In the preface to his lost work, Exposition of the Dominical Oracles, Papias of Hierapolis (early second century) lists a number of disciples of the Lord, among whom he names the Apostle John and John the Elder.
And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice.Fragment 3.4 = Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4 [Holmes]
While most scholars believe he was speaking of two separate figures named John, some hold that he was speaking of the same John twice, and this shall be the focus of our discussion in the next few posts.
When Did John the Elder Live?
Before discussing this, however, Papias’s statements must first be placed in their chronological setting. An important clue at to the time of his inquiries is given by Papias himself, when he states that he inquired both concerning what Andrew, Peter, et al., had said and what Aristion and John the Elder were saying. This shows that Andrew and the others had died at the time of these inquiries, while the latter two disciples, Aristion and John the Elder, were still alive.
Since they are described as“disciples of the Lord,” which in the context denotes that they were personal disciples of the Lord, a time for these inquiries cannot be placed later than about the end of the first century.
Thus, Papias must have made his inquiries at a time after the most prominent disciples had died, but before all of them had. This seems to point to the end of the first century at the latest, and he must therefore have written sometime after that.
In the next post, we’ll examine what scholars have generally said regarding the question of whether Papias spoke of two Johns, or whether he spoke of the same John twice.
A summary of my book’s discussion of Papias and his two Johns can be found here.