The morphing Jesus: Christology in the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 19)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'The morphing Jesus: Christology in the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 19),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

Early Christians of all kinds unanimously agreed that one should follow Christ, but they varied considerably in how they understood or portrayed Christ (and how they defined following). Scholars use the term “Christology” to refer to a particular author’s (or group’s) spin on Jesus, particularly with respect to issues such as Jesus’ relation to humanity and to God. Thus, for instance, the Gospel of Mark is considered to have a low Christology in certain respects (relatively speaking) since it portrays a Jesus who experiences many human emotions or feelings (e.g. a Jesus who is tired [6:31], hungry [11:12], angry [3:5], and who is in wonder [6:6]). At the other canonical extreme is the gospel of John, which has a pre-existent Logos or Word (identified with Jesus) who was present and instrumental in creation (John 1:1-18), and a Jesus who sometimes claims oneness or even equality with God. One must remember that there was no clearly defined doctrine of the Trinity in the early centuries.

Among the more interesting Christologies in the apocryphal Acts is the Acts of John‘s morphing (apparently metamorphosizing) Jesus. (I have posted earlier on this same writing; text online here, probably early third century). The Acts of John relates the adventures of the disciple John, who journeys through the cities of Asia Minor performing (God-powered) miracles, especially raising many people from the dead. Each resurrection leads to the conversion of others in the narrative, which seems to be an important point of the story.

The author’s understanding of Christ in these travel narratives (section A: chs. 18-86, 106-108, 110-115) is never explictly the focus, but it does clearly bubble up in references to Christ as the “physician” or healer par excellence (e.g. 22, 56) and in John’s prayers. This is a high Christology that is in some ways similar to the Gospel of John’s but which goes its own direction as well (some scholars call this “Christomonism”). In the prayers, Jesus Christ is presented as a very powerful being who is one and the same with the Father (chs. 77-79). So much so that the terminology for Jesus and God blend together into one in an emphatic way: “our God. . . Jesus Christ” (78), “God of ages, Jesus Christ” (82), “God Jesus Christ” (107), “God, Jesus Christ, Lord” (108).

In a section that may be considered a later addition (section B, chs. 87-93, 103-105) John has a flashback to the good old days when Christ was with the disciples. It is here that there is once again a high Christology, but one that goes beyond the travel section in some ways in presenting a Jesus who morphs and whose appearance can be deceiving, so to speak. John recollects that Jesus sometimes appeared to the disciples as a “child” or a “handsome, fair and cheerful-looking man”, and at others as a “bald-headed” man, a “small man with no good looks”, or an “old man” (88-93). On another occasion, John himself witnessed Jesus, without clothes, emanating light, and the nude Jesus was “not like a man at all”, namely, he was without the expected sexual organs. Remember that this and other Acts present the ideal pious life as the sexually ascetic life that denies the powers below-the-belt (29).

This same section culminates with a statement that would make it hard to follow “in Jesus footsteps”: Jesus has none.

“I [John] will tell you another glory, brothers; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all. . And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see if his footprint appeared on the ground. . . and I never saw it” (93).

This rings of what scholars often call a “docetic” Christology, a high Christology which suggests that Jesus only “appeared” or “seemed” (Greek dokein) to be human when in fact he was not. The following hymn of Christ (section C, chs. 94-102), which has Christ singing and dancing with the disciples in a circle, goes even further in stressing that Christ never did suffer in a human manner on the wooden cross (this section likely has a separate origin and different Christology again, however).

For more on the Acts of John (and for the basis of the sections A, B, and C mentioned above) see: Pieter J. Lalleman, The Acts of John: A Two-Stage Initiation into Johannine Gnosticism (Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles 4; Leuven: Peeters, 1998).

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