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The seven churches addressed in the Revelation of John are numbered on the map in the order in which he mentions them, showing how the messenger who carried the Revelation could make a round trip, delivering it to each church as he went.
The first and the last are Pauline churches, Ephesus and Laodicea. The loop which he follows, as far north as Pergamum and down to Philadelphia, marks the notable expansion during the thirty years since the death of Paul! This must be attributed in part to the second wave of missionary expansion from Palestine, which occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Hierapolis became the headquarters of Philip, Ephesus of John.
In this period Papias and Polycarp received their training. These churches remained open to strong influences from farther east, from Jewish or Syrian Christianity. Bishops, prophets and teachers passed and re-passed along this line of communication, which linked Syria with Rome.
This helps to explain why Alexandria had a rather different development.
|290 Before the end of the first century a condition of affairs had established itself in the churches of Phrygia and Asia which was quite different from the immediate post-Pauline situation, as we see it in the Acts and the Pastoral Epistles. The Pauline successors had obviously not been in a very strong position when confronted with Jewish evangelists and teachers who brought in peculiar doctrines which were not in accordance with the tradition; their churches now received reinforcements in the shape of apostolic missions of Jewish character; and it was this development that gave Ephesus and Smyrna the leading position in Christian thinking for a long time to come and produced schools of prophecy and evangelism and theology, the influence of which was not exhausted even at the end of the second century.
The leaders of these schools were Jews from Palestine and some of them were disciples of the Lord. They were called by the honorific title of 'the elders' like the masters in the rabbinic teaching tradition. Hillel, for instance, was called 'the elder', meaning the man who had gotten wisdom, and the same title was given to John by the Christians in Asia. Irenaeus speaks of John and the other' elders' who had seen the Lord, that is to say disciples of Jesus. We have a good deal of evidence about them and their work, but the task of interpreting it is a complex one and scholars are by no means agreed on the subject. There is no question, however, about the importance and enduring influence of the schools which they established in Asia in the reign of Domitian.
It is convenient to begin with Philip the apostle, who settled in the city of Hierapolis in western Phrygia. It was an important city in the neighbourhood of Colossae and Laodicea, both of which had received evangelists and Epistles from Paul. This country became the home of the Montanist movement some fifty or sixty years later; and forty years or so later still the Montanist leader Proclus, who lived in Rome, is said by his opponent Gaius to have identified this Philip with the evangelist of the same name who had lived in Caesarea and had four daughters who prophesied. It was a natural error since this Philip had daughters too, and the Montanists seem to have claimed them as the forerunners of their own movement. Many scholars think that Proclus was right, but no evidence for this identification appears before his time (A.D. c. 200).
Papias, who was acquainted with the daughters and became bishop of Hierapolis, identified him with the apostle (or is so understood by Eusebius); and so did Irenaeus of Smyrna and Polycrates of Ephesus, who were scions of the Johannine school in the generation next after Papias. Polycrates and Proclus both state that Philip was buried at Hierapolis; and Polycrates adds the statement that two of his daughters, who lived to an advanced age in a state of virginity, were buried there too, a third daughter being buried at Ephesus.Their tombs were probably still pointed out.
The daughters of Philip told Papias some extraordinary tales about Judas Iscariot, and Judas called Barsabbas, who drank a cup of deadly poison and took no harm from it; and he included these stories in his book. It does not seem at all certain that he knew Philip personally.
Stories about Philip are included in the Gospel of John, which was written at the close of this period.
In the introduction or dedication to his book, which was called Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord, Papias tells how, when he was a young man, men were still passing through the churches who could repeat the |294words of the 'elders', by which he meant the disciples of Jesus. This book has not survived, but Eusebius gives an interesting extract from it.
And if any one happened to arrive who had been a follower of the elders, I would make enquiries about the words of the elders, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord.
(Papias, Expositions, in Eusebius, E.H. iii, 39, 4.)
We note with interest that Papias claims to have listened to pupils or auditors of seven out of the twelve disciples (if the James he mentions is one of the Twelve, and not the brother of the Lord); and this disposes of the strange theory which we sometimes hear that the Twelve vanished from the scene of history at an early date leaving no trace. The order of the names is interesting; for Andrew and Peter and Philip appear in that order in the first chapter of John's Gospel. The fact that Thomas was given a second name Didymus, the 'twin', which is a translation into Greek of his Jewish name Thomas, suggests that he had found his way into the Greek-speaking churches; and a Roman tradition at the end of the second century says that it was Andrew who encouraged John to write his Gospel. All four have Greek names now.
