The Strange And Lively Adventures In The Apocryphal 2nd-Century ‘Acts of John’

(St John the Evangelist, by El Greco (1541–1614), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

The Acts of John

According to Christian teachings, after the crucifixion of their Savior, many of the apostles of Jesus dispersed into the known world to spread their religion to the masses. They traveled in all directions from Jerusalem, venturing downward toward Ethiopia, northwest to Turkey and Greece, and west through North Africa, Rome and Spain. The adventures of the apostles were immortalized in Christian texts featuring mystical healings, exorcisms and all sorts of miracles. One of the most dramatic accounts of one such apostle, however, is less well known. Despite its unique story and its vivid descriptions of miracles, the Acts of John was left out of the New Testament cannon for its hints of Docetism, which described Jesus as more divine and less human than the proto-orthodox (pre-Catholic) church could condone. Though the Docetic elements in the text were mainly at the end of the work, those latter passages tarnished the entirety of the Acts of John in the eyes of the church.

The apocryphal (non-canonical) Christian text, the Acts of John, was written in the early 2nd century. Authorship of the book is frequently attributed to a man named Leucius Charinus. Charinus is thought (but not unanimously so) to be a disciple of the apostle John. Though proto-orthodox (and later Catholic) leaders in the Christian church long viewed the Acts of John with suspicion, the book was quite popular. It was not uncommon for scenes of the text to be depicted on church walls and for copies of the Acts of John to be found in libraries. Even when the Second Council of Nicaea (787 CE) condemned the Acts of John for its inclusion of Docetic teachings (deemed a heresy), the events of the text survived in edited versions that were more acceptable to the Catholic Church.

This article, however, is about the intriguing events that were recorded in the original Acts of John, written in the 2ndcentury. The best, unedited (to our knowledge) sources of the Acts of John come from Greek manuscripts that were hidden or forgotten in monastic libraries. Here are some of the compelling, humorous, and often odd, adventures from the Acts of John, set when the apostle was traveling near Ephesus:

An Uninvited Guest

The eventful adventures of John, as told by the Acts of John, began as he traveled to the city of Ephesus. When the apostle reached the city located on the Turkish side of the Aegean Sea, Ephesus was celebrating the birth of the goddess Artemis. The festivities were all the more lavish because the city’s temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

 

(Colored engraving of the Ephesus temple of Artemis, by Philips Galle (1537–1612), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

In honor of Artemis, pilgrims and priests to the great temple were wearing white for the day of celebration. John decided to have a look inside the temple of Artemis, but in a conscious act of defiance, he dressed himself in black. The celebrating worshippers of Artemis immediately noticed the disrespectful outsider who had wandered into their temple and took offense.

The priests of Artemis quickly gathered and confronted the Christian apostle. John then challenged the priests to a divine duel—a pray-off…to the death. He tempted the worshippers of Artemis to pray for his death, and he would pray to God for their own deaths. The priests of Artemis, however, had heard of John. The man apparently already had a reputation for being a powerful holy man of miraculous abilities, so the priests refused John’s challenge. Nevertheless, the apostle lectured the crowd about their pagan beliefs.

As the story goes, John’s words of criticism set off supernatural chaos in the temple of Artemis. The alter shattered and pieces of the temple collapsed, killing many of the priests who had confronted John. Those who survived the destruction in the temple converted to Christianity on the spot.

Historical note: The actual temple of Artemis in Ephesus was completely destroyed around 401 CE by a mob led by John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople.

Gruesome Country Drama

In the rural countryside (around three miles from the city of Ephesus), tensions were coming to a boil between an old father and his delinquent son. The old man was giving his son a thorough scolding for crassly trying to seduce another man’s wife. The son, infuriated by the nagging, beat and kicked his father, leading to the old man’s death.

The son’s mind was completely blinded by rage. He drew his sickle and charged out of the house, intending to murder the woman he lusted after, along with her husband. As he was stomping toward the woman’s home, however, the son came across the apostle John, who was traveling on the nearby road.

 

(St John the Evangelist by Vicente Juan Masip (1510–1579), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

John called the murderer over and demanded to know what happened. The son complied, and told John that he had murdered his father and now planned to kill the woman he desired, then her husband, and finally himself.

When the son told his story, John dissuaded the killer from further murders and instead had him lead the way back to where the old father lay dead. When they arrived, John prayed to God, asking for the old man to be brought back from the dead, for he had died trying to show his son the way of virtue. When the prayer was done, the old man returned to life and was healed.

The son, amazed by the miracle, was thrown into a psychological quagmire of guilt and religious reverence. In despair about his sins, the son used his sickle to castrate himself, severing his physical instrument of desire from his body. When John heard that the son had done this, he commented with disapproval that the young man should have cut lust from his thoughts instead of flesh from his body.

Pests at an Inn

Continuing his travels around the countryside of Ephesus, John decided to stop for the night at an inn. He and his followers filed into the inn only to find that there was just one bed left that had no coverings. The apostle and disciples covered the bed with their cloaks to make it more comfortable and determined where they would sleep. John, of course, would take the bed, and the followers decided to sleep on the floor of the inn.

