6. Eusebius’s Construction of the Domitianic Exile

Summarized from Chapter 6 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong, PhD.


This chapter argues that Eusebius, like Hippolytus before him, conflated the Apostle and Evangelist, but that he, unlike Hippolytus, privileged the narrative of the Evangelist’s natural death in Trajan’s reign over the tradition of the Apostle’s early martyrdom.

In order to provide additional evidence for John’s long life (presumably to counter the widespread martyrdom tradition), Eusebius constructed the narrative of John’s exile during Domitian’s persecution of Rome’s ruling classes in the 90s .

This construction, it argues, was also conducive to Eusebius’s doubts concerning the canonicity of Revelation, for it allowed him to suggest a second-century John as its author.

Eusebius on Revelation

The chapter begins by discussing Eusebius’s attitude to the book of Revelation, and in particular it provides evidence that is suggestive of his skepticism toward the work, as exhibited in his discussion of Dionysius of Alexandria‘s critique of it.

Like Dionsyius, Eusebius sought to identify the author of Revelation with a John other than the Evangelist. Unlike Dionysius, however, Eusebius suggested that the author of Revelation might have been Papias’s second John, the Elder.

But Eusebius’s “John the Elder” was not the eyewitness disciple of Jesus whom Papias painted him to be. Eusebius’s chronology would not allow that, for the following reasons:

a) Eusebius identified the Apostle John with the Evangelist who died in Trajan’s reign.

b) Papias himself stated that the Apostle John and the other apostles had been active in a previous generation to his own.

c) Papias claimed to have been contemporaneous with Aristion and John the Elder.

Thus, Eusebius’s reconstruction was chronologically obliged to place the activities of Aristion and John the Elder after the death of the Apostle John in Trajan’s reign, and thus well into the second century, making it all but impossible for them to have been eyewitness disciples of Jesus.

By suggesting that this version of “John the Elder” was the author of Revelation, Eusebius was effectively removing apostolic authorship from the work.

Difficulties Confronting Eusebius’s Chronology

Ireaneus had claimed that Papias had been a hearer of John the Evangelist. This, however, wasn’t possible in Eusebius’s scheme. To rid this witness of its value, Eusebius, assuming the identity of the Apostle and the Evangelist, pitted Irenaeus’s claim that Papias had been a hearer of the Evangelist against Papias’s own claim to have lived a generation later than the Apostle John and the other apostles.

Yet Irenaeus was one of the foremost witnesses of the Asian tradition, having heard Polycarp and read Papias, rendering it unlikely that he would have made a mistake of this nature.

Furthermore, other independent readers of Papias, including Jerome, Apollinarius of Laodicea,Philip of Sidé, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John, Anastasius of Sinai (possibly), and a scholium to which Norelli draws attention, all make Papias to have known the Evangelist.

Lastly, that the chronological ordering of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History presupposes that Papias was active at the turn of the second century, at at the time of John’s old age, the time at which he also placed Papias’s activities in his earlier Chronology.

The Construction of the Domitianic Exile

Evidence for John the Evangelist’s late, natural death in Trajan’s reign was relatively sparse compared to that for the Apostle John’s early death.

The construction of the late Domitanic dating of Revelation seems to have been a pivotal part of Eusebius’s argument for John’s long life. The chapter draws attention to how Eusebius seems to build up to his two star witnesses, as though he were consciously seeking to win over a skeptical readership.

Eusebius first discusses Domitian’s persecution of the nobility at Rome, noting how the Roman historians relating that he executed some and banished others. After drawing attention to the case of Flavia Domitilla, an aristocratic Roman who had been exiled on account of her profession of Christ, he claims that John too was exiled at this time.

The chapter notes the incongruity between Eusebius’s account and what the historians he quotes actually said. For them, Domitian persecuted the nobility in order to appropriate their wealth; the charges he leveled against them were merely pretexts. He cared not whether they were Christian or not, even if the profession of Christian provided one convenient pretext among many for confiscating their estates. And, of course, John did not belong to the high ruling class at Rome, the target of this persecution.

Irenaeus, Hegesippus, and Tertullian

Eusebius then claims that according to “an account,” John was still alive at the time of this persecution. He goes on to quote Irenaeus to the effect that he saw the apocalyptic vision (of Revelation) late in Domitian’s reign.

Eusebius continues by quoting the story related by Hegesippus of how Domitian summoned the grandsons of Jude to Rome as they were of the lineage of David and were related to Christ, whose claim to kingship conflicted with that of the emperor. However, in this account, Domitian himself brings an end to the persecution of the Christians, unlike the persecution of the very Roman historians Eusebius had just quoted, who made it end only with his assassination.