The extract from Papias, as Eusebius gives it, continues as follows,
And what Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord are saying.
The addition of this clause confuses the effect, since it suggests that there were two Johns; but on a second examination of the text one is not so sure that this impression is correct; for John is described in both cases as an elder and a disciple of the Lord. Aristion does not rank as an elder, and we know nothing more about him except that Papias derived sayings of the Lord from his tradition. The distinction between the two clauses lies in the tense of the verb. In the first clause it is what the seven disciples had said, and in the second clause it is what the two disciples were saying. The distinction would seem to be between utterances which had been made in the past and utterances which were contemporary.
Here is a written document which does not give us all the help which we might hope for, and many ingenious explanations have been offered to account for this confusion. On the one side it has been suggested by
|295 some scholars that the word 'elder' in the first clause refers to pupils of the disciples, not to the disciples themselves, though the title 'elder' is indubitably given to a disciple in the second clause; they would then interpret the first clause as if it read, 'I would make enquiries about the words of the elders who reported what Andrew, etc.' On the other side it has been suggested that Eusebius has combined two distinct quotations from two separate sentences of Papias; Eusebius does do such things, and when he comments on the second clause, he modifies it with a peculiar phrase which may be translated 'after a break in the text'.
This passage provides the whole of the historical evidence for the theory, which many modern scholars accept, that there were two Johns who were both of them elders and disciples of the Lord; but whatever conclusion we may come to on that question, it does not in any way affect the evidence of Justin, Irenaeus, Polycrates, and the church of the second century generally (both orthodox and heretical), which supports in the most substantial manner the fact of the residence of the apostle John at Ephesus in the reign of Domitian. If a lesser John revolved in his orbit, he was quite lost to sight so far as the church was concerned. He left no trace in subsequent history, except for the possible reference in Papias, and the amusing statement by Dionysius of Alexandria that two tombs of John were on exhibition at Ephesus in his time.
The theory of two Johns was first suggested by this Dionysius, in the third century, to account for the extraordinary difference in literary style between the Revelation and the fourth gospel, both of which are assigned in the tradition to the apostle John. It was taken up by Eusebius, who thought that the evidence of Papias supported it, and has been revived in modern times and widely accepted. We shall, for the most part, continue to speak of'John' in accordance with the evidence as we find it, leaving on one side the problem of the Papian duplication and the Ephesian tombs. It is really the pressure of literary and theological considerations which will decide the problem one way or another.
Papias and Irenaeus record a few opinions of John and the other Elders who had seen the Lord. Sometimes Irenaeus says that he is quoting from Papias; at other times the information may have reached him by some other channel. These opinions seem to have been handed down orally in his school, as the opinions of the rabbis were handed down orally in their schools. They concerned the interpretation of parables or prophecy, the age of the Lord when he began teaching, the length of his ministry, the proper day for Christians to observe as the Pascha, and other points. The most important of these was his opinion on the merits of Mark's Gospel, and his reference to an Aramaic Gospel written by Matthew, which we will quote in the next chapter.
Papias was an enthusiast for the apocalyptic tradition, which he interpreted in a rather literal fashion, and he quoted in his fourth volume a 'saying of Jesus', which the elders of his period had received from John. It does not appear that he claims to have received it from John himself.
The days will come when the vines will grow,
Each vine with ten thousand shoots,
Each shoot with ten thousand branches,
Each branch with ten thousand clusters,
Each cluster with ten thousand grapes,
Each grape yielding twenty-five measures of wine.
And when one of the saints would take hold of a bunch, another bunch would cry out, Take me: Bless the Lord through me.
(Papias, Expositions iv, in Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. v, 33, 34.)
