Would the Real Elder John Please Stand Up?
Our information about the “Elder John,” the source of our earliest traditions about the origins of the Gospels, is quite meager. There was even a basic disagreement among Patristic interpreters about whether or not the “Elder John” should be identified as or distinguished from the “Apostle John.” This article will explore the competing ideological agendas in the debate over the Elder John’s identity. It draws on the third chapter of my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.
See Also:Why Did the Gospel of Mark Survive?
By Michael J. Kok, Ph.D.
“John” was a popular name in the New Testament. John “the Baptizer” practiced an immersion ritual and was beheaded by the tetrarch Herod Antipas (Mark 1:2–8; 6:14–29; Matthew 3:1–12; 14:1–12; Luke 3:2–20; John 1:19–28; 3:23–30). John, the son of Zebedee, ditched his father Zebedee in his fishing boat to follow Jesus and was esteemed as a leading apostle and “pillar” of the Jerusalem messianic congregation (Mark 1:19–20; 1:29–31; 5:37–43; 9:2–9; 13:3–4; 14:33; Acts 3:1, 3, 4, 11; 4:1, 6, 13, 19; 8:14, 17, 25; Galatians 2:9). While on the island of Patmos, John the seer jotted down his apocalyptic visions (Revelation 1:1, 9). Finally, John, who was surnamed Mark, was a missionary who travelled with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37–38; cf. Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; 1 Peter 5:13).
There may have been another John who profoundly influenced the reception of the first two canonical Gospels for nearly two millennia. His primary claim to fame was in his assertion that Mark was the “interpreter” (hermēneutēs) who recorded the Apostle Peter’s preaching, and perhaps that the Apostle Matthew “arranged” (sunetaxato) the “oracles” (logia) of the Lord in the language of the Hebrews (Papias, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15–16). Who was this enigmatic figure whom Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, dubbed as the presbyteros (“elder” or “presbyter”) John? Regrettably, Papias’s treatise Exegesis of the Oracles of the Lord, published in the early second century CE, has not survived apart from the fragmentary citations of it from other writers down through the centuries. Thus, we are dependent on the scraps of information about the Elder John supplied by Patristic authorities like Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 130/140–202 CE) and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–340 CE). Scholars, both ancient and modern, have capitalized on the translation issues surrounding the prologue of Papias’s work and factored the “Elder John” into their reconstructions of Christian origins in different ways.
Bart D. Ehrman (2003, 2.99) translates Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4 in this fashion: “But whenever someone arrived who had been a companion of one of the elders, I [Papias] would carefully inquire about their words, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip or Thomas had said, or James or John or Matthew or any of the other disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord, were saying.” This sentence is fraught with translation issues and raises the following questions:
- Did presbyteros denote an apostle’s follower who was appointed to an ecclesiastical office (Bacon 1908, 11; Chapman 1911, 13–27; Körtner 1983, 116–21; Bauckham 2017, 17) or any elderly figure of repute (Lightfoot 1889, 146; Munck 1959, 232–36; Deeks 1977, 296–97; Schoedel 1993, 251; Hill 2006, 310)? I see no basis for restricting the term to the apostles, excluding the non-apostolic Aristion (contra Gundry 2005, 55; Shanks 2013, 153–54, 156–57).
- Were the “elders” and the “Lord’s disciples” separate groups, with the former handing down the latter’s words or “what” had been spoken to them (Hengel 1989, 27; 1993, 79; Schoedel 1993, 251; Culpepper 2000, 110; Kok 2015, 59, 62; Bauckham 2007, 64; 2017, 16–17)? Or did the “Lord’s disciples” stand in apposition to the “elders,” meaning that Papias alternated between using the labels “elders” and “disciples” for the same group and restated his goal of ascertaining “what” they had all been teaching (Lightfoot 1889, 145; Annand 1956, 47–48; Munck 1959, 236; Deeks 1977, 296–97; Gundry 2005, 53–54; Shanks 2013, 140–43).
- Did the tense shift from the aorist eipen (“they said”) to the present legousin (“they are saying”) signal that the former seven disciples had died while Aristion and the Elder John were still living? A related question is whether an authentic Papian fragment was preserved in the fifth-century church historian Philip of Side about the deaths of John and James, the sons of Zebedee (cf. Mark 10:39).
