Guest Blog by Michael Kok: The Tradition about the Apostle and Evangelist John

Below is a guest blog by Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield) on the topic of his new book regarding the identity and reception of the “Beloved Disciple” in the Fourth Gospel, and how the text came to be associated with the apostle and evangelist John in the centuries following its composition.

Kok is a friend and colleague of mine, whom I first met in person two years ago at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta. Kok is a Christian, and although we don’t always share the same views, I’ve found his research on the authorship, reception, and canonization of the NT Gospels to be highly relevant to my own studies. Kok also runs an academic blog–The Jesus Memoirs–which you should all check out!


Thanks to Matthew Ferguson for the invitation to discuss my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist. The content below is reproduced by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. http://www.wipfandstock.com.

PrintThe Galilean fisherman John dropped his fishing nets and got out of his boat to become a disciple of Jesus. He was part of the inner circle of Jesus’s twelve apostles and a “pillar” of the Jerusalem Christ congregation (Mark 1:19–20; 1:29–31; 5:37–43; 9:2–9; 13:3–4; 14:33; Acts 3:1, 3, 4, 11; 4:1, 6, 13, 19; 8:14, 17, 25; Galatians 2:9). The religious establishment heaped scorn on John as an untrained layperson (idiōtēs), as literally “unlettered” (agrammatos) in Acts 4:13, but the church tradition enshrined him as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who published the Fourth Gospel and four other New Testament writings. In my work, I have attempted to answer the following questions about the church traditions:

  • Should the quest to remove the mask of the mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” be limited to the verses that explicitly use this designation (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) or should other references to an anonymous follower be considered (1:40; 18:15–16; 19:35; 21:2)? When did this figure first get identified with the Apostle John?
  • When was the epilogue to the Fourth Gospel attached after the conclusion in John 20:30–31, did it distinguish the beloved disciple from “the ones of Zebedee” in 21:2, and did it contain the earliest authorial tradition in 21:24?
  • Did the bishop Papias of Hierapolis distinguish the Apostle John, listed among a group of seven former disciples of the Lord, from another esteemed presbyteros (“elder” or “presbyter”) named John in Asia Minor (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 39.4)? Has an authentic Papian fragment been preserved by the fifth-century church historian Philip of Side (Codex Baroccianus 142) about the martyrdoms of “John the Theologian and his brother James” (cf. Mark 10:38–39)?
  • Did Justin, surnamed the “Martyr” because his execution was ordered by the urban prefect Q. Junius Rusticus (ca. 162–168 CE), include the Fourth Gospel among the “Memoirs of the Apostles”? Why did he identify the Apostle John as the visionary behind the book of Revelation (Dialogue with Trypho 4; see Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8)?
  • How much earlier can we trace the memory of Johannine authorship before the Patriarch of Antioch Theophilus (Apology to Autolycus 22), the Valentinian disciple Ptolemy (in Against Heresies 1.8.5), and the bishop of Lyon Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1)?
  • What accounts for these biographical details recorded by Irenaeus: John reclined beside Jesus (see John 13:23), took up residence in Ephesus, lived to see the rise of the emperor Trajan to imperial power (ca. 98–117 CE), and fled from a public bathhouse when he encountered the arch-heretic Cerinthus inside (2.22.5; 3.1.1; 3.3.4)?
  • Why did Polycrates of Ephesus depict John as wearing the sacerdotal plate (petalon) of the high priest (in Ecclesiastical History 31.3; 5.24.2)?
  • Did John write to supplement the other three “Synoptic” Gospels (in Ecclesiastical History 24.7-13; 6.14.7; Muratorian Canon, lines 9–16)?
  • Although Irenaeus insisted that John wrote to counter the theological errors that Cerinthus espoused (Against Heresies 11.1; 3.16.5), what was the origins of the minority tradition that attributed the book of Revelation (in Ecclesiastical History 3.28.2; 7.25.2) and, later, the Gospel (Epiphanius, Panarion 51.3.6) to Cerinthus?

Some treat the answers to the questions as of the utmost importance. For example, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a statement re-affirming the traditional authorship and historical integrity of the Fourth Gospel on May 29, 1907 (for the documents in Italian and Latin see here). I do not think the stakes have to be so high. The text makes an explicit claim that at least one eyewitness was consulted (John 19:35), regardless of the identity of “that one,” and there may be other methods to weigh the historicity of the material contained within the Fourth Gospel. For Christians who hold the Fourth Gospel as scriptural, a theological belief in “inspiration” might accommodate any human authors or editors who had a hand in the composition or publication of a canonical text.

Nevertheless, why have so many readers in the past and present been invested in the authorship of the Fourth Gospel? The three reasons that I will give is that apostolic authorship was a device for legitimating a text for a particular community of readers, authorial corpuses allow one to cross-reference between texts and interpret one in light of the other, and “apostolic succession” supplied the proper credentials for interpreting an apostolic document.

