reports state that he died of execution by sword.

This article was updated on 8/30/2019

Keep Reading
Apocrypha: The Wisdom of Jesus Christ
What Does the Christian Apocrypha Teach Us About Jesus? The Torch Podcast
The Historic Importance of Saint Paul

Images courtesy of:
Saint John the Evangelist, by Domenico Zampieri
The Crucifixion, seen from the Cross, by James Tissot
Christ In The Temple, by Heinrich Hofmann
Holy Trinity Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons