Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 17

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by Neil Godfrey

17. Polycrates and Irenaeus on John

Polycrates on John

Bauckham proceeds to show that Polycrates knew that John the author of the Gospel was not the Son of Zebedee, member of the Twelve, John. He begins with his letter to the bishop of Rome over the ‘correct’ date on which to observe ‘Easter’ (or the ‘Passover/Last Supper’). The extract is from the ccel site (Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.2-7):

2 “We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John,who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

3 He fell asleep at Ephesus.

4 And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

5 Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?

6 All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.

7 I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said `We ought to obey God rather than man.'”

Bauckham rightly notes the “careful artistry” of this passage. There are seven witnesses (Philip, John, Polycarp, Thraseas, Sagaris, Papirius, Melito) on whom Polycrates calls to justify his position to the Roman bishop. Polycrates, an eighth, calls himself the least of all. He then speaks of seven of his relatives who were bishops, and of himself as the eighth. Bauckham also draws attention to the note that one of Philip’s daughters is described apart from her two virgin sisters. Bauckham ties all this data together to assert that Polycrates was descended from a daughter of Philip and his seven relatives were none other than all seven of the named bishops. He sees in the description of John being both “a witness and a teacher” a probable reference to John’s authorship of both the Gospel (the witness) and the epistles (the teacher). (None of this is presented as mere speculation or conjecture. Yet in relation to another topic B subsequently criticizes Robert Eisler for an argument that is “achieved only by a series of unverifiable guesses” (p.449).)

John’s Gospel would be drawn on for support in this Quartodecimani (14th of the month) debate since it, contrary to Matthew’s gospel, placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the Passover day itself, the 14th of Nisan. Bauckham sees here another indication of why Papias would have preferred John over the synoptics – it was the one that got things in correct “order”.

John the high priest
But the identity of this John in the letter of Polycrates must wait for Bauckham’s discussion of the reference to John being a priest and the priestly insignia he wore. Bauckham concludes that Polycrates had no historical reason to attribute a priestly status to his predecessor bishop John. The reason he described his relative John as a wearer of the high priest’s crown was because of “scriptural exegesis” (p.451). Polycrates had apparently seen in John 18:15 where a disciple entered the high priest’s quarters (Bauckham believes this unnamed disciple was the Beloved Disciple, John the Elder) and therefore concluded he was the same John as described as part of the high priest’s family in Acts 4:6. This was apparently reason enough for Polycrates to believe that John the Elder of Ephesus had been a high priest in Jerusalem.

But Bauckham notes that by describing John as a high priest he would have been hinting to the bishop of Rome that such a one would not have been likely to have erred in recalling that the day on which Jesus was crucified was the Passover. If that was the impact on the bishop of Rome, and it was presumed that he also “knew” that the same John really was the Beloved Disciple who had written the Gospel, then one must be impressed with the subtlety of the exchange.

Although Bauckham does not consider how Polycrates might have reacted to his highly esteemed predecessor and blood-relative, John the Elder and bishop of Ephesus, having been party to a hostile interrogation and threatening of Peter and John the Son of Zebedee, he does note something far more critical for his hypothesis.

By believing that Polycrates must have identified his Beloved Disciple with the John in Acts 4:6, he has ruled out the possibility that Polycrates could have for a minute ever thought that this John was also the Son of Zebedee. The latter John was the one on trial before the John of Acts 4:6. And this is the goal of Bauckham’s study — to prove that it was John the Elder, not John the Son of Zebedee, was the author of the Gospel of John. (One might facetiously ask if Polycrates was revealing some deep seated jealousy of his more honoured relative, John, by tarnishing his reputation by identifying him with the John of Acts 4:6 who was an enemy of the early church.)

Finally, some might think it odd that B would expect Polycrates to rely on biblical exegesis to decipher the background of one he (B) believes to have been a blood-relative, and therefore presumably privy to inside family information.

Irenaeus on John

When Irenaeus speaks of John it is widely assumed he is referring to John the Son of Zebedee, so Richard Bauckham goes into much detailed discussion to show this is not necessarily so.

What is revealing in itself is how difficult it is to find conclusive evidence one way or the other. (p.458)

More tables assist the discussion. One of them lists the named apostles in the writings of Irenaeus. But Irenaeus, as B is forced to concede, is not clear either way. It really is impossible to say definitively if Irenaeus confused more than one John. Bauckham elsewhere in this chapter notes this tendency among the Church Fathers to sometimes confuse multiple name references as all referring to the one person (e.g. Polycrates’ confusing the “deacon” and “apostle” Philip as one and the same.)

B concludes that one will only read Irenaeus as meaning to speak of John the Son of Zededee as the same who was the bishop of Ephesus and author of the Gospel and Johannine literature if one brings that assumption to his works. For B, to read Irenaeus with an open mind one will see nothing that proves they are the one and same John. Maybe so, but then one must wonder why Irenaeus would not have made the distinction clearer himself if he was aware of two different Johns, especially if there was any hint of confusion anywhere over them — and Irenaeus had travelled widely enough beyond Ephesus to know if such was the case outside Asia Minor.

