St. John’s Obedient Bedbugs

Like several of the apocryphal books of the Bible, the Acts of John likely preserves some historical core around which legendary (and eventually some heretical) material accrued as it wended its way through time and place. In The Fate of the Apostles, Sean McDowell argues convincingly that, in spite of their obvious ahistorical material, apocrypha like the Acts of John “reliably convey the travels, preaching, and fate” of the apostles.

This story, on the other, doesn’t reliably convey anything, but I like to imagine that the Beloved could command even the bedbugs and they would obey him.

And on the first day we arrived at a lonely inn; and while we were trying to find a bed for John we saw a curious thing. There was one bed there lying somewhere not made up; so we spread the cloaks which we were wearing over it, and begged him to lie down on it and take his ease, while all the rest of us slept on the floor. But when he laid down he was troubled by the numerous bugs; and as they became more and more troublesome to him, and it was already midnight, he said to them in the hearing of us all, “I tell you, bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God.” And while we laughed and went on talking, John went to sleep; but we talked quietly and did not disturb him.

Now as the day was breaking I got up first, and Verus and Andronicus with me; and we saw by the door of the room a mass of bugs collected; and as we were astounded at the great number of them, and all the brethren had woken up because of them, John went on sleeping. When he woke up explained to him what we had seen. And he sat up in the bed and looked at them and said to the bugs “Since you have behaved yourselves and avoided my punishment go back to your old place.” And when he had said this and had got up from the bed, the bugs came running from the door towards the bed and climbed up its legs and disappeared into the joints. Then John said again, “This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?”

We can see the point of this legend at the end. It’s a didactic story, probably created for preaching. Tales like this grabbed the attention of an audience, and then allowed a simple moral: “Even bugs listen better than you people!” (Imagine it being said in a Frank Costanza voice.)

The academic edition of the New Testament Apocrypha is by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. This passage comes from volume two.  J.K. Elliott’s The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation, derived from the pioneering work of scholar and ghost story writer M.R. James, is a more affordable option. There’s a $5 Kindle version of this listed as “Spanish Edition” that is actually in English.