Gnostic Enigmas in the Gospel of John

The early Gnostics assigned profound significance to the Gospel of John—especially to the opening verses or “prologue.” Just like the opening verses of Genesis, the opening verses of John allude to a “beginning”, but the beginning of what? Orthodox readers would say that John describes the eternal state of the Godhead in the beginning. Thus in the beginning there was the Father and the Son or “Logos” (Word). But the Gnostics saw an entirely different message in the Greek text. An historic eye-witness who reported on this was the Catholic Father Irenaeus. In book 1 of Against Heresies Irenaeus quotes from a lengthy Gnostic commentary on the prologue of John (1.8.5)[1]. According to this source the Gnostics believed the opening verses revealed nothing less than the very origin of the Pleroma, and also explicitly mentioned the names of several primeval entities or “Aions” which emanated forth in succession from the Father. These Aions have the following names in Greek and they are important figures in Gnostic/Valentinian myth: Monogenes (also called Arche), and Aletheia, Logos, Zoe, Anthropos and Charis. These are common names in Gnostic myth as reported by Irenaeus and is corroborated in the Nag Hammadi Library [2]. It just so happens that these very names are also mentioned in the opening verses of John.

In John 1:1–18 the following Aions are revealed by name: (as translated from the ancient Greek text of John)

1) the “Beginning” or Arche, in which was

2) the Word (Logos), in which was

3) Life (Zoe), which was the “light” of

4) Man (Anthropon), which also signified and included

5) the Church (Ecclesia), and also

6) Grace (Charis), and

7) Truth (Aletheia)

Arche was also known as the Only-begotten Son (Monogenes), being the first and only-begotten Son of

8) the unknown Father (Jn. 1:18, 17:25).

These Aions represented the primary set of eight, or “Ogdoad”, in Gnostic myth (e.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:1, cf. 3.11.1; Tertullian, Against Valentinians, 7). This primary Ogdoad was in turn the origin of the “Pleroma” itself (the eternal, spiritual realm of the Godhead). John himself received knowledge of this Pleroma from Jesus; hence John wrote of Jesus that “of his pleroma (“fullness”) we have received” (Jn. 1:16) thus meaning that Jesus imparted knowledge of the Pleroma to his disciples.

Obviously the “beginning” in John contains a radically different form of revelation as compared with the “beginning” in Genesis. The Gnostics believed that the Apostle John was disclosing a different theological paradigm which involved the theme of an unknown God and hierarchy (the primary Ogdoad) which was revealed in the very first 18 verses [3]. (Cf. Jn. 17:25; see below) This alternative paradigm and theology may be clearly seen in the testimony of John the Baptist in John 1:17–18,

“For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, He has declared him.”  (Note: the Greek text does not actually contain the word “Son” but only “monogenes.”)

The Catholic Father Origen described the theological paradox of John, and the doctrine of the Gnostics, in simpler terms. Writing in reference to John 1:17–18 Origen informed his readers that “There are many who, under the pretence of glorifying the advent of Christ, declare the Apostles to be wiser than the fathers or the prophets; and some of these teachers have invented a greater God for the later [Apostolic] period…” (Commentary on John, 6:3. ANF., vol. 10.)

In the two examples above from Irenaeus and Origen we are just scratching the surface of the issues regarding the Gnostic enigmas in John. The Gospel of John actually contains so many unique elements that this one text can be regarded as a school of theology unto itself—a school moreover which rejects the “orthodox” standard rather than affirms it. In the days of Irenaeus and Origen (c. 150–250 AD) the Gospel of John was but one more text over which early Christians were divided, and which the “orthodox” claimed for themselves [4]. But the evidence in John shows that this Gospel did not originate from any orthodox writer or community.

The stunning truth is that the Gospel of John can be easily understood to be a refutation or rejection of everything that “orthodox” Christians have tried to establish in terms of a standard history, tradition and theology. Moreover this simple truth becomes perfectly obvious when the Gospel of John is compared to the other canonical gospels. Let us now turn our attention to the evidence.  

