Loisy on The Gospel of John

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by Neil Godfrey

Why do I always seem to catch up with the older work last? Here are my notes from Alfred Loisy’s Origins of the New Testament (originally 1936) on the evidence for tradition concerning the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John was a latecomer and “the elders” in Asia, specifically Ephesus, who were pushing for its acceptance had to compete against the synoptic gospels. To make the new gospel acceptable at such a late date it was necessary to attribute to its author a very long lifespan — from being a young man in the time of Jesus and living up till the time of Trajan (98-117). The Elders were able to say that they had conversed with this very elder John in the early years of the second century. (If he had been 20 at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion he would have been 90 years old in 100 ce.) In reality the apostle John was never in Asia but was confused with John the Elder there.

Loisy arrives at the above scenario from the evidence in Irenaeus, the Gospel of John itself, and the testimony of Papias.

Irenaeus on the Elders and the Gospel of John

  1. Irenaeus railed against the gnostic heretics who taught that Jesus taught for only one year — “the year of the Lord’s favour” according to Luke 3.1 and Isaiah 61.2 — before he died at the end of that year, Heresies ii, 22, 5.
  2. In charging the gnostics with this error Irenaeus is also correcting the common impression that the Synoptic Gospels taught as much — that Christ taught for one year.
  3. Irenaeus reconciled Luke’s chronology with John’s this way, relying on the testimony of the Elders of Asia who knew “John, the disciple of the Lord”:
  • Jesus was in his 30th year at baptism (Luke)
  • 30 was too young to be a teacher;until he was a teacher he could not gather
    disciples; Jesus would have to be in his 40’s to be a qualified Master and attract disciples; so from his baptism to the time he became a master was a minumum of 10 years.
  • This tradition that Jesus was in his 40’s as a teacher and died at age 50 came from the Elders in Asia who had known “John, the disciple of the Lord”, who lived till the time of Trajan (98-117)
  • Some of the Elders saw not only John in Asia but the other apostles as well, and that they confirmed this age of Jesus and the length of his ministry.

(The one passage in Irenaeus that says Jesus died at age 30 after teaching only one year flatly contradicts the rest of Irenaeus’s argument so must be read as an indignant exclamation or is a very crude interpolation.)

The Gospel of John corroborates the Elders

  • Those responsible for the appendix to the Gospel of John (ch.21) made it clear that the brethren believed he would never die, indicating that he was to live to a very old age.
  • Those who stressed the predestined old age of John in this appendix also made clear that they knew his testimony was true (21.24).

The apostle John in Mark and Acts

  • Before the existence of the Gospel of John and the tradition that the Asian Elders attached to it the apostle John had been written off as dead long before he would ever have had any chance of going to Asia.
  • Mark 10.37-40 has Jesus prophecy that both James and John will die a martyrs death. So the author of Mark knew that these two had been killed. (Let’s date Mark as well into the latter half of the first century, prior to the other gospels.)
  • The clumsy wording of Acts 12.2 hints that a piece has been removed from the passage describing Agrippa I’s execution of James in 44 ce. Was a reference to the execution of John excised from the original in deference to the later Johannine legend?
  • Luke omits Mark’s account of the prophecy of the deaths of James and John. Again was this in deference to the Ephesian legend?

The age of Jesus in the Gospel of John

Irenaeus observes that the age of Jesus during his ministry in the Gospel of John was in his late 40’s. Heresies ii, 22, 6. The Jews in John 8.56-57 say Jesus is “not yet 50” — indicating that he was in his mid or late 40’s.

Loisy says Irenaeus could have strengthened his case by additionally using John’s temple scene (John 2:18-22). There the Jews say the Temple had been in building 46 years. In response to this time of 46 years, the author says Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. He then adds, irrelevantly to the uninitiated, that after Jesus’ resurrection the disciples remembered Jesus’ words here “and believed the scriptures”. What scriptures relate to the temple of the body of Christ and 46 years and being raised after 3 days?

Loisy explains that this passage in John is, like other passages in John, of mystical import. Its authors were not interested in the physical temple of Herod or the dates it had been under construction. They were redacting this gospel in 125-135 ce and found the mystical 46 years in the scriptures (John 2:22). They were composing mythical fiction, not history:

Daniel 9:24-27 and the 46 years of Christ’s temple:

  • 70 weeks of years (490 years) are to lapse before the Messianic age
  • 7 weeks (49 years) were meant by the author to cover the time of temple of Zerubbabel and age of Christ
  • The 1/2 week (3 and a half years) refers to the duration of the Messiah’s ministry
  • 49 years minus 3 1/2 years makes Jesus about 50 when he died and 46 when began his ministry and drove the money-changers from the temple.
  • This explanation of the 46 years was given in a treatise de Montibus Sina et Sion, preserved among the works of Cyprian (edition, Hartel, iii, 108).