The chapter follows Richard Bauckham in thinking that Hegesippus has mistaken Domitian for either Vespasian or Titus, and that it was relaed by Hegesippus in the context of his claim that Vespasian sought out the family of David following the capture of Jerusalem in AD 70. In any case, there is very little resemblance between Hegesippus’s account and that of the Roman historians.

Tertullian, whom Eusebius next cites, notes that Domitian exiled Christians, but he does not mention John and, like Hegesippus, he has Domitian himself cease the persecution and recall the exiles. Possibly Tertullian was drawing from Hegesippus’s account.

The Tyrant

After mentioning the names of bishops at the time of the accession of Trajan, Eusebius once again claims that John was still alive at this time, and he introduces his two witnesses: Irenaeus and Clement, who should, he adds, be considered trustworthy. Furlong notes evidence of the apologetic tone and he again suggests Eusebius was countering the tradition of the Apostle’s early martyrdom.

First Eusebius quotes (twice) Irenaeus’s claims that John lived until the reign of Trajan. He then relates Clement of Alexandria’s statement that John returned to Ephesus from exile after the death of “the tyrant.”

The chapter notes that Clement does not name the tyrant in question, suggesting that Eusebius lacked unambiguous sources supportive of the late date. Eusebius may have inferred the identification based on his prior association of the Domitianic persecution with John’s exile. But the chapter notes that Eusebius failed to address Clement’s statement that the ministry of the apostles, encompassing Paul (and presumably including the Apostle John), was completed in the days of Nero.

Irenaeus and the Late Date of Revelation

The final piece of evidence Eusebius provides for John’s long life is statement he had quoted before from Irenaeus, that the apocalyptic vision had been seen late in Domitian’s reign.

Once again there is some ambiguity in the evidence Eusebius furnishes, for the verb ἑωράθη which he has understood to mean “it [the apocalyptic vision] was seen” can also be translated “he [John] was seen.”

In the context, Irenaeus is speaking of why 666, rather than the textual variant 616, was the correct reading for the number of the name of the beast. One of his arguments is that those (presumably the Asian elders) who saw John face to face testified to the reading of 666; this may provide the context for Irenaeus’s later reference to that which was seen.

Irenaeus states that if it were important to decipher the meaning of the name in his time, “it would have been declared by him who also saw the vision, for it/he was seen late in Domitian’s reign.”

Irenaeus’s reasoning is that John would have declared the name, had it been meant to be known in Irenaeus’s day, for he–the one who saw the apocalyptic vision–was seen (by the elders) at the end of Domitian’s reign, which was close to Irenaeus’s own day. His argument was not predicated on the date of the apocalyptic vision but on the lateness of John’s non-declaration of the name to those who saw him face to face.

The chapter notes that while the argument from the context has been conceded as strong even by those who understand the subject of ἑωράθη to be the apocalyptic vision, the argument for John as the subject has foundered on the objection that had John been the intended subject, Irenaeus would have strengthened his argument from the nearness of John’s time to his own by stating that he had been seen in Trajan’s reign, not Domitian’s.

Objections

Those defending the view that John was the subject have often argued that John might have retired from public ministry after the end of Domitian’s reign. This is not convincing, since the aorist tense of the verb ἑωράθη and the employment of the preposition πρός point to a specific occasion.

However, it is argued that Irenaeus was alluding to a well-established tradition (found in the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Victorinus, Jerome, and Theodore of Mopsuestia) of the Asian elders coming to John at Ephesus late in his life and imploring him to write a Gospel. This is when John was seen.

Furthermore, where the Greek speaks of the elders having conferred with John (Haer. 2.22.5), the Latin states that they convened to John, using the verb convenerunt, which is also used by Victorinus when discussing how the bishops came to John and implored him to write a Gospel.

Secondly, the Latin has visum est for ἑωράθη, which excludes the apocalyptic vision as the subject. The participle visum has been understood as a neuter nominative, so that it would exclude John as the subject too, but recent works in Latin historical linguistics to show that the –um and –us endings were often confused. Some linguists have even posited that the accusative came to be used for the subject of passive verbs, as in Irenaeus’s text.

Thus, while visum est could not have referred to the vision, it reasonably might have referred to John (and, he notes, there are not really any other credible options for the antecedent). It also demonstrates that Eusebius’s interpretation was by no means the only ancient one, since the Latin translator, who almost certainly was earlier than Eusebius, understood Ireaneus differently.

Conclusions

It is concluded that Eusebius wove together a pastiche of disparate sources, bringing them into contradiction with each other in the process, in order to create the fiction of the Domitianic exile of John, which he held together by ambiguous and probably misinterpreted statements made by Clement and Irenaeus.

Related

Summary of Chapter 5: Hippolytus, Gaius, and the Alogoi

Summary of Chapter 7: Patristic Evidence for the Early Date of Revelation

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