Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Johannine Books And The Theory Of Another John

We've discussed some issues of Biblical authorship a lot lately, and I want to address a related issue that often comes up in these discussions. Not only liberals, but some moderate and conservative scholars as well (Martin Hengel, Ben Witherington, etc.), suggest that one or more of the Johannine documents in the New Testament might have been written by some John other than the apostle, the son of Zebedee. It's often said that ancient Christian tradition refers to another John, which adds credibility to the theory. How plausible is this argument for another John?

It should be noted that not everybody who proposes a second John (or more) suggests the same figure. Some argue for a second John who was a disciple of Jesus and may have been similar to the son of Zebedee in other ways. Others argue for a second John who never met Jesus, but instead was a later church leader. Those who argue that the fourth gospel was written by a second John who also was a disciple of Jesus, similar to the son of Zebedee, are taking a position that isn't far from the traditional Christian view. We should distinguish, for example, between a Christian who attributes the fourth gospel or Revelation to a second John who was a disciple of Jesus, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, an atheist who argues for a second John who never met Jesus. But, again, is any such view involving a second John (or more) likely to be correct?

I'm not going to address all of the relevant evidence in this post. There are many passages from the New Testament and the post-apostolic period that could be discussed and many other issues that could be considered along the way. What I want to do in this post is address the general outlines of the evidence and give some examples of why I think that an appeal to a second John (or more) is unreasonable.

As far as I know, the earliest source to propose the theory is Dionysius of Alexandria, around the middle of the third century. He doesn't seem to have known of any alternate tradition, but instead was speculating on the basis of internal evidence and what he had heard about the existence of tombs for more than one John in the city of Ephesus (Eusebius, Church History, 7:25). Similarly, not long after Dionysius, Eusebius (Church History, 3:39:5-7) offers another speculative and unlikely argument for another John based on a passage in the writings of Papias and an appeal to Dionysius' argument for two tombs of John in Ephesus. (For a discussion of the large amount of evidence against Eusebius' reading of Papias, see my comments on the subject here.) These arguments for another John don't arise until more than two centuries into church history, they were widely contradicted by earlier sources with better access to the truth and better arguments, and the people putting forward this case for another John appeal to highly speculative arguments and seem unaware of any alternate tradition to cite. It should also be noted that Dionysius and Eusebius accepted John the son of Zebedee as the author of some of the Johannine literature, including the gospel, but wanted to make a case for a different author of Revelation. They were opposed to premillennialism, which was closely associated with Revelation in the early centuries of Christianity.

Donald Guthrie appropriately writes, regarding the theory of Dionysius of Alexandria:

"In this Dionysius foreshadowed, as a man born before his due time, those modern schools of criticism which have peopled early Christian history with a whole army of unknown writers, whose works attained as great a prominence as their authors obtained obscurity." (The Logos Library System: Deluxe Collection [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, 1997], New Testament Introduction)

This concept that the actual author of Revelation has been lost to history is all the more remarkable when you consider that Revelation started out with a large audience (the seven churches mentioned in the first three chapters) and that some of the earliest testimony supporting the apostle John's authorship comes from people who had known John or had lived in one of the cities to which Revelation was addressed (Papias and Irenaeus).

There is more than one John in the New Testament. John the Baptist is another John, but he's repeatedly distinguished from the apostle, and he died too early to have authored any New Testament books. Mark is sometimes referred to as John (Acts 13:5), but the nearby context clarifies that Mark is in view (Acts 12:25). Besides, not many modern scholars argue that Mark authored any of the Johannine documents, no early external sources I'm aware of suggest it, and a document we have from Mark (the second gospel) is significantly different from the Johannine documents. Why would Mark write a second gospel? Lists of the apostles only mention one John, the son of Zebedee (Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:17, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13), and no other John is mentioned in the gospel accounts or Acts or other New Testament documents. Passages outside the gospels referring to a prominent figure named John (Acts 3:1, Galatians 2:9, Revelation 1:1, etc.) can all be explained as referring to the son of Zebedee, and no passage anywhere in the New Testament can be shown to probably refer to the sort of second John that later sources speculated about. Similarly, Clement of Rome and other sources who may have written as early as the first century can't be shown to have referred to any second John. The concept is also absent from second century sources. There's widespread reference to a John who was a leader of the church, without any further qualifiers, in the sources of the first two centuries, and it wouldn't make sense to argue that any John other than the son of Zebedee would be in view. Donald Guthrie asks, regarding the book of Revelation, which repeatedly refers to its author as John (1:1, 1:4, 1:9, 22:8):

"Was the Asiatic church overrun with brilliant Christians by the name of John, who would only need to announce their name for the Christians to know which was meant?" (cited in D.A. Carson, et al., An Introduction To The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1992], p. 473)

Many internal details in these documents suggest John the son of Zebedee. The author of the gospel of John refers to himself being associated with Peter (13:23-24, 20:2-3, 21:20), and we know that John the son of Zebedee is close to Peter in the other gospels, Acts, and Galatians (Mark 5:37, 9:2, Acts 3:1-4:23, 8:14-25, Galatians 2:9, etc.). The first epistle of John seems to claim to be written by an eyewitness of Jesus, like the fourth gospel (1 John 1:1-3). Multiple second century sources affirm that John the son of Zebedee lived in Ephesus, and the church in Ephesus is the first church addressed in Revelation 2-3. Etc.

