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The study of the Revelation of St John is a difficult one, and different minds come to different conclusions on debatable points, but it has the great advantage to the student of being in touch with external history at many points; with the churches of Asia, with the prophets and martyrs, with the old Jerusalem, with the imperial power of Rome, and with the tyranny of Domitian. It gives us an excellent idea of the kind of ferment out of which it arose, and by doing this, it forms an introduction to the second great document which issued from the same ferment at the same period: the Fourth Gospel.
But this document surprises us by its completely different character. It does not seem to have any points of contact with the history which is reflected in such lurid colours in the Revelation. It has abandoned the apocalyptic modes of thought which appear so massively there. It speaks in a new language; a language of the spirit. It speaks of word and life and light and truth; of the bread of life and the water of life; and of the spirit of truth which leads the disciples into all truth. These concepts are all to be found in the Revelation, it is true; but they do not provide the drama of the Revelation. On the whole the poetry of the Revelation brings the mind into contact with all kinds of external historical forces; the poetry of the Gospel brings us into contact with the inner life of the church and the inner life of the believer.
All great literature is in contact with life, and the Fourth Gospel is no exception. It is in touch, as we have said, with the inner life of the church, which it illuminates with deep spiritual insight. It develops a
|351 pecial understanding of this inner life in a special terminology; and this special terminology must have a significance. This significance, according to many modern scholars, is derived from its relevance to the Hellenistic thought of the age; to philosophy, in short; but to what philosophy?
Among the philosophers who left Rome in 93 or 94 was the famous Epictetus. He had come to Rome from Hierapolis in Phrygia as a slave. He had learned in the house of Epaphroditus, a notorious favourite of Nero, to endure pain and hardship with serenity. On gaining his freedom, he attended the lectures of Musonius Rufus and then began to give lectures himself. His style was direct and to the point; it reminds us at times of passages in St Paul, and both of them, no doubt, were familiar with the popular philosophic idiom. But it was his sincerity and deep religious conviction that gave him his hold over his pupils. It was said that he had looked a tyrant in the face. He lived for the rest of his life at Nicopolis in Epirus, and won the favour of the Emperor Hadrian. We know about him through his pupil Arrian, who wrote down his teaching. He must have died in the hundred-and-twenties.
Another philosopher who thought it prudent to leave Rome at this time was Plutarch of Chaeronea, who was at the beginning of his career, and died about 120. Unlike Epictetus, he was a writer, and composed ' Lives' of eminent Greeks and Romans, who were chosen as examples of the philosophic virtues. Biography was a fashionable literary form at this time; for we have the Gospels, Josephus and Plutarch in Greek, and Tacitus and Suetonius in Latin. The success of Plutarch as a writer was enormous; not only in his biographies, but in his mystical writings. He marks an important stage in the revival of Platonism, in which he had been anticipated by Philo the Alexandrian Jew. He had fallen victim to the spell of Egypt and to the cult of Isis, which was establishing itself in Rome at this time.
A very different type was Apollonius of Tyana, who compares with the austere Stoic much as the gnostic practitioner compares with the apostle. It is a pity that we have no contemporary account of this extraordinary man. Some very curious stories were handed down among circles of admirers, and were collected about the year 200 by Philostratus, who wove them, in a highly romanticized form, into his |352 famous Life of Apollonius. He was born at Tyana in Cappadocia, a border-province in which an Iranian syncretism had been attempted. He had been to India, we are told, and had learned the spirituality of the Brahmins. He had also been to Ethiopia. He practised a life of such heroic asceticism and mystical discipline that he was able to work wonders by reason of his great holiness and his contact with the spirit world. Without doubt he was a historical character; but we are not required to accept the statement that when he stood before the judgement-seat of Domitian he vanished into thin air, a thing no Christian ever learned the secret of. He left Rome for Asia Minor, and fascinated great crowds in Ephesus by his eloquence and by his supernatural arts. He was a common type in his time, and we have seen another example of it in Simon of Samaria, whose legend developed in a very similar way. We may suppose that both of them were men of culture and possibly of character.
It is against this background that we must place the composition of the Acts, and the rivalries between John and Cerinthus, and the publication of the Fourth Gospel. It enables us to see, for instance, the special effectiveness of the dialogue in which Jesus confronts Pilate, the representative of the emperor of his day –
Thou couldest have no power at all over me unless it were given thee from above.
My kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight. ...
For this cause was I born and came into the world, that I might witness to
the truth. (John xix. 11; xviii. 36, 37.)
