This week in my graduate seminar we discussed the Apocryphal Acts of John, one of the five surviving (lengthy) accounts of an apostle engaged in missionary activities after the resurrection of Jesus. These accounts are highly legendary, with almost no historical information in them, but they are fantastic books – entertaining early Christian fiction, even though, probably, the people who read them assumed they were descriptions of what really happened.
The five surviving accounts are the Acts of John, Thomas, Peter, Paul, and Andrew. Among the legendary information we find in these books are stories that people still today often simply assume are true, for example, that Thomas was the missionary to India, that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and that Paul had his head chopped off.
The Acts of John probably comes from the end of the second century, and so a hundred years or so after John the disciple of Jesus would have died. Like the others, it was written in Greek. I talk about it a bit in my book The Triumph of Christianity, mainly to show how these accounts of apostolic missionary work claim that the reason pagans converted to believe in Christ was because of the great miracles his followers could do. Here’s what I say in the book, including my introductory explanation of the various Acts.
Tales of the miracle-working powers of Jesus’ followers are found in several books collectively known as the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. These are legendary narratives of the exploits of the apostles during their missionary endeavors in the years after the crucifixion. Any one of these accounts yields numerous instances of astounding and conversion-inducing miracles. Here I mention just a couple that are illustrative.[i]
The Acts of John narrates the miraculous ministry of John the son of Zebedee while spreading the word abroad. Some of the episodes serve no evangelistic purpose but have purely entertainment value in showing the remarkable abilities of this man of God. Of these, probably the best known is the incident of the bed bugs. We are told that after a long journey John and his companions come to a country inn for the night. Upon lying down….
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Upon lying down, John discovers to his dismay that the bed is infested with nasty bugs. Since he needs his rest, he orders the creatures to leave him in peace. His companions find this amusing, until the next morning when they get up to find a large throng of bedbugs awaiting John’s command at the door. He wakes up and tells the bugs that they can now return to their home, and they obediently do so.[ii]
Most of John’s miracles are not performed for the benefit of a good night’s sleep, but in order to convert the masses. None is more impressive than his effortless destruction of the temple of the great goddess of the Ephesians, Artemis.
Artemis was the patron divinity of the city of Ephesus, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. The Ephesians’ dedication to her is celebrated even in the New Testament, in a scene in which her devotees cause a riot in protest against the missionary work of the apostle Paul (Acts 19). In the Acts of John we have another apostolic encounter. This time the goddess – or at least her temple — does not escape unharmed.
John arrives at the magnificent temple of Artemis and there he confronts a large crowd of pagan worshipers celebrating the goddess’s birthday. Ascending a platform John challenges them to a kind of spiritual duel: they should pray for their goddess to strike him dead; if she proves unable to do so, he in turn will pray to his God to kill them. Since everyone in the crowd knows that John is able to do great miracles – he has already publicly raised the dead – they cry out for him not to do it.
John urges them all to convert and then prays that the deity of the place yield up to God himself. Immediately the altar of Artemis splits apart, the sacrifices all fall to the ground, the “glory of the temple” (whatever that is) is broken, as are the seven idols in the shrine. Half the temple falls, the roof caves in, and the priest of Artemis is killed in the collapse. The God of the Christians obviously means business, and he is patently more powerful than the greatest divinity in town.
Immediately the pagan crowd delivers the expected response for such tales of Christ’s mighty apostles: they all cry out, “There is only one God, that of John, only one God who has compassion for us; for you alone are God; now we have become converted, since we saw your miraculous deeds.”[iii] Readers might wonder how conversions can occur so suddenly, with almost precisely zero instruction concerning what the people are converting to. But there it is. John encourages the crowd, explains that his God is more powerful than Artemis, and his words now have an added effect: the people rush to destroy what is left of Artemis’s temple, crying out, “We know that the God of John is the only one, and henceforth we worship him, since we have obtained mercy from him…. We have seen that our gods were erected in vain.” To make the conversion story complete, the pagan priest who had been killed inside the falling temple is then raised from the dead by the power of God, and becomes a believer in Jesus.[iv]
[i] Translations of these narratives can be found in J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
[ii] Acts of John, 60-61.
[iii] Acts of John, 42.
[iv] Acts of John 44-47.