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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Joannes Presbyter

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Joannes (444) Presbyter , a shadowy personage of the sub-apostolic age, the reasons for belief in his existence being solely derived from an inference drawn by Eusebius from language used in a passage of Papias. In the middle of the 3rd cent. Dionysius of Alexandria (Eus. H. E. vii. 25) had maintained on critical grounds that the author of the fourth gospel and of the Catholic epistle could not also have been the author of the Apocalypse. Dionysius takes for granted that the author of the gospel was John the apostle, and has no difficulty in conceding that the name of the author of the Apocalypse was also John, since the writer himself says so; but urges that he never claims to be the apostle. He calls himself simply John, without adding that he was the disciple whom Jesus loved, or who leaned on our Lord's breast, or the brother of James, or in any way forcing us to identify him with the son of Zebedee. Now, there were many Johns, and it is said that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each called John's. Except in the statement last made, Dionysius does not pretend to have found any actual trace of any John of the apostolic age besides John the apostle and John Mark. His argument is merely that if we have good critical reasons for believing the authors of the gospel and of the Apocalypse to be distinct, the fact that both bore the name John does not force us to identify them. Some 75 years later Eusebius found historic evidence for regarding as a fact what Dionysius had suggested as a possibility. He produces from the preface to the work of Papias an extract, for a fuller discussion of which see PAPIAS. What concerns us here is that Papias, speaking of his care in collecting oral traditions of the apostolic times, says, "on any occasion when a person came in my way, who had been a follower of the elders, I would inquire about the discourses of the elders—what was said by Andrew, or by Peter, or by Philip, or by Thomas or James, or by John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and what Aristion and the Elder John, the disciples of the Lord say" (Lightfoot's trans.). Eusebius points out that as the name John occurs here twice: the first time in a list of apostles, no doubt representing John the apostle; the second time in a different list, after the name of Aristion and with the title elder prefixed, it must represent a different person. Thus the John whose traditions Papias several times records is the elder, not the apostle. We find thus, remarks Eusebius, that "the account of those is true who have stated that two persons in Asia had the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present time, bears the name of John." "It is likely that the second (unless we allow that it was, as some would have it, the first) beheld the revelation ascribed to John" ( H. E. iii. 39). Although Eusebius does not here name Dionysius of Alexandria, he plainly had in mind that passage of his writings which he gives at length elsewhere. The ambiguous way in which he speaks of the Apocalypse shews that his personal inclination was to pronounce it non-apostolical, but that he was kept in check by the weight of authority in its favour. The silence of Eusebius indicates that the other passages in Papias where John was mentioned contained no decisive indications what John was intended.

Modern writers have not been unanimous in their judgment on this criticism of Eusebius. Several reject it, judging Papias to be mentioning one John twice. So Milligan (Journal Sac. Lit. Oct. 1867), Riggenbach ( Jahrb. für deutsche Theol. xiii. 319), Zahn ( Stud. und Krit. 1866, p. 650, Acta Johannis , 1880, p. cliv.). But a far more powerful array of critics endorses the conclusion of Eusebius e.g. Steitz ( Stud. and Krit. 1868, p. 63), Lightfoot ( Contemp. Rev. Aug. 1875, p. 379), Westcott ( N. T. Canon. p. 69); while less orthodox critics with one consent base their theories with confidence on John the Elder being as historical as SS. Peter or Paul.

