Identity Markers in 2nd-Century Christianity: The Acts of John

The Acts of John is different from the other documents I’m reading for this exam in some important ways. Most importantly, its obvious docetism sets it apart from other second-century Christian literature, an era from which few texts have survived, and even fewer that did not meet the approval of later orthodoxy.

One of the great values of this text is the chance to see the self-representation of a docetic Christian without the polemics of an Irenaeus or an Ignatius. In fact many of the markers of belonging as they appear in AJn are quite similar to those in the Apostolic texts: virtuous behavior remains the most important indication of one’s membership in the community, and the Apostolic authors would easily recognize and agree with AJn’s emphases on charity, self-control, and doing good. The most important virtue for this text, however, is chastity, which receives a more extreme treatment than is apparent in the letters (though, interestingly, it aligns well with Paul and Thecla, another early narrative, and martyrological texts like Perpetua). For AJn, chastity must be complete. Marital sex is not even permitted, as we learn in the story of Drusiana. More than that, apparently even the “act” of being lusted after is enough to cause mortal shame in a truly Christian woman. Denial of bodily desires, however, does not mean mortification of the body. When the young man who killed his father castrates himself in in repudiation of his previous adultery, John rebukes him for going too far–for AJn, despite its docetic christology, the flesh does not cause sin, a misguided spirit does.

As in other texts of this period, it is clear in AJn that good behavior is a result, not a cause, of salvation, but this text goes farther than the others in attributing salvation to the very nature of the saved. When Fortunatus chooses to flee rather than glorify Jesus, even after having been revivified, John explains that he must be incapable of receiving salvation at all. It seems that one can be in a state of ignorance before encountering John’s (and, by extension, AJn’s) message, and can make even dire mistakes (such as idolatry!) after having nominally accepted the message and still make amends, but there is nonetheless some essential, anthropological division between the saved and the unsaved. One belongs because one was made to belong.

Another point of interest for this document is that, in the surviving segments, the major rival for John’s community seems to be neither non-docetic Christians nor Jews of any kind, but polytheists. The surviving texts mentions Jews once, quite unflatteringly and in a way that suggests affinity between AJn and Sethian texts, but the real showdown happens at the temple of Artemis Ephesia. Earlier in the text, a man whom John revivified gets it wrong not by practicing Jewish piety, but by erecting a shrine to John himself.

Like the Apostolic letters, this text lacks emphasis on liturgy as a sign of group membership. There is a single mention of baptism later in the text, as well as a few mentions of the Eucharist, several hymns, and even a call-and-response recitation, so liturgy is clearly a part of the community. But throughout the narrative John is constantly urging people who only just joined him to demonstrate their new piety by such works of power as bringing the dead back to life. This is connected to the previous observation about the saved-by-nature–one need not experience any formal initiation. If one is capable of salvation, the only requirement is to confess and repent.

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