2. Papias and Polycrates on the Origin of the Gospel of John

testimony.jpgBauckham, Richard.

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007. Pp. 313. Paper. $29.99.

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In this chapter (which was adapted from a paper originally published in Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993): 24-69) Dr. Bauckham presents us with an interesting and in my opinion compelling argument for the author of the fourth Gospel, the ‘beloved disciple’ as being John the Elder as opposed to John the son of Zebedee.  He builds upon a foundation laid by Martin Hengel’s The Johannine Question (SCM, 1989) but simplifies something that he feels Hengel complicated in his leaving room for the possibility that the son of Zebedee might be the beloved disciple.

Of particular interest for the budding Johannine student is Bauckham’s attention to Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, in his assessing the author of the fourth Gospel.  He shows great attention to detail in examining a letter from Polycrates to Victor of Rome which was preserved by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.24.2-7).  As Bauckham notes: “The purpose of this letter is to defend the quartodecimen observance of Asia as supported by the highest authority in local tradition” [p. 37].

After noting the “careful artistry” of the letter with its references to “seven great luminaries of Asia . . . [a]s the number of completeness, seven indicates the sufficiency of their witness . . . [and] [w]hen Polycrates subsequently refers to his seven relatives who were bishops . . . he is not adducing a second, unnecessary set of witnesses, but claiming the seven great luminaries themselves as his relatives” [p. 38], Bauckham sets his sights on explaining the element of Polycrates description which is “the most puzzling  and debated . . . the reference to John as a priest who wore the πέταλον.” 1 [p. 39]

Bauckham says that “[a]ttempts to explain Polycrates words have hitherto fallen into two categories: metaphorical and historical.” [p. 47]  Of Polycrates’ words Bauckham concludes that:

The simplest explanation for them is that Polycrates (or the Ephesian church tradition that he followed) identified John the beloved disciple, who had died in Ephesus, with the John of Acts 4:6, not because he had any historical information to this effect, but as a piece of scriptural exegesis. The tradition that John the beloved disciple was a high priest is neither metaphorical nor historical, but exegetical. [p. 49]

Bauckham then turns his attention to Papias and says that “[t]here should be no doubt that Papias knew the fourth Gospel.” [p. 51] noting that Papias’ list of seven disciples follows the Johannine order.  Bauckham explains how for Papias the fourth Gospel was written in the proper order (chronologically speaking) over and above Matthew and Mark (of course Mark was not an eyewitness but his Gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter).  Bauckham argues that Papias “ascribed the fourth Gospel to John the Elder” [p. 57].

He notes traces of Papias’ influence in the Muratorian Canon which calls John “one of the disciples” yet Andrew “one of the apostles” [p. 59] which is of some importance.  Bauckham argues that:

The author of the Muratorian Canon makes the distinction by calling John “one of the disciples” and Andrew “one of the apostles.” He did not need to call Andrew this to distinguish him from some other Andrew, but evidently did so to distinguish a member of the Twelve from John, who was not a member of the Twelve. This is the distinction Papias in fact makes, in the prologue, between Andrew and John the Elder — although he does not there need to use the word “apostle” to do so. That the author of the Muratorian Canon is deliberately working with the categories of disciples Papias distinguishes in the prologue is further suggested by the fact that the apostle he singles out is Andrew, who heads Papias’s list of seven disciples. [p. 61-62]

After a brief section on the ‘echoes of Papias in Irenaeus and Clement’, Bauckham notes a few false leads in some writings that appear to be dependant on Papias but are not; and then concludes the chapter with a few pages on conflating John the Elder with John the son of Zebedee.  I certainly appreciated Bauckham’s statement that “[t]he Fourth Gospel was never anonymous” noting that“Hengel has shown, as soon as Gospels circulated in the churches, they must have been known with authors’ names attached to them.” [p. 68]

He says that:

The Fourth Gospel was known as John’s. In Asia, the tradition from Papias early in the second century to Polycrates at its end was that this John, the beloved disciple and the author of the Gospel. was John the Elder, a disciple of the Lord but not one of the Twelve, who had died in Ephesus. We know of no dissent from this tradition in Asia before the third century. It is not certain when the identification of this John of Ephesus with John the son of Zebedee was first accepted in Asia, but it does not appear to have happened for more than a century after the writing of the Gospel. [p. 68-69]

Another thing that is certainly appreciated is that in a footnote at the end of this chapter Bauckham alerts the reader that he has summarized and added on to these arguments in the 16th and 17th chapters of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, hence we do not fall victim to reading an anthology of outdated essays – we have been directed to where improvement has been made.

1The πέταλον (petalon) is the plate in the high priest’s crown which is engraved with the words ‘Holiness to Yahweh’ (see Exod. 28:36; 39:30; Lev. 8:9 in the LXX).


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8 thoughts on “2. Papias and Polycrates on the Origin of the Gospel of John

  1. Eusebuis preserves Papias’ comments on the order in which the Gospels were composed too. This is why I believe that Mt. was first, Lk. second and Mk. was third (thus, Mk. is the product of Peter’s lectures in Rome, whereby Peter had Mt. & Lk’s works side-by-side comparing them in lectures; the Roman audience asked Mark to take notes on Peter’s lectures and this is how Papias says we got Mark’s account). We have this very simple answer that the Church Fathers are in agreement on but scholars want to continue devloping theories and creating fictituous communities. Craziness, I tell you, pure craziness!

  2. Thanks for this view… it has been my gut-feeling for sometime… the Gospel of John is to me, written by a Greek Gentile, not a Jew. Jesus would not antagonize his Jewish hearers with his “alien” third person comments such as “your law,” and “your fathers,” and “their law”… Jesus was a Jew, and would not talk in this manner. Finally, the Elder identifies himself in the third person in John 19:35, 21:24, and makes a distinction between himself and John the Apostle, of whose reminiscences he has availed of when penning this gospel.
    I am of the opinion that Ariston, or Aristion, a contemporary of John the Elder, who was known as a Elder also in Ephesus, wrote the long ending to the Gospel of Mark ( 16:9-20). Do you have any comment on this ?

  3. John Davidson, author of “The Gospel of Jesus,” personally told me that many scholars don’t believe Jesus spoke ANYTHING attributed to him in John. It is an allegorical work based on an unknown author’s understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Anybody want to comment?

  4. Bob: Sure, I’ll comment. If by “many” he means “relatively few” then sure, he’s right. But if by “many” he means “many” then of course he’s wrong. Many scholars are willing to say something along the lines that John’s Gospel is the most theological of the four canonical Gospels (something I’d personally disagree with as they are all theological); or that John takes the most creative liberty out of the four Gospel authors, but hardly anyone (and certainly no prominant Johannine scholar) would say that Jesus didn’t speak anything attributed to him in the Fourth Gospel.

    I’ve honestly never heard of Davidson but after googling him I see that he has a degree in natural sciences and not theology or biblical studies. The most notable endorser of the book you mention is John Shelby Spong who is known for his controversial liberal stances on certain issues, but not for his scholarship. I’m not confident that Davidson is even qualified to make the kinds of claims that he made to you in person.

    And you might like to check out the fourth chapter of the book under review here. I’ve reviewed it here. It was originally published in New Testament Studies 53/1 (2007): 17-36 if you have access to that journal.

  5. wasn’t the beloved disciple at the last supper with jesus on the night judas betrayed jesus? doesn’t that make him one of the twelve? or were other disciples at the table with Jesus?

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