Who was the disciple of Jesus referred to by Papias of Hierapolis (early second century) as John the Elder?
When was the Evangelist first identified with the Apostle John?
And how do we explain the apparent confusion of John the Evangelist with the John called Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, in ancient and medieval Christian sources?
John the Elder
In my book, The Identity of John the Evangelist (preview), I argue that the early Christians identified John the Evangelist with a disciple of Jesus referred to by Papias of Hierapolis (early second century) as “John the Elder,” rather than with the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee, as later tradition would hold.
In the earliest traditions, this John was held to have been exiled to Patmos in Nero’s reign and to have written his Gospel decades later in Ephesus, at the urging of the elders and bishops of the province of Asia.
From around the turn of the third century, the Zebedean John began to be increasingly identified with the Evangelist, giving rise to various conflated narratives.
Hippolytus of Rome (c. 200) seems to have conflated the Evangelist’s exile with the tradition of the Apostle’s early martyrdom, producing the narrative of John’s exile and death during the reign of Claudius (41-54).
Eusebius (c. 320) likewise identified the Apostle and Evangelist, but he adopted the tradition of the Evangelist’s natural death in Trajan’s reign for his telling of the Johannine story.
To further support this narrative of John’s long life (against the dominant martyrdom tradition) he placed John’s exile in the unlikely context of Domitian’s persecution of Rome’s nobility in the early 90s.
In so doing, he displaced the far earlier and widespread tradition, drawn from Papias, in which the bishops of the Roman province of Asia came to John in Ephesus late in Domitian’s reign and urged him to write a Gospel.
The John Called Mark
Much of my research has focused on the reception of the John called Mark in Christian tradition.
In my work, The John also Called Mark: Reception and Transformation in Christian Tradition (preview), I examine how this Mark, the cousin of Barnabas and assistant of Paul spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline corpus, was often identified with John the Evangelist and/or the Beloved Disciple in Christian sources. I also explain how he came to be variously conflated with Mark the Evangelist and Mark of Alexandria, beginning from about the turn of the fourth century.