Can John Deliver Us from the Modern Gnostics?

Charles Hill’s examination of the reception of the Johannine corpus demonstrates that modern reception of John is more a reflection of the modern theological situation than it is a historical reality about the early reception of the Johannine literature. That is, the “Johannophobia” that Hill traces is a projection of the modern period upon the past which speaks of the modern fear or failure in regard to John.[1] In turn, the supposed gnostic “Johannophilia,” which Hill debunks, describes how modern reception of John has amounted to a reception of the book on the basis of a gnostic sensibility. My hypothesis is that the fear and love of the book of John, as Hill finds it in the early church, is precisely the opposite of what has been projected and this is because moderns tend to fear or reject a true reading of John and have succumbed to a gnostic reading.  That is, the heretics feared and avoided the book and the orthodox made it central but in the modern period the book is mostly reduced to a heretical reading as the basis for its acceptance.

Part of the evidence that this might be the case is in the universal consensus which has developed around John in the modern period. As Hill describes it, before the Valentinians appropriated the Gospel through their novel interpretation of the Prologue, John was offensive to the heretics in its emphasis on the deity of Christ and the eyewitness testimony to this effect.[2] Yet, in modern scholarship the opposite has been presumed to be the case:

As is apparent from this review, the phenomenon of orthodox Johannophobia has been for several decades a generally recognized principle among scholars working in Johannine studies, and in New Testament and early Christian history. It has been endorsed by most of the trusted names in Johannine studies, one of whom declares it to be supported by ‘all our evidence’. Many of these scholars shaped Johannine studies, and New Testament studies in general, in the last half of the twentieth century. Others are highly qualified and respected historians of early Christianity. Their work is quite naturally relied upon by other Johannine scholars and by specialists in related fields. When one scholar wrote that ‘It is well known that the orthodox were unwilling to quote the Fourth Gospel in the second century, for it was much the preserve of heretics’, she was stating what is, in the mainstream of the academic community, utterly non-controversial.[3]

Hill meticulously refutes this modern consensus and concludes:

Surely one of the most striking results of this investigation, but not of this only, for other studies have been at least tending towards the same conclusion, is that the major use of the Fourth Gospel among heterodox or gnostic groups up until the Valentinians Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Theodotus, is best described as critical or adversarial. This exposes and should correct the tendency of earlier scholarship to assume that any Johannine borrowings or allusions in gnostic literature are evidence of gnostic/Johannine affinity, or of a common family history.[4]

 But Hill leaves his readers wondering how modern scholarship and modern sensibility could make such a mega-blunder.

After Hill’s book and the earlier work of Martin Hengel, according to John Behr, the idea that John’s Gospel was viewed with suspicion by the orthodox church should be a dead letter,[5]but the fact that this notion has been given life and continues to survive seems to speak of the strange theological situation in which we find ourselves. The major influence which John exercised on the early church is largely read out of the history of modern scholarship, and one can only speculate that this is due to the silencing of John in the modern period. This silencing is not an overt exclusion of the Johannine literature but is an exclusion of a Johannine theological approach.

 My own, admittedly anecdotal, witness to this silencing of John comes from teaching John to undergraduates. John’s theological approach to the life of Christ, as I am sure I inadequately presented it, either opened students to a new way of reading the Bible or it made them angry. Students attenuated to a flat reading of the life of Christ through a flat reading of the synoptics were not used to finding the sort of theological significance and depth which are unavoidable in John. The strange yet blatant theological echoes of the Hebrew scriptures, the linking of the divine name and action to Jesus’ miracles and identity, the cosmic dimensions of recreation through Christ, the time-bending apocalyptic nature of John, the peculiar theological focus upon the manner of the death of Christ (an accomplished fact that pervades the Gospel), the implication of all the apostles in the sin of Judas as definitive of darkness, etc. etc.; these themes either created excitement or brought out defensiveness. In other words, the Johannophobia which Hill traces among academics is present at a popular level among ordinary believers.

John is not normally read in the universally accepted manner in which the early church read him and this serves to blunt his message, which is directed at the heresy which has the modern church in its grip. The flat reading of the Logos as the disincarnate Christ, the heaven and earth duality, the legal abstractions which pass for atonement theory, the focus on the individual, the elitism of the saved, the focus on souls going to heaven, and the denigration of this world and the flesh amounts to a form close to Gnosticism. Is the peculiar scholarly reception of John and the popular misreading of John a reflection of the fact that the modern church has succumbed to gnostic tendencies against which John writes?

The offence of John against gnostic sensibilities is the focus on the incarnation or the divine Word becoming flesh. The Gnostics believed matter was evil and it would be impossible for the divine to become flesh. The Word made flesh and the high view of the deity of Jesus made John repulsive to the early Gnostics. Only disembodied spirit could be divine and only those who, through special knowledge linked to an original divine spark, gained gnostic knowledge.

What renders John inoffensive in the modern period is a downplaying of John’s anti-gnostic themes. The incarnation is muted in modern sensibility as focus is put upon the pre-incarnate Christ. In turn, the goodness of creation or the sense in which it is a fit-dwelling for God, is displaced by the notion that redemption amounts to abandonment of God’s creation (rather than recreation, as portrayed in John). Focus on individual assent of the believer to a doctrinal formula accords with disembodied gnosis as adequate for salvation, which also fits with a focus on the inward and “spiritual” as standing over and against the outward and fleshly. This all fits with the peculiar elitism of the Gnostics (of the first and 21st century): only a special few are saved and most are damned and there is no cosmic salvation or cosmic recreation in gnostic-like readings of John.