– the very principles, incidentally, which are enunciated in the Revelation in a more flamboyant idiom. The figure of Jesus as the divine unarmed defender of the truth was such as to have a special appeal to thoughtful readers in this period of moral earnestness, mystical piety and resistance to tyrants. There was a kinship, strange as it may sound to say it, between the Christian martyr, the Greek philosopher, and sometimes even the Roman aristocrat.
The new kind of Cynic like Epictetus, the new type of Platonist like Plutarch, and the new type of Pythagorean like Apollonius, are interesting figures; but it cannot be said that they help us to explain the language of the Fourth Gospel. Nor do we really get much farther by |353 comparing John's doctrine of the Word of God with the Stoic doctrine of the Logos or universal reason, or by looking for the origin of his spiritual concepts in some Platonic other-world. The Fourth Gospel is made of different stuff from the metaphysical systems of the Hellenic schools. If it is Hellenic at all, it is a Hellenism which has learned much from the oriental world, and has been transformed or fertilized by a mystical faith in a universal deity who reveals himself spiritually to pure souls.
Where are we to look for this kind of philosophy, if we may call it a philosophy? Epictetus and Plutarch both had a touch of it; they recognized an intellectual deity who communicated something to the human mind. For all we know Apollonius had more than a touch of it. It was in the air.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, knew and practised it; for 'knowing' was practising in this way of thought. To 'know' God was to be in touch with him. Philo fused together the deities of Moses and Plato; he spoke of a Logos or Word of God, who acted for God in relation to this world, and set it in order and illuminated the thinking mind. He used the old Hebrew modes of speech, but he also used the accepted language of the philosophers. He believed himself to be guided by this intellectual power of God, which came from God and was God. But it has never been shown that the Fourth Gospel owes anything to Philo. They seem to belong to different streams of thought.
We pass to the Hermetic writings, and there we find something more akin to the language of John. But there is a difficulty. The date of some of the Hermetic writings can be pushed back into the second century, but not with certainty into the first; the best that can be said is that a very small proportion of this Egyptian literature may belong to the first. On the whole it seems reasonable to suppose that a good deal of the Hermetic writings have been influenced by John, or by Johannine thought, but we may conjecture that some of the streams of thought which passed into them had passed at an earlier date into the Johannine writings. John may have been influenced by pre-Hermetic thought, or something akin to it.
These writings speak of the spiritual and intellectual deity, and the spiritual and intellectual powers which radiated from him into the pure soul. Such thought and language must have existed in the first century. It is the ancestor of other religious developments, the chief of which is |354 gnosticism. In such circles the Johannine language about the Father and the Son, or about the Spirit of truth, may have been readily intelligible. At any rate it is to such a world of thought that this kind of language seems to relate itself. But it must have been a Jewish world of thought; or a world of thought into which Jewish ideas had entered, so becoming more intelligible to the Hellenistic mind. It was a pre-gnostic form of Judaism.
It is an important fact that the actual thought of the Johannine Gospel, though it may be expressed in the idiom of a Hellenistic spirituality, is nevertheless attached to Judaism at every point. It appropriates the authority of Moses and the prophets as definitely as Matthew does: it refers to Moses even more often. Its doctrine of the Word of God can be amply explained from rabbinic sources, and its other leading concepts are also taken from the Jewish tradition. Its sentence-construction is Semitic in character, and is readily retranslat-able into Aramaic. It is fundamentally a Semitic book, not a Greco-Roman book.
Furthermore, while it can be maintained that certain hypothetical pre-Hermetic and pre-gnostic initiates might have understood very readily what was meant by the word of God as an intellectual and spiritual power consubstantial with the deity, they would have been shocked to hear that the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us. It would have been a rude blow to their over-spiritualized, over-intellectualized mode of thought. The impact of the divine being upon the ordinary world of flesh-and-blood in the evangelical history would have been just as difficult for them to accept as the impact of the divine being upon the world of flesh-and-blood in the apocalyptic vision.of history.
A further study of this Gospel reveals another form of contact with history. Its story of the ministry of Jesus, from the first chapter to the twelfth, is told so as to emphasize the unbelief and hostility of the Jews; and by the Jews the people of Jerusalem and their rulers are intended. Even the believers in Jerusalem are not very highly thought of. Jesus would not trust to them. Those who opposed Jesus were the children of the devil, not seed of Abraham at all; he was seed of Abraham; in fact he existed before Abraham.
|355 They throw off their superficial objections to the Christhood of Jesus; but John does not take the trouble to answer them. ' Out of Galilee ariseth no prophet', they say; or ' Messiah cometh of the seed of David and of the town of Bethlehem': the kind of objections which Matthew answers with proof-texts. John says their failure to recognize him was due to their spiritual blindness; they did not recognize who he was; they thought they knew whence he came and whither he went; but actually they knew it not; they could not see his light or hear his word. They did not understand his speech.
