According to a number of ancient writers, John founded the bishoprics in the churches of the province of Asia.
What was the historical situation of these ordinations, according to early Christian tradition, and what can it tell us about when early sources placed the writing of the Gospel and Revelation of John?
John’s Foster Churches
Tertullian, in his Against Marcion (c. 208), is one of the earliest writers to relate that John had originated the succession of the bishops in the Asian churches :
We also have John’s foster churches. For even if Marcion rejects his Apocalypse, nevertheless the order of the bishops when reckoned to its origin will stand on John as the founder (Marc. 4.5).Author’s translation
Tertullian calls those churches in which John had ordained bishops his foster churches, presumably because they had been founded under Paul’s ministry.
The mention of the order of the bishops in relation to Revelation may mean that it is the bishops of the seven churches of Asia to which Tertullian is referring .
Elsewhere, in his earlier Prescription against Heresies (c. 200), Tertullian does note that that a written record held in the archives of the church at Smyrna recorded that Polycarp had been ordained there by John (Praescr. 32).
Irenaeus (c. 180) had also mentioned the ordination of Polycarp, stating that he was “appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna by apostles in Asia” (Haer. 3.3.4).
The plural “apostles” here is noteworthy, especially since Polycarp, who died in the mid second century, would likely have been too young to have known members of the twelve apostles. Irenaeus elsewhere speaks of the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus (Luke 10:1) as apostles (Haer. 2.21.2).
John’s Asian Ministry
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) relates that John began visiting the churches and ordaining bishops in them after he took up residence in Ephesus following his exile (Quis div. 42).
It was during this time that Clement places the famous story of the young man who was entrusted by John to a certain church “not far” from Ephesus (some claimed it was Smyrna), where he was instructed in the faith and baptized; however, this young man was gradually led astray, step by step, until he at last renounced the faith and gave up all restraint, forming a band of robbers.
When John later revisited the church, he learned of what had happened; he then mounted his horse and made his way to the robbers’ outpost. When the young man saw John, he attempted to run away, but John, now described as an “old man,” pursued him and led him to repentance. He brought him back to the church and remained with him until he had fully restored him to the faith.
The events described may have transpired over many years. This would leave insufficient time, had John returned to Ephesus following the death of Domitian in AD 96, as Eusebius thought.
The Acts of John (second or third century) is also based upon a narrative of John visiting the churches of Asia over a period of many years or decades (in this account, John spends four years in Smyrna alone).
While the beginning of this work is lost, the extant text commences with John coming ashore at Miletus, which would have been a natural stopping point from Patmos.
The Acts of John goes on to relate John’s ministry at Ephesus; it then depicts him journeying from there to Smyrna. There is a gap in the narrative at this point, but it resumes with John returning to Ephesus from Laodicea (during which journey the famous story of John and the bedbugs is related).
Ephesus, Smyrna, and Laodicea are the first, second, and seventh church addressed in Revelation, and this is probably not a coincidence. The narrative likely told of John visiting all of the seven churches, in order.
The narrative ends with John’s death in Ephesus; it relates nothing about any exile late in John’s life, which is supportive of the view that it was related in the lost beginning. The narrative of a long ministry in the province of Asia, spanning many years, would require that John’s journey to Ephesus from exile occurred after Nero’s death.
The Bishops and John’s Gospel
The Muratorian Canon (c. 200), Victorinus (c. 290) (Comm. Apoc. 11.1) and Jerome (c. 400) (pref. comm. Matt.) relate that the bishops of Asia came to John and implored him to write a Gospel. If the sources we have discussed represent a common tradition of John’s ministry, it would seem that this would have taken place towards the end of John’s ministry, after he had established bishops in all the churches.
Interestingly, Irenaeus placed the writing of John’s Gospel at the time of Cerinthus, a contemporary of Polycarp, presumably at the end of the first century (Haer. 3.11.1).
Furthermore, Irenaeus contrasts the time when the Gospel was written, when Cerinthus was active, with the time when the Nicolaitans were flourishing, which was a “long time previously” to it.
Since Irenaeus placed the activities of the Nicolaitans at the time of the writing of Revelation (Haer. 1.26.3), he must have also dated Revelation “a long time previously” to the Gospel, which is consistent with the evidence from other sources.
The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John (perhaps written in the fourth century, though apparently citing Papias, c. 110) is consistent with Irenaeus, speaking of John’s writing while “still in a body,” which seems to imply his old age at the time.
Jerome held to the Domitianic dating on the basis of Eusebius’s account, though he himself related that John was unable to walk in his extreme old age and had to be carried into meetings (Comm. Gal. 6.10). How he would have reconciled this with John’s travelling throughout Asia Minor and riding a horse (related by Clement in the tale of the young man) late in the first century is unclear.
The Context of John’s Return
Historically, it would make sense that there would have been a need for ecclesiastical organization following Nero’s death. According to 2 Timothy (1:15; 4:10), Paul’s co-workers in Asia had forsaken him at the end of his life; 2 Timothy later relates that Paul had summoned Timothy and Mark (presumably John/Mark), two of his faithful co-workers in Asia, to Rome (2 Tim 4:9-11).
Furthermore, Hippolytus claimed that the Nicolaitans, a libertine sect, were active in Asia at this time (De resurr. fr. 1; cf. Irenaeus, Haer. 3.3.4).
Lastly, most, if not all of the twelve apostles were likely dead by the end of Nero’s reign (see here).
This was thus the situation which, according to Christian tradition, confronted John, who set about bringing stability by “adopting” the churches of Asia as his own and by appointing bishops in them. And perhaps it was in this context, as John laid claim to the Pauline churches, that Diotrephes refused to receive him (3 John 9).
On the question of the antiquity of the episcopal office, see here.
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. This is disputed by Lorne Zelyck, “Irenaeus and the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel,” in The Origins of the Fourth Gospel, ed. Stanley Porter and Hughson T. Ong (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 248-49. However, the argument of Irenaeus, that if the Gnostic aeons were types of the apostles, then there would be an aeon for Paul and seventy aeons for the seventy disciples, seems to require it. See my response in Identity of John the Evangelist, 41-42.
. Pieter J. Lalleman, The Acts of John: A Two-stage Initiation into Johannine Gnosticism (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 16.
. Martin Hengel, Die johanneische Frage: Ein Lösungsversuch (WUNT 67; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993),53.
More information on these matters can be found in The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reintepretation in Early Christian Sources.