(The latest in a series of posts about little-known Christian Apocrypha that could not be included in my recent book, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the the Christian Apocrypha, to be released later this month)
The earliest Christian apocalypse is the canonical Book of Revelation ascribed to John. The focus of this text is the end-time battle between cosmic powers of good and evil, with Jesus leading the heavenly host against the forces of Satan and the Beast. With the victory of Jesus, Satan and his minions are thrown into a lake of fire, and the faithful are raised from death to live forever in a new heaven and earth ruled by God. But the story does not end there for John; he is called on again to receive new visions in several other apocalypses in his name.
The Apocalypse of Saint John the Theologian (commonly known as 2 Apocalypse of John), available in Greek and Arabic and perhaps composed in Syria in the fourth century, is written as a supplement to the canonical text with John asking Jesus for additional information, such as a more detailed physical description of the Beast and details about the conditions of life after the second coming. The righteous dead, whether children or senior citizens, will “rise as thirty-year-olds” (10), Jesus says, and physical divisions will be no more: “Just as the bees do not differ one from another, but are all of the same appearance and size, so every human-being will be at the resurrection. Not fair-skinned, nor red-skin, nor black, not Ethiopian not different facial features, but all rise with the same appearance and size” (11).
A second text, without a title but attributed to John Chrysostom, is found in Greek from around the sixth or the eighth century. It features a dialogue between John and Jesus on practical concerns of church life, such as sinning, Sunday observance, fasting, and the proper length of hair (“the person whose hair comes below the eyes is not worthy of communion” ; “the woman who cuts the hair of her head is accursed” ).
Jesus does not appear at all in Question and Answer to Saint John the Theologian from James the Lord’s Brother (or 3 Apocalypse of John) in Greek from the eighth or ninth century. Instead James asks John about the future judgement of souls and the need for sinners to repent. In the course of the discussion, John mentions several Hebrew Bible and Christian figures who committed terrible sins but received forgiveness after repenting (23-27). These include Simon Peter, for his threefold denial of Jesus, the Good Thief crucified with Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, who “sinned with 1703 men, and did not know whether they were strangers or family, yet faint of heart she expunged all her sins through her tears” (24).
Another Apocalypse of John exists (perhaps we should call it 4 Apocalypse of John) in two Greek manuscripts. Unfortunately, this text has not yet been published.
And last, there is a Coptic text from around the eleventh century called The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin. Here John is with the apostles on the Mount of Olives after the resurrection and he asks Jesus to take him to heaven to see the mysteries there. At one point the Cherubim reveal to John some interesting information about the body of Adam: "On the day wherein God created Adam, Adam was twelve cubits in height, and six cubits in width, and his neck was three cubits long. And he was like unto an alabaster stone wherein there is no blemish whatsoever. But when he had eaten [of the fruit] of the tree, his body diminished in size, and he became small, and the righteousness wherein he was arrayed departed and left him naked, even to the tips of his fingers, that is to say, to his very nails. If he was not cold in winter, he was not hot in the summer.”
For a full discussion of the apocryphal Apocalypses of John see John M. Court, The Book of Revelation and the Johannine Apocalyptic Tradition (Journal for the Study of the New testament Supplement Series 190. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).