Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 27
Chapter 17. Polycrates and Irenaeus on John
Key clues to the identity of the author of the Gospel of John can be found also in the witness of Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus in the late second century. Important is his letter to Bishop Victor of Rome concerning the Quartodeciman controversy which, Bauckham argues, is good evidence that Polycrates refers to the author of John’s Gospel as a John other than the son of Zebedee. This is especially clear in Polycrates’ curious mention that John was ‘a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet (to petalon)’. It would appear to be, given the reference to the petalon, an unambiguous indication that Polycrates portrayed John as high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. After detailing the various views on this matter, Bauckham strongly argues that, based in Acts 4:6 (and possibly facilitated by John 18:15), the tradition ‘that John the Beloved Disciple was a high priest is neither metaphorical nor historical, but exegetical’. Rather typical of Bauckham’s manner of argumentation, the punch line awaits a strongly formulated conclusion:
‘[W]hen the Ephesian church looked for its own John, the Beloved Disciple, in New Testament writings other than the Gospel of John, they did not identify him with John the son of Zebedee. The identification of him with the John of Acts 4:6 makes it impossible to identify him with John the son of Zebedee’.Bauckham’s developing argument maintains that ‘in the second-century Christian traditions of the province of Asia, and especially in Ephesus, the John who wrote the Gospel of John and was the disciple that Gospel calls the disciple Jesus loved was not identified with John the son of Zebedee’. This conclusion is further strengthened through an examination of Irenaeus on John. Notably, Irenaeus’ references to John do not lend at all to the opinion that the son of Zebedee is to be understood. Even though he speaks of John as an apostle, Irenaeus could use the term flexibly to include far more than just the Twelve, even to the extent of calling John the Baptist an apostle. ‘There is therefore no reason to think that either Irenaeus’s Asiatic sources or Irenaeus himself thought the author of the Gospel of John to be one of the Twelve’.
But there is clear evidence in ‘two Christian works of the second century that clearly identify the John who wrote the Gospel with John the son of Zebedee’, namely the Acts of John and the Epistle of the Apostles. Given recent research as to the date and place of composition of these works, Bauckham admits: ‘I am no longer confident of my earlier argument that [these works] indicate that the identification of the author of the Gospel of John with John the son of Zebedee probably originated in Egypt in the second half of the second century’. Rather, the emerging definition of ‘canon’ in contrast with the Gnostic Gospels meant that ‘apostle’ came to indicate ‘reliable authority, authorized by Christ himself and generally recognized in the churches’. The local Ephesian tradition identifying the author of John’s Gospel with a John other than the son of Zebedee was later lost sight of, and once John the Elder became regularly termed an ‘apostle’, he ‘very easily became indistinguishable from John the son of Zebedee’.
. Ibid., 451. . Ibid., 452, italics suppressed.
. Ibid., 452. . Ibid., 462.
. Ibid., 463. . Ibid., 465.
. Ibid., 467. . Ibid., 468.