The Apocryphal Acts of John, and Early Christian Iconography

The doctrinal debate over iconography was not dogmatically settled in Christendom until the second council of Nicea (787 A.D.), otherwise known as the seventh ecumenical council, was convened to discuss the matter, and Christian theologians of the first rank such as St. John Damascene established on the basis of both Scripture and reason that iconography and Christian art in general were theologically licit. At the same council the iconoclasts were bold enough to quote the (apocryphal) Acts of John, a text purportedly written by Leucius Charinus who was a disciple of the Apostle John. In fact, there is a collection of apocryphal ‘acts’ attributed (almost certainly falsely)[1] to him which are collectively referred to as the Cycle, and this includes the Acts of Johnthe Acts of Thomasthe Acts of Andrewthe Acts of Peter and even one referred to as the Acts of Paul. Of these, the Acts of John and the Acts of Thomas are regarded as the most patently Gnostic of the collection. However, since scholars estimate that the Acts of John was probably the earliest of these apocryphal acts, many have voiced the suspicion that the most “blatantly gnostic and/or docetic chapters (94-102 and 109) are a later addition.”[2] I am inclined to believe that both Gnosticism in general, and Docetism in particular, came about very early rather than cropping up later (i.e., in the latter second, and the third, centuries A.D.), but I digress from this point because it has nothing to do with my purpose here. It suffices, for my purposes, to establish that the Acts of John was a relatively early work of the second century, or at least that the selections with which I will concern myself are regarded by the near universal consensus of scholarship to be materials composed sometime in the early second century.

What interests me most about this short apocryphal Christian/Gnostic ‘romance’ is that it demonstrates that debates over iconography were already underway in the early second century. Thus, though the debate wasn’t dogmatically settled (for Catholics) until the seventh ecumenical council at Nicea, it was already well underway before the first ecumenical council at Nicea (in 325 A.D.). From a dogmatically Catholic perspective, iconography has been with the Church since her birth. Tradition[3] recounts that St. Luke himself was the first to compose an icon of the Virgin Mary, codifying his faith and devotion in artistic form. In fact, “the monasteries of Hodegon and Soumela [in modern day Istanbul] claim that the icons of the Virgin Mary in their possession are Luke’s paintings.”[4]

What this selection from Gnostic literature confirms, or at least provides very strong evidence for, is both the existence of iconography in the earliest proto-orthodox (i.e., the Catholic) Church, and its opposition in Gnostic circles. This post will be less argumentative than a full-blown proper article would be. It’s main purpose, instead, is to simply ‘deposit’ a piece of evidence which fits into a larger case for the truth of the Catholic faith in general, and for the legitimacy (as measured by orthodox Christian theology) of iconography in particular. It suggests that when we approach these apocryphal and ‘Gnostic’ texts with a hermeneutic of Catholic dogmatism we find that the texts openly confirm assumptions adopted by the analogy of faith. For example, if Catholicism were true, we would expect and predict that the earliest Christians, possibly including the Apostles, were on-board with iconography. Since the Acts of John, as we will see in a moment, polemically attacks the Christian practice of creating icons, we can safely assume that it was attacking something practiced by Christians of its time (i.e., the early second century), and almost definitely not practiced by ‘Christians’ of the Gnostic persuasion (from which the author is writing), but by another Christian group influential enough to be worthy of antagonizing. The best, if not the only, candidate for such a ‘group’ is the proto-orthodox[5] church.

I want, now, to call into evidence the following interesting polemical passage from the Acts of John, which provides strong evidence for two complimentary theses: i) that many early Christians were practicing iconography, and ii) that the early Christians who were so doing were of the proto-orthodox party (and not the Gnostics). Let the reader decide for herself whether (or how well) it establishes these theses.