The Gospel of John and the Elders of Ephesus of one mind

The age of Christ in the Gospel of John and the assertion in that gospel that John was to live to a very old age are of one and the same arguments being presented by the Asian elders who were promoting their latecomer gospel’s acceptance among the Christian public. The Gospel of John as they presented almost certainly did not contain all that is in our version, since later redactions added scenes to make it even more compatible with the synoptics.

The Testimony of Papias

Loisy believes that the saying of the Elders Papias (whose book he dates around 140) relied on were in their original intent of the same interests as the Elders whom Irenaeus says were testifying in favour of the Gospel of John above.

Papias wrote that Mark was Peter’s interpreter (Peter speaking Aramaic) and that he wrote the sayings of Christ from his teachings but it was “not in order”. (There is also the implication here that Mark is giving us an imperfect Greek translation of what Peter said.) He says of Matthew that his writing was originally in Hebrew and had been subsequently imperfectly translated. See Fragments of Papias.

Papias also distinguished clearly between the apostle John and John the Elder. He is also clear that it was only John the Elder who had come to Asia — not the apostle John. (See my notes on Bauckham’s second chapter on Papias from his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses“.)

Papias is paraphrasing (and explaining and excusing) John the Elder’s denunciation of Mark’s lack of order.

The Mark of both Papias and John the Elder is a legendary figure. He is the Mark of 1 Peter 5.13 (which is not authentic) whose gospel this epistle is intending to discreetly commend.

The praise of Mark’s accuracy comes from Papias (not John the Elder) who was attempting to put a positive spin on John the Elder’s words. (Papias was in no position to verify its accuracy.)

It is improbable that Papias would have denigrated Matthew so the negative comments here also most likely derive from John the Elder. Papias was naive as to the motive of the Elder’s comments so reproduced them without comment.

The 2 statements together aim at diminishing the reputations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew.

The intention of this put-down was to bolster the status of the new gospel, that of John.

John was by contrast “unquestionably” of apostolic origin

It was better ordered than Mark — it had the correct chronology (46 years; 3 1/2 years) whose merits were praised by the Ephesian Elders who had known John

It was more reliable than the translations of Matthew — it was written by the beloved disciple whose followers testified “was true”


One and the same source was responsible for:

  1. the sayings of the Elder about the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, transmitted via Papias
  2. the sayings of the Elders about the fourth gospel, preserved by Irenaeus
  3. the duration of Christ’s earthly life and length of his ministry

The gospels are written as part of theological debates. They are catechisms, not history. They are manuals of Christian initiation, presenting a narrative of the earthly career of Christ up to his death and resurrection. Their introductions of the divine epiphany no doubt forms an introduction to the divine initiation. They are not a history of Jesus. (p.66)

Considered from this point of view the information of our witnesses (the elders via Papias and Irenaeus) is “amazingly puerile” (p.67). Peter is portrayed as a universal missionary, reaching even to Rome and making converts, even though he only spoke Aramaic and needed Mark as an interpreter!

What was meant by Mark’s gospel being accurate but not in order was that though it contained the elements of Christ’s teaching they were presented in no more useful catechal order than Peter’s preaching. John, on the other hand, was originally the most systematically ordered gospel for catechism.

& of John the Elder?
John the Elder ended his life around 110 ce. He had no more to do with the Gospel of John or the Apocalypse than the apostle John. He was a convenient figure around which the Asian elders (around perhaps 130-135?) could promote their obfuscation in proclaiming their new gospel was from “John the disciple of the Lord” — a sufficiently fluid epithet to allow for confusion and identification of John the Elder with John the Apostle — and to attach his name and authority to their Gospel.

My own afterthoughts
This Loisy scenario would explain why the “temple cleansing” episode was moved from the end of Jesus’ career to the beginning.

(I wonder if the ‘out of order’ bit might also have anything to do with the tranfiguration scene being a displaced resurrection scene — though that is not the sort of thing that relates to Loisy’s argument.)

Irenaeus pulls apart the idea of a one year ministry as a gnostic idea,yet it is clearly a Markan suggestion. Mark also bashes the 12, if Kelber, Weeden and co are right. And that Simon of Cyrene ambiguity in Mark caused problems with others taking up the idea that Simon was the one crucified. No wonder, if Mark began as a bit off (adoptionist etc, too), that John got rid of Simon Cyrene altogether and had Jesus carry his own cross.

And if Mark was thought to be from Peter, this may also explain why John’s gospel portrays the rivalry between Peter and John in a way to bring Peter off second best. — after after thought (10 pm 27th Jan 07): Loisy later sees the other details in the 21st chapter with the Peter involvement being drawn from the synoptics at a later stage to make the gospel more palatable to those familiar with the synoptics. Hence Peter is still allowed a prominent place etc. I don’t know… maybe maybe….

And what do we do with Paul’s warning to the elders of Ephesus in Acts? (Will have to read what Loisy has to say about Luke-Acts soon.)

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Neil Godfrey

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