Papias: One John or Two? (Part 3)

Even many prominent scholars of the traditional view reject the view that Papias spoke of one John

Part 3: Concessions from Scholars Holding the Traditional View

In this post, we will see that Papias’s differentiation of the two Johns has been accepted even among those who hold the traditional view (that the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee, wrote all of the Johannine works), despite the fact that this creates an otherwise unknown John who was famous at the time of Papias. Papias’s words are:

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.

Fragment 3.4 = Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4 [Holmes].


The great champion of conservative scholarship in the nineteenth century, J. B. Lightfoot, speaking of those “who maintain that the same John, the son of Zebedee, is meant in both passages,” has this to say:

But I cannot myself doubt that Eusebius was right in his interpretation [i.e. that there were two separate Johns] . . . It will be observed that John is the only name mentioned twice, and that at its second occurrence the person bearing it is distinguished as the ‘elder’ or ‘presbyter,’ this designation being put in an emphatic position before the proper name. We must therefore accept the distinction between John the Apostle and John the Presbyter, though the concession may not be free from inconvenience, as introducing an element of possible confusion.

J. B. Lightfoot, Essays on the Work Entitled Supernatural Religion (London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1893), 144.


Arthur Cushman McGiffert, who translated Eusebius’s Church History in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, is emphatic:

A careful exegesis of the passage from Papias quoted by Eusebius seems, however, to lead necessarily to the conclusion which Eusebius draws, that Papias refers to two different persons bearing the same name,—John. In fact, no other conclusion can be reached, unless we accuse Papias of the most stupid and illogical method of writing. Certainly, if he knew of but one John, there is no possible excuse for mentioning him twice in the one passage.

McGiffert maintains this, despite accepting the difficulty of accounting for the existence of an otherwise unknown John the Elder:

On the other hand, if we accept Eusebius’ interpretation, we are met by a serious difficulty in the fact that we are obliged to assume that there lived in Asia Minor, early in the second century, a man to whom Papias appeals as possessing exceptional authority, but who is mentioned by no other Father; who is, in fact, otherwise an entirely unknown personage.

NPNF 2nd series, 1.170.

He suggests that “all trace” of John the Elder was “swallowed up in the reputation of his greater namesake.”

Westcott and Other Writers

Westcott, who wrote a work arguing for the Zebedean identity of the author of the Fourth Gospel, referred to the differentiation of the two Johns as “the natural interpretation” of Papias’s words. [1] Beckwith similarly acknowledged: “We are compelled to accept” the separate historical existence of the second John, [2] and Raymond Brown (while still supportive of the traditional view) noted that attempts at identifying Papias’s two Johns “seem forced.” [3]  

According to Ratzinger, the Elder is “evidently not the same as the Apostle,” [4], while Gathercole (who considers authorship by either the Apostle or the Elder to be reasonable conclusions) agrees that Papias’s distinction between the two “is on the surface fairly clear.” [5]

So how clear is it? In the next post, we’ll discuss the arguments of those who say that Papias only spoke of one John, the son of Zebedee, whom he named twice.

End Notes

[1] Brooke Foss Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament During the First Four Centuries (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1855) 76 n. 3.

[2] Isbon Thaddeus Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 366.

[3] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes (AB 29; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008), xci.

[4]. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 226.

[5]. Simon Gathercole, “E pluribus unum? Apostolic Unity and Early Christian Literature,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016) 436.

A summary of the discussion found in my book, The Identity of John the Evangelist, can be found here.

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