It looks as if we are in touch with the historical situation here. We remember the hostility of the Ephesian Jews to Paul and their connexion with the Jews of Jerusalem. It looks as if the conflict with the Jews had not lessened since those days, and the Revelation seems to support this conclusion. The Johannine Gospel did on the plane of literature what Paul had done on the plane of evangelism; it turned to the Gentiles. It does not state this in such positive terms as Matthew does, but it intimates it dramatically in the twelfth chapter which concludes the story of the ministry of Jesus to Israel. The Gentiles come and ask to see Jesus, and Jesus gives the Jews their final warning.
We must take into account, too, the various circumstances which we learn of through the evidence of the Johannine Epistles, the remaining fragments of Papias, the witness of Polycarp and the statements of second-century writers. We must relate the Gospel somehow to the company of elders and disciples, among whom the prominent name (or names) was that of John; and also to the Docetic and Cerinthian schools, which we may now recognize perhaps as sharing in the 'philosophical' or pre-gnostic approach to religion which appears to have been coming into fashion at the time. For the Docetics of John's First Epistle laid considerable stress upon the idea of gnosis or knowledge, which was coming to mean a saving knowledge of divine mysteries; indeed, something of the sort may be traced in the various erratic schools to which Paul refers in his Epistles. It became one of the watchwords of the over-spiritual and over-intellectual heresies of the second century. It was not at all incompatible with a myth such as we find attributed to Cerinthus, in which a 'power' or 'spirit' from the sovereignty |356 which is above the universe descends into the man Jesus, who is juster and wiser than others; a descent which occurs at a sacramental moment.
The Gospel of John shows no knowledge of Matthew; the very occasional coincidences of expression appear to be fortuitous; but it has a close relation to Mark, sometimes taking his narrative for granted, sometimes retelling it, and often making bold changes in its order. Some modern scholars would prefer to think in terms of a gospel-tradition which resembled Mark; but Mark had been in the world for some time now and had even reached Syria; it had come to the attention of the Asian schools and been criticized there, and John (or one of the Johns) had defended its accuracy though he did not accept its order. Other arguments in the Johannine school may be explained as attempts to correct views which were based on Mark; the question of the right day for the Christian Pascha, for instance, and the difference of opinion on the length of the Lord's ministry. The heresy of Cerinthus may have been based on a peculiar understanding of Mark; Mark was the favourite Gospel of those who separated the Jesus from the Christus, Irenaeus says.
John's Gospel has a number of interesting points of contact with Luke and Acts, though all scholars would not accept them as proofs that John was familiar with Luke's work. Nevertheless the fact is that the contacts are with Luke and not with Matthew. The background from which he works can be studied in Mark, Luke and even the Acts; some scholars would add Paul.
We are now able to see the magnitude of the task which John attempted. There were various mental images of the Saviour, which were being made the basis of distinct theologies, if this word is appropriate yet. There was the eternal Son of God, older than creation, to borrow a phrase from Hernias; there was the historical Jesus of Nazareth, whether as legislator and prophet, or as the crucified and risen Messiah; there was the spiritual Lord who was at the right hand of God, or reigning in the church among the believers; there was the conquering king who was to come in glory. The task which John undertook was to unify these images, and present them as one picture and person, which he |357 could do because he had passed through the various phases of experience and vision and saw them as one person.
He avoided the confusions which came from regarding the Holy Spirit of the baptism story as the person in whom Christians put their trust. It was Jesus himself who was the object of Christian faith; and therefore Jesus personally was the Son of God, or Word of God as John called him, using a title which we have already noticed in the Revelation. The Word of God was an established name in Hebrew thought for the revelation of the divine personality which broke into the soul of the prophet as light and truth. It created the fundamental evangelical or prophetic experience, whether in the old Hebrew religion or in the new. And it was personal; it was nothing less than God himself in creative action; it was life as well as light. All things were made by it; nothing was made apart from it. It became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and dwelt among us. We beheld its glory.
The divine glory that men saw in Jesus of Nazareth was not something added to the man; it was the man himself; it was He. A unified picture thus becomes possible.
