3. Evangelist, Elder, and Apostle

Summarized from Chapter 3 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong.

This chapter challenges the common assertion that the earliest Christian sources identified John the Evangelist with the Zebedean John, and he argues that the descriptions of the Evangelist in these sources often better correlate with Papias’s John the Elder. He also considers the figure of John the Seer and concludes that he was identified with the Evangelist.


Ignatius fails to mention John in any of his seven letters, even though he wrote to the church at Ephesus, the city associated with the Evangelist by tradition. Furlong notes that even Paul is only mentioned once, in a martyrdom context that might not have been applicable to the Evangelist, to whom was attributed a natural death (see Chapter 2).

Furthermore, Ignatius’s silence is easier to account for on the supposition that the John associated with Ephesus was more of a secondary figure, like Papias’s Elder, rather than one of the foremost of the twelve apostles.


Polycarp does show familiarity with 1 John in his letter to the Philippians, although he does not mention John by name.

Irenaeus claimed that Polycarp would relate anecdotes concerning his association with John, such as the time when he was accompanying John to the public baths and saw the false teacher Cerinthus.

The chronology of Polycarp’s life is not known with precision. His martyrdom is usually placed between 155 and 167. At his martyrdom, Polycarp is said to have declared that he had served Christ for eighty-six years, but the beginning point is not specified; some hold that it commenced with his birth, others with his baptism. The possibly third-century Harris fragments claim that Polycarp was one hundred and four at the age of his death. Furlong notes that ages were not always recorded accurately, but he argues that this would allow that Polycarp was born as early as the middle of the first century, which would in turn have allowed him to have associated with John at the end of the first century. He then notes that this is in agreement with the chronology of Papias’s Elder rather than his Apostle John (see Chapter 1).

Justin Martyr

Justin speaks of “a certain man among us named John, one of the apostles of Christ” as the author of Revelation.

Furlong notes that some (he cites Robert Mounce, David Aune, and Craig Koester) have concluded that the son of Zebedee is intended, based upon the description of this John as an apostle, but he cautions that the title of apostle was used in a wider, more generic sense in other writings of the era (see below), and he notes that Justin referred to Jesus as an “apostle” and to Israel’s prophets as “apostles.”

Apostles of Christ

He also notes that the particular expression used by Justin, “apostles of Christ,” is used twice in the New Testament, and in neither case does it refer to one of the Twelve, though he acknowledges that we do not know if this usage influenced Justin’s or not.

Furlong also notes that the Apostle Paul and the book of Acts both employed “apostle” in a wider sense than of just the Twelve. He suggests that Revelation probably presupposed a wider sense when it spoke of those who tested those who claimed to be apostles and were not, since it would have been unnecessary to question the credentials of the Twelve.

The Didache, Tertullian, and Irenaeus also seem to have used the term in a wider sense, and Furlong notes that a Syriac source quoted by Eusebius speaks of Thaddeus, one of the seventy, as an apostle.

He concludes from this that caution must be exercised in assuming that Justin was specifically referring to the Zebedean John.


Irenaeus is the first extant writer to speak of John’s residence in Ephesus and his death during Trajan’s reign. He identified this John as the author of the Gospel, 1 John, 2 John, and Revelation.

Irenaeus, who consistently speaks of the Evangelist as “the disciple of the Lord” or as “John,” never explicitly identifies him with the Zebedean John.

In the five places in which Irenaeus mentions the Zebedean John, he also speaks of him simply as “John,” though with no allusion to his being the Evangelist. Furlong notes that Irenaeus also refers to John the Baptist simply as “John,” and that only the scriptural context makes clear the identity of the John in question. Furlong notes that Irenaeus speaks of the same way of “James,” where only the context alerts the reader as to whether he is speaking of James the son of Zebedee or James the brother of Jesus.

