The Fourth-Gospel Problem

Originally appeared in The Theosophical Review 28 (July 1901): 405-415.
by G. R. S. Mead

The whole tradition of the apostle John's residence at Ephesus is based on the assertions of Irenaeus, who thus endeavours to establish his claim that he (Irenaeus) was in direct contact with an apostolic tradition. In his very early youth, says Irenaeus, he had known Polycarp, who, he claims, was a direct disciple of the apostolic John. This latter assertion of Irenaeus is called into serious question by many scholars.

Turning to the evidence of Papias (about 140 A.D., or as Harnack would have it 145-160 a.d.), we are confronted with the enormous difficulty of his assertion that at his time two "disciples of the Lord," Aristion and John the elder, were alive, and this too following his reference to another John, a "disciple of the Lord," mentioned in a list with other well-known names of apostles, who had passed away.

We have seen that the only way out of the difficulty which Dr. Abbott can suggest is to expunge the words "disciples of the Lord" after the names of Aristion and John the elder; how does Professor Schmiedel, in his article on "John," overcome this difficulty? Papias distinctly says that his interest was to hear from the followers of the elders what they could tell him of what the elders had said about what certain "disciples of the Lord" had said. These "disciples of the Lord" were dead and Papias did not think much of either what was stated about them in books, or what certain writers declared they said. Papias believed that he would better get at the truth of the matter by direct oral tradition. This in addition also to what he had already gleaned in early life directly from certain other elders. But there was an additional confirmation of the nature of the "commandments given by the Lord to faith," for these same elders who had formerly known certain "disciples of the Lord" who had passed away, also knew of certain living "disciples of the Lord," namely Aristion and John the elder. Now in this connection "elder" cannot refer to age, but must refer to office. The second John is an elder, but further and beyond that he is distinguished as also being a "disciple of the Lord." In our opinion, as we have already said, this term signifies a grade, and marks out this John as enjoying the direct inspiration of the Master after his death.

How does Professor Schmiedel overcome this difficulty? Of the phrase "disciples of the Lord," he writes: "This expression has been used immediately before, in the stricter sense, of the apostles; in the case of Aristion and John the elder, it is clearly used in a somewhat wider meaning, yet by no means so widely as in Acts 9.1, where all Christians are so called; for in that case it would be quite superfluous here. A personal yet not long-continued acquaintance with Jesus, therefore, will be what is meant. Such acquaintance would seem to be excluded if Papias as late as 140 or 145-160 A.D., had spoken with both." Professor Schmiedel, however, thinks that Papias's words refer to an earlier time than the period when he wrote his book; but even so, we shall have to reckon with the new evidence that Aristion is perhaps the writer of the appendix to our canonical Mk., in which case the date leans forward again. Again Professor Schmiedel's assumption that Papias knew Aristion and John the elder personally, is based on a translation of the text peculiar to himself and out of keeping with the construction of the sentence. Otherwise, as he well sees, there are two intermediate links between John the elder and the apostles. We, therefore, prefer the straightforward meaning of Papias and the extended meaning of the term "disciples of the Lord."

Now Papias, in a fragment preserved by late writers, asserts that John the apostle suffered martyrdom, "was put to death by the Jews," whereas the "John" of Irenaeus is said to have died of old age at Ephesus. Irenaeus, of course, would have it that this Ephesian John was the apostle; but no other ecclesiastical writer of the second century knows anything of the residence of the apostle at Ephesus. In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, it is "presupposed" that John is not to die a martyr's death, whereas the Gnostic Heracleon, about 175 A.D., confirms the martyrdom of John the apostle.

How then are these contradictory assertions to be reconciled and the "gross carelessness on the part of the leading authorities for ecclesiastical tradition" to be excused? As we have already seen from Papias, there were two Johns, the apostle and the elder, both "disciples of the Lord." John the elder may have resided at Ephesus. These two Johns have been confused together in the most unhistorical fashion by those who sought for an apostolic origin for the Fourth Gospel.

Now in the N.T. there are no less than five documents officially ascribed to the authorship of the apostle John. Of these five two only need engage our attention in the present enquiry. It is now claimed by the canon that the apostle John wrote both the Fourth Gospel and also the Apocalypse. On the other hand, no book of the N.T. has suffered such vicissitudes of acceptance and rejection as the Apocalypse, so that from the earliest times doubt was cast on its apostolic origin. But not only this, the differences of style between this document and the Fourth Gospel are so absolutely divergent that even the most uninstructed reader can detect them freely with the most superficial inspection.