The writings of Papias are no longer extant, but sources who had access to his writings repeatedly refer to the testimony he gave to the fourth gospel, 1 John, and Revelation, including comments he made about Johannine authorship (see here), and these sources seem to have John the apostle in view. Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, uses 1 John (Letter To The Philippians, 7-8), and Irenaeus refers to how Polycarp spoke of the deeds and words of Jesus "in harmony with the Scriptures" (Fragments, 2), thus suggesting that what Polycarp received from John was consistent with what Irenaeus saw in the Johannine writings. Ptolemy, a heretic of the early second century, refers to the fourth gospel as written by John, a disciple of Jesus (cited in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:8:5). Justin Martyr refers to "the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). Notice the plural: "apostles" and "those who followed them". The use of the plural matches our four gospels: apostles (Matthew, John) and those who followed them (Mark, Luke). Justin doesn't cite the number four anywhere, but his comments are consistent with the collection of four gospels that sources living just after Justin's time refer to. In another place, Justin refers to the apostles composing gospels (First Apology, 66), so he can't just be referring to the apostles as the subject matter of the gospels. He also refers to Revelation as written by the apostle John (Dialogue With Trypho, 81). Irenaeus, who refers to the fourth gospel, epistles, and Revelation as written by John, explains that he's referring to the apostle (Against Heresies, 1:9:3, 3:3:4). The Muratorian Canon refers to the fourth gospel, epistles, and Revelation as written by the same John, an eyewitness of Jesus (Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 306). Clement of Alexandria accepts Johannine authorship of the gospel and cites elders who lived before him as a source (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 6:14:5-7; for identification of this John as the apostle, see The Stromata, 5:12). Clement also refers to Revelation as written by the apostle, and he, once again, attributes the belief to sources who predate him (Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). Many more sources could be cited, but I'll close with Origen, who wrote roughly in the first half of the third century and spent part of his life in Alexandria (as Clement did), the same place where Dionysius (discussed above) was bishop. Origen refers to John the son of Zebedee as the author of Revelation, then goes on to refer to how the same John also wrote the fourth gospel:

"For none of these [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] plainly declared His Godhead, as John does when he makes Him say, 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the way and the truth and the life,' 'I am the resurrection,' 'I am the door,' 'I am the good shepherd,' and in the Apocalypse, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.'...John, son of Zebedee, says in his Apocalypse [citation of Revelation 14:6-7]" (Commentary On The Gospel Of John, 6, 14)

It doesn't seem that the earliest sources were aware of any second John who was a prominent leader of the apostolic or early post-apostolic church. And there's widespread testimony to John the apostle's authorship of the fourth gospel, the epistles, and Revelation. When Dionysius and Eusebius argue for a second John (while accepting the apostle's authorship of some of the Johannine documents), they seem unaware of any alternate apostolic tradition to appeal to, but instead rely on speculations about internal evidence, two tombs for men named John in Ephesus, and the like.

The Johannine documents match the characteristics of the apostle John. They seem to have been written by a Jewish source of the first century, some of them seem to profess authorship by an eyewitness of Jesus, the beloved disciple of the fourth gospel is closely associated with Peter (as the apostle John is elsewhere), the book of Revelation addresses itself first to the church of Ephesus, etc. The external evidence for Johannine authorship is early, widespread, and comes from some sources who personally knew John or were from or in contact with Johannine churches. Anybody unpersuaded by this sort of evidence (better than we have for other documents of antiquity that are widely accepted) should be even less persuaded by the much lesser evidence we have for authorship by another John. What's happened with theories of another John seems to be much like what happened with other historical figures:

"If Papias received traditions directly from the apostle, which is not itself inherently improbable, it becomes likely that the distinction between John the elder and John the apostle merely represents a tendency of tradition to overexegete, a characteristic also found in some rabbinic traditions. The name 'John' was fairly common in this period as far as Palestinian Jewish names go, but intrinsic probability does not tend to favor a disciple of the Apostle John named John, with whom the former was inadvertently conflated. Ancient writers sometimes confused persons of the same name, but they also sometimes created new persons on the supposition that two persons of the same name had been confused. Thus a story was circulated that the Pythagorean diet was to be attributed to a different Pythagoras, a story which Diogenes Laertius prudently found unpersuasive. In a case not unlike John the elder versus John the apostle, some opined that Pythagoras the philosopher had a student with the same name responsible for the athletic treatises wrongly ascribed to the teacher. Distinctions demanded by divergent traditions yielded more than one heroic Heracles and more than one Dionysus." (Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 97)

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