Twice, however, Irenaeus speaks of the Evangelist as “the apostle,” though both occur in a section in which he refutes the teaching of Ptolemy. Everywhere else in his work, it is the Apostle Paul that is intended when Irenaeus speaks of “the apostle.” The unique use of it of John may reflect Ptolemy’s terminology, though in any case Irenaeus uses and accepts it. In another section of the book, Irenaeus speaks of those who saw “not only John but other apostles also,” demonstrating that Irenaeus considered John to be an apostle.

Apostles in Irenaeus

Furlong challenges the view of Francis Watson that Irenaeus’s use of “apostle” for John shows that he identified him as the Zebedean John, since (Watson argues) he “barely deviates” from viewing Paul and the twelve as an exclusive group of apostles.  Furlong notes that while Irenaeus speaks of the Twelve as apostles and of Paul as an apostle, he nowhere speaks of Paul and the Twelve as constituting an exclusive group.

Furthermore, Irenaeus speaks of John the Baptist as an apostle. Furlong argues that Irenaeus also viewed Jesus’s seventy disciples as apostles, for Irenaeus argues against the Valentinian view that the twelve apostles were types of the twelve Aeons by claiming that if the Valentinians were correct, then  Jesus would have chosen ten and eight further groups of apostles, to correspond to the other groups of Aeons in the Valentinian scheme. Instead, Irenaeus notes, he chose seventy disciples, which would have required there to have been a group of seventy Aeons also. He then asks them of what Aeon Paul was a type. Thus, for Irenaeus, if apostles are types of the Aeons, there would be three groups of Aeons, to which would correspond the twelve, the seventy, and Paul, all of whom he must therefore have considered to be apostles.  

Furlong then addresses the arguments of Lorne Zelyck, who has denied that Irenaeus considered the Seventy as apostles on the basis that Irenaeus does not specifically use the term “apostle” of them. Furlong counters that the terminology is informed by Luke’s account that Jesus “sent” seventy others, which points back to the earlier account in which Jesus “sent” the twelve. Furthermore, the word “apostle” is also not used in Luke’s account of the sending of the twelve account either, though Furlong argues that it was unnecessary as both accounts employed the verbal form, “sent” (ἀποστέλλω), instead.

Lastly, Irenaeus claimed that Polycarp was appointed as bishop of the church in Smyrna by apostles in Asia. Furlong argues that it is unlikely that Irenaeus thought that multiple members of the twelve would have been at hand in late first-century Asia Minor, and he suggests instead that he is using “apostle” here in the wider sense.

Irenaeus does seem to have held the twelve as a special group of apostles, which Furlong suggests would explain his reticence in referring to John as an apostle if he were not part of this group. Instead, he notes, Irenaeus refers to him as a “disciple of the Lord,” and he follows Burney’s suggestion that this was used to differentiate him from the twelve and to identify him with the Elder John mentioned together with Aristion by Papias, who refers to them as the disciples of the Lord, which was the highest designation that could be given to them without placing them on a level equivalent to the twelve.

John the Elder

Furlong notes that Irenaeus identifies the Evangelist as the author of 2 John, whose author designates himself as “the Elder.” He follows Bauckham in thinking that the title of “the Elder” fell out of use for John in order to differentiate him from the second-generation Christian leaders in Asia Minor known as “the elders.”

A comparison of Papias and Irenaeus suggests that Irenaeus identified his John with Papias’s Elder, for while Irenaeus claimed that Papias knew the Evangelist, Papias himself disclaimed having known the Apostle, whose activities he places in the past.

Furthermore, while Irenaeus made Papias a hearer of the Evangelist, Papias himself claimed to have been a hearer the Elder; therefore, unless Irenaeus made a mistake in identifying Papias as a disciple of John (as Charles Hill, Francis Watson, and others claim), he likely identified the Evangelist with the Elder.  


Polycrates refers to Philip as one of the twelve but to John the Evangelist as the Beloved Disciple, whom he speaks of as a witness and teacher. Furlong argues that since Polycrates was seeking to appeal to the authority of Philip and John for the keeping of Easter on Nisan 14, that it would have been in his interest to bolster his description of John as far as possible, and that he would not have passed over a mention of him as one of the foremost members of the twelve apostles. He also follows Burney and Hengel in suggesting that it was because Philip was of the twelve and John was not that Polycrates mentioned Philip first, even though, as Hengel noted, the Zebedean John was always named before Philip in the Gospels.