This interesting piece of oral tradition is not theology at all. It is a cumulative folk-song, and Irenaeus goes on to indicate the content of the other verses, about the wheat, the fruits, the seed and the grasses; and all the animals, he says, will eat food which grows out of the ground, and live together in peace and harmony and subjection to mankind. It was a harvest-song, such as might have been sung at the harvest-festivals in Israel, at Pentecost and Tabernacles, for instance. It is in line with the old prophets and the contemporary apocalypses and was widely known,since theverse about the vines is quoted in Baruch (xxix.3), and an allusion to it is found in Enoch (x. 17-19), where it is said that |297 every one will beget ten thousand children. It is a fantasy about the redeemed earth in the millennial age.
Papias goes on to say that Judas asked the Lord how such things could be, and the Lord answered,' They shall see it who come to it.'
It is natural to reject at once the idea that there could be any connexion between the thought of our Lord and material of this kind; but possibly there is no real incongruity in the idea of his joining in songs of this sort with the people of the land at their village festivals. It is not even inconceivable that some literal-minded person might have made the protest that Judas is said to have made, and that a mild remonstrance with a touch of irony in it might be the best reply. But however that may be, it is clear that Papias remembered a time when such songs were regarded in the Johannine circle as having the benediction of the Lord himself. He found no difficulty himself in taking this one literally; it is credible to the faithful, he said.
The tradition is valuable background material. It leads us directly into the old extravagant semi-apocalyptic, semi-liturgical lyrics, which must have been part of the religion of the soil in Palestine, and it helps us to understand the pre-theological phases of Christianity. It shows us the kind of material which flowed in on the popular level in the days when Judaism and Christianity were not yet severed from one another. A great deal of what turned into theology may at first have been poetry. Later on, in the second century, Papias and his friends hammered it into shape, and used it as material for the rather literal-minded apocalyptic of their day. We can see it as it passes through the medium of their tradition; from the elders to Papias and his generation; and from Papias and his generation to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and their generation.
The best-known disciple of the Elder John was Polycarp of Smyrna, who was born in 69 or 70. There is a new theory which places him twenty years later, but it runs into great difficulties; he would have been made bishop of Smyrna, for instance, before he was twenty-five. On the basis of the accepted chronology, he would have attended the school of John as early perhaps as the eighties, since such instruction began at an early age, when the memory could be trained. He was made bishop of Smyrna before about 110-115, when Ignatius addressed |298 an Epistle to him; and Irenaeus, who was his pupil, states that he was so appointed by apostles. He loved to relate his memories of John and the others who had seen the Lord, and Irenaeus himself had vivid memories of these occasions; 'I am able to describe the very place', he said, 'in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed ... and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.' Polycarp wrote nothing himself which has survived, except one short epistle; but Irenaeus preserves his witness, and says that the John of whom he spoke was the apostle. Irenaeus knows nothing of a second John.
He also informs us that Papias was a contemporary
We can now turn to quite another field of evidence and examine the local and personal references in the Revelation. The author of this book gives his name as John, but does not add any title. He was well enough known not to need it. He had a commanding position in the churches which he addressed, and describes himself to his hearers as their brother and companion in persecution. This persecution occurred in the last years of Domitian, who died in 96; but the relation of the prophet to the churches which he addresses must have been established well before that date; no later than 85 to 90, one would suppose.
Justin Martyr, who was teaching in Ephesus about forty years later, states that he was John the apostle. Other church writers after his time make the same statement. The Revelation itself does not say so. It says 'John your brother' without further identification.
The Revelation is addressed to seven churches in Asia and Phrygia, and contains a message for each, from which we can obtain information about the evangelistic and prophetic expansion since the Pauline period.
The envoy who carried this important book would begin with the |299 old Pauline centre of Ephesus. This church had suffered a further influx of false teachers, and had survived the impact well. It had tested those who said they were apostles but were not. It had learned the lesson of faithfulness to the tradition, which Timothy had been commissioned to impress upon it; and it had lost the mystic love which had once been its glory. Yet it was in its favour that it hated the deeds of the Nico-laitans. Who the Nicolaitans were we frankly do not know. Irenaeus connects them with Nicolas of Antioch, who is mentioned in the Acts, and says that his error lay in self-indulgence. Clement of Alexandria credits him with the saying that we ought to abuse the flesh, whatever that may mean; he also refers to an odd story about his treatment of his wife, which, however, he does not believe. He claims to have some knowledge about him.
From Ephesus the envoy proceeded to the younger churches. The first of these was Smyrna, a busy seaport which lay a few miles to the north. This church was founded in the post-Pauline period, as Polycarp states in his Epistle to the Philippians. It was about to undergo a serious persecution. It had enemies who said they were Jews but were not; they were a synagogue of Satan, John says.
