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Johannine Writings
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1. PAPIAS’ TEACHER IN EPHESUS: JOHN THE ELDER.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who wrote about 185, and nearly all the Christian writers of later date are unanimous in saying that the Fourth Gospel was composed by the Apostle John, who lived in Ephesus during about the last third of the first century and took a leading position in the eyes of all the Christian communities in the West of Asia Minor. Irenaeus, who must have been born about 140, in his early youth stayed at the house of the aged Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in Asia Minor, who died in the year 156, and he often heard him speak of his teacher John. He adds that Papias also, the companion of Polycarp, who was afterwards bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, was a hearer of the Apostle John.

But the latter statement is a mistake. Eusebius, the author of the first History of the Church (ob. 340) has in an earlier work simply repeated it from Irenaeus; in the History, however, which was written later, he has corrected it and, in proof of his right to do so, appeals to Papias own words in a work which, apart from this quotation, has been almost entirely lost. We shall give this memorable passage in order to show how a documentary statement may prove the incorrectness of extremely important ideas which have not been doubted by any one for centuries. Papias’ book contained, as we know from its title, “Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord” Jesus. In the Introduction Eusebius found the following: “I shall not hesitate to gather up for you, with the expositions (belonging to the same), as well all that I once learnt well from the mouths of the elders and committed well to memory, I myself guaranteeing the truth of it. . . . But whenever any one came who had enjoyed intercourse with the elders, I inquired (firstly) about the sayings of the Elders, (as to) what Andrew or Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord (said), and (secondly) what Aristion and John the Elder, the disciples of the Lord, say.”

Quite a number of important inferences may be drawn from this. (1) Papias gathered his information partly from the persons whom he calls “the Elders,” partly from their disciples. (2) The Greek word which we render "the Elders” is presbyter. We cannot use this Greek word itself, because it would be understood to mean, as it does still in the Reformed Churches, leaders of a Christian community. But such an office is no guarantee that its holder could give what Papias needed—reliable memoranda of the Life of Jesus based as far as possible on personal observation; such a guarantee could only be given by persons of great age. Papias was born about 70; even if he began to collect his information at twenty years of age, the people who could tell him anything which they had learned by experience from their association with Jesus—that is to say, about the year 30—must have been already well advanced in years. (3) Jesus twelve apostles would have been the proper people to have spoken to, but Papias did not speak to any of these. It would really be very unnatural for him to wish on his own part to guarantee for the first time the truth of what he had heard from such all-important persons. But, besides this, he expressly tells us that he inquired about the sayings of the Elders from companions of the Elders—inquired as to what Andrew and the six others first mentioned said, and what Aristion and John the Elder say. It is clear that only these two were still alive when Papias gathered his information, and that those who are mentioned before them were no longer living. But these are actually seven of Jesus twelve Apostles; and there can be no idea of his having spoken personally to any of the five others, since he would not in that case under any consideration have failed to mention it. (4) We must therefore distinguish four stages: the twelve Apostles whom Papias no longer knew, the elders whom he still knew, their disciples, and lastly Papias himself. (5) Papias distinguishes between two persons with the name John: the Apostle and the person whom he calls “John, the Elder.” Both belong to the “disciples of the Lord,” but each in a different sense. The Apostle was a constant disciple of Jesus; the other was not; in fact, it may be that he only heard Jesus a few times in his early youth. When the first century came to an end, and the persons who could boast of a personal acquaintance with Jesus died out, it became easier for the title of honour, “disciple of the Lord,” to be applied to one who, strictly speaking, little deserved it. (6) Papias may very well have known this second John. This need not be doubted on the ground that he inquired about his sayings of other persons; this only became necessary when he himself could no longer speak to him, either because he was living in a remote place or because he had died. In all probability Papias wrote his work between 140 and 160. At that time the John who had seen Jesus could certainly no longer be living; he may very well have lived during Papias youth.

We must assume with the greater certainty that Papias really knew him, because Irenaeus says that Papias was a hearer of the Apostle John, and yet, according to his own statements, he no longer knew the Apostle. Here then we have the confusion of which Irenaeus was guilty: Papias certainly had a John as his teacher; this, however, was not the Apostle, but John the Elder.

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