The Gospels could be assigned to the apostles collectively (Justin Martyr) or to individual evangelists (Papias, Irenaeus, etc.). Eventually, “authorship” was one of the criteria for determining which books belong in the canon along with their antiquity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. Even so, the value of this criterion should not be exaggerated. The traditions about Mark and Luke were that they were associates of Peter and Paul rather than apostles themselves, though the apologist Tertullian belittled Luke as a lesser “apostolic man” because he disapproved of how his Gospel had been appropriated by a rival teacher (Against Marcion 4.2.4). Some Christian intellectuals had reservations about the Petrine authorship of Second Peter (e.g., Ecclesiastical History 3.3.1; 3.25.3; 6.25.8) or the Pauline authorship of the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews (e.g., Ecclesiastical History 3.3.5; 3.38.2–3; 6.20.3; 6.25.11–14), but otherwise accepted these books based on their content and their long history of usage. Conversely, the bishop Serapion of Antioch withdrew the permission he gave to the congregation in Rhossus in Syria to include the Gospel of Peter in their devotions after he studied its contents (Ecclesiastical History 6.12.2). The assumption was that one of the apostolic founders of the Christian tradition could not pen something that deviated from the tradition.

Regarding the second point, we can turn to the reception of the so-called Johannine Epistles. The anonymous tractate or sermon First John came to be received as the work of the Apostle John, while some doubts continued to be expressed about the shorter two epistles known as Second John and Third John (e.g., Ecclesiastical History 3.24.17; 3.25.2; 6.25.10). The Fourth Gospel stresses that Jesus was the logos (word) who created all things (John 1:1–3), was personally conscious of his heavenly pre-existence (e.g., 3:13; 17:5), and embodied the divine name (e.g., 8:58; 18:5–8). A primary image for his death was “lifting up” or exaltation (e.g., 3:14; 12:32–33). Yet First John may be a potentially corrective to emphasizing Jesus’s divinity at the expense of his humanity, re-iterating the confessions that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2; cf. John 1:14) and shed real blood in his atoning death (2:2; 5:6; cf. John 19:34)

Regarding the third point, we can turn to Irenaeus’s letter to his ministerial colleague Florinus (in Ecclesiastical History 5.20.4–8; cf. Against Heresies 3.3.4). Florinus was entertaining theological opinions that Irenaeus considered to be diverging from the truth they had both learned as children in the presence of the bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn had received it from John and others who had seen the Lord. The assumption was that the “rule of faith” had been publicly handed down in a straight line of “apostolic succession” from the apostles to their ecclesiastical successors and this alone, not the private idiosyncratic readings or esoteric teachings of schismatic factions, provided the approved lens for interpretation.

In conclusion, regardless of the historical accuracy of the identification of the Apostle John as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and the fourth evangelist, there is no question about the role that this identification played in the reception and canonization of the Fourth Gospel.

-Michael Kok

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4 Responses to Guest Blog by Michael Kok: The Tradition about the Apostle and Evangelist John

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: The Tradition about the Apostle and Evangelist John « The Jesus Memoirs

  2. Aleea says:

    Thank you Michael, ―great points . . . and thank you Matthew for arranging this post.

    Hello Michael,

    So, first, here is where I am coming from: The facts don’t tell you what to do with the facts. . . .“Facts” are valueless . . . .No Up, no Down. . . .We don’t even know what direction to walk in unless we borrow from something. . . . Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what their myth is. ―And we should know what our myths are because it might be a total tragedy and maybe we don’t want it to be. . . .So, there are things w-a-y more important than knowledge. . . .Honestly, what good is what is objectively, demonstrably true if it leads to nihilism and loss of personal responsibility? I say, but could easily be wrong: “Truth” serves Life. . . .I say Christianity is Truer than True because it serves life. ―But, but I know my decision is arbitrary and on the “facts” it doesn’t often look that good, ―that always so troubles me.

    . . .Okay, so if you have time, is it true that the Gospel of John has multiple authors and endings and even that their one witness is a fabrication? Would that be accurate as the most probable? ―Was that a practice common in ancient writings? Re:Greek Mythography in the Roman World (Society for Classical Studies American Classical Studies) 1st Edition, et.al. . . .Should we say that John as agrammatos (―Acts 4:13, ―didn’t know his letters, etc.) did not write any of John’s gospel? Do we have any firm link to eyewitness testimony or is it better to conclude that we have no eyewitness testimony (conjectures vs. actual evidence).

    Thank you so much. . . .

    • Thanks Aleea for your questions. Different scholars might answer them differently, so I can only outline my own approach. I think that there probably were some eyewitnesses who may have had a limited role in preserving some of the Jesus traditions in the oral period between the historical Jesus and the composition of the oldest Gospels. It may be more difficult to identify who these eyewitnesses were because, as Matthew has pointed out before on this blog, the Gospel writers stand out from some other elite Greco-Roman biographers in not explicitly identifying themselves or their sources and the titles/traditions about the Gospel writers were attached to the Gospels at a later date (e.g. the belief that the Apostle John wrote the text which goes against an earlier text like Acts 4:13). Perhaps the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” was one such eyewitness informant and he seems to have died before a later editor added the final chapter to the book (check out how John 21:20-24 now speaks about a “we” group that is distinct from the beloved disciple and how they insist that the beloved disciple was never promised immortality, thus implying that he had died). However, you are right that there are no facts without interpretation. Thus, John 19:35 may make a claim that an eyewitness saw Jesus die, but there is a lot of theological symbolism that is attributed to the “blood and water” that poured out from Jesus’ side and Christians find more “life-serving” significance in the cross than just the bare fact that it was the instrument for Jesus’ execution.

  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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