WAS THE GOSPEL OF JOHN INFLUENCED BY THE GNOSTIC VISION?

By Yuri Kuchinsky


This is a summary (with some other material) of the article
TRIMORPHIC PROTENNOIA AND THE PROLOGUE OF THE FOURTH GOSPEL, by
Gesine Robinson, in GNOSTICISM AND THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WORLD,
J.E.Goehring et al, eds. Sonoma, California, Polebridge Press, 1990.

By the way of introduction, I would like to clarify a few points.
The parallels to John in THE TRIMORPHIC PROTENNOIA (Prot.) are not
in one piece, but are scattered around the document. Nevertheless,
these parallels are pretty well complete, that is to say, almost all
of the Prologue is paralleled in Prot. The state of preservation of
the text (after 1650 or so years) is not great and some important
pieces are missing. Some parts are in need of reconstruction.

The first effort to identify the parallels between THE TRIMORPHIC
PROTENNOIA and the Logos Prologue of John has been made in 1973 by
the East Berlin Nag Hammadi team. (Arbeitskreis fuer die koptisch-
gnostische Schriften, "Bedeutung der Texte," 76.)

      "[They] ...published the thesis that Prot., especially the
      description of Protennoia's third appearance as Logos, might
      be a genuine parallel to the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel."
      (p. 37 in GNOSTICISM AND THE EARLY CHRISTIAN WORLD,
      J.E.Goehring et al, eds.)

Gesine Robinson was a member of that team and in 1974 (Gesine
Schenke, DIE DREIGESTALTIGE PROTENNOIA, Theologische
Literaturzeitung 99, 731-46. {She was then Gesine Schenke.}) she

      "...argued that one has the impression that the relevant
      statements of Prot. stand in their natural context, whereas
      their parallels in the Prologue, when seen in terms of the
      Fourth Gospel, seem to have been artificially made serviceable
      to a purpose actually alien to them." (p. 38, ibid)

In 1978 the discussion of these parallels reached its highpoint at
the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale. There, the
highly respected (Fr.) George MacRae summarised the view of many
scholars regarding these parallels:

      "In any case, it is easier to envisage the spread of the
      relevant attributes in the Gnostic work as original than to
      suppose that the author dismantled the narrowly focused
      Prologue of the Fourth Gospel to spread the attributes
      throughout a much broader mythological context. It is
      important to note here that no one seriously argues that the
      Fourth Gospel is indebted to the Nag Hammadi tractate as to a
      literary work. Clearly both are dependent on developments of
      the wisdom tradition and may simply have had a common
      ancestor. But whether that ancestor is already a Gnostic
      modification of the wisdom tradition is the question at
      stake." (p. 38) (Quoted from George MacRae, GNOSTICISM AND THE
      CHURCH OF JOHN'S GOSPEL, Pp. 89-96 in NAG HAMMADI, GNOSTICISM,
      AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY. Ed. C.W. Hedrick and R. Hodgson, Jr.
      Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986.)

So nobody suggests that John borrows directly from Prot. Rather,
both of them seem to have borrowed from a common Wisdom source.

Robinson elaborates on the Sethianism of Prot. She answers some
critics who question that the document is Sethian Gnostic, and
presents arguments to make her case.

In general, Sethians are thought to be Jewish Gnostics independent
(at least in their beginning) from the Christian tradition. The Nag
Hammadi documents present a number of cases when originally non-
Christian gospels have been Christianised, often superficially, by
the addition of a Christian "frame": the beginning, and the end, and
a couple of places in the middle, may mention Christ.

      "...Prot. is by and large not to be explained as derived from
      Christian concepts or as dependent on Christian texts. The few
      distinctly Christian traits are the result of secondary
      Christianization that took place in a rather superficial way."
      (p. 43)

As to her main thesis of the interrelationship between the two
documents,

      "...even if Prot., in the form in which we have it, is no
      doubt younger [later] than the Fourth Gospel, it nonetheless
      provides the natural context for the Fourth Gospel's Prologue.
      For it is not the last, extant copy of Prot. with its
      redactional interpolations that is important, but rather its
      basic substance, which is no doubt pre-Christian, if not
      perhaps in a chronological sense, at least in terms of the
      history of tradition." (p. 45)

She quotes Craig Evans, ON THE PROLOGUE OF JOHN AND THE PROT., New
Testament Studies 27 (1980-81): 395-401.,

      (1) Prot. opens, proceeds and closes with the same vocabulary
      and the same world of thought.... Virtually all of the
      vocabulary items of the Prologue are to be found in Prot., but
      the reverse cannot be said. (2) The Fourth Gospel does not
      maintain the same lofty plane as its Prologue. It is as though
      the evangelist approaches, but never reaches, the sublime
      level of the Prologue. In view of this....it is possible to
      understand the Prologue as drawing from the [same] milieu
      which produced Prot. (though not [from] Prot. itself)" (p. 46)

And now, a little bit more about the general character of Prot. It
retells the Gnostic myth of the descent of the pre-existent
Redeemer. Many parts of the work indicate that it was used in
initiation baptism rituals of the Sethians. These were generally
five-fold, the five seals, with the fifth, the final rite, granting
the initiate the insight of ultimate reality. The purpose of the
ritual was meant, seemingly, to reveal to the initiate some
mythological names, a sort of passwords needed for the successful
journey to the realm of eternal light, the gnostic paradise.

