Friday, November 17, 2006

Mary And John As Examples Of Sources Of Information On Jesus' Background

In a previous article, I discussed the sources of information on Jesus' background that were available to the early Christians and their opponents. In this post, I want to give some examples of the evidence we have that these sources would have been available during the formative years of Christianity. How do we know how long Mary lived? What if she died before Jesus' public ministry began? How do we know that the apostle John lived until late in the first century?

Though they differ in their focus and the details they address, all of the gospels agree on the general outlines of Jesus' family background. His father seems to have died during or prior to His public ministry, but His mother lived longer. He had siblings, and they were initially unbelievers. What I want to focus on here is the gospel authors' agreement that Mary was still alive during Jesus' public ministry. We have four early sources, with more than four sources behind them (Luke 1:1), reporting multiple events that involved Mary during Jesus' public ministry. None of the earliest sources argue that Mary died earlier, and many post-gospel sources agree with what the gospels report on the subject. Furthermore, some of the gospel accounts are particularly unlikely to have been fabricated, because of their embarrassing nature. Jesus' mother and brothers refer to Him as insane (Mark 3:20-35), Jesus considers His unbelieving brothers (future church leaders) incompetent to care for His mother (John 19:26-27), etc. John 19:27 tells us that Mary lived past Jesus' death for some unspecified period of time as well, which is corroborated by Acts 1:14 (which, like John 19, has Mary in the region of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus' death).

For John, we have more information. Acts refers to John living past Jesus' death and says nothing of John's death or martyrdom, though his brother's martyrdom is mentioned (Acts 12:2). Most likely, John was still alive when the book of Acts was completed, probably in the sixties. Paul mentions that he met John in Jerusalem more than a decade after Jesus' death (Galatian 2:9-10). Passages in John's gospel (for evidence of Johannine authorship, see here and here) such as 21:19 and 21:22-23 are best explained by a date of writing in the middle of the sixties or later. The condition of the churches in Revelation 2-3 suggests a date for that book late in the century rather than in the middle of the century, and the book seems to have been written by John (D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction To The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], pp. 700-712). Irenaeus refers to how John lived until the time of the emperor Trajan (Against Heresies, 3:3:4). Victorinus refers to John's authorship of Revelation at the time of the emperor Domitian (Commentary On The Apocalypse Of The Blessed John, 10:11). Clement of Alexandria refers to John as active in church leadership when he was "old", after returning from the island of Patmos, and Clement does so in relating an account of a tradition passed down outside of scripture (Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). He also refers to John as the last of the gospel writers (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 6:14:7), and is corroborated by other sources on the point, another fact that would be consistent with John's living until late in the first century. Irenaeus repeatedly refers to John's opposition to the heretic Cerinthus (Against Heresies, 3:3:4), who was active around the turn of the century. Papias refers to a church leader named John who was his contemporary (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:3-4), and he probably was referring to the apostle. (For a refutation of the theory that another church leader named John was confused with the apostle, see here.) Irenaeus refers to Papias as a disciple of John (Against Heresies, 5:33:4), as do many other sources who had access to Papias' writings (see here). Polycarp, a disciple of John (Irenaeus, cited in Eusebius, Church History, 5:20:6; Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 32; see also here), seems to have been born around 65-70 A.D. (Martyrdom Of Polycarp, 9), which also suggests that John lived until late in the century. Tertullian comments that the register of the church of Smyrna refers to Polycarp's appointment as the bishop of that church by John (The Prescription Against Heretics, 32), which, given Polycarp's age, suggests that John lived until late in the century. Much more could be cited, coming from a wide variety of sources in a wide variety of locations addressing a wide variety of topics, all stating or implying that John lived for a long time after Jesus' death, probably until late in the first century.

We have no good reason to reject the traditional view that Mary lived past Jesus' death and that John lived to the late first century. Mary would have known a lot about Jesus' background, since she was His mother. John was part of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, with James and Peter, and he had met Jesus' mother and siblings and lived with Mary for a while (John 2:1-2, 19:26-27, Acts 1:13-14, Galatians 2:9-10). Similar evidence could be cited regarding Peter, James, and other relevant sources of information on Jesus' background. Sources like these would have been available to the early Christians and their critics for decades, several decades in the cases of sources like John and Jesus' cousin Symeon.

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