The words we have been using are taken from a psalm or hymn which John used as an overture to his prologue. The name of John the Baptist is woven into it. He was the spokesman of all that was best in the old Israel, and he had recognized Jesus. It is not said that he saw the glory as the disciples did; but he saw the Spirit which descended upon him, and he bore witness to the light. There had been disciples of the Baptist in Ephesus in Paul's time who were not at one with the church, and it may be that some of them still maintained their special form of faith. It is probable that the relation of John to the Christian faith needed to be defined. Perhaps there were some who claimed him as the Messiah, a claim which he abjures in this Gospel. Perhaps he was regarded as a witness to the Cerinthian or docetic type of faith. Later Ebionite legend regarded the Samaritan heretics, Simon and Dositheus, as disciples of the Baptist; and this Gospel says that John did preach and baptize in Samaria.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is so handled as to rule out the docetic and Cerinthian views, and to allot John his proper place; and yet the story is not actually told. It is taken for granted, and the effect built up by a supplementary dialogue. Mark's Gospel has not been replaced, therefore; it would have to be read before John's could be understood. John's is in the nature of supplement or commentary.
As we read through the Gospel, we find that the glory of the divine nature of Jesus in no way obliterates or overrides his humanity, though it enters fully into his actions and experiences. He is tired; he weeps tears over the death of his friend; he suffers pain and thirst; he dies; 'And he that saw it bore witness, and we know that he saith true, that ye might believe.' No one can question the earnest emphasis on historic fact in this sentence. The historic quality is of the essence of the Gospel, and a necessary element in its high evangelical theology. It was written to persuade men that Jesus was the Messiah, and the Son of God, against the Jews; but just as much to prove that he was truly man against the Docetists. ' Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe; and Pilate saith, Behold the Man'; not an angel or spirit, but a creature of flesh and blood. It is the dual emphasis that gives this Gospel its dramatic appeal. It also constitutes its problem.
In consequence of its special historical interest, we find it more loaded with minor detail than the other Gospels. There are a number of notes of time, and names of persons and places, and references to local customs. The background and atmosphere is fully Jewish. The style and diction is such that it has been seriously suggested that it is translated from Aramaic. It has been proved right in more than one instance on a historical detail. Has it ever been proved wrong? The case of the day of the crucifixion is an interesting example. The verdict of scholarship is not unanimous but it is given on the whole in favour of John. We note that he does not hesitate to correct the older Gospel.
John says that Pilate brought Jesus out wearing the crown of thorns and displayed him to the people at a place called the 'Pavement'. The site was pointed out in the Middle Ages, and the Ecce Homo Arch was said to mark the spot. Recent research has unearthed a stone pavement of twenty-five hundred square feet on this site, on the north of the old Temple area and just outside the site of the Roman praetorium or military headquarters. It was covered by rubble and debris by the destruction of the city in A.D. 70, so that the knowledge of the site in medieval times must have been a good tradition coming down unbroken through the centuries, and confirming now the statement of John. It is the one solidly authenticated Gospel site in Jerusalem, apart from the Temple enclosure itself.
|359 The author of this Gospel, or the disciple whose 'witness' he used, seems to have had a photographic memory for places and circumstances which fully warrants his repeated claims to have his evidence taken seriously as history; and critical scholarship today is receding from the view that everything he wrote was allegory and imagination. It is being recognized that he worked from authentic memories and traditions.
Why, then, is there any objection to taking his Gospel seriously as what it professes to be? The difficulty arises from literary and theological features, which will appear more clearly as we continue.
We said that John does not hesitate to change the order of Mark; but in reality he uses a different outline of history. In Mark the scene is laid in Galilee and the north, until Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to be crucified; in John much of the action takes place during visits to Jerusalem, and a great deal of it in the Temple courts. It is connected with the great festivals of the Hebrew calendar. The writer or his informant is well acquainted with Jerusalem and the Temple and the customary rites and ceremonies, just as we found the author of the Revelation to be.
In Mark there is only one Passover mentioned; and it was seriously contended in the second century that all the events of the ministry, from the baptism to the Passion, took place within twelve months. John has three Passovers, and his Gospel occupies parts of three years. This difference is not very serious, since the events in Mark cannot easily be compressed into twelve months, and a second Passover is indicated, though it is not named. More difficult for the old-fashioned harmonizer are the changes in the order of the events; the placing of the 'cleansing of the Temple', for instance, at the beginning of the ministry rather than at the end. But perhaps the order in both Gospels is sometimes liturgical rather than 'historical'? John groups his 'Marcan' material round his three Passovers. The first of them is followed by teaching about baptism; the second by teaching on the eucharist; and the third by the Last Supper. Now when we find a Christian sacramental mysticism developed in connexion with the festivals of the Judaeo-Christian calendar (for John uses other Jewish festivals in a similar way), we are bound to ask whether this teaching was not placed where it is for liturgical reasons. We may even ask
|360 whether these passages in his Gospel were not composed in the first place for delivery in church on these festal occasions, to which they are so well fitted.