North of Smyrna was Pergamum, and east of Pergamum Thyatira. Pergamum was an old royal city, and the principal centre of the emperor-worship in Asia Minor; Satan's throne was there, John said. A Christian with the Herodian name of Antipas had died there recently as a martyr. These new churches were not lacking in faith and courage, but they were wide open to strange doctrines. Pergamum had some who held the teaching of Balaam, who taught the children of Israel to 'eat things offered to idols and to commit fornication'. Thyatira harboured similar teachers, and had accepted the ministrations of a woman-prophet, who encouraged her children to explore the deep things of Satan. This woman, who is referred to as Jezebel, will come to no good end.
The references to the false teachers are not so cryptic that we cannot make out their anti-Jewish character; for Balaam and Jezebel were opponents of the Mosaic or prophetic religion. We can also make out definite references to the Jerusalem formula, which imposed upon the Gentile churches of Syria and Cilicia a modicum of respect for the Levitical Law.It would be unwise, however, to infer that we have |300 here a reference to the Acts. The Jerusalem Epistle must have been well known apart from the Acts. The echoes of the words of Jesus which are found in the Revelation seem to be rather more in line with Matthew than Luke,but maybe drawn from some independent version of the Matthew tradition. John knew of various attempts to render it in Greek, Papias says.
The envoy who carried the book struck south-east now in the direction of Phrygia, but made a halt at Sardis in Lydia, where the church had a reputation for being very much alive, though it was spiritually dead according to the message which John sent it. He then passed over the border into Phrygia, and came to Philadelphia, where a small congregation had remained faithful under persecution in spite of the opposition of those who said they were Jews and were not. The Jewish question was still a live one in Philadelphia when Ignatius visited it about twenty years after John wrote.
The envoy now came out on the main highway near the important cities of Hierapolis, Colossae, and Laodicea. The daughters of Philip, who attained to a great age, must still have been living; Papias was a young man storing up reminiscences in his retentive memory. The Revelation had no special message for Hierapolis. Colossae and Laodicea had received letters from Paul some thirty years before, though the Laodicean letter no longer survives. The seventh message in the Revelation is addressed to this city. It has little good to say about it; it was neither hot nor cold; self-satisfaction reigned supreme.
The acquaintance of this John with these churches was far from superficial; his analysis of their strong and weak points is profound. He speaks with full prophetic inspiration. It is rather misleading to refer to his messages as Epistles, as is done in the Muratorian Fragment ; they are the messages of the risen and glorified Christ who stands in the midst of his churches; they are given to John in a state of spiritual vision; they are what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches.
The frontier of the gospel has been pushed forward in the last thirty years, and new churches established. Prophets and evangelists and even apostles, of all sorts, have continued to stream westward and ramify northward. The newer churches are bold and aggressive, though |301 they are too inexperienced to discriminate between false and true teachers. The gospel is making progress in Phrygia, and Philadelphia has an open door before it. The prophetic form of the faith struck deep roots in Phrygia; in fifty years the Revelation would bear strange fruit there.
The strange style of the Revelation must have been familiar in all these churches. It is without parallel in Jewish Hellenism. John wrote in a barbaric Greek which moved according to the dictates of Hebrew grammar; but its success as a poetic medium is extraordinary, and survives well in the English translation. The Revelation is a work of genius. Its author was a Hebrew scholar, apparently, and knew the old prophets in the original language; his Hebrew thinking, based upon this classic literature, passed into the Greek language and took possession of it. It is open to question whether his linguistic style was his own creation, or whether it was the language of some semi-Hellenized circle of Jews in Palestine or elsewhere.
His older or earlier visions were composed in Jerusalem. Some of them are packed with unresolved and unexplained symbols drawn from a Hebrew mysticism which expressed itself in terms of ancient oriental myth and ritual. They are not like the realistic or representational art of the Greeks; the symbols do not cohere in such a way as to produce an illusion of reality; you cannot think in realistic terms of the figure of a man with a sharp two-edged sword going out of his mouth. The unity of each vision is spiritual, not three-dimensional. Yet they draw a sense of reality and vitality from the world of nature. We are conscious of the Palestinian landscape, the high mountain, the desert, the hot winds, the burned-up harvests, the cloud of locusts, the scorpion striking with its tail, the vulture in mid-heaven, and the voice like a lion roaring. In the later visions, the barbaric style has been modified a little by the grace and lucidity of Hellenism, and is said to have incorporated local symbolism, such as was familiar in Asia or Phrygia. A Jewish syncretism in Asia and Phrygia had doubtless prepared the way for this.