I. The Gospel of John as a counter-tradition

Of the four New Testament Gospels the Gospel of John is in a class by itself. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke contain variations of one tradition which they share in common; and they cover this common tradition in a similar manner, hence scholars classify these gospels as “Synoptic.” Now certainly the Synoptics and John do agree on certain essential tenets of the gospel story. There is agreement that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, who walked and taught among mankind; was crucified, died, and rose from the dead. But between John and the other Gospels there are also some striking differences in terms of the overall theological context in which these tenets are presented. In fact, there are some differences between John and the other gospels that are so striking that it raises the question of whether the Gospel of John actually originated as a counter tradition. (Note: Synoptics = Matthew, Mark & Luke)

To begin with, most of the sayings attributed to Jesus in John are entirely unique to that Gospel and have no connection with the Synoptic tradition. The most obvious example of these differences is that in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus speaks more often in parables, whereas in John Jesus speaks openly most of the time. None of the parables in the other Gospels are found in John; they are omitted. In John, Jesus also makes an appeal to the “spirit” over the “flesh” (dualism) that is not found in the other Gospels. Jesus also encourages a rejection of the world (“cosmos”) that is not found in the other Gospels (e.g. Jn. 17:14–16). In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus describes himself, and His Kingdom, as a “thief” who “breaks into the house” (Mt. 24:43, Lk. 12:39). He also describes Himself as not bringing peace “but a sword.” None of these metaphors are found in John, where Jesus says instead that “All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. … The thief cometh only to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:8, 10). Hence Jesus’ teachings in John use strikingly different concepts, themes and metaphors as compared with the other Gospels.

In John Jesus also has a radically different position on the Law as compared with the Synoptics. In the latter Jesus teaches the young nobleman that obedience to the Law will lead to eternal life (Mt. 19:16–19, Lk. 18:18–20). And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urges His followers to obey the Law, and he reminds them that no part of the Law will pass away (Mt. 5:17–19) [5]. But in John these statements are not found; instead Jesus refers to the law as something that belongs wholly to the Pharisees, and which Jesus seems to refer to derisively as “your law” and “their law” (Jn. 8:17, 10:34, 15:25). Of note is that Jesus’ language here is actually consistent with Pilate (cf. 18:31, “Take him and judge him according to your law”). It is noteworthy that in John Jesus never identifies himself with the Lawgiver. He never refers to the Law of Moses as “God’s Law” or even “my law.” Nor does Jesus offer any instruction on proper observance of the Law as found in Matthew 5.

Another interesting difference is that in the Synoptic traditions Jesus brings up the issue of Hell Fire (Mt. 18:6–9, Mk. 9:43–47, Lk. 12:5, Jn. ?) and the unpardonable sin (Mt. 12:31–37, Mk. 3:28–29, Lk. ?, Jn. ?). In John there is no mention of these subjects. The word “hell” does not occur once [6]. (The word “hell” also does not occur in Paul’s letters.) Certainly it begs the question as to why “John” would omit these subjects if they were so important. Could it be that this gospel writer did not regard the Synoptic reports as credible?—or is it somehow possible that “John” was actually unaware of Jesus’ warnings regarding “hell” and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

There are also some external ideas that are constructed around Jesus, in John, which do not appear in the Synoptic traditions. The best example is the “Logos” doctrine which is obviously derived from pagan tradition [7]. Jesus is also placed at odds with the overall concept of prophecy which is in contrast with the other Gospels. In the latter traditions Jesus is presumed to be the prophesied Messiah, but in John there is an enigmatic counter theme. As an example, Matthew and Luke affirm that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But in John this dogma is never affirmed when Jesus’ origins come into doubt among the common people (Jn. 7:40–44). Jesus never insists that he is a son of David, or was born in Bethlehem. Nor do his disciples make these assertions about him. The Gospel of John leaves the distinct impression that Jesus was a native of Galilee.

Also of note is that in John Jesus’ ministry begins after the altercation with the money-changers in the Temple (Jn. 2:13f.). In the Synoptic traditions, Jesus’ ministry nears its conclusion with the altercation in the Temple (Mt. 21:12f., Lk. 19:45f.). Thus John omits everything that the other Gospels say occurred, or was taught, between Jesus’ baptism and the altercation at the Temple. John presents an entirely different historical framework for Jesus’ ministry, along with a set of teachings that is almost entirely unique. Whatever John does retain in common with the other traditions is placed within this alternative framework.

In the Synoptic traditions there are still some teachings which follow in between the Temple incident and the betrayal. But these teachings do not match what is found in John in the same space. Most obvious is that in John there is no lengthy end time prophecy attributed to Jesus (cf. Mk. 13, Mt. 24, Lk. 21). There is also no specifically described doctrine of Jesus’ return, or second coming. The idea of a return is only alluded to vaguely at the very end, in John 21:22–23. But no explanation of this doctrine is offered anywhere in the entire text. (There is also the lingering question of whether chapter 21 was part of the original manuscript, or was added later.)

The overall differences between John and the other Gospels could be construed to mean that John is a counter tradition. Hence John rejects the assertions as found in the Synoptics that 1) Jesus was born at Bethlehem or was a descendant of David; 2) Jesus taught in parables; 3) that Jesus issued any prophecy or warning regarding end time events; and 4) that Jesus spoke of the advent of the kingdom of God as an earthly reality.

