John the Presbyter

John The Presbyter, a supposed disciple of Jesus, and instructor of Papias of Hierapolis, is said to have been a contemporary of the apostle John (with whom it is thought he has been confounded by early Church historians), and to have resided at Ephesus. For the assertion that there existed such a person, the testimony advanced is

(1) that of Papias (in Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 3, 39), who, in speaking of the personal efforts he put forth to establish himself in the Christian faith, says: "Whenever any one arrived who had had intercourse with the elders (τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις), I made inquiry concerning the declarations of these; what Andrew, what Peter, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord. said, as also what Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord, say. For I believed that I should not derive so much advantage from books as from living and abiding discourse."Eusebiuns in reporting this, takes special pains to report that Papias purposely adduces the name John twice, first in connection with Peter; James, and Matthew, where only the apostle can be intended, and again along with Aristion, where he distinguishes him by the title of "the Presbyter." Eusebius further states that this confirms the report of those who relate that there were two men in Asia Minor who bore that name, and had been closely connected with Christ, and then continues by showing that two tombs had been found in Ephesus being the name of John. Further proof is found in another part of his history (7, 25), where he cites Dionsius, bishop of Alexandria, about the middle of the 3d century, as uttering the same tradition concerning the finding of the two tombs at Ephesus inscribed with the name of John, and as ascribing to John the Presbyter the authorship of the Apocalypse, which Eusebius himself was inclined to do. The existence of a presbyter John is

(2) declared in the Apostolical Constitutions (7, 36), where it is said that the second John was bishop of Ephesus after John the Apostle, and that it was by the latter that he was instituted into office. Further testimony is obtained from Jerome (De Vir. Ill. c. 9), who reports the opinion of some that the second and third epistles of John are the production of John the Presbyter, "cujus et hodie alterum sepulcrum apud Ephesum ostenditur, etsi nonnulli putant duas memorias ejusdem Johannis evangelistae esse." In defense of the existence of such a person as John the Presbyter appear prominently among modern critics Grotius, Beck, Fritzsche, Bretschneider, Credner, Ebrard, and Steitz (Jahrb. deutscher Theol. 1869, 1, 138 sq.), all of whom ascribe to him the authorship of the last two epistles of John, generally believed to be the productions of John the Apostle; also Liicke, Bleek, De Wette, and Neander, who consider John the Presbyter the author of the Apocalypse. The simple question whether another John existed in Asia Minor contemporary with John the Apostle would, of course, be of little import, but the fact that the apostolical authorship of some of the epistles and of the Apocalypse is doubted has called to critical inquiry most of the leading theological minds of our day. The result is that, while some have conceded the existence of another John, clothed even with episcopal dignity (Dollinger, First Age of the Church, p. 113), others have denied altogether the probability of the existence of such a person contemporary with the apostle John (see Schaff, Church History, Apostolic Age, p. 421, note). Dr.W.L. Alexander, in reviewing the proofs of those who assert the existence of John and his authorship of some of the Johannean writings, thinks that in the way of this assumption stands the following: 1. "The negative evidence arising from the silence of all other ancient authorities, especially the silence of Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, who, in a list of eminent teachers and bishops in Asia Minor, preserved by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. v, 24), makes no mention of John the Presbyter; and, 2. The positive evidence afforded by the statement of Ireneeus, who not only omits all mention of the Presbyter, but says that Papias was a hearer of John the Apostle along with Polycarp (adv. Hoeres. 5, 33). [Not so thinks Donaldson in his Hist. Christ. Lit. and Doctr. 1, 312 sq.] This counter evidence has appeared to some so strong that they have thought it sufficient to set aside that of Papias, who, they remind us, is described by Eusebius as a man of a very small intellect (σφόδρα σμικρὸς τὸν νοῦν Hist. Eccles. 3, 39). [See Schaff; below.] But this seems going too far. Papias describes himself as a hearer of the presbyter John (Euseb. 5, 24), and in this he could hardly be mistaken, whatever was his deficiency in intellectual power [this view is advocated by Zahn (in his Hermas) and Riggenbach (Jahrb. deutscher Theol. 13, 319); against it, see Steitz (in Jahrb. 14, 145 sq.)]; whereas it is very possible that Irenaeus may have confounded the presbyter with the apostle, the latter of whom would be to his mind much more familiar than the former. The silence of Polycrates may be held proof sufficient that no John the Presbyter was bishop of Ephesus, or famed as a teacher of Christianity in Asia Minor; but, as Papias does not attest this, his testimony remains unaffected by this conclusion. On the whole, the existence of a John the Presbyter seems to be proved by the testimony of Papias; but beyond this, and the fact that he was a disciple of the Lord, nothing is certainly known of him. Credner contends that πρεσβύτερος is to be taken in its ordinary sense of 'older,' and that it was applied to the person mentioned by Papias either because he was the senior of St. John, or because he arrived before him in Asia Minor; but this is improbable in itself; and, had Papias meant to intimate this, he would not have simply called him ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ι᾿ωάννης (see Liddon, p. 514). In his statement πρεσβύτερος is plainly opposed to ἀπόστολος as a distinctive title of office" (Kitto, Cycop. s.v.). We cannot close without permitting Dr. Schaff (Apost. Ch. Hist. p. 421 sq.) to give his view on this important question. He says: "There is room even to inquire whether the very existence of this obscure presbyter and mysterious duplicate of the apostle John rests not upon sheer misunderstanding, as Herder suspected (Offenb. Joh. p. 206, in the 12th vol. of Herder's Werke zur Theol.). We candidly avow that to us, notwithstanding what Liicke (iv, 396 sq.) and Credner (Einileit. in's N.Test. 1, 694 sq.) have said in its favor, this man's existence seems very doubtful. The only proper, original testimony for it is, as is well known, an obscure passage of Papias in Eusebius, 3, 39." After doubting the-propriety of giving credit to a statement of Papias not reiterated by any other authority of the early Church, he says: "It is very possible that Papias meant in both cases one and the same John, and repeated his name perhaps on account of his peculiarly close contact with him. (See above, Dr. Alexander's view.) So Irenaeus, at least, seems to have understood him, when he calls Papias a disciple of the apostle John (without mentioning any presbyter of that name) and friend of Polycarp (Adv. Hoer. 5, 33). The arguments for this interpretation are the following:

(1) The term 'presbyter' is here probably not an official title, but denotes age, including the idea of venerableness, as also Credner supposes (p. 697), and as may be inferred from 2Jo 1:1 and 3Jo 1:1, and from the usage of Irenoeus, who applies the same term to his master Polycarp (Adv. Hoer. 5, 30), and to the Roman bishops before Soter (5, 24). This being so, we cannot conceive how a contemporary of John, bearing the same name, should be distinguished from the apostle by this standing title, since the apostle himself had attained an unusual age, and was probably even sixty when he came to Asia Minor.

(2) Papias, in the same passage, styles the other apostles also 'presbyters,' the ancients, the fathers; and, on the other hand, calls also Aristion and John (personal) 'disciples of the Lord.'

(3) The evangelist designates himself as 'the elder' (2Jo 1:1 and 3Jo 1:1), which leads us to suppose that he was frequently so named by his 'little children,' as he loves to call his readers in his first epistle. For this reason also it would have been altogether unsuitable, and could only have created confusion, to denote by this title another John, who lived with the apostle and under him in Ephesus. Credner supposes, indeed, that these two epistles came not from the apostle, but, like the Apocalypse, from the 'presbyter John' in question. But it is evident at first sight that these epistles are far more akin, even in their language, to the first epistle than to the Apocalypse (comp. 2Jo 1:13 with 1Jo 2:7-8; 1Jo 4:2-3; 2Jo 1:9 with 1Jo 2:27; 1Jo 3:9, etc.). This is De Wette's reason for considering them genuine. When Credner supposes that the presbyter afterwards accommodated himself to the apostle's way of. thinking and speaking, he makes an entirely arbitrary assumption which he himself condemns in pronouncing a like change in the apostle 'altogether unnatural and inadmissible' (p. 733).

(4) The Ephesian bishop Polycrates, of the 2d century, in his letter to Victor, bishop of Rome, on the Paschal controversy (in Euseb. 5, 24), mentions but one John, though he there enumerates the μεγάλα στοιχεῖα of the Asian Church, Philip, with his pious daughters, Polycarp, Thraseas, Sagaris, Papirius, Melito, most of whom were not so important as the presbyter John must have been if he were a personal disciple of the Lord, and the author of the Apocalypse. We can hardly think that in this connection, where it was his object to present as many authorities as possible for the Asiatic usage respecting the feast, Polycrates would have passed over this John if he had known anything about him, and if his tomb could have been really pointed out in Ephesus, as the later Dionysius and Jerome intimate. Jerome, however, in speaking of this, expressly observes,

'Nonnulli putant, duas memorias ejusdem Johannis evangelists esse' (De Vir. Ill. c. 9); which, again, makes this whole story doubtful, and destroys its character as a historical testimony in favor of this obscure presbyter." Ridiculous, certainly, is the argument which some have advanced, that the different Johannean epistles differ so much in style that they cannot possibly be ascribed to one and the same person. On this argument Ebrard (Einleitung) laid particular stress, but he is ably answered by Dr. Tholuck in his Glaubwurdigkeit der evangel. Geschichte, 2d ed. p. 283. From the rich treasury of his reading the latter draws such analogies as the "varietas dictionis Appulejanae;" the difference between the Dialogus de Oratoribus and the Annales of Tacitus; between the Leges and the earlier dialogues of Plato; the sermons and the satires of Swift, etc. "This catalogue," says Dr. Schaff, "may easily be increased from the history of modern literature. Think, for example, of the immense distance between Schleiermacher's Roden uber die Religion and his Dialektik; Hegel's Logik and Aesthetikc; the first and second part of Gothe's Faust; Carlyle's Life of Schiller and his Latter-day Pamphlets, etc." Comp. also Liddon, Divinity of Christ, p. 512 sq. SEE JOHN, SECOND AND THIRD EPISTLES OF.

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