 

(Wall painting of a feast, c. 79 CE, located in Pompeii, photographed by Theodore H. Feder, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

John bid all of his followers a good night and lay down on the improvised bed; yet, immediately, there was a problem—the bed frame, or the cloaks used to cover the bed, was infested with bugs. In the middle of the night, John could no longer stand the annoyance caused by the bedbugs. Loud enough for all of his followers to hear, John commanded, “I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God” (Acts of John, 60, from “The Apocryphal New Testament” translated by M. R James, 1924). The bugs, miraculously, obeyed John and scurried off the bed and left the apostle and his followers in peace.

When the light of dawn shone, and the disciples of John awoke, all of the bedbugs remained patiently loitering by the door of the inn. Though the followers of John were all wide awake, looking on in amazement at the bugs, John continued to enjoy the refreshment of sleep. When John finally woke up, his followers excitedly described to him the odd behavior of the inn’s bugs. John, however, simply looked at the bugs and stated, “Since ye have well behaved yourselves in hearkening to my rebuke, come unto your place” (Acts of John, 61, from “The Apocryphal New Testament” translated by M. R James, 1924).

The bugs accepted John’s invitation and gladly returned to the bed. As John and his followers prepared to take to the road once more, the apostle commented on his disappointment that humans can be less receptive to the words of God’s servants than bugs in an inn.

Lust, Life and Death

From the inn, John and his followers made their way to the home of Andronicus and Drusiana, a Christian couple located in or near the city of Ephesus. The couple, though married, practiced strict abstinence. Though Andronicus was, at first, greatly opposed to the idea, Drusiana eventually convinced her husband to comply.

Though Drusiana had completely renounced worldly pleasures in exchange for spiritual pursuits, that did not stop other people from desiring her. One such man was Callimachus. He did not let her chaste lifestyle within her own marriage deter him from his schemes to seduce the woman he lusted after. Therefore, Callimachus constantly sent Drusiana letters filled with admirations of her beauty and promises of his love. Every invitation that Callimachus sent was answered with a harsh rebuke from Drusiana. Both pursuer and pursued quickly became miserable, the first from unfulfilled lust and the latter from the constant unwelcome badgering. Callimachus’ interest in Drusiana caused her so much despair that she eventually fell ill and died.

John, ever the evangelist, used the death of Drusiana to give a lengthy sermon, comforting Andronicus and the community. Callimachus, however, did not attend the sermon, for he had unfinished business that required his attention.

While John preached to the assembled crowd, Callimachus bribed a greedy steward into unlocking the doors to the room where Drusiana’s body was being held. For some reason, the steward decided to follow Callimachus into the crypt to observe the horrific scene that was to occur—the pleasures Drusiana refused to relinquish in life, Callimachus planned to obtain from her dead body.

 

(Hatred by Pietro Pajetta (1845–1911), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Callimachus descended on the body of Drusiana, frantically stripping away her clothing until only a thin shift covered her vulnerable corpse. Before the body of Drusiana could be desecrated, however, a serpent miraculously appeared. The snake killed the steward with a venomous bite, but it did not harm Callimachus. Instead, it tripped him and slithered up on the man’s chest, holding him hostage.

Next, a beautiful angel appeared in the crypt to guard the body of Drusiana. The angel then turned to the man held down by the snake, and cryptically stated to Callimachus that he had to die so he could live.

 

(Liberation of St Peter by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Soon, after that scene, Andronicus and John arrived at the crypt to pay their respects to Drusiana. To their amazement, they found two dead men and an angel in the crypt. The angel simply stated to John that he had defended the honor of Drusiana, and, with his task accomplished, the angel returned to heaven. Despite the odd scene in front of him, John quickly regained his composure. First he stepped over to where Callimachus lay dead with a snake on his chest. John shooed away the snake and raised the man from death. Once resurrected, Callimachus confessed everything to John and Andronicus. He told them about breaking into the crypt and of his sick motives for committing such an action. He recounted the snake that killed the steward and had held him captive. Finally, he described the arrival of the angel. With the retelling of his story complete, Callimachus assured John that he left his former, evil, self back in the realm of the dead and was now a better man—as the angel said, he died so he could live.

Next, John moved over to the body of Drusiana. With a prayer, he brought her back from the dead. Immediately, she noticed that she was wearing nothing but a shift. Only once she had clothed herself, did she learn from her husband, Andronicus, what had happened. It was then that she noticed the body of the steward. Drusiana made known her wish that the steward be forgiven and resurrected. Callimachus argued against resurrecting the steward, but John gave his blessing. With John’s assent, Drusiana prayed to God for the steward to be brought back from the dead. When the prayer was completed, the steward returned to life. John, however, immediately could see that the steward remained evil and launched into a tirade, shooing the hopeless man from the place.

Evolution and Survival

After the story of Drusiana, the Acts of John transitions out of educational storytelling into more cryptic mysticism and Docetic teachings, which caused the text to be condemned by Catholic authorities in later history. Despite its differences from the canonical teachings of Christianity, the stories in the Acts of John remained popular with the faithful. Tales such as the destruction of the temple of Artemis and the resurrection of Drusiana were adapted and evolved in such a way that they were able to survive in a Catholic world that was always on the lookout for heresy.

Click this LINK to see how the Drusiana story was modified and edited to be more appealing to a medieval Catholic audience.


Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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