Scholars have debated whether these old Jerusalem visions were the work of John himself, or whether they were the work of previous prophets which he has incorporated into his book; if this is the case, he has impressed his own style and personality upon the book as a whole.
This prophet stood in a pastoral relation to the churches which he addressed. He was familiar with their spiritual conditions. He
|302 rebuked, he admonished, he commended; and all in the name of the Lord Jesus. Ezekiel, who was his literary master, had a similar sense of pastoral responsibility; and in the Didache, a generation later, we read of prophets who went from church to church exercising pastoral supervision.
We may here record a statement of Clement of Alexandria, which was drawn from the oral tradition of his time, that John, on being invited, visited the neighbouring districts of the Gentiles, 'in one place appointing bishops, in another setting in order whole churches, in another ordaining a ministry or individuals from among those who were indicated by the Spirit'. There is nothing impossible, or even unlikely, about this, as the organization of the autonomous episcopate must have occurred during this period; after the situation which appears in the Pastoral Epistles, and previous to the situation which appears in the Epistles of Ignatius.
In this connexion Clement relates the story of how John confided to one of his bishops the care of a promising young convert, who subsequently abandoned the church and joined a band of robbers. The bishop took no steps to reclaim him, but John, on his next visit, rebuked the bishop, mounted his horse, pursued the young man, and brought him triumphantly back.
Clement tells the story at length, and is very confident about it. He found it current in more than one locality, some even giving the name of the city where it happened. It lacks confirmation from other sources, but it is interesting for more than one reason. It is the only story which shows a Christian evangelist riding a horse (like the heavenly Christ in the Revelation); and it gives a lively picture of an old man of extraordinary vigour hunting down his lost convert, and shouting after him as he goes. This was the impression which St John left in the mind of the church, not that of a mild unworldly dreamer, such as pious meditation has distilled from certain passages in the Gospel and Epistles.
It shows him at work building up the episcopal order, which was taking form at this time. Tertullian attributes this work to John, and Irenaeus states that Polycarp was made Bishop of Smyrna by apostles.
The ministry of prophecy has some relation to the liturgy of prayer and worship in 1 Corinthians as well as in the Didache in which it has rather taken command of the situation. The movement of the Revelation is sustained throughout by organized liturgical action. Its literary structure is built up on the daily and yearly order of the Temple services, with their sacrificial worship and festal occasions and choral music. The incense-offering, the trumpets, the bowls of blood, and other liturgical features, provide the framework of the poem. It is preceded, however, by a heavenly vision, in which a Christian form of worship is set forth in symbolic form.
The worship of heaven is offered by a circle of twenty-four elders, who are described as kings and priests. They are seated in a circle and there is a throne in their midst. It consists of the four winds or spirits of life, with their six wings and their many eyes, which represent in Hebrew art and poetry the whole circle of created being. He who presides there has no form or likeness, but is compared to the glowing concentrated light of precious stones. Those who worship him sing the traditional chant in a new form,
HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! LORD GOD THE ALMIGHTY!
Who was and who is and who is to come.
This pattern is based on the order of the Jewish synagogue or Christian ecclesia. It recurs in Christian writings; in the Epistles of Ignatius, for instance, where the elders preside like the council of the apostles, and the bishop is in the place of God or of Christ. In heaven the Creator and Master of the Universe presides in his synagogue of watchers and holy ones; on earth the pattern is repeated in the Temple or synagogue or ecclesia.
This is the first phase in the heavenly worship and corresponds to the act of praise and thanksgiving in the sabbath service of the synagogue, in which God is visualized as enthroned in his creation on the seventh day; the refrain, 'Holy holy, holy', belongs to this act of thanksgiving. It appears in the synagogue ritual as the Kedushah and is reproduced by Clement in his Epistle.