The greatest divergence from the other Gospels, however, is not in the historical order, in which we may venture to say that John can hold his own against Mark; it is in the character and style of the sayings of Jesus. In the other Gospels, we have as a rule rather brief utterances, full of amazing visual images; the camel passes through the needle's eye; the mountain is cast into the sea; the stars fall from the skies. In John we have a smooth connected style of deceptive simplicity. It makes use of figures of speech, but seldom figures of speech which are calculated to startle the hearers. The manna in the wilderness, the serpent lifted up by Moses and the Paraclete coming from God are certainly not self-explanatory; but these are exceptions. The shepherd of the sheep, the bread from heaven and the living waters are not difficult ideas. The keywords of the Johannine discourses are Hebrew in origin, and are derived from prophecy and liturgy, but they are taken one by one and their inner significance drawn out. The apocalyptic element, which is so strongly fortified in Matthew, has been largely abandoned. The parable form hardly exists; it is merged into continuous discourse.
This simplification of style is not all. It has been compensated for by a different kind of dramatic effect. In the synoptists Jesus does not commonly speak at length about himself in the first person.
In John there are a number of cases in which he makes solemn utterances in the first person. 'I am the good shepherd'; 'I am the light of the world'; 'I am the true vine'; and so forth; and such sayings often introduce a connected monologue or dialogue, dealing with the relations of Jesus as Son of God with the Father, or with the disciples, or with the world. We receive the impression that these discourses or dialogues owe a good deal to the art and genius of the evangelist himself, who has perhaps given free expression to his own personal understanding of the Master's mission and message. It is still the Jesus of history who is speaking, but he has moved forward into the church, and is speaking there in a new idiom through his disciple, thus interpreting himself to his own, and to the Hellenistic world in which the church lives.
|361 The Gospel itself announces such an idea. Jesus departs from the world, it says, and goes to the Father, but he will not leave his disciples as 'orphans'; he will come to them.
In the discourses which follow the Last Supper, Jesus tells them of another Paraclete,a champion or defender, who will come to them from the Father. He is the Spirit of Truth, who will develop further the revelation which has been given them in and through himself. 'He will lead you into all the truth.' It is a bold statement. The revelation which was given by the Son of God in Jerusalem was not final or complete. There comes from the Father a second divine teacher who continues the revelation which he has begun. 'He will take of mine and show it unto you.' The coming of the Holy Spirit in the church is the mode by which the Son of God continues to make himself known, or be made known, to his friends whom he has chosen. The Son of God is still the object of their faith and the medium of God's revelation; but the revelation goes on among them in the Spirit.
This theology illuminates one or two verses in the Gospel which say that the disciples did not understand at the time something that Jesus was saying or doing; the understanding of it came to them later.
Of course this can be turned round and expressed in another way, if desired. There has been progress and development in the understanding of the words and acts of Jesus, as they were originally delivered by the disciples and eyewitnesses; and this development, it might be argued, was expressed by a literary convention, as his continued revelation of himself through the action of the Spirit in the church; but this would not fairly represent the thinking of John and his associates. For the Christian heart and mind, the power which was present in the church was the historic Jesus himself, who was the Word of the eternal Father.
This thought of a progressive clarification of the gospel in the church by the Lord through the Spirit is the most original feature of the Fourth Gospel. It is the form which the old doctrine of the advent or parousia now takes. In Mark the Lord had promised that he would come 'in glory' and his disciples would 'see' him. When we turn to the Revelation we find the conviction that this promise had been fulfilled in more ways than one. He had come in judgement when Jerusalem was destroyed; and he came in conquering power wherever his gospel was preached in the world or his martyrs bore their witness to him; but according to this Gospel, he came to his friends and servants, as they prayed in his name, an idea which is found in Matthew, too. The coming of the Holy Spirit was a veritable advent, through which he was once more in their midst though, indeed, he was not identical with the Holy Spirit; but where the Spirit came, he came. The same idea is expressed in a different idiom in the prologue to the Revelation. He stands in the midst of the golden lamps which represent the churches; he speaks to the prophet, who is in the Spirit, words of admonition and comfort which he is to convey to the churches. He convicts them of sin and of righteousness and of judgement.