In considering the authorship of the Apocalypse we must first of all proceed on the assumption that the book is a unity. "The spirit of the whole book can be urged as an argument for the apostle's authorship" on the ground that it is in entire keeping with the Synoptic description of the "son of thunder." Its eschatological contents, Jewish-Christian character, its "violent irreconcilable hostility" to enemies without and false teachers within, its fiery prophetic utterances, all testify to the justice of this by-name; still the writer does not call himself an apostle, but only a minister of Christ.

On the other hand, the technical erudition and skilful arrangement of the writer are hardly consistent with the synoptic description of John as a poor fisherman, and with the Acts' designation of him as "an unlearned and ignorant man." Above all we should expect "a livelier image of the personality of Christ" from an eye-witness. And finally the Apocalypse speaks of the twelve in "a quite objective way," without the slightest hint that the writer is one of the twelve. These difficulties are lessened, however, if we assume that John the elder was the author and not John the apostle.

But even so we are not out of the wood, for it is no longer possible to hold that the Apocalypse is a unity, and critical research has demonstrated that it is in its simplest analysis a Jewish apocalypse over-written by a Christian hand. The question thus becomes far more complicated; was the apostle or the elder the over-writer or original author of any part of it? The only hypothesis that can hold water in this connection is the possible authorship of John the elder of the Letters to the Seven Churches.

After reviewing the radical differences of language and spheres of thought of the two documents under discussion, the Apocalypse and Fourth Gospel, Professor Schmiedel concludes: "The attempt even to carry the Gospel and the Apocalypse back to one and the same circle or one and the same school . . . is therefore a bold one. It will be much more correct to say that the author of the Gospel was acquainted with the Apocalypse and took help from it so far as was compatible with the fundamental differences in their points of view. On account of the dependence thus indicated it will be safe to assume that the Apocalypse was a valued book in the circles in which the author of the Gospel moved, and that he arose in that environment and atmosphere."

To this we cannot altogether agree; it may be that the Apocalypse was a valued book in the circle of the writer of the Gospel because of its apocalyptic character, but it is manifestly certain that the writer of the fourth Gospel did not arise in the intolerant and unloving "environment and atmosphere," of the compiler and overwriter of the Revelation.

Turning now to the Fourth Gospel itself, the method of enquiry adopted by scientific research centres itself upon the question of this Gospel's historicity. "In proportion as tradition concerning the authorship is uncertain, must we rely all the more upon this means of arriving at knowledge." The most important line of research is that of comparison with the three synoptic writings, but here it has to be remembered that we must not begin by postulating a higher degree of historicity for the synoptists, all we can legitimately do is to discover the differences, and then ascertain which is the more preferable account, and finally enquire whether the less preferable can have come from an eye-witness.

To take the fundamental differences in order. The powerful personality of the Baptist in the synoptics in Jn. becomes a mere "subsidiary figure introduced to make known the majesty of Jesus." The scene of the public ministry of Jesus in Jn. is very different from the synoptic account; equally so is the order of the principal events in the public life. The miracle-narratives in Jn. are "essentially enhanced" beyond those of the synoptics, and Jn. adds new and more astonishing narratives; moreover Jn.'s miracles can always be more easily explained symbolically. But perhaps the most important difference of all is that relating to the date of the crucifixion; moreover Jn. does not mention the celebration of the last supper, but preaches the mystical doctrine that the Christian "passover" was the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Further "the difference in character between the synoptic and the Johannine discourses of Jesus can hardly be over-estimated." As to Jn.'s representation of Jesus, it is always in harmony with the "utterances of the Johannine Christ," that He is the Logos of God. Nothing that would savour of an earthly origin or nature is recorded of Jesus. The author of the Fourth Gospel preaches the universality of salvation, spiritualises the eschatology and the "second advent." The sayings of Jesus regarding Himself assert his pre-existence from all eternity, and that He is the only Way and only Son of the Father; in brief He is identified with the Logos of the prologue.

This prologue Professor Schmiedel assumes to be written by the author of the rest of the work, but we are of opinion that it is from some other hand, and not only so but specially selected as an appropriate introduction, if not as a text upon which the leading doctrinal ideas of the Gospel are based. And this may explain the following contradictory views of the critics, for Professor Schmiedel writes: "One might suppose it to be self-evident that the evangelist in his prologue had the intention of propounding the fundamental thoughts which he was about to develop in the subsequent course of the gospel." Whereas Professor Harnack's opinion is "that the prologue is not the expression of the evangelist's own view, but is designed merely to produce a favourable prepossession on behalf of the book in the minds of educated readers."

