Hymn of Jesus, The
DESCRIPTION: "Glory to thee, (Father, Logos, Charis, Spirit, etc)." "I would be saved and would save." "I would be loosed and would loose." "I am a way to thee, a wayfarer. Amen." The singer hymns to spirits in mostly heretical language
AUTHOR: unknown (English text based on G. R. S. Meads)
EARLIEST DATE: original probably composed in the second century, but not circulated traditionally
REFERENCES (1 citation):
ADDITIONAL: Bob Stewart, _Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong_, revised edition, Blandford, 1988, pp. 123-124, "The Leaves of Life" (1 text)
NOTES: I should not be having to write an entry or notes on this song, because it should not have been included in any collection of English folk songs. It is not a song, it is not in English, it is not traditional -- it isn't even, properly speaking, Christian. But Bob Stewart included it in Where Is Saint George? as if it were of some significance to English tradition (and Gustav Holst turned it into a musical composition), so I guess we have to explain it -- and then savage it.
Stewart says of this merely that it is from the Leucian Acts.
Even the name is wrong. The name "Leucian Acts" is commonly used to describe the "Acts of John," "Acts of Peter," "Acts of Paul" (including the story of Paul and Thecla, the oldest and most famous part of the whole mess), "Acts of Andrew," and the "Acts of Thomas." The title "Leucian Acts" is used because the books were traditionally attributed to one Leucius Charinus (Barnstone, p. 412). The original was clearly in Greek, although it was translated into Latin (James, introduction to the text).
This particular hymn comes from the Acts of John, chapters 94-95 in the James numbering. Goodspeed/Grant, p. 70, suggest that "Not long after the appearance of the romantic Acts of Paul (A.D. 160-170), some Docetist, probably in Asia, undertook to embody his views in an imaginative account of the wonders, discourses, and travels of John." Barnstone, p. 411, considers the "Acts of John" to predate even the "Acts of Paul." There is consensus that both are second century, and that all of the Leucian Acts, although they are by different authors, date from the second and third centuries. Clement of Alexandria appears to refer to one of the traditions in the work as being in existence in 189 C.E. (Goodspeed/Grant, p. 70).
Barnstone, p. 411, calls the "Acts of John" the "most clearly Gnostic" of the Leucian Acts. He suggests on p. 412 that the author of this work did use "Leucius" as his pen name.
The "Acts of John" never met with orthodox approval; Leo the Great condemned them in the fifth century and the Nicene Council of 787 ordered them burned (Barnstone, p. 411). The destruction was largely successful. An early catalog describes it as being 2500 standard lines long (Goodspeed/Grant, p. 70), but the extant material is only about 70% of that. Most of the losses seem to be from the beginning, but the surviving portions have had to be pieced together.
That the Acts of John is inclined to both the heresies of Gnosticism and Docetism is quite clear. Gnosticism (described on pp. 49-54 of Clifton) is not really a single heresy, but many; the common theme is that there is secret knowledge which is required for salvation. A typical version has a bunch of gods or archons or spirits or other tokens of a diseased mind, one of which, Sophia or Wisdom, decides to straighten out humans to save them. The Gnostics also tended to separate body and spirit/soul, with the body being purely evil. The tendency to condemn the body, and especially sex, is obvious in the Acts of John (this particular heresy often is called Encratitism).
Docetism (Clifton, p. 36) is from the Greek word meaning "appearance," or perhaps "perceived form." Docetists believed that the Jesus who suffered on the cross was not human, or part of the Godhead, but was merely an illusion. This heresy arose because some people were offended by the idea of God suffering -- but, of course, the idea vitiates the whole notion of Christianity. Gnosticism keeps coming back (Carl Jung was interested in it), but Docetism seems to be permanently dead. Both heresies were pernicious, Gnosticism because of its separatism, secrecy, and anti-inclusiveness, Docetism because its denial of the incarnation led to ignoring many of the moral teachings of Christianity.
Chadwick, p. 275, suggests that this piece began as "a Gnostic hymn intended to be chanted during a ritual dance." Goodspeed/Grant, p. 71, agrees that "This hymn, with its crude paradoxes... certainly reflects mystery forms of worship and Gnostic ideas."
The evidence is easy to see in Stewart's text, with its references to the Logos (Word), one of the key themes of Gnosticism, and also references to Spirit and Light. There are also references to the mystic numbers eight and twelve.
It's easy to see how Stewart, who is obsessed with the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, loved this part! But it must be stressed: The "Acts of John" was an Eastern writing, Gnosticism an Eastern religion. The Latin West had a far simpler theology; even though the "Acts of John" was translated into Latin, this sort of thing never took hold there. Even if there were some closet Gnostics in Rome or somewhere, the whole silly business died out in the first millennium C.E. Even if Stewart is right about Kabbalistic influences on English folk song (which I strongly doubt), there is almost certainly no influence from the Leucian Acts, and this song had no influence on English hymnody. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Barnstone: Willis Barnstone, editor, The Other Bible, Harper & Row, 1984
- Chadwick: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (being volume I of The Pelican History of the Church), Pelican, 1967
- Goodspeed/Grant: Edgar J. Goodspeed, A History of Early Christian Literature, revised and enlarged edition by Robert M. Grant, Phoenix/University of Chicago Press, 1966
- James: M(ontague) R(hodes) James, The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford, 1924. I found the section on the Acts of John transcribed at http://tinyurl.com/tbdx-ActsJohn; it may be available in Google Books by the time you read this.
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