- Why were Aristion and the Elder John marked as “disciples of the Lord” (tou kuriou mathētai)? Were they taught by the historical Jesus, perhaps among the seventy disciples in Luke 10:1 (Perumalil 1980, 334) or the two anonymous ones in John 21:2 (Hengel 1989, 18–19; 1993, 81–82; Bauckham 2007, 77–78; 2017, 419)? Or was there a precedent for employing “disciples of the Lord” for Christ believers in general (Munck 1959, 231–32, but cf. 239)?
- Was the article before presbyteros anaphoric, so that it could be translated as “the aforementioned elder” John (Köstenberger and Snout 2008, 219; Shanks 2013, 19-21, 154–55)? Or does the article accentuate the titular nature of “Elder” bestowed on the second John, perhaps due to his exceptional old age (Deeks 1977, 297)?
Unsurprisingly, Papias’s sloppy phraseology has led to conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, Irenaeus commended Papias as an “ancient man” (archaios anēr) and a “hearer of John” (Against Heresies 5.33.4). Eusebius, on the other hand, sharply distinguished the Elder John from the Apostle John (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.2, 5–6). Eusebius presumed that the Elder John was the visionary responsible for the book of Revelation (3.39.6), while Jerome credited the second and third epistles of John to the Elder (On Illustrious Men 9; cf. 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).
Modern scholars have followed either Irenaeus’s or Eusebius’s lead. Some argue that Papias repeated the name of the same John twice, once as a member of the apostles and again as a living eyewitness of Jesus, and it was Eusebius’s mistaken inference that Papias discussed two distinct individuals (Gundry 2005, 55; Köstenberger and Snout 2008, 219; Shanks 2013, 133). Others accept that Eusebius’s supposition was basically correct (Munck 1959, 238; Deeks 1977, 297; Schoedel 1993, 251; Culpepper 2000, 110; Hill 2006, 310). Some go further in treating this second John as a significant Christian leader in Asia Minor in his own right and the source of one or more of the writings in the Johannine Corpus (Hengel 1989; 1993; Bauckham; 2007, 33–72; 2017, 412–471). Eusebius has not preserved a Papian tradition about the origins of John’s Gospel, so his silence must be explained away. Either he skipped over what Papias had to say about the matter because he found it uninteresting (Lightfoot 1889, 46, 51, 178–85) or, more controversially, he censored Papias’s tradition about this Gospel’s non-apostolic authorship (Hengel 1989, 21; Bauckham 2007, 57–58; 2017, 424). The difficulty is that Papias’s knowledge of John’s Gospel, or of its author, is hard to prove from our sparse fragments (Körtner 1983, 173–76, 198–99; Norelli 2005, 114–23; MacDonald 2012, 17n.26; Kok 2015, 198–99).
Turning to Irenaeus, Bernhard Mutschler (2010, 320) calculates that he referenced John roughly sixty times and reserved the appellation “the disciple of the Lord” for John alone. A. C. Perumalil (1980, 333–34) notices that, when Irenaeus named Papias’s informant (Haer. 5.33.4), the designation of “John” as the “Lord’s disciple” is missing and there is no accompanying citation from a Johannine writing. In the wider literary context, however, Irenaeus drew on Papias’s fourth volume on how John, “the disciple of the Lord,” forecasted the abundant fertility of the earth when Christ ushers in his millennial rule (5.33.3–4). Revelation 20:1–6 was ultimately behind the popularity of millenarian theology in Asia Minor and Irenaeus attributed Revelation to John (4.14.2; 4.17.6; 4.18.6; 5.28.2; 5.30.1).