The argument of Eusebius, on the other hand, seems to have made little impression at the time and his successors seem to know only of one John and go on speaking of Papias as the hearer of John the apostle. In this they follow Irenaeus; and it is an important fact that Irenaeus, who was very familiar with the work of Papias of which he made large use and whose Eastern origin ought to have acquainted him with the traditions of the Asiatic church, shews no symptom of having heard of any John but the apostle, and describes Papias (v. 33, p. 333) as a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp. That Polycarp was a hearer of John the apostle is stated explicitly by Irenaeus in his letter to Victor (Eus. H. E. v. 24; see also his letter to Florinus, v. 20). That Polycarp was made bp. of Smyrna by John the apostle is stated by Tertullian ( Praes. v. 30) and was never doubted by subsequent writers. Polycrates, appealing to the great lights of the church of Asia (Eus. v. 24), names John, who leaned on our Lord's breast, who sleeps at Ephesus, but says nothing about any second John buried there or elsewhere. The silence of Dionysius of Alexandria is positive proof that no tradition of a second John had reached him. If he knew and remembered the passage in Papias it did not occur to him to draw from it the same inference as Eusebius. Neither, though he mentions the two monuments at Ephesus, both bearing the name of John, does he say what would have been very much to his purpose, that he had heard that they were supposed to commemorate different persons; and in fact Jerome, who in his "catalogue" repeats the story, tells us that some held that the same John was commemorated by both. The Acts of Leucius are notoriously the source whence the Fathers, from the 4th cent., derived Johannine traditions. While disagreeing with Zahn's opinion that Leucius was earlier than Papias, it is highly probable that he was a full century earlier than Eusebius, and we can assert, with as much confidence as such a thing can be asserted of a book of which only fragments remain, that Leucius mentioned no John but the apostle. If when Leucius put his stories together any tradition had remained of a second John, this would surely have been among the Leucian names of the apostle's disciples, so many of which we are able to enumerate. Eusebius had not thought of his theory at the time of his earlier work, the Chronicle , in which he describes Papias as a disciple of the evangelist. Jerome also is not self-consistent, speaking in one way when immediately under the influence of Eusebius, at other times following the older tradition. In the East the only trace of the theory of Eusebius is that the Apostolic Constitutions (vii. 46) make John ordain another John, as bp. of Ephesus in succession to Timothy. The writers who used the work of Papias do not seem to suspect that any John but the apostle was the source of his information. One fragment (Gebhardt and Harnack, 2nd ed. No. iii. p. 93) was preserved by Apollinarius, who describes Papias as a disciple of John; some authorities add "the apostle," but wherever John is mentioned without addition no other is meant. Anastasius of Sinai (Gebhardt, No. vi.) describes Papias as ὁ ἐν τῷ ἐπιστηθίῳ φοιτήσας ; No. vii. as ὁ Ἰωάννου τοῦ εὐαγγελιστοῦ φοιτητής ; Maximus confessor (No. ix.) describes him as συνακμάσαντα τῷ θείῳ εὐαγγελιστῇ Ἰωάννῃ . An anonymous but ancient note even makes Papias the scribe who wrote the gospel from the apostle's dictation. Thus Eusebius stands completely alone among ancient authorities, differing alike from his predecessors and successors. It by no means necessarily follows that he was wrong. If he has correctly interpreted the language of Papias, the authority of so ancient a witness outweighs that of any number of later writers. We can conceive either that there were two Johns in Asia, and that the latter's fame was so absorbed by the glory of his greater namesake that all remembrance of him was lost; or else we may imagine that the second John, the source of apostolic traditions to the Asiatic churches, was held in such high consideration that, though not really so, he passed in common fame as the apostle.

The supposition that John the apostle was never in Asia Minor has been embraced by Keim (Jesu von Nazara ), Scholten (Der Apostel Johannes in Kleinasien ) and others. But except that the recognition of the residence of a different John in Asia opens the possibility of a confusion, their reasons for disbelief in the apostle's residence in Asia are worthless. There is an immense mass of patristic testimony that John the apostle lived to a great age and died in Asia in the reign of Trajan.