In the second phase John sees the sealed book in the right hand of God, but no lector appears who is worthy to open its seals or read its |304 content; until the 'Lamb of God as it had been slain' takes the book and opens its seven seals. This vision combines the ideas of the crucified and risen Messiah with the idea of the mysterious Son of Man whose place is at the right hand of the deity. The sound of the harp is now heard, incense is offered, and all creation joins in the worship of the Lamb. The Christian 'Lord's day' worship is thus drawn into, and incorporated with, the Jewish sabbath-day worship.
This subject of the liturgy is one of the maj or interests of the prophet; and we may hazard the guess that his peculiar Greek, with its Hebrew colouring and structure, may preserve for us the language of some liturgical tradition of a Jewish or Jewish-Christian type. This side of his work was not forgotten. Polycrates, who was born in an episcopal family in Ephesus about 130, grew up in the Johannine tradition, and became Bishop of Ephesus himself about 190. He says that John was a witness and a teacher; he was also a priest, and wore the 'petalon'. The petalon was a golden plate which was suspended from the mitre of the Jewish high priest so as to cover his forehead. It was engraved with the words 'Holiness unto the Lord'. We have, here, the memory, as it was preserved in the Ephesian ecclesia, in words which must have been purely symbolic, of the prophet and seer of apostolic character, who led their worship at one time and left his mark upon the liturgy of the universal church. It recalls the picture of James the Just in the Jerusalem tradition.
We turn from this half-legendary picture to another set of contemporary, documents, the three 'Epistles' which are attributed to St John. Only two of these are in true epistolary form, the Second and the Third. The author does not name himself. He calls himself 'The Elder' which recalls the nomenclature of Papias and Irenaeus. The title seems to have been sufficient identification.
The 'Second Epistle' is written to a church which is also not named; he calls it 'the elect Lady', a quaint piece of symbolism which may be matched in 1 Peter and Hermas. He sends greetings from his own church, or the church where he happens to be: 'The children of thy elect sister greet thee.' There is no sign of the harsh Hebraism of the Revelation. Instead we have the simple and correct Greek of the Johannine Gospel with its characteristic use of key-words like love and truth |305 and commandment. The word truth replaces the word faith, which he does not use; the word commandment is connected with the word love. This is the kind of'walking' which had been received from the beginning. On the other side are the deceivers, who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come 'in the flesh'. They are 'the Antichrist', and are not to be received into the house (by which he means the church) or given any greeting.
The 'Third Epistle' is a personal letter written to the well-beloved Gaius, who is the head of a local church, perhaps a bishop. The Elder commends him for his loving care in entertaining certain strangers who had come to him in the name of God, taking nothing from the Gentiles. He condemns another church official, named Diotrephes, who loves his position of importance, behaves roughly to strangers, and makes malicious remarks about the Elder himself. He commends Demetrius.
The writer is a pastor. He addresses the churches and their leaders with authority. He proposes to visit them soon, and these very slight and short Epistles are no more than preludes to his visit. As he does not give his name, it is possible to attribute them to the secondary John as was done at least as early as the fourth century, or to Aristion, or to some unknown elder. On the other hand, their style connects them with the First Epistle and with the Gospel. It has been suggested, however, that the style might have been imitated by a pupil, or that it might be a conventional style adopted in the Johannine school.
The 'First Epistle' is very closely connected with the Gospel. It is not an actual letter like the others. It is a manifesto of a personal character which may have formed an appendix to the Gospel. One passes from the last words of the Gospel to the first words of the 'Epistle' with a perfect sense of continuity. In the Muratorian Fragment, the Epistle is quoted from immediately after the paragraph which deals with the Gospel, and Clement of Alexandria speaks of it as 'following the Gospel'. It is written in the same distinctive style and develops many of the same ideas. Critics generally are agreed that it is by the same hand, though the question has been raised again recently by Dr C. H. Dodd. All think of it as emanating from the same circle, and this circle is associated with himself by the author.
The First Epistle begins by speaking in the name of a band of witnesses. They bear witness to 'that which was from the beginning; what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon, and our hands have handled; of the Word of Life'. It begins with the plural form; but it soon passes into the singular, 'I write unto you, my children.' The single author, who now speaks, has a position of authority as a pastor and father in God and a witness to the evangelical truth. He speaks with deep affection and concern; but he does so with the support of a band of witnesses.