Richard Bauckham (2007, 70–71; 2017, 452–63) denies that Irenaeus confused Papias’s Elder John, whom he lionized as the pre-eminent “disciple of the Lord” in Asia Minor, with John the son of Zebedee. Yet Lorne Zelyck (2016, 241–42) points out that the passages where it is undeniable that Irenaeus had the Apostle John in view do not explicitly describe him as the son of Zebedee (2.24.4; 3.12.3–5, 15). “Zebedee” was named in a single instance when Irenaeus paraphrased the dialogue with the mother of the “sons of Zebedee” in Matthew 20:20–22 (1.21.2) and was the unnamed father deserted in his boat by the apostles (4.5.4). Further, as Zelyck (2016, 252) notes, the terms “disciples” and “apostles” could be used interchangeably in Against Heresies (1.25.2; 3.5.1). The “disciple” John was, in fact, called an “apostle” (1.9.2–3) and classed among the “apostles” (2.22.5; 3.3.4; 3.21.3). Bauckham (2007, 70–71; 2017, 458–63) maintains that Irenaeus coopted the title “apostle” from his Valentinian opponents who had imputed it to John (1.9.2–3) or had a wider conception of “apostolicity” that extended to John the Baptizer (3.11.4), Barnabas (3.12.14), and the “seventy” in Luke 10:1 (2.21.1). In his counter-examples, there is a notable reserve in applying the label “apostle” to these figures. Even when the logic of the argument seems to be that the Baptizer was entrusted with an apostolic mission that made him superior to the prophets (3.11.4; cf. Matthew 11:9; Luke 7:26; 1 Corinthians 12:28) or that the coded symbolism that the Valentinians culled out of the number twelve was foolish since Jesus had seventy other disciples (2.21.1), the title “apostle” still seems to have been restricted to the Twelve or to Paul as “the apostle” par excellence (Zelyck 2016, 248–50). It was the preference for mathētēs (“disciple”) instead of apostolos (“apostle”) in John’s Gospel and the later identification of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) as John, the son of Zebedee, that prompted Irenaeus to switch to his favorite moniker for the Apostle John (Mutschler 2010, 321; Zelyck 2016, 253).
Irenaeus was a student of the bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in his childhood and recalled his teacher’s delightful stories about “John” many years later (3.3.4; cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.20.5–6; 5.24.16), so he likely accidentally mixed up the Elder John with the more famous Apostle of the same name. If so, then it was the Elder John who was a resident of Ephesus, who lived into the reign of the emperor Trajan (ca. 98–117 CE), and who fled from a public bathhouse when he spotted his adversary Cerinthus inside (2.22.5; 3.1.1; 3.3.4). Analogously, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.31.3; 5.24.2) failed to correct the misidentification of the Evangelist Philip (cf. Acts 6:5; 8:5–6, 26–40; 21:8–9) as the Apostle Philip (cf. Mark 3:18; John 1:43–46; 6:5–7; 12:21–22; 14:8–9; Acts 1:13). Perumalil (1980, 336) insists that Irenaeus had to have been at least fifteen years old to have voyaged from Gaul or Rome to Smyrna, but Irenaeus could have grown up in Asia Minor and emigrated later in life. Moreover, adolescent memories are no less subject to the human propensity to err. It was an error, though, that served the agenda of confirming how the “rule of faith” was handed down from the Apostle John via Polycarp and Papias to Irenaeus.
Polycrates of Ephesus (ca. 130–196 CE) adds a detail that was unparalleled in Irenaeus: John, who reclined on the Lord’s bosom and was buried in Ephesus, wore the sacerdotal plate (petalon) of the high priest (in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.31.3; 5.24.2). Perhaps Polycrates made this assumption on the basis of Acts 4:6 and John 18:15. It seems unthinkable that he misidentified the “John” who was part of the high priest’s extended family with the Apostle John when the two appear as antagonists in the trial scene in Acts 4:5–21 (Bauckham 2007, 41–50; 2017, 445–52, 581–82). Alternatively, perhaps Polycrates harmonized the lists of the women present at the cross so that John’s mother was equated with Jesus’ aunt (Matthew 27:56; John 19:25) and noted that Luke (1:5, 36) recorded at least one priestly lineage in Jesus’ extended family (Köstenberger and Stout 2008, 223). For my part, I am not sure why John’s priestly service could not be a metaphor. Bauckham (2007, 47; 2017, 447–48) judges the specification about the high priest’s petalon to be an awfully obscure way of communicating that message, but it may be no subtler than how the precious stones adorning the foundational walls of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:19–20 correspond to the jewels on the high priest’s breast plate, a round-about way of declaring that the redeemed citizens of the city were a community of priests.