Furlong notes that the further description of John as a priest wearing the sacerdotal plate is ill fitting for the Zebedean John, and he notes that is not a hint that he ever served as a priest in the Synoptic Gospels (he notes that the difficulty for the traditional view is acknowledged by Craig Blomberg, who suggests that Polycrates confused the Evangelist with another John). He provides an overview of different theories concerning the meaning of the “sacerdotal plate,” though he notes that his own explanation would be offered in an upcoming work (The John also Called Mark: Reception and Transformation in Christian Tradition).

The Muratorian Canon

Furlong notes the distinction between “Andrew, one of the apostles” and John, “one of the disciples.” While Richard Bauckham has employed this as evidence that the Muratorian Fragment did not identify the Evangelist with the Zebedean John, Furlong thinks that the phraseology is that of a source (which he elsewhere identifies as Papias). He argues that the Muratorian Canon presents a conflated version of John which merges together elements of the traditions belonging to the Zebedean John and the Evangelist (see summary of Chapter 4).


Furlong acknowledges that Tertullian refers to John as an apostle, though he points out that Tertullian also referred to Jude as an apostle, even though he was not one of the twelve.

Furlong notes that Tertullian assigned to John the Evangelist the sentence of relegatio to the island of Patmos, a sentence which was reserved for aristocrats, suggesting that Tertullian did not identify him with the Zebedean fisherman. He notes that Tertullian’s testimony was dismissed by William Ramsay on the very basis that the Zebedean John could not have received this sentence.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement identified the author of 2 John, who refers to himself as “the Elder,” as the author of the Gospel and Revelation.

While Clement speaks of the Evangelist as “the apostle John,” he also refers to Barnabas and Clement of Rome as apostles.

According to Clement, the teaching of the twelve and Paul ended with Nero (Strom. 7.17), yet he has the ministry of John continue past the death of “the tyrant,” who is variously identified with either Nero or Domitian. Furlong points out that in either case, this would otherwise contradict his statement concerning the twelve, unless the Evangelist was not of the twelve. He notes the various explanations offered to try to account for this, such as that he was inconsistent (William Barclay) or that he momentarily forgot about John when discussing the twelve, or that he was speaking in general terms (Charles Hill). Furlong counters that the specific mention of Paul suggests that he was not speaking in general terms.


Furlong sees Origen as representing the earliest extant identification of the Evangelist and Zebedean John, though he allows that the Acts of John, which also made this identification, may have been earlier.

While Jerome made the same identification, Furlong notes that his John appears to be a conflated figure, for his Zebedean John is said to have been an aristocrat.

He also notes that Chrysostom seems to know two separate traditions for he states that all the twelve apostles had died by the time of the Jewish War whereas he also claims that the Evangelist lived after the destruction of Jerusalem.


Furlong concludes by noting how those defending the traditional view must impute errors or otherwise implausibly qualify the principal early Christian sources in order to maintain the Zebedean identification. Thus, Irenaeus, a reader of Papias who grew up in Asia Minor, is said to have been mistaken in identifying Papias as a disciple of John; Polycrates to have confused the Evangelist with another John; Tertullian to have mistakenly claimed that John received the sentence of relegatio; Clement to have had a slip of the memory or to have contradicted himself. (Furlong recalls how it was noted in Chapter 1 that Papias was said to have written “clumsily,” likewise in order to maintain the tradition identification). Lastly, Furlong acknowledges that the strongest evidence for the traditional view is in the application of the title of apostle to John the Evangelist, though he argues that its subdued use and the preference for describing him as a disciple of the Lord are consistent with the supposition that he was an apostle only in the wider sense, and not one of the twelve.


2. The Martyrdom of the Apostle John 

4. John’s Claudian Exile in the Muratorian Canon and Epiphanius 

Table of Contents

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