II. John vs. Luke

In his treatise on Marcion, Dr. Adolph von Harnack noted the problem of Marcion re-writing the Gospel of Luke, and how he altered this tradition in a radical way [8]. Historians and theologians alike have condemned Marcion for this. Dr. Harnack however reasoned that Marcion’s revisionism was really not so far a field of the differences that have always existed between the four Gospel traditions. It may even be argued that Marcion’s revision of Luke is not substantially worse than the differences that are found between Luke and John. Let us now consider these differences and their significance.

     1) Luke describes Jesus as a descendent of David, who was miraculously conceived in the womb of his virgin mother. Jesus is said to be the Christ/Messiah foretold by the scriptures (Lk. 1–3. 24:44).

     John fails to affirm in clear terms that Jesus was descended from David (Jn. 7:40–44). Along side of this Jesus is also referred to as the “logos” (1:1–3). Greek readers would understand this term to mean that Jesus is a god in His own right, and functions as the messenger of the Father, just as Hermes, the “Logos”, was a god who functioned as the messenger of Zeus. Hence Jesus’ divinity is described on the basis of a pagan model.

     2) Luke says that Mary became pregnant through a miraculous conception, and that she remained a virgin (Lk. 1:26–35).

     John gives no account of Jesus’ nativity and briefly says that Jesus was the “Logos made flesh” (Jn. 1:14). The actual Greek wording in this passage means became (ἐγένετο) as opposed to being born (έτέχθη, Lk. 2:11). John does affirm that Jesus has a mother, but no special significance is otherwise attached to her. The account of the miraculous conception has been omitted; and Jesus’ mother is not even so much as mentioned by name. (If we had only the Gospel of John to go by then we would not know the name of Jesus’ mother.)

     3) Luke states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that Mary was originally from that town (Lk. 2:1–7).

     John gives no clear explanation of where Jesus was born; and does not affirm that he was from Bethlehem (Jn. 7:40–44).

     4) In Luke there is a lengthy pedigree tracing Jesus’ fore-fathers back to King David (Lk. 3:23–38).

     In John there is no such genealogy; and Jesus nowhere identifies himself as a descendent of David.

     5) In Luke, the descent of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, is witnessed by bystanders following Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Lk. 3:21–22). Jesus’ divinity is also witnessed by the Apostles in the vision of the transfiguration, where Jesus appears with Moses (9:28–36).

     In John, John the Baptist is portrayed as the sole witness of the Holy Spirit and its descent upon Jesus (Jn. 1:32, 5:31–33). The transfiguration is omitted from John. Nowhere in John does Jesus appear in the presence of Moses and other OT prophets.

     6) In Luke Jesus claims to teach the masses in parables, but that He reveals to his Apostles alone the “mysteries of the kingdom of God” so that Isaiah 6:9–10 may be fulfilled (Lk. 8:10).

     In John Jesus denies concealing anything from anyone (Jn. 18:20). Moreover the writer of John explains that many who heard Jesus’ teachings, and witnessed His miracles, still disbelieved so that the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9–10 would be fulfilled: viz. that the God of Israel “blinded their eyes” and “hardened their hearts” (Jn. 12:37–40). Thus according to John the people were not blinded because Jesus spoke in parables, but that the God of Israel blinded the people to Jesus’ plainly spoken words and miracles. This is the opposite of what Luke says. Again, all of Jesus’ parables from the Synoptic traditions are omitted from John.

     7) In John Jesus teaches a doctrine of the Spirit, and he makes a dualistic distinction between Spirit and flesh (Jn. 3:5–6). Jesus also taught that a man must be born again of Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God (3:3, 5).

     Luke makes no distinction between Spirit and flesh, and says nothing of the need to be born again of Spirit.

     8) In Luke Jesus teaches that his followers must obey some part of the Law if they will inherit eternal life. Two conflicting doctrines are attributed to Him. In Luke 10:25–28 Jesus instructs the ‘lawyer’ to “love the Lord with all your heart” and to “[love] your neighbor as yourself.” And in 18:18–20 Jesus tells the ‘rich young ruler’ that he must obey the 10 Commandments.

     In John Jesus makes no such requirements. He requires only that his followers believe in Him, and that they love one another (Jn. 15:12–17). Nowhere does Jesus make any explicit appeal to any part of the Law. (According to ‘tradition’ Luke learned the gospel from Paul. Yet Paul’s doctrine is actually more consistent with John.)