It may be added that, while the hope of the advent of Jesus is quite fully realized in the internal coming within the church, the genuinely eschatological features are not altered. The resurrection of the dead and the general judgement remain for the future; but, as in Mark, there is no suggestion whatever of an immediate expectation of these great events. In the Revelation they are deferred to a distant future.
We have been obliged to illustrate the Gospel from the Revelation, and the Revelation from the Gospel, since they emanate from the same literary circle, and the leading thoughts of one are so often found to be the leading thoughts of the other; but dare we identify the prophetic witness who interpreted apocalypse in one, with the apostolic witness who interpreted gospel in the other? The diction of the Revelation is almost another language when compared with that of the Gospel; the one so cryptic and Hebraic and barbarous, the other so much more |363 successfully Hellenized, so lucid and musical. Could one man write in both styles, seeing, as the French critic said, that 'Le style est l'homme même'? Great scholars from Dionysius of Alexandria down to the present day have found it hard to believe; but perhaps it is easier to believe in one man of supreme creative genius and intellectual daring who could write in the two styles, than in two such men who lived in the same place at the same time. When we are further asked to believe that both of them were named John, both were called the Elder, and both were disciples of Jesus, the coincidence becomes very difficult to accept.
The Revelation picks up the old apocalyptic forms and makes a new thing of them. It works with stiff oriental imagery of an almost Babylonian rigidity; but it transforms it into a thing of vision and spiritual beauty. It creates a world of pure imagination. The living waters flow all through the city of God. It is amazing that it can be done in Greek at all; but it may have been the tension between the Hebrew and the Greek that made the miracle possible. The author was totally unsuccessful in what he attempted. He was not understood. He fell into the hands of the literalists and the millenarians, who could not understand his poetry. He had to wait for the Christian mystics and poets to interpret him.
It is the same with the Gospel. It picks up the old stories or parables. It takes the images one by one and meditates upon them. It writes clear and lucid sentences. It leaves no doubt that it is dealing with spiritual realities which need these images in order to make themselves actual and so become available to the human heart. It is obvious who the good shepherd is and what he does; it is obvious what is meant by the vine and its branches, or the wind that bloweth where it listeth, or the bread of life which cometh down from heaven. The words are spirit and truth; it is said so, in order that there may be no mistake.
The Gospel-writer also failed in his attempt. He fell into the hands of the philosophers and the gnostics, and they used him as a source-book for their systems of myth or dogma; and yet the ordinary preacher knows what to do with the story of Jesus seated weary by the well of Jacob or calling Lazarus from his four days' sleep.
The contrast between the two works of art is so striking as to suggest that it is not absolutely fortuitous. They occupy their different grounds so exclusively, and yet echo each other's deepest notes so constantly, |364 that we are challenged at once with the problem of explaining their relations. They have so many things in common; and one of them is genius. Neither Paul nor Luke nor Matthew could have written the Revelation; it would have been beyond their compass; but can we feel so sure about the author of the Fourth Gospel?
Those who think it impossible (and they comprise a number of Protestant scholars) have the task of explaining the spiritual relations which belong to the inner life and thought of the two books. Did the great poet who put the Revelation into its final shape also provide dialogue for the Gospel? Can the work of the same mind be discerned, at least at certain levels? Most easily perhaps in the realm of a mystical and sacramental devotion.
The Spirit and the Bride say, Come: and let him that is athirst come.
Whosoever will; let him take of the water of life freely.
Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him: shall never thirst.
Lord, give me this water, that I thirst not: neither come hither to draw.
Our father did eat manna in the desert: as it is written, he gave them bread from heaven to eat.
Then said they unto him: Lord, evermore give us this bread.
If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him; and will sup with him and he with me.
He that hath an ear: let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.
To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna: and will give him a white stone.
And in the stone a new name written: which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
Thou shall be called Cephas: which is by interpretation a stone.
This jumble of texts out of both books serves to illustrate this point.
We recommended earlier in this chapter the identification of the ' beloved disciple' of the Fourth Gospel 'who wrote these things' with John the son of Zebedee, and rejected the theory that he was an allegorical figure. We must return to that subject.
The last chapter of the Gospel contains a dialogue between Peter and the risen Lord, in which Peter's pastoral authority and his martyrdom at an advanced age are both established as historical. They were in |365 the past when the Gospel was written. The'beloved disciple' is allotted a different destiny: 'If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.' And so the saying went abroad among the brethren, the Gospel continues, that the disciple in question would not die. But Jesus had not said this, the Gospel explains; he had said, 'If he tarry till I come ...'.