Now it is to be noticed that there is no positive teaching in the Gospels, or in the N.T. generally, as to the origin of things except in this proem. It is further to be noticed that just as the later followers of Plato specially singled out the Timaeus for study and commentary, so did the most philosophical among the Christians (for instance, the Gnostics of the second half of the second century) single out this proem for commentary. The Timaeus is evidently based on and compiled from fragments of more ancient writings, and we are of opinion that this also is the case with the proem of the Fourth Gospel.

But when Professor Schmiedel writes: "The perception that the prologue is deliberately intended as a preparation for the entire contents of the gospel has reached its ultimate logical result in the proposition that the entire gospel is a conception at the root of which lies neither history nor even tradition of another kind, but solely the ideas of the prologue," we are not quite certain that this is altogether the case. We rather hold that the prologue by itself was not the basis of the Gospel, but that the author was brought up in an atmosphere in which such ideas as those contained in the prologue were current, and that the prologue itself is a scrap of a lost document. We hold, further, that there was a distinct tradition of these ideas differing considerably from the synoptic tradition, though at the same time we do not deny the personal inspiration of the writer of the Fourth Gospel and his independent treatment of both the outer and inner traditions. This does not of course assume the historicity of the "Johannine tradition," but it assumes a mystical tradition of not only equal authority with the outer traditions, but of greater authority, in the mind of the writer of the "Johannine" document, than the view of the synoptists.

Professor Schmiedel, in summing up the comparison of Jn. with the synoptics, writes: "We shall be safe in asserting not only that the synoptists cannot have been acquainted with the Fourth Gospel, but also that they were not aware of the existence of other sources, written or oral, containing all these divergences from their own account which are exhibited in this Gospel." This seems to be the correct conclusion from the evidence; at the same time it must be remarked that though the writer of the Fourth Gospel was acquainted with the main materials used by the three synoptists, and treated them with the greatest freedom, and though the synoptists seem to have known nothing of the written or oral traditions used exclusively by Jn., that all this does not necessarily exclude their being contemporary writers.

As to the internal evidence for the nationality of the evangelist, "his attitude—partly of acceptance, partly of rejection—towards the O.T.," and his "defective acquaintance with the conditions in Palestine in the time of Jesus," lead to the conclusion "that he was by birth a Jew of the Dispersion or the son of Christian parents who had been Jews of the Dispersion." It has, however, been strongly argued that the writer could not possibly have been a Jew.

Now as the formal conclusion of the Fourth Gospel is to be found at the end of chap. 20, chap. 21 is "beyond question" an appendix, and moreover can be clearly proved not to have come from the same author as the writer of the rest of the book. The main purpose of the second half of this appendix is the "accrediting" of the document—a fact which shows that the authorship and contents were already called into question.

The authors of this appendix assert that it was a certain disciple whom Jesus loved who had written "these things," and that they (the authors) know that his "testimony" is true.

The Gospel's writer's own account of the author is that "he who saw it bare record and his record is true: and the one knows that he speaks true." The greatest possible ingenuity has been exhausted on these words so as to make them a statement of the writer concerning himself, but this is manifestly an impossibility. Finally, in the supposed other testimony as to himself the designation of the unnamed disciple as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," speaks "quite decisively" against this assumption. In all of this, therefore, we have no certain fact as to authorship from internal evidence.

Passing next to the external evidence for the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel, Professor Schmiedel has of course to traverse the same ground which we have already reviewed in referring to Dr. Abbott's labours. This he does in a very full and scholarly manner, and in summing up his estimate of the evidence writes: "We find ourselves compelled not only to recognise the justice of the remark of Reuss that 'the incredible trouble which has been taken to collect external evidences only serves to show that there are none of the sort which were really wanted,' but also to set it up even as a fundamental principle of criticism that the production of the Fourth Gospel must be assigned to the shortest possible date before the time at which traces of acquaintance with it begin to appear. Distinct declarations as to its genuineness begin certainly not earlier than about 170 A.D."