     9) In Luke there is an expectation of the kingdom of God in the context of Messianic Jewish tradition. There is also a lengthy prophecy explaining what the ‘end time’ conditions will be like (Lk. 21:8–36). Jesus also warns his followers that “there be some standing here, which shall not taste death, until they see the kingdom of God” (9:24–27).

     In John there is no ‘end time’ expectation or prophecy of the “kingdom of God” in the context of an imminent arrival. According to Jesus’ teaching in John the kingdom is Spiritual in substance, and one must be born of Spirit to inherit the kingdom and eternal life (Jn. 3:3–8). This doctrine is not found in Luke or the other Gospels. (This is one of numerous key points where John supports Gnostic tradition and opposes orthodoxy.)

     10) In Luke Jesus appeals to the God of scripture (e.g. Lk. 4:8, 10:25–28).

     In John there is no direct link of the Father with scripture. When Jesus informs the Pharisees of His divine nature he appeals to His heavenly Father and John the Baptist alone as witnesses (Jn. 5:31–33, 8:16–19). (This in turn contradicts Jn. 5:39–47 where Jesus claims Moses wrote of him, and which I believe is a corrupted passage; see below.)

    11) In Luke Jesus observes the Passover and institutes the Eucharist meal (Lk. 22:14–20).

     In John Jesus also observes the Passover (Jn. 13); but there is no institution of the Eucharist as is found in Luke and the other traditions. Jesus states instead (in an unrelated passage) that to have eternal life his followers must be willing to eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn. 6:53). Jesus then tells His followers that these are “spiritual words” meaning a figure of speech alluding to spiritual truths, and not literal eating and drinking (6:63).

     12) In John Jesus tells his followers that he will send the “Paraclete” and before his departure he breaths the Holy Spirit unto His disciples (Jn. 14:16, 20:22).

     In Luke, Jesus mentions nothing of the so-called Paraclete; and the Holy Spirit is not sent until the first Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:1f.).

     13) In Luke Jesus has no special companion or lover of any kind.

     In John there is a peculiar mention of a certain “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23, 20:2, 21:20f.). At the end of John this disciple is indicated as the source of this Gospel account (Jn. 21:24). Of note is that John is the only one of the four Gospels that makes any attempt to identify its source, and the specific connection of that source to Jesus. The problem of course is that this disciple remains nameless in the text.

These are some of the most important points on which the Gospel of John differs from Luke. Let us now consider the significance of these points and the implications. In the process of this examination it will become obvious to the reader just how close the Gospel of John is to Marcion in its differences with the “orthodox” leaning Gospel of Luke.

The elements I have cited from Luke show Jesus in the context of a Jewish Messianic tradition. Jesus is the Messiah, and a descendent of David and heir to the throne. Jesus announces the end of the age and the advent of the kingdom over which God has appointed him to rule. Jesus’ advent has been foreseen by the Law and the prophets. Jesus appeals to the God of scripture and advocates the observance of the 10 Commandments (e.g. Lk. 18:18–20, 24:25–27). Jesus warns his followers that the advent of the kingdom is at hand, and they must be prepared (Lk. 21:8–38).

In John, Jesus’ connection with biblical tradition is more tenuous. Again, there is no clear affirmation that Jesus was a descendent of David, or was born in Bethlehem as prophecy requires. John denies that Jesus was born from a virgin. Jesus’ divinity is also described in language that has no obvious connection with Jewish Scripture. By attaching the word Logos Jesus is now linked to a theological structure that has no clear root in Jewish Scripture. Jesus does not speak of any kingdom which is at hand. Instead, He tells people that the kingdom of God is spiritual, and that they must be born of spirit to inherit it. Jesus also nowhere urges his followers to obey the Law of Moses. In at least three passages the Gospel of John denies that the Law came from God (Jn. 1:17–18, 6:45–46, 9:29).

Another example of Jesus’ un-Jewish nature can be seen in John’s account of the Passover (Jn. 13). At the Passover Jesus is portrayed as showing open affection with a male lover (i.e. the “disciple who Jesus loved”). And then, in an explicitly un-Jewish fashion, Jesus disrobes and is completely naked. Among Jews this would be regarded as sacrilegious behavior; and obviously the other Gospels contain no such account. Jesus then ties a clothe around his waste and proceeds to “wash the disciples’ feet.” These words are probably meant to conceal some arcane rite that Jesus performs upon the Apostles—which in turn has no basis in Jewish scripture or custom; nor has any basis in the other Gospel reports. It is noteworthy that in John’s account of the Passover Jesus “washes the disciples’ feet” instead of instituting the Lord’s supper. (The implications are disturbing; but we can be assured that this Gospel writer does not describe literal historical events, but only his own vision of what the Gospel means. The events portrayed are meant to be symbolic. Let us remember that Jesus’ injunction to “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” are “spiritual words” that do not refer to literal eating and drinking; Jn. 6:53, 63.)

