Summarized from Chapter 1 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong, PhD.
Papias spoke of two separate Johns from among the disciples of Jesus: John the son of Zebedee and John the Elder. While traditional interpretations have identified the former with the Evangelist John of early Christian sources, Furlong will argue later in the book that the evidence far better accommodates the view that it was the Elder who was identified with the Evangelist.
Papias, in a well-known passage, stated that he had inquired concerning the words of the elders from the followers of the elders, that is, what Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John or Matthew, the Lord’s disciple, had said, and what Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying.
This passage has evoked much controversy, centered around two questions:
- Were the elders the same as the apostles Andrew, Peter, et al., or a separate group who reported their words?
- Was John the Elder the same as the first John mentioned, who is universally agreed to be John the son of Zebedee?
The Time of Papias’s Inquiries
Papias states that he inquired concerning what Andrew, Peter et al. had said and what Aristion and John the Elder were saying. This shows that Andrew et al. had died while the latter two disciples were still alive at the time of these inquires. Since they are described as “disciples of the Lord” (i.e. followers of Jesus), these inquiries could not have taken place any later than about the end of the first century.
Did Papias Speak of Two Johns?
Some scholars who hold to the traditional view (that the Evangelist was identified with John the son of Zebedee) argue that Papias only spoke of one John, whom he mentioned twice. This reading is rejected by most scholarship (Furlong quotes Munck, Charles, Barclay, Schoedel, Cullman, Hengel, and Ratzinger).
It is also rejected by some scholars who hold the traditional view, including McGiffert (an editor of the Ante-Nicene Fathers volumes), Lightfoot, Beckwith, Westcott, and Raymond Brown, all of whom thought it either highly unlikely or impossible, though some (Farrar, Bruce) hold out that the possibility that Papias may have expressed himself poorly and that he intended to speak of the same John twice. This bare possibility can be accepted, although it can be noted that Jerome commented on the elegance of Papias’s prose.
Origin of the Theory of a Single John
The theory that Papias spoke of a single John was first proposed by Guericke in 1831. He accomplished this by claiming that Andrew, Peter, John Zebedee, et al. were being identified with the elders of whose words Papias inquired. This rendered the designation of “elder” common to both mentions of John.
Farrar, Petrie, Carson, and Shanks have similarly posited that the second mention of John as “the Elder” identified him as the apostle. Baum, however, who likewise identifies the two Johns, admits that unless the elders and apostles were identified, the title before the second mention of John would suggest a separate figure.
Thus, the identification of John the son of Zebedee with John the Elder is reliant upon identifying the elders as the apostles.
Are the Apostles Identified with the Elders?
Furlong notes that some scholars would understand Papias to mean that he inquired from the elders concerning what Andrew, Peter, et al. had said, thus distinguishing the elders from the apostles, rather than meaning that he inquired from the elders, that is from Andrew et al.
Furlong points out that two similar Greek constructions to the one found in Papias are found in Plutarch and the book of Acts, and that in both cases they would support reading Papias as distinguishing the elders from the apostles.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that the travelers Papias inquired from in late first-century Hierapolis would have personally heard the words of Andrew, Peter, et al. However, they would have been in a position to have heard the revered group of second-generation Christian leaders who lived in Asia and who are referred to as “the elders” by Irenaeus.
Moreover, Luthardt in his book defending the traditional identification notes that it would have been redundant to refer to both Aristion and John the Elder as “disciples of the Lord” had John already been so described. It would have only been Aristion who would have been so described.
Lastly, Eusebius understood Papias as differentiating the elders from the apostles, and Irenaeus, another reader of Papias, differentiated a separate group of Asian leaders called “the elders” from the apostles.
Furlong notes that Chapman was an exception in that he maintained the distinction of the elders and apostles while also arguing that Papias spoke of the same John twice. Furlong points out that without the anaphoric explanation, the title before the name of the second John would naturally suggest a separate figure (as Baum pointed out). Furthermore, Chapman’s view is still open to Luthardt’s objection.
John the Elder
The title before the second mention of John can be naturally read as denoting a second John. Eusebius elsewhere relates what “the Elder” was saying (usually understood as a reference to John the Elder), showing that this John was distinguished by this title.
Since Papias inquired of his words from travelers in Asia, the Elder probably lived in Asia himself. Eusebius may have associated him with Asia also, since he suggested that one of the two memorials to John in Ephesus might have belonged to the Elder.
A figure known as “the Elder” and associated with the name of John is also found in 2 and 3 John.
Furlong concludes by noting the multiplication of difficulties associated with positing that Papias spoke of one John. Thus, it requires that he expressed himself poorly, and that he identified the elders and apostles, contrary to the apparent meaning of the Greek construction and to the differentiation of these groups by Papias’s earliest readers. There is also the difficulty of the redundancy of the description of both Aristion and John the Elder as “disciples of the Lord” had the second John already been mentioned in the passage.
Chapter 2: The Martyrdom of the Apostle John.
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