It is quite true that nothing can be definitely proved beyond this; but, as we have already indicated, we are inclined to assign as early a date to the Fourth Gospel as to the synoptics, and attribute its later recognition, as compared with that of the synoptics, to the difficulty which the general mind always experiences in assimilating mystical and spiritual doctrine.

"If," however, "on independent grounds some period shortly before 140 A.D. can be set down as the approximate date of the production of the Gospel," then new importance is to be attached to a passage (5.43) where Jesus is made to say: "I am come in the name of my father and ye receive me not; if another will come in his own name, him will ye receive." This is to be taken as a prophecy after the event, as is the case in thousands of instances in contemporary apocalyptic literature. Barchochba, claiming to be the Messiah, headed a revolt of the Jews in 132 A.D., which ended in the complete extinction of the Jewish state in 135 A.D.

Furthermore, in reviewing the nature of the external evidence as to the Gospels, Professor Schmiedel gives a valuable warning to those who have to decide between the conservative and independent views on the matter. After citing a number of declarations of the Church Fathers (with regard to other writings) which are admitted by both sides to be fantastic or erroneous, he writes: "When the Church Fathers bring before us such statements as these, no one believes them; but when they 'attest' the genuineness of a book of the Bible, then the conservative theologians regard the fact as enough to silence all criticism. This cannot go on for ever. Instead of the constantly repeated formula that an ancient writing is 'attested' as early as by (let us say) Irenaeus, Tertullian, or Clement of Alexandria, there will have to be substituted the much more modest statement that its existence (not genuineness) is attested only as late as by the writers named, and even this only if the quotations are undeniable or the title expressly mentioned."

After this declaration it is strange to find the learned critic adopting the statement of one of these Church Fathers on a most debatable point without the slightest hesitation.

We have already seen the strong mystical bias of the writer of the Fourth Gospel, and we naturally turn to Professor Schmiedel's exposition to learn his opinion on the relation of this Gospel to Gnosticism. He admits that "the gospel shows clearly how profoundly Gnostic ideas had influenced the author"; but on this very important subject Professor Schmiedel has no light to offer. He seems to accept the entirely polemical assertion of Hegesippus, as handed on by Eusebius, that "profound peace reigned in the entire Church till the reign of Trajan [98-117 A.D.]; but after the second choir of the apostles had died out and the immediate hearers of Christ had passed away, the godless corruption began through the deception of false teachers, who now with unabashed countenance dared to set up against the preaching of truth the doctrines of Gnosis, falsely so-called. There is no reason for disputing the date here given."

On the contrary, there is every possible reason for disputing not only the date, but every single item of the statements, as we have shown at great length in our recent work on the subject. Here again, as everywhere else in connection with the Gnosis, the new Encyclopaedia reveals its vulnerable side, as we shall endeavour to prove in our concluding paper.

As to the place of composition of the Fourth Gospel, Professor Schmiedel inclines to Asia Minor, as the easiest hypothesis; it is only on this assumption that we can explain how the Gospel could be ascribed to some John living there. But the strongly Alexandrian ideas of the Gospel are, in our opinion, somewhat against this, though of course Gnostic ideas, and very probably Alexandrian, could be current in Asia Minor. There is, however, nothing to prevent us referring the origin to an Alexandrian circle, and the carrying of an early copy of the document to Asia Minor.

But before leaving the subject it should be mentioned that the criticism of the Fourth Gospel, which has so far proceeded on the assumption of its unity (excepting, of course, the appendix and the prologue), is further complicated by hypotheses of "sources," and the question of interpolation. The question of sources, however, does not help us at present to an any more satisfactory solution of the problem; there may, indeed, be interpolations, "but if it is proposed to eliminate every difficult passage as having been interpolated, very little indeed of the gospel will be left at the end of the process."

With regard to the whole question of Fourth Gospel criticism Professor Schmiedel says that there is only "positive relief from an intolerable burden," when "the student has made up his mind to give up any such theory as that of the 'genuineness' of the gospel, as also of its authenticity in the sense of its being the work of an eye-witness who meant to record actual history. Whoever shrinks from the surrender can, in spite of all the veneration for the book which constrains him to take this course, have little joy in his choice. Instead of being able to profit by the elucidation regarding the nature and the history of Jesus, promised him by the 'genuineness' theory, he finds himself at every turn laid under the necessity of meeting objections on the score of historicity, and if he has laboriously succeeded (as he thinks) in silencing these, others and yet others arise tenfold increased, and in his refutation of these, even when he carries it through—and that too even, it