The theme of Jesus having a male lover, and the obscure description of the rite performed at the Passover, together carry homosexual overtones. In my view it is highly probable that the Gospel of John was written by a homosexual, and obviously a member of Greek society. It is possible that this writer wanted to portray Jesus’ divine nature as possessing a morality that transcended traditional Jewish norms.

The non-Jewish nature of this Gospel may also be seen in the way that all of Jesus’ enemies are identified simply as the “Jews.” Only in John are Jesus’ adversaries identified categorically as the “Jews” whereas in the other Gospels all the people around Jesus are presumed to be Jewish unless otherwise stated. In comparison, the author of John seems to write from the perspective of a Greek writer who has a resentment against Jews. (In modern times critics often characterize the Gospel of John as “anti-Semitic”; but this is a modern judgment in light of recent history. In ancient times “orthodox” leaning Jews were often vicious enemies of early Christians, and the Jews had the Roman state on their side. In the Roman order Judaism was recognized and protected as a legal religion; whereas Christianity was regarded as a subversive and illegal cult. The legal status of Judaism was first instituted by Julius Caesar as a reward for Jewish cooperation in Caesar’s war against the rival proconsul Pompey Magnus; Geza Vermes, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus, pp. 62–64.)

In contrast with Luke, John can be regarded as counter tradition that opposes Jewish theology and morality, and presents Jesus as the logos of some other Father whom “the world has not known” (Jn. 17:25). This Jesus does not announce the literal kingdom of the Jews, but instead announces another kingdom that is purely spiritual. In John 9:29 the Pharisees are portrayed as rejecting Jesus’ claim that Moses did not interact with God. John the Baptist is portrayed as saying: “For the law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:17–18). These passages can be reasonably interpreted as a consensus which denies that the “Jews” or “their law” have a complete explanation of who God is. According to John Jesus alone is the “Light of the world” who reveals the Father, and not Moses or the prophets (8:12–18).

Theologically, John’s Gospel is so different from Luke that it can be placed on a similar footing with Marcion or the Gnostics. Like John, Marcion believed in a Christ that had no connection with Bible prophecy. Like John, Marcion also believed in a purely spiritual kingdom of God. Like John, Marcion also rejected the Law. And, like Marcion, John denies that Jesus taught any secret doctrine. Aside from the latter point, John quite often resonates on many points with the themes of the unknown God and dualism that the Marcionites and Gnostics both shared in common. (For Gnostics the esoteric import of John is embodied in the Paraclete which comes after Jesus and initiates the Apostle into spiritual truths; Jn. 14:26.)

But then again one cannot simply classify John, in its present form, as simply a Gnostic or Marcionite gospel. John’s Gospel still contains some important elements that hold appeal for “orthodox” Christians. And on this point it must be noted that John actually contains a series of incompatible elements. As with the other Gospels, we cannot say that John simply contains one homogenous theology.

III. The enigmas of John

The Gospel of John contains a variety of ideas that cater to the tastes of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ theologians. In favor of the orthodox Jesus is the Logos made flesh; and Jesus also declares that He never spoke anything in secret. In favor of the Gnostics and Marcion, Jesus spoke of a purely spiritual kingdom as opposed to the literal end time fulfillment as described in the other Gospels. Jesus also appeals to a God that “the world has not known” which is also consistent with the latter schools.

The case can actually be made that John has a dual theology. There is one part of John that echoes the Jewish tradition, and then there is another part that really resembles some form of Gnosticism. When these ideas are presented side by side it appears that some ideas contradict other ideas and this in turn raises the question of tampering. Let’s look at some examples:

a) Jesus is the Jewish Christ, but also the unbiblical Logos.

b) John tells us that “the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” and that “no man has seen God at any time.” Yet Jesus also says that Moses wrote of him. (cf. Jn. 1:17–18; 5:39, 45–47) The conflicting themes raise this question: If only Jesus brings the truth then how can Moses have any truth? Jesus nowhere says that he appeared to Moses himself. The two passages cited cannot be reconciled (see “c” below). Let us also recall that Jesus never appeals to Moses as a witness when he defends His own divinity before the Pharisees. In John 5:31–33 Jesus appeals only to His Father and John the Baptist as witnesses.