The Gospel gives us exactly the same picture of compound authority and witness. 'The Word was made flesh', we read in its first verses, 'and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.' A more precise affirmation occurs in the last chapter. There is an unnamed disciple in this Gospel, who appears first in the Passion narrative; he reclined next to the Lord at the Last Supper, he followed him into the judgement hall of Annas, he stood by the cross, he received the Lord's mother into his home, and he was a witness of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. 'This is the Disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things', we read 'and we know that his witness is true'.
The reader who was familiar with the earlier Gospels, or with the gospel material in any comparable tradition, could not fail to identify this disciple with John the son of Zebedee, who never appears in this Gospel under his own name.Other suggestions have been made, of course. He is the shadowy second John who has been discerned by many scholars in the names recorded by Papias; or he is a purely allegorical figure emblematic of the true believer, though it would be hard indeed to make out the terms of the allegory. A bold few resolve the whole Gospel into allegory; but theories of this kind fail to come to terms with the definite statements which are made in the Gospel and Epistle; or, for that matter, with the theology of the Gospel itself.
The impression of compound authorship is reinforced by evidence from the church tradition. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, said that John wrote the Gospel at the request of his |307 friends. The Muratorian Fragment, which was written in the Roman church about the same time, gives a similar picture:
Of the fourth of the Gospels: John, [one] of the disciples, when his disciples and fellow-bishops were urging him, said, 'Fast with me to-day for three days, and whatever may be revealed, let us narrate to one another'; the same night it was revealed to Andrew [one] of the apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name, as they called them to mind [or: and they were all to certify].
This story may have assumed a slightly legendary form, and surprises us by its mention of Andrew; but it is completely in harmony with the evidence, and shows how long the tradition of compound authorship endured. Andrew is prominent in the Gospel where he is made the companion of Philip.
Another view appears in the so-called Anti-Marcionite prologues, which we referred to in our discussion of Luke as being quite probably second-century work. Their evidence on the fourth gospel is definitely anti-Marciom'te, and not very helpful; but we include it for the sake of completeness.
The gospel of John was manifested and given to the churches by John, while still living in the body, as [one] Papias by name, a Hieropolitan, a dear disciple of John, has handed down in his 'Exoterica', that is in the last five books; indeed he wrote down the gospel as John dictated; but Marcion the heretic was cast out by John, because his opinions were contrary; he indeed had brought him writings or Epistles from the brethren who were in Pontus.
This statement is incoherent in itself, and does not agree with more reputable evidence.
We may now return to the Epistles and examine the contemporary evidence which they supply with regard to a type of heresy which now appears clearly for the first time. The Second Epistle spoke of deceivers who refused to recognize that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. The First Epistle has more to say about them.
The Pastoral Epistles and the Revelation have told us something about false teachers of the Jewish type who practised asceticism and revelled in mythology; and the Revelation spoke of false teachers who persuaded the brethren to eat things offered to idols and commit fornication, and were probably of the anti-Jewish type; but nobody has shown much concern about false teaching on the subject of the person of Christ.The First Epistle of John refers to it very clearly. These 'false prophets' once belonged to the church, but are now in schism. They have gone out from us, the writer says; but this proves that they were never really 'of us', or else they would have stayed with us. Their appearance is a sign of the last times. They are manifestations of the Antichrist, about whom the hearers of the epistle have heard something. They claim to possess a chrisma or anointing, and a Spirit of truth; but what they really possess is a spirit of error. 'This is how you know the Spirit of God', the writer says. 'Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is of God; and every spirit which does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.'
The denial that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh was a bold thing, carrying with it, as it seems to do, a hostile attitude to the historical gospel tradition, that is to say the tradition which was vouched for by Peter and the Twelve. It is the form of belief about Christ which appears in the heresies of Marcion and the Syrian gnostics; and this may be one of the schools of thought from which those heresies were derived. Marcion based his theology on Paul, and it is considered possible that these heretics did the same. Paul had preached Jesus as the glorious Son of God who had entered into his life on the Damascus road. He had called him the Lord from heaven and a life-giving Spirit. He even went so far, on one occasion, as to deprecate a knowledge of Jesus 'according to the flesh', had he possessed it. The Jesus of Paul was a true man, |309 however; he had been born of a woman, and came of the seed of David according to the flesh; he had been brought up under the Jewish Law, and had been a 'minister of the circumcision'; he had had twelve apostles; he had died on the cross, and been buried, and risen again on the third day. The spirituals had an answer for that. He had only appeared or seemed to do these things. The life-giving Spirit could not actually have been born, or lived in the flesh, or suffered, or died. This form of faith is referred to as an organized heresy or sect in the Epistles of Ignatius a few years later; and heretics of this kind came to be called docetics, from the Greek word dokei it seems.