Acts of John and the Epistle of the Apostles (Epistula Apostolorum)

I found this the most interesting section of Bauckham’s discussion. For the first time B begins to discuss documents — albeit only two apocryphal ones — in the broader context of the growing power and influence of the “proto-orthodox”.

The Acts of John places John the Son of Zebedee (called “an apostle”) in Asia, particularly Ephesus, but it is variously dated between the earlier second century to the earlier third century, and its provenance is variously placed in Egypt (B’s preference), Syria and Asia Minor, and there is debate over whether the author really had first hand knowledge of Ephesus. A healthy acceptance of the uncertainties of the documents with which the area of Christian origins must work!

The Epistle of the Apostles is either from Egypt or Asia Minor, and either from the early or mid second century. It refers to a “fictional” discussion between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. Again, remarkable how honest sceptical lights suddenly turn on when it comes to discussing the non-canonical and non-orthodox data in the study of Christian origins!

As a result of recent studies possibly linking these to Asia Minor Bauckham says he no longer argues as he once did that the confusion of the 2 Johns only came about in the middle of the second century in Egypt. He now accepts the possibility that the confusion could have arisen independently in more than one place. He refers again to Polycrate’s confusion of the two Philips, and goes further, saying:

We also explained that this kind of identification of scriptural characters bearing the same name was a standard exegetical practice in early Judaism and Christianity. It is why Polycrates himself identified John of Ephesus with the high-priestly John of Acts 4:6. (p.465)

Surely this is also the simplest explanation for the lack of clarity in Irenaeus over his references to John/s.


B rightly concludes regarding Justin’s knowledge of the author of the Gospel of John that “we cannot tell” what he thought or knew.

B could have also said, but doesn’t, that Justin does not indicate any knowledge at all of a list of Twelve names. His knowledge of the Twelve is contrary to the standard canonical gospel and Acts narratives. Justin’s Twelve received their knowledge of church ordinances and the institution of the eucharist directly from the resurrected Jesus, and they all went out immediately to the whole world from Jerusalem after Christ ascended into heaven — immediately prior to Jerusalem being overrun by the Romans. (And that day was the last day Israel was ruled by a Jewish king.) For details check the links here. Justin knows only an anonymous Memoirs of the Apostles, although Peter is linked to them at one time. A reference to the Gospel of Peter? Some of Justin’s knowledge of the gospel narrative certainly does conform to what we read in that gospel. More likely, the gospel narrative was still in its final days of coming together. Justin does not know of a neatly defined canonical story that we all understand and accept — some of his knowledge directly contradicts what we take for granted in our gospels. Again check the links above for details.

Clement of Alexandria

Bauckham writes that we cannot be certain that Clement specifically identifies John the apostle with John the Son of Zebedee. What is significant and what I found of special interest is that Clement, as we find in the Acts of John, the Epistula Apostolorum and Justin, calls John an apostle. There does appear to be a developing trend in the use of this title to indicate special status and authority.

Emerging authority interest and the term “apostle”

The use of the term “apostle” for writers of Scripture can be connected both with the emerging definition of a “canon” of Christian writings considered appropriate for reading in Christian worship alongside the Old Testament Scriptures, and also with the closely related notion of apostolic tradition passed down in the apostolic sees and polemically defended against the claims of Gnostic groups to their own esoteric tradition handed down secretly from the apostles. We can see these concerns at work on those few occasions on which Irenaeus calls the author of the Gospel of John “apostle” or places him in a group called “the apostles” . . . It is by contrast with the Gnostic Gospels that Irenaeus refers to “the Gospel of the Apostles” (3.11.9), including John among them. In all such cases the term “apostle” indicates reliable authority, authorized by Christ himself and generally recognized in the churches. (p.467)

Bauckham finally concludes that once his John the Elder was regularly labelled an “apostle” he was easily confused with the Son of Zededee. (There is much to chew on in this passage of B’s for those who hold to a Marcionite and second century origin for the Pauline corpus, too!)

This discussion of the trend to employ the “apostle” word more frequently in association with the beginnings of authority of an emerging canon and interest in tracing an organizational or doctrinal authority back to “legitimating” sources (the apostles) points to something about the possible role of Papias not addressed by Bauckham. Note Justin’s ignorance of any legitimating apostolic names. His Twelve are anonymous — they merely serve to explain how Christianity came to be “everywhere” at the time he wrote.

Papias, (see my previous post on a first attempt to place external controls on any study of Papias) may be said to have made his appearance between Justin (despite the self-reference of the text) and Irenaeus. He was a first step on the way of the proto-orthodox in beginning to construct a legitimate lineage for their authoritative books and teachings. The time of the “riotous diversity” characterizing the earliest Christian “community” was to come to an end.

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Neil Godfrey

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