      "The actual execution of baptism takes place in five stages,
      in the course of which three mythological beings in each realm
      bestow upon the Gnostic one of four heavenly gifts: a heavenly
      garment of light, heavenly purity through celestial water, a
      heavenly throne, and a heavenly crown of glory, followed by
      admission into the realm of eternal light. (p. 41)

The descent of the Redeemer (also known as Logos, Protennoia,
Sophia, Barbelo, and others) comes in three stages in Prot.. Bentley
Layton writes about Prot. in his GNOSTIC GOSPELS (1987) (the book
that provides texts of most of the Nag Hammadi gospels, with
excellent commentary),

      "As in the Apocryphon of John, the preexistent saviour (here
      called the great Seth) comes three times to intervene in human
      history. The third advent is said to be the incarnation or
      adoption of Jesus by the preexistent great Seth. The account
      of creation is brief and positive, emphasizing divine
      providence..." (p. 101)

The three parts of the descent are as follows (back to Robinson):

      As gnostically modified Lady Wisdom, and again in her
      appearance in the Son as Logos, Protennoia, like the Logos in
      the Prologue, reveals _first_ her pre-existence with the
      Father and her all-encompassing creative activity (e.g., 35,1-
      32; 46,5-8; 47,9-10). _Second_ she comes to the world to bring
      knowledge to humans (e.g. 36,10-16; 42,11-17). ... And,
      _third_ she undertakes the decisive descent to redeem all her
      "brethren" (e.g. 47,13-32)." (pp. 46-47)

Understanding the nature of this three-fold descent tradition, and
the stages of the descent, helps us to see in a new light the
structure of the Logos prologue of John:

      The three-layerdness, shared by Prot. and the Prologue, seems
      to be natural in Sethian texts but not in the NT. James
      Robinson (SETHIANS AND JOHANNINE THOUGHT, p. 662, in THE
      REDISCOVERY OF GNOSTICISM: PROCEEDINGS OF THE INTERNATIONAL
      CONFERENCE ON GNOSTICISM AT YALE, 1978, New Haven,
      Connecticut. Vol. 2: Sethian Gnosticism. Ed. B. Layton.
      Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1981.) inferred from this that "the traces
      in the Prologue of John of periodizing, namely the Logos being
      in the primordial period, in the pre-Christian "spermatic"
      period, and in the incarnate period, would then become
      intelligible as the way in which that non-Christian tradition
      was adapted and unified in Christ." (p. 47)

A number of important insights can be gained by a student of the Fourth
Gospel from studying, also, the Prot.. Robertson looks at some of these in
her article. I would like to single out this particular instance. John
1:18 has presented numerous difficulties for many commentators. The text
is problematic, with four (!) variant versions of the Greek being handed
down to us from antiquity. (Such uncertainties about the Greek text,
itself, usually indicate that there were substantial disputes about, and
revisions of this text over the years.) So naturally this passage,
presented huge dilemmas not only for the Greek textual scholars, but for
the translators as well.

	Theon oudeis heoraken popote, monogenes theos ho on eis ton 
	kolpon tou patros ekeinos exegesato

Here's the NEW AMERICAN BIBLE translation, using the above Greek text:

	No one [oudeis] has ever seen [heoraken] God. The only Son, 
	God, who [ho] is [eis] at the Father's side [kolpon tou 
	patrou], has revealed[exegesato] him.

This Greek variant text, reading _monogenes theos_ (this translates
literally as "only begotten god"), is favoured by the recent scholarship
because of the early papyrus evidence (Bodmer papyri). But this concept of
"the only begotten god" is surely a little problematic in itself?

The term _monogenes theos_ is found nowhere else in the NT. It is indeed a
strange idea, in the context of monotheism, that a god should be born as
the only-begotten. As a result, many translators, including the King James
Version, choose to render this expression as "the only-begotten Son". A
little confusing, isn't it?

Prot. provides some interesting background for this dilemma, because a
Coptic expression very similar to monogenes theos is found there. (The
additional problem is determining whether monogenes theos was used in the
original Greek Prot., of which our Coptic text was a translation, but we
can assume that this is so.) Indeed, such an expression seems more natural
in the context of gnosticism.

	"...in Prot. ... [this] odd expression [monogenes theos] seems to
	be at home; for ... [we find in the Nag Hammadi Coptic ms] the 
	exact Coptic equivalent to _monogenes theos_. B. Layton translates 
	the passage [38:23]: "the deity, the only begotten..." ... This 
	could suggest that the expression in the Prologue is ... to be 
	explained as due to the material found in the gnostic source. 
	(p. 49)

So what this amounts to, basically, is that we find how the expression
monogenes theos may have made it into the NT. It probably came from the
Jewish Gnostic sources, and, ever since, the Christians had big problems
trying to figure out what to do with it...

In conclusion, Robinson says:

      "...since Prot. is the best-attested matrix for the Logos
      hymn, the most obvious conclusion would seem to be that the
      Prologue derives from a Wisdom tradition that has already
      passed through this gnostic filter. (p. 50)

So the parallels between these two works are clear, I hope. Other
literature cited here can provide further info for those who are
interested in the subject.