Looking again into John's Epistle, we infer that their faith in Jesus as pure Spirit was balanced by their confidence in the Spirit which they claimed to possess themselves. This Spirit had come to them 'by water'; that is to say they had received it at their baptism; it was their link with the spiritual Christ; it conferred on them unerring knowledge of the truth. The schism was prophetic or visionary in character: they were inspired persons.
The writer of the Epistle recalls his flock to the Word of Life and the message which they had received from the beginning, which he confirms by his own witness and the witness of his companions. 'What was from the beginning, what we have seen, and our hands have handled ... that is what we declare unto you.' He reminds them of their baptism; 'The Spirit that is in you is greater than the Spirit that is in them; you have a chrisma from the holy one.'
The theology of this passage, no less than the mysterious rhythmical style, tells us that the author himself is a ' spiritual'. He writes in a condition of high spiritual tension.
A clarification of this confused situation was proposed by a certain Cerinthus who appeared in Ephesus about this time. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was now a young man in his twenties, used to tell a story of John going one day into the public bath-house and finding Cerinthus there; he rushed out again saying, 'Let us fly before the building collapses; Cerinthus the enemy of the truth is inside.' It is the sort of anecdote that goes on being told about men of strong personality; they are seldom false to the character of their hero, even when their |310 authenticity is dubious, and this one gives the same picture of a determined and active old man that we found in the story of the robber band.
Irenaeus the pupil of Polycarp, who vouches for this story, informs us that Cerinthus had been trained in the Egyptian system of education. He taught that Christ was a Spirit from the high God and therefore incapable of suffering; and so far he was at one with pure docetism; but he had an arrangement by which he could accept the Jesus of history too. Jesus was a man like other men, the son of Joseph and Mary though not by a virgin birth. He was juster and wiser than the rest of mankind and after his baptism by John in the Jordan, the Christus (as it is convenient to call the heavenly Spirit in this kind of christology) came down upon him in the form of a dove; and from that time he began to work miracles and to proclaim the heavenly Father. At the end it departed from Jesus, and it was Jesus by himself who suffered on the cross and rose again from the dead, the Christus remaining impassible, incapable of suffering.
This clever idea of a separation of the Christus from the Jesus seemed to retain the values of both schools of thought; the angel or spirit from heaven on the one hand; and the man Jesus on the other who was a teacher and wonder-worker.
Against this background of myth and apocalypse and millenialism and other-worldly spirituality, the Johannine school continued to stress the idea of God in human history as the basis of gospel and apocalyptic. 'What we have seen', they kept on saying, 'What we have heard and our hands have handled'; or alternatively, 'What must swiftly come to pass.' Perhaps we may attempt some summary of the evidence which has been reviewed here.
They brought with them authentic traditions from Jerusalem, since Jerusalem visions are included in the Revelation and Jerusalem narratives in the Gospel. It is natural to identify the Elder of Papias, who communicated apocalyptic hymns to his pupils, with the John who wrote the Revelation; on the other hand, it is the writer of 2 John and 3 John who actually calls himself the Elder. We are bound to equate the Elder of Papias with the tutor of Polycarp, as Irenaeus
|311 actually does. On the other hand, many scholars feel that the author of the Gospel (with which 1 John is closely associated) cannot be the same man as the author of Revelation; the style and emotional feeling of the two books are so different, they think. Here is the beginning of the perplexities which are felt by modern scholars in approaching the subject; they are led to question the evidence of the second-century fathers, since they regard the whole Johannine tradition as one and indivisible, and identify the master of it with John the apostle. Theyfall back on the theory of the existence of two Johns, which the evidence of Papias permits and the mind of a third-century father originated; but some are reluctant to identify either of them with John the apostle. This question is taken up again on page 362 below.
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