What Hill finds, in contrast to a phobia of John in the early church, is the profound influence of John in every sector of the early church:

After the Johannine Epistles, the influence of this Gospel is evident in the writings or oral teachings of Ignatius, Polycarp, ( John) the Elder, Aristides, Papias, the longer ending of Mark, the later portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistula Apostolorum, the Ad Diognetum, all before about 150. These represent the Great Church in at least Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The witness of Papias and his sources is of particular magnitude, as it seems to represent a substratum of tradition about the four Gospels which became widely diffused. This witness is consistent with the eminence of the four Gospels which is assumed by the longer ending of Mark, well before the comments made by Irenaeus in the 180s.[6]

Hill goes on to describe what must have been the universal appeal and shaping force of John in the early church. John’s “strong representation among the surviving papyrus fragments of early Christian writings” and the very early testimony of Aristides (in the 120s) and Justin (in the 150s) that the reigning emperor read John. Hill maintains that, “By the middle of the century, when Justin Martyr, Tatian, Valentinus, Ptolemy, and Hegesippus were in Rome, this Gospel must have been quite a well-known and prominent Christian authority.”[7] Hill argues, contrary to the received consensus, “there is no good evidence that any of the writers of the Great Church opposed or rejected the Gospel according to John in the second century, least of all for being gnostic or docetic, and not even for being inauthentic.”[8]

He points to the early catacomb paintings in Rome (around 200 A.D.) which testify to the unique influence of John in depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10), the conversation with the Samaritan woman (from John 4), the healing of the paralytic (from John 5), and the raising of Lazarus (from John 11). The use of “good shepherd” chalices (in the third century), and popularity of depictions of the wedding at Cana and the healing of the man born blind in baptistries, in Christian tombs, in glass and ceramic art, and in mosaics, testify to the popularity of the Gospel of John.[9] Far from a heretical love of John and an orthodox fear, Hill concludes that John was a “stubborn obstacle to docetism” or the denial that Christ was fully human. John preserved the orthodox church against the heretics, rather than providing an opening for their split between the humanity and deity of Jesus.

John’s focus on the eternality and deity of Jesus, as described in the work of Herbert McCabe, Robert Jenson, John Behr, and Rowan Williams, has been largely subdued if not lost in the modern sensibility, and this may account for the peculiar gnostic-like malaise of the church. The failure of Johannine scholarship seems to be the manifestation of a broader failure of appreciation of the theological focus of John which preserved the orthodoxy of the first church. What we find in the early church, and what has been largely lost in the modern period, is the centrality of the Gospel of John.

Maybe the prime representative of a Johannine theological approach, today condemned as a heretic, is Origen of Alexandria. My point in turning to Origen is to suggest that what has been lost in the modern church, in its flat reading of John, is best represented in the theological richness of Origen, which is today an understanding often reviled and repudiated.

As Ronald Heine describes in his introduction to Origen’s commentary on John, “Perhaps no book of the Bible, certainly none of the New Testament, was so suited to Origen’s exegetical approach as the Gospel of John. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John we have the greatest exegetical work of the early church.”[10] Ambrose directed Origen to write on John, as he had been saved out of Valentinianism by Origen, and apparently the Gospel had become key in his understanding. Origen’s spiritual exegesis of Scripture takes its inspiration from John and Paul. He referred to them as the “princes” of the New Testament and he refers to John as the “high priest” of religion of the Logos, as it was John who attained to a spiritual vision. He credits Revelation 14:6 as inspiring his understanding of the spiritual gospel, and his reading of John provides an abundance of examples of this spiritual reading.

In the commentary he will refer (in Book 6) to the crossings of the Jordan as a type of baptism; to the paschal lamb as a type of the crucified Christ (Book 10); to the tabernacle and the temple as types of Christ (Book 10.60); and in his discussion of John 2:13 he proceeds from the Passover in Exodus to Christ to I Corinthians 5:7 to Jesus words in 6:53-56 regarding eating his flesh and blood.[11] Origen finds Jesus Christ in the Law and the Prophets and is the center of his interpretation of every book of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, Origen sets the pattern in a theological interpretation, inspired by John, that would become common in the early church.

Eusebius (260-339 A. D.) calls him the greatest Christian theologian, while Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A. D.) calls him the true gnostic. Gregory of Nyssa considers Origen his theological master while Gregory of Nazianzus demonstrates a primary reliance of Origen. According to David Bentley Hart, it is Origen and Origen’s reading of the Bible that will exercise the key influence on the early church:

After Paul, there is no single Christian figure to whom the whole tradition is more indebted. It was ­Origen who taught the Church how to read Scripture as a living mirror of Christ, who evolved the principles of later trinitarian theology and Christology, who majestically set the standard for Christian apologetics, who produced the first and richest expositions of contemplative ­spirituality, and who—simply said—laid the foundation of the whole edifice of developed Christian thought.[12]

And as Hart continues, it is Origen who is most disgracefully treated as a heretic by both East and West.

What is lost to us in the critical reception of Johannine literature in modern scholarship and in the flat reading of John with its gnostic-like presumptions, is the richness of the theological program inspired by John and passed along by Origen. Apart from the recovery of John’s theological reading it is not clear that deliverance from modern Gnosticism is possible.


[1] Charles Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Hill, 444.

[3] Hill, 56.

[4] Hill, 466.

[5] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 43.

[6] Hill, 465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hill, 468.

[9] Hill, 469.

[10] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, Translated by Ronald E. Heine (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 3.

[11] Origen, 14-15.

[12] David Bentley Hart, “Saint Origen,” in First Things (October 2015). Thank you Matt for the reference and for your great enthusiasm for Origen.


Discover more from Forging Ploughshares

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

Leave a Reply