“26. Then there came together a great gathering of people because of John. And while he was addressing those who were present  Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went running to him and said, ‘You see how I have hurried to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it.’ And the painter, giving someone the necessary implements and colours, said to Lycomedes, ‘Show me the man and for the rest have no anxiety.’ Then Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near and shut him up in a room from which the Apostle of Christ could be seen. <And Lycomedes> was with the blessed man, feasting upon the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced even more because he was going to have him in a portrait.
27. So on the first day the painter drew his outline and went away; but on the next day he panted him in with his colours, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes, to his great joy; and he <took i>, put it in his bedroom and put garlands on it; so that when John later noticed (something), he said to him,’ My dear child, what is it you are doing when you come from the bath into your bedroom alone? Am I not to pray with you and with the other brethren? Or are you hiding (something) from us?’ And saying this and joking with him he went into the bedroom; and he saw there a portrait of an old man I crowned with garlands, and lamps beside it and altars in front. And he called him and said, ‘Lycomedes, what does this portrait mean to you? Is it one of your gods that is painted here? Why, I see you are still living as a pagan!’ And Lycomedes answered him ‘He alone is my God who raised me up from death with my wife. But if besides that God we may call our earthly benefactors gods, you are the one painted in the portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence, as having become a good guide to me.’
28. Then John, who had never beheld his own face, said to him, ‘You are teasing me, child; am I such in form? By your Lord, how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me?’ And Lycomedes brought him a mirror, and when he had seen himself in the mirror and gazed at the portrait, he said, ‘As the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, the portrait is like me; yet not like me, my child, but like my image in the flesh; for if this painter who has copied this face of mine wants to put me in a picture, *let him break away* <from> colours such as are given to me now, from boards, from outline and drapery (?), from shape <and> form, from age and youth, and from all that is visible.
29. But do you be a good painter for me, Lycomedes. You have colours which he gives you through me, that is, Jesus, who paints us all for himself, who knows the shapes and forms and figures and dispositions and types of our souls. And these are the colours which I tell you to paint with:faith in God, knowledge (gnosis), reverence, kindness, fellowship, mildness, goodness, brotherly love, purity, sincerity, tranquility, fearlessness, cheerfulness, dignity and the whole band of colours which portray your soul and already raise up your members that were cast down and level those that were lifted up, ( . . . ) which curb your bruises and heal your wounds and arrange your tangled hair and wash your face and instruct your eyes and cleanse your heart and purge your belly and cut off that which is below it; in brief, when a full blend and mixture of such colours has come together into your soul it will present it to our lord Jesus Christ indelible, well-polished and firmly shaped. But what you have now done is childish and imperfect; you have drawn a dead likeness of a dead man<…>.”[6]

[1] Irenaeus doesn’t reflect any cognizance (at least to my knowledge) of these writings, much less their attributions to a disciple of John, and he would surely have attacked them had he been familiar with them (which he almost certainly would have been, had they been written by Leucius).

[2] Geoff Twobridge’s Introduction to the Acts of John,

[3] Here meaning general tradition, as opposed to Dogmatic Tradition.

[4] See:

[5] To call this church ‘proto-orthodox’ is the politically correct way of referring to that one great Church which eventually gains power in the Roman Empire, but to avoid Theological partisanship scholars sometimes simply refer to it as ‘proto-orthodox’ to avoid entirely the question of whether this Church was ‘Roman Catholic’ or ‘Eastern Orthodox’ or whatever, – in this instance it doesn’t much matter to me, since both the Eastern Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic churches are full to the brim with iconophiles, but, so that the reader is aware, whenever I use the term ‘proto-orthodox’ I will take myself to be referring, in fact, to the Catholic Church. The term proto-orthodox also has a negative insinuation, namely of being prior to and not identical with the ‘orthodoxy’ later established, so that it implies that to call this early church ‘orthodox’ is an anachronism. I simply reject that implication, thinking it both prejudicial and unfounded, and maintained only by an ostrich-like head-in-the-sand approach to historical theology which refuses search for the best empirically verifiable model of what that Church must really have looked like in its time. The (selective) skepticism in modern departments of Theology is almost worse than that still found in philosophy departments!

[6] The current translation is unknown to me, as it was handed out to me in a class on Johannine literature, and our professor did not provide any citation information along with the copies he handed out (in addition, I haven’t been able to find it on my own). However, one can find a nearly identical translation online at written by M.R. James.