c) In John 5:45–47 Jesus accuses the Jews of trusting in Moses instead of Himself; yet Jesus also accused the Jews of not believing Moses either. The entire passage from John 5:39–47 does not make sense. It’s possible that this passage has been interpolated and that originally it said that the Jews looked to Moses and the scriptures instead of accepting Jesus. Verses 39b, 46 and 47 obstruct the logical flow of ideas, and were probably added by a Catholic scribe. If these verses are removed then the passage makes complete logical sense: The Jews look to the scriptures for life rather than Jesus. And the Jews trust Moses rather than Jesus (cf. Jn. 9:29).

d) Jesus says that He is the Light of the world, and that the world is in darkness without him; yet Moses is also said to have had knowledge of Him. (Jn. 8:12, 5:39, 46) Once again the offending verses in John 5 (cited above) contradict Jesus’ other statements.

e) In John 4:20–23 Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that she knows not what she worships, and that we Jews “know what we worship because salvation is of the Jews.” Yet, at the same time Jesus also says that the hour is coming when “ye shall neither on this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour cometh…when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” (Jn. 4:24) Thus in the very same statement Jesus simultaneously affirms and denies that Jews understand true worship. In other passages Jesus also accused the Jews of not knowing the Father, and that the world has not known the Father (Jn. 8:19, 8:44, 17:25). If verse 22 is removed from chapter 4 then the passage makes complete sense: Jesus reveals to both Jews and Samaritans that God can only be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth, which in turn is consistent with Jesus’ statement that the world has not known the Father.

f) Jesus says that the world has not seen, heard or known the Father; and presumably, Jesus was the Logos sent to reveal Him. Yet Jesus also says that He must fulfill the Law of the Jews, which He calls “their Law” (Jn. 15:25). Note that Jesus does not say ‘I must fulfill God’s Law.’ No. It is the Law of the Jews that He must fulfill; but why?

This final enigma is at the core of the insoluble enigma that is the Gospel of John. I call this problem “insoluble” out of respect for the credulity of my readers. With that caveat in place I will proceed and suggest a theory that may solve the problem.

What the writer of John may be hinting at is that Jesus represented a reality that Moses and the prophets alluded to imperfectly in their writings. The Hebrew writers had all of these ideas about what God was like, and what kind of laws he gave. But as with the letters of Paul, John seems to stop short of affirming that Moses and the prophets knew God in any direct way. Paul says that the Law was “ordained by angels.” In John, Jesus says that Moses came in “his own name” (5:43). Moses did not come in God’s name and never saw God as Jewish tradition maintained (Jn. 1:17–18, 1 Jn. 4:12). Jesus was sent by the Father as an act of mercy to reveal himself to the Jews. Jesus identified Himself by fulfilling “their law” (e.g. Jn. 15:25). Jesus’ mission was to liberate the Jews from their own religious enslavement—as viewed by this gentile writer who obviously had a prejudice against the Jews of his day. This prejudice in turn had a formative influence on the theology of John’s Gospel. This writer is out to establish a difference between Jesus’ Father and the God worshipped by most Jews. Even the Law of Moses is placed outside of John’s theological paradigm. In John, Jesus fulfills the Law; but he never demands obedience to it. The ones who obey the Law are the same ones who are trying to kill Jesus. Hence Jesus fulfills the Law in order to demonstrate that the Law is inherently unjust. This is why Jesus refers to the Law of the Pharisees as “their law.”

In connection with Jesus’ mission to fulfill prophecy and liberate the Jews is the idea that the “prince of this world” is cast out. By dying an unjust death He condemns the ruler (archon, Jn. 12:31–33, 19:11). The casting out of the ruler or “prince” leads to another problem. Who is this ruler and how did he come to power? The Gospel of John does not explain this. Orthodox tradition has its explanation, and Gnostic tradition has its mythology. One possible answer is that the ruler was appointed by God to govern the world, but fell into wickedness. In the fragments of Papias a similar notion can be found among early Christian theologians:

“To some of the angels He gave dominion over the arrangement of the world… but it happened that their arrangement came to nothing” [9].

This passage refers to an early and obscure tradition that was embraced among early Christians in varying forms, and is reflected in some biblical passages [10]. This was the idea that God had bestowed the government of the world to his angelic sons. In fact this is what is stated in certain Old Testament passages such as Deuteronomy 32:8–9 and Psalms 82. What then occurred (according to myth) was that these angels (or sons) began to fight with one another for domination. The result is that the world eventually falls under the authority of one of the angels who sets himself up as the archon. For John some such theosophical myth would account for why the world was created through Jesus, the Logos, but does not know Him and will not receive Him. In John it may be that the ruler has set himself up falsely as God and has led man astray. Moses mediated a covenant with the ruler. Jesus fulfilled that Law in order to demonstrate that the Law is enmity against God. Thus it is Jesus’ destiny to be slain by Jews as part of his fulfillment of “their law” (Jn. 15:25). In this way Jesus condemns both the archon and the Law. He fulfills “their law” by dying an unjust death; and in this way he condemns the archon who gave the Law. Of note is that in John 8:44 the archon is identified as the “devil” and as a “liar” and “murderer” from the “very beginning.” Jesus tells the “Jews” that this is their father, the “devil.”