We learn from this passage that the 'beloved disciple' was a historical personality on the same level as Peter; that he lived to a great age; that he was well known among the brethren; and that there was a belief about him that he would survive until the coming of the Lord. A note was added to the Gospel to correct this mistaken idea. But nobody corrects ideas which do not exist, about persons who do not exist. The 'beloved disciple' was a person everybody knew, not merely a character in a book.
Those who wish to escape from this conclusion suggest that the final chapter was written by another hand and added at a later date; but even if this were true, the chapter would still prove the existence of the 'beloved disciple' among the brethren at the date when it was written or not long before it. It is quite true, as they point out, that the chapter is in the nature of an epilogue, which comes after the main action of the book seems to come to a natural close at xx. 31; but this literary form is a very common one and in this case it adds strength and beauty and significance to the book as a whole. The same literary convention is used by the author of the Revelation, who adds an epilogue of serene beauty-after the close of the apocalyptic action at xxi. 8. 'Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life does greatly please'; and 'Good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues'; to quote two great English masters of the art.
There is nothing in the style or in the thought of either Johannine epilogue to suggest that it was written by another hand. The high standard of creative writing is maintained in both; indeed, the author surpasses himself. The tension is relaxed, but new beauty is introduced to compensate for that. This new element picks up thoughts which were introduced in the prologue; in the seven messages to the seven churches in the case of the Revelation, in the first seven days of the narrative in the case of the Gospel. There is no indication in any manuscript or other textual authority that either book ever circulated without its epilogue; and we have shown why such evidence was bound to survive.
|366 Once a document was handed over to the copyists, and new copies began to circulate, there would be no way of recalling them in order to have the addition made. The history of the epilogue which was added to Mark illustrates this point. The conclusion is bound to be that the epilogue to John is an integral part of the Gospel, and that the' beloved disciple' was a familiar and venerated figure among those who first read it or heard it read.
We are no longer looking at a book or books which can be treated as if they came to us with no pedigree, but at a massive historical fact which is vouched for by copious external evidence in the succeeding period of church history. It is the great Johannine school which dominated the Ephesian landscape in the nineties. It was so well grounded in history, and its spiritual authority was so secure, that it was able to stand firm against the Docetics, the Cerinthians, the non-believing Jews, and quite possibly some of the more extreme Jewish Christians. It was not entirely the tradition of one man; and yet its power and influence and appeal was due to the genius and originality of one man who won the homage of the whole church and inspired the most interesting developments of the following century in Syria, Asia, Phrygia, Alexandria and Rome. He appears as a faithful witness and teacher, a venerable elder, a disciple of Jesus, a master of liturgy, and a maker and visitor of bishops. We hear from all quarters that he was John the son of Zebedee.
A highly sceptical literary and theological criticism has doubted the truth of this identification, or has endeavoured to divide him into two or more personalities; and these doubts have confused the issue and clouded the view of the landscape. We have done our best to make fair allowance for them; but we have to record our conviction that the historical evidence is so strong, however harshly it may be criticized, as to leave John the son of Zebedee firmly enthroned as the master of his school, however his relation to the literature may be explained. The literature cannot be considered apart from the school and its history, nor the school apart from the literature. Its immense influence was not confined to the production of books. It produced scholars and evangelists who themselves became venerable 'elders' in due course; for |367 the rabbinic notion of a teaching succession was one of its features. Its literature was accepted as part of the apostolic tradition. It is not until the end of the second century that a voice was raised against the Johannine literature, and this eccentric protest was caused by the excesses of the Montanist movement which made an eccentric use of the Johannine writings.
It is one of the ironies of history that the barbarous and fanatical prophet Montanus should have entered so deeply into the literature of this apostolic school, and wedded together in a fantastic union the exciting doctrines of the Paraclete and the New Jerusalem, thereby forcing their consideration upon the church as a whole; just as the ' eschatological' school of criticism today, for all its extravagances, forces the ecumenical church to take a new look at the apostolic literature.
The 'disciple who wrote these things' may not have written the whole Gospel, as we have it now, in connected form. The phrase may only mean that he left written documents. Others intervene with their attestation; and in this circle, if we please, we may place the second John. It is possible that the aged disciple had passed to his rest before the complete Gospel came into existence; for when it was published, as his work, the notion that he would never die needed to be corrected and explained; and this rather suggests that he had died. These others may have worked on it, and arranged it, and added some of the explanatory notes which we find here and there.