If, then, both John the apostle and the elder taught in Asia, can we transfer to the second anything traditionally told of the first? Dionysius and Eusebius transfer to him the authorship of the Apocalypse, but those who now divide the Johannine books between these two Johns unanimously give the Apocalypse to the first. St. Jerome assigns to "the Elder" the two minor epistles, and this is a very natural inference from their inscription. That is a modest one, if the writer could have claimed the dignity of apostle; but if not, it seems arrogant to designate himself as the elder when there must have been elders in every city. There is also a great assumption of authority in the tone of the 3rd epistle. The writer sends his legates to the churches of the district, is angry if these legates are not respectfully received, and addresses the churches in a tone of command. It may be suggested as an explanation of this, that the writer knew himself to be the sole survivor in the district of the first Christian generation; and it agrees with this that Papias describes him as a disciple of our Lord, yet speaks of him in the present tense while he speaks of the apostles in the past. But this hypothesis is scarcely tenable if we believe what is told of the great age attained by the apostle John, who is said to have lived to the reign of Trajan. This hardly leaves room for any one who could claim to have heard our Lord to acquire celebrity after the apostle's decease. Further, no one who used the fourth gospel only could know that there had been an apostle named John. Even our Lord's forerunner, called in other gospels John the Baptist, in this is simply John, as if there were no need to distinguish him from any other. The apostle alone would not feel such need, therefore if he were the author of the gospel, all is intelligible; but if the author were his disciple, is it conceivable that he should thus suppress the name of his great master and predecessor in labour in Asia; and if beside the apostle there were in our Lord's circle another John, is it conceivable that the writer should not have distinguished between them?

Thus the Eusebian interpretation of Papias must stand on its own merits. It obtains no confirmation from independent testimony, nor does it solve any perplexing problems. It is certainly possible that we with our more powerful instruments of criticism may be able to resolve a double star which had appeared to the early observers single. Yet considering how much closer and more favourably circumstanced they were, we have need to look well that the mistake is not our own. One Eusebian argument must then be rejected, namely, that by calling his second John the elder, Papias meant to distinguish him from the apostle. This would be so if he had called the first John an apostle, but actually he calls him an elder. If we suppose, as do Lightfoot and others, that he uses the word elder in two different senses, at least the word cannot be used the second time to distinguish him from those to whom it is applied the first time. If it is to distinguish him from any one it is from Aristion, to whom, though also called a disciple of the Lord, this name is not applied. Hence Eusebius's second argument, that Papias by placing John after Aristion meant to assign to him a less honourable place, fails since John is given a title of dignity which is refused to Aristion. Some light is thrown on the sense in which the word elder is applied to John by Papias in his preface by the fact that one of his traditions is told with the formula, "These things the elder used to say." This must surely mean more than that the authority cited was one of the many presbyters of the church and we cannot help connecting with it the fact revealed by the minor Johannine epistles, that there was some one in the Asiatic church who spoke of himself, and no doubt was habitually spoken of by others, as "the Elder."

The only Eusebian argument then that remains is that Papias mentions the name John twice over and therefore may be presumed to speak of two Johns. But might he not first enumerate John in his list of seven apostles, concerning whom he had been able to glean traditions, and a second time in his shorter list of men of the first Christian generation who had survived to his own day? Papias wrote for the men of his time, to whom the facts were well known, and the idea of being misunderstood would no more occur to him than it would to us, if we spoke of one of our leading statesmen at one moment by his surname only, the next with the addition of his title or Christian name. The second time the title "elder" is used it does not mean "one of the first generation of Christians," for Aristion to whom the title is refused was that; it does not mean merely one holding the office of presbyter, for then the phrase "the elder" would have no meaning. What remains but that the second John had the same right to the title as Andrew, Peter, and the rest to whom it is given in the beginning of the sentence?

Hence while we own the Eusebian interpretation of Papias to be a possible one, we are unable to see that it is the only possible one; and therefore while willing to receive the hypothesis of two Johns, if it will help to explain any difficulty, we do not think the evidence strong enough to establish it as an historical fact: and we frankly own that if it were not for deference to better judges, we should unite with Keim in relegating, though in a different way, this "Doppelgänger" of the apostle to the region of ghostland.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Joannes Presbyter'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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