Lost in antiquity, rediscovered in 1896, and only recently accessible for study, The Secret Revelation of John offers a firsthand look into the diversity of Christianity before the establishment of canon and creed. Karen L. King offers an illuminating reading of this ancient text--a narrative of the creation of the universe and humanity and a guide to justice and salvation, said to be Christ's revelation to his disciple John.
Freeing the Revelation from the category of "Gnosticism" to which such accounts were relegated, King shows how the Biblical text could be read by early Christians in radical and revisionary ways. By placing the Revelation in its social and intellectual milieu, she revises our understanding of early Christianity and, more generally, religious thought in the ancient Mediterranean world. Her work helps the modern reader through many intriguing--but confusing--ideas in the text: for example, that the creator god of Genesis, a self-described jealous and exclusive god, is not the true Deity but a kind of fallen angel; or, in an overt critique of patriarchy unique in ancient literature, the declaration that the subordination of woman to man was an ignorant act in direct violation of the "holy height."
In King's analysis, the Revelation becomes not strange but a comprehensible religious vision--and a window on the religious culture of the Roman Empire. A translation of the complete Secret Revelation of John is included.
In the tradition of Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, King has produced a study on another early apocryphal Christian text: Apocryphon Johannis, said to be Christ's revelation to his disciple John.
The book is eloquently argued, and presents its reading of texts clearly. It is also well produced, with an extensive bibliography. It is challenging, and helps us to understand the rich religious culture of the period. There is a creative approach to political, social, ethical, and philosophical problems. It gives an insight into a vibrant and energetic thought-world.
The Apocryphon of John is the most important document of "Sethian" or "Classic" Gnosticism, extant in four Coptic translations representing two basic versions, a shorter one (BG, 2; NHC III, 1) and a longer one (NHC II, 1; IV, 1). In this book, King presents a new translation of both versions, BG, 2 and NHC II, 1 on facing pages, with variants in NHC III, 1 given in notes. King does not believe that "Gnosticism" ever existed, and she rejects the view of a number of scholars (including myself) that the Ap. John as we know it represents a Gnostic myth that has been secondarily "Christianized" with its frame story (Jesus' revelation to John) and its dialogue features (Jesus answering questions posed by John). In her learned commentary, she shows how its author reinterpreted Plato's Timaeus, the book of Genesis, Wisdom literature, and the Gospel of John. While some of her interpretations are open to question...her sympathetic and insightful reading of the Ap. John as a Christian text linking "social critique with spirituality" has something to commend it.
The Secret Revelation of John is an excellent book, full of sound scholarship and attention to nuance, and presented in an accessible manner. It is well worth the attention of anyone interested in early Christianity.
- 416 pages
- 5-1/16 x 7-15/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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