We have seen that books, in this period, sometimes took long to write. They were often the fruit of old age. The co-operation of others was not despised. The Johannine Gospel may have gone through many processes before it matured and came to perfection. It went out to all the churches as the last word of the old disciple, and the supreme expression of a great apostolic tradition which was widely venerated.
The tradition states that John survived into the times of Trajan, the emperor who came to the throne in 98. There is no record of his death, any more than there is of Peter's or Paul's. It was fifty or sixty years |368 later that a Valentinian Gnostic, whose name may have been Leucius Charinus, ventured to tell the story in a romantic piece of fiction called the Acts of John. It is a work of the pious imagination; but fiction has to accommodate itself to the main facts of history, and the main facts must have been well known at that time. In this book John died peacefully in Ephesus at a great age. After a long prayer he sealed himself in every part, saying, 'Thou art with me, O Lord Jesus'; then he lay down in the grave where he had strewn his garments; and when he had said 'Peace be with you, my brethren', he gave up his spirit with joy. There are elaborations in some manuscripts to this simple ending, as for instance that the body was found to have disappeared, or that the earth over it could be seen to move as if the buried apostle were still breathing; for was it not thought that this disciple could never die?
The story in the Acts of John has no historical value, of course, except so far as it shows what the general belief of the church was at the time when it was written. There is no good reason to question this belief, which is that of the first Christian centuries; but there are some scholars who have taken seriously a statement which may be traced back to a fifth-century historian named Philip of Side, who had a reputation for unreliability; it is to the effect that after John had written his Gospel he was slain by the Jews, and it is said to have been derived from the second volume of Papias. If Papias really said this, it must be taken seriously; but it is obvious that he did not. Irenaeus and Euse-bius and others had studied Papias for themselves, and if the statement had stood in his book they would have known about it, and so would the church at large.
Nobody claims John as a martyr before the fifth century, that is to say a martyr who sealed his witness by death. He was a martyr in the primitive sense of the word, a man who bore witness to the truth. The grandsons of Jude were martyrs, Hegesippus said, and John was a martyr in that sense, too. It was the sense in which he used it himself.
For this cause was I born and came into the world, that I should witness to the truth:
(John xviii. 37.)
The spirit of prophecy is the witness of Jesus.
(Rev. xix. 10.)
George the Monk, who called himself Hamartolos or the Sinner, compiled a Chronicle in the ninth century, into which he copied extracts from previous compilations. There are twenty-six manuscripts of his work, and one of them (Codex Coislinianus at Paris) contains a statement which is said to have been made by Papias in his second volume, that 'John the Divine' and his brother James were slain by the Jews. It is embedded in argumentative material, and quotes the verse in Matthew which says that both brothers would drink of his cup. The other side of this argument seems to appear in an equally dubious quotation from Polycarp (which we owe to the fifth-century Victor of Capua), in which it is argued that actual martyrdom is not implied: it is printed by Feuardentius and Lightfoot.
The argument may safely be traced back to the fifth century. There is a manuscript at Oxford called the Codex Baroccianus, from which certain extracts were quoted and discussed by C. de Boor in Texte und Untersuchungen (Berlin, 1888). This manuscript is also of the chronicle type, and de Boor considered it to be an epitome or selection of extracts made by some unknown person in the seventh or eighth century from the fifth-century writer Philip of Side. Philip was a historian with a reputation for extreme inaccuracy. His works have not survived except for this dubious fragment and a few other quotations.
The 'de Boor' document contains the alleged quotation from Papias about the death of John; and also a few minor details which are not found in corresponding passages elsewhere. In the extract from Papias the name of a person miraculously raised from the dead is given. It looks as if Philip, or some source that he worked from, may have had independent access to these ancient authors, and it is just possible that some authentic information may have filtered down through these obscure channels. It is difficult to see, however, how any one could prefer this evidence to the solid tradition of the early church.
It has also been pointed out that a fourth-century Syrian martyrology commemorated James and John on the same day (December 27) and this implies the belief at this time, or even earlier, that both brothers were martyrs; but it is not at all clear in what sense the word martyr would have been used originally, or indeed which James and John were originally commemorated. An African calendar of the same century substitutes John the Baptist. These mid-winter commemorations are an obscure study, and shed no light on the history of the apostolic period.
See Neue Fragmente by C. de Boor, 1888; and discussions from different points of view by R. H. Charles, Commentary on the Revelation in I.C.C., and J. H. Bernard in Commentary on St John's Gospel in I.C.C.
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