The Development of the Canon of the New Testament
Acts of John (Ephesus, 150-200 CE)
The Acts of John purports to give an eyewitness account of the missionary work of the apostle John in and around Ephesus; it may therefore be of Ephesian provenance. It probably dates to the 2nd half of the 2nd century. Although no complete text is extant, we have considerable portions in Greek and in Latin. The Stichometry of Nicephorus gives its length as 2500 lines, the same number as for the Gospel according to Matthew. An English translation is in [Schneemelcher] v. 2 pp. 172-212.
The author of the Acts of John, said to be Leucius, a real or fictitious companion of the apostle John, narrates his miracles, sermons, and death. The sermons display unmistakable Docetic tendencies, especially in the description of Jesus and the immateriality of his body:
.... Sometimes when I meant to touch him [Jesus], I met with a material and solid body; but at other times when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, as if it did not exist at all ... And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint, whether it appeared on the ground (for I saw him as it were raised up from the earth), and I never saw it. (§ 93)
The author also relates that Jesus was constantly changing shape, appearing sometimes as a small boy, sometimes as a beautiful man; sometimes bald-headed with a long beard, sometimes as a youth with a pubescent beard (§ 87-89).
The book includes a long hymn (§ 94-96), which no doubt was once used as a liturgical song (with response) in some Johannine communities. Before he goes to die, Jesus gathers his apostles in a circle, and, while holding one another's hands as they circle in a dance around him, he sings a hymn to the Father. The terminology of the hymn is closely related to that of the Johannine Gospel, especially its prologue. At the same time, the author gives the whole a Docetic cast.
Besides presenting theologically-oriented teaching, the author knows how to spin strange and entertaining stories. There is for example, the lengthy account of the devout Drusiana and her ardent lover Callimachus in a sepulchre (§ 63-86), which was no doubt intended to provide Christians with an alternative to the widely-read libidinous story of the Ephesian widow and the guard at her late husband's tomb. For a lighter touch the author entertains his readers with the droll incident of the bedbugs (§ 60-61).
Although the Acts of John is without importance for the historical Jesus and the apostle John, it is nevertheless valuable for tracing the development of popular Christianity. It is, for example, the oldest source recording the celebration of the Eucharist for the dead (§ 72).
The Acts of John may have been composed by a member of the Hellenistic cultivated classes, who drew upon various literary genuses and in so doing, without any specific attachment to a concrete community, sought to propagate a Christianity as he understood it, as the expression of certain aspirations of a philosophical attitude to the world which he had held even before his conversion.
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