IV. Conclusion: The Legacy of John in “orthodox” and “heterodox” traditions

I believe that the most probable reason that John came to be accepted in Catholic circles is due to its doctrine of the spiritual kingdom. John offered a plausible explanation for why the Synoptic end time prophecies were not fulfilled at the end of the Apostolic Age. John offered the explanation that the spiritual nature of Jesus’ message was misunderstood; and that Jesus had actually referred to a spiritual kingdom and not the literal kingdom that the other Gospels seemed to describe. The logical inconsistencies in some passages seem to be evidence of tampering, where Catholic scribes make Jesus out to be pro-Moses and pro-Jewish, when the overall bias in John clearly lays elsewhere.

John also appealed to “orthodox” Christians because Jesus is said to be the “Logos made flesh.” To some this may seem anti-Gnostic; but then again it is wrong to assume that all Gnostics had a strictly defined dogma of Jesus, the Logos, as a non-material being. In both the Tripartite Tractate and in Hippolytus’ account of the Naassenes one can find examples of a “Son” and “Logos” that is three-fold, being the source of spiritual, natural (soul), and material elements in the lower universe (see my article On the Gnostic Trinity archive). It may also seem anti-Gnostic when Jesus says “in secret I have said nothing.” But this is not inconsistent with anything that Marcion said. And one may also answer that the Gnostic import of secrets lay with the revelations of the Paraclete.

By this point it would be yet another exercise in repetition to explain why the Gnostics found John to be meaningful. Stated simply, the theology in John is anything but “orthodox”; and the clumsy efforts of Catholics to modify this gospel are still evident in chapters 4 and 5. The unorthodox themes in John indicate that, in its original form, the Gospel of John may well have been the earliest of the Gnostic Gospels. —jw


1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.8.5; J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 328f. Online text:

2] In an unrelated passage Irenaeus gives this account of the origin of the primal hierarchy according to Gnostic myth; quoted from Against Heresies, 1:1. The words corresponding to John 1 are in CAPs. (See note 3 below for a corresponding text of John 1:1–18.)

“They maintain, then, that in the invisible and ineffable heights above there exists a certain perfect, pre-existent Aion, whom they call Proarche, Propator, and Bythus (Pre-beginning, Pre-father and Depth), and describe as being invisible and incomprehensible. Eternal and unbegotten, he remained throughout innumerable cycles of ages in profound serenity and quiescence.

There existed along with him Ennœa (Thought), whom they also call CHARIS and Sige (GRACE and Silence). At last this Bythus determined to send forth from himself the BEGINNING (ARCHE) of all things, and deposited this production (which he had resolved to bring forth) in his contemporary Sige, even as seed is deposited in the womb. She then, having received this seed, and becoming pregnant, gave birth to Nous (Mind), who was both similar and equal to him who had produced him, and was alone capable of comprehending his father’s greatness.

This Nous they call also MONOGENES, and Father, and the BEGINNING of all Things (Arche). Along with him was also produced ALETHEIA (TRUTH) and these four constituted the first and first-begotten Pythagorean Tetrad, which they also denominate the root of all things. For there are first Bythus and Sige, and then Nous and ALETHEIA. And MONOGENES, perceiving for what purpose he had been produced, also himself sent forth LOGOS and ZOE (WORD and LIFE), being the father of all those who were to come after him, and the beginning and fashioning of the entire PLEROMA (FULLNESS).

By the conjunction of LOGOS and ZOE were brought forth ANTHROPOS and Ecclesia (Man and Church); and thus formed the first-begotten Ogdoad, the root and substance of all things, called among them by four names, Bythus, and Nous, and Logos, and Anthropos. For each of these is masculo-feminine, as follows: Propator was united by a conjunction with his Ennœa; then Monogenes, that is Nous, with Aletheia; Logos with Zoe, and Anthropos with Ecclesia.” (Donaldson, ibid., pg. 316; Online text: )

The words above correspond with the following words in John 1: beginning, word, life, man (church), grace, truth, only-begotten, fullness and father (Arche, Logos, Zoe, Anthropos/Ecclesia, Charis, Aletheia, Monogenes, Pleroma and Patros).