If Irenaeus got plenty of apologetic mileage from allying Papias with the Apostle John as an exemplification of “apostolic succession,” Eusebius’s motives were no less tendentious (Perumalil 1980, 335; Gundry 2005, 54, 57–58; Shanks 2013, 167, 173–74). Eusebius preferred to discard Revelation as a “spurious” book (Hist. Eccl. 3.25.2, 4; cf. 3.28.2–5; 7.25.1–27) and did not hide his aversion to Papias’s “mythical” elucidation of the millennium (3.39.11–13). To diminish the authority of John’s Apocalypse, Eusebius attributed it to the non-apostolic Elder John (3.39.6). Further, he deferred to the expertise of Dionysius, a bishop in Alexandria around 248 to 265 CE, who debunked the common authorship of the Fourth Gospel and Revelation on linguistic and stylistic grounds (7.25.22–26) and submitted that there were two burial sites (mnēmata) dedicated to two different Johns in Ephesus (7.25.16). This second deduction is less conclusive than the first. Rival claimants may have quarreled about where the Apostle John was buried, two “memorial sites” may have been erected at the apostle’s purported gravesite and house, or many persons named John were laid to rest in Ephesus (Gundry 2005, 57; Shanks 2013, 134, 167). Note that Dionysius did not ascribe Revelation to Papias’s Elder John. While Eusebius may have correctly deciphered Papias’s prologue, his prejudices came into play when he forced the identification of the Elder John with John of Patmos (Schoedel 1993, 252).
Whenever Patristic thinkers invoked the memory of the “Elder John,” it was for the purpose of either legitimating or devaluing a particular tradition or text. Additionally, the Elder John plays a larger role in some modern scholarly reconstructions of the origins of the Johannine tradition or school. Barring a future discovery of Papias’s lost work, however, I would recommend that we resist the temptation of taking what little information we have about the Elder John and trying to fill in the gaps of our knowledge.
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Bacon, B. W. 1908. “The Elder John, Papias, Irenaeus, Eusebius and the Syriac Translator.” Journal of Biblical Literature 27: 1–23.
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Bauckham, Richard. 2017. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
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 Eusebius placed his own interjection between the statements about Mark and Matthew, so it is difficult to know whether the line about Matthew immediately followed the one about Mark or whether Eusebius found the tradition about Matthew at another point in Papias’s exposition. For the case that the traditions about Mark and Matthew belong inseparably together, see Kürzinger (1983, 10–11) and Gundry (2005, 55–56). For criticism of this view, see Black (1989, 32).
 For debate over the fragment in Codex Baroccianus 142, see Hengel (1989, 21, 158-59n.121; 1993, 88–91, 317, 319); Schoedel (1993, 240–41); Culpepper (2000, 171–74); Norelli (2005, 369–71); Shanks (2013, 219–225, 239–40); Bauckham (2017, 582–87).
 One may delete the duplication of “disciples of the Lord” as a scribal gloss (Abramowski 1991, 329–30n.28) or opt for a hypothetical textual emendation where hoi toutōn mathētai (“the disciples of these ones”) was corrupted to hoi tou kuriou mathētai (“the disciples of the Lord”) (Bacon 1908, 11, 19), but there is a text-critical preference for the “harder reading” (Munck 1959, 230n.24; cf. Chapman 1911, 21–24).
 Körtner (1993, 198–202) judges 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1 to be pseudonymous ascriptions to Papias’s “elder,” but this does not explain why the “elder” was left anonymous.
 Lorne Zelyck (2016, 248) deletes Barnabas from this list since he was neither explicitly nor implicitly called an apostle in Against Heresies 3.12.14.
 Shanks (2013, 169, 293–98) counters that the Apostle Philip could have also settled in Hierapolis and had daughters, but Papias and the author of Luke-Acts seem to rely on shared traditions about the same individuals (cf. Acts 1:23; 21:8–9; Hist. Eccl. 3.39.9).