In the Nag Hammadi Library there is a first hand record of this myth which is contained in the text entitled A Valentinian Exposition. This text also discusses the origins of the Pleroma and contains elements showing a correlation with the Gospel of John. This text also refers the Aions Monogenes, Truth, Word, Life, Man and Church (Monogenes, Logos, Zoe, Anthropos and Ecclesia). Unfortunately this text is in a poor and fragmented condition. Here are a couple lines from this text showing the correlation both with John and the testimony of Irenaeus:

“For now God has brought Truth, the one who glorifies the Root of the All. Thus it is he who revealed himself in Monogenes, and in him he revealed the Ineffable One… That [primal] Tetrad projected the Tetrad which is the one consisting of Word and Life and Man and Church. Now the Uncreated One projected Word and Life. Word is for the glory of the Ineffable One while Life is for the glory of Silence (=Charis), and Man is for his own glory, while Church is for the glory of Truth. This, then, is the Tetrad begotten according to the likeness of the Uncreated (Tetrad).” (Online text of the Valentinian Exposition: )

Note that both Irenaeus and the Exposition agree that the primal Ogdoad (Eight) forms in two parts: the first Tetrad (Four) and the second Tetrad. Note also the Exposition mentions “Silence” which Irenaeus identifies with “Charis” or Grace.

3] Here is a text of John 1:1–18 showing the corresponding elements with Irenaeus and the Valentinian Exposition above.

1In the BEGINNING was the WORD (LOGOS), and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.

2The same was in the BEGINNING (ARCHE) with God.

3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4In him was LIFE; and the LIFE was the light of MEN (ANTHROPON).

5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (kosmon).

10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14And the WORD was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of GRACE and TRUTH. (Note that verse 14 seems to distinguish between the “Word” and the “only begotten”, i.e. Logos and Monogenes.)

15John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

16And of his FULLNESS (PLEROMA) have all we received, and GRACE for GRACE.

17For the law was given by Moses, but GRACE and TRUTH came by Jesus Christ.

18No man hath seen God at any time, the ONLY-BEGOTTEN Son (MONOGENES), which is in the bosom of the FATHER (PATROS), he hath declared him. (Note: There is no word corresponding to “Son” in this passage. The Greek text literally reads: “monogenes theos” or only-begotten god.)

4] The Catholic Fathers make clear that the Gospel of John was cherished by the Gnostics, as I documented with Irenaeus and Origen. But also of note is that even some early Catholics likewise rejected John, seeing this Gospel to be a pagan deviation from proper doctrine as found in, e.g., Matthew. This led to a conflict among Catholics which resulted in a schismatic group known as the Alogi, who rejected the Logos theology in John. Dr. Adolph von Harnack described the situation this way in his excellent treatise The History of Dogma:

“The Alogi attacked it…as promoting Gnosticism… But they also tried to refute the Logos doctrine and…Gospel on historical grounds, by a reference to the Synoptic Gospels. The representatives of this movement were, as far as we know, the first to undertake within the Church a historical criticism, worthy of the name, of the Christian Scriptures and Church tradition. They first confronted John’s Gospel with the Synoptics and found numerous contradictions…” (A. Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 3, pg. 19; emphasis added.)

5] However there is still the issue of whether Matthew or Luke actually contain purely homogenous theologies. In other articles I have shown that the answer is no. This problem is discussed in detail in my archive article Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, II (archive).

6] My analysis here does not involve the deeper question of whether there is any reference to “Hell Fire” in the Greek manuscripts. Of course the answer is no. My aim here is to show in the simplest way that the NT writings contradict each other in that not all writers make reference to “hell fire” which in itself shows that there is a deeper problem with the way the texts are translated. The reality is that neither Paul nor “John” knew of any doctrine of hell fire as has been manufactured out of certain Greek words by later “orthodox” theologians (e.g. Mt. 18:9, “geennan tou puros” or “fire of Gehenna” which referred to a burning trash dump in the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, but has been erroneously translated as “hell fire”).

7] W. Boussett, Kyrios Christos, pg. 393. Cf. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 21, “For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting logos and teacher of all…” (J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 170)

8] A. Harnack, Marcion: the Gospel of the Alien God, pg. 49f. (Note: no one really knows for sure if Marcion in fact re-wrote Luke, or simply had a different version of this gospel. See my article and archive link in note 5 above.)

9] Fragments of Papias, 7; J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 155.

10] Irenaeus mentions numerous Gnostic sects, viz. the followers of Simon Magus, Menander, Saturninus, Basilides and Carpocrates, all of whom taught that the world was ruled by angels; and that the god of Moses was one of these angels (Against Heresies, 1.23ff.; Donaldson, ibid. pp. 347–351).

By James M. West. Copyright © April 2009; revised March 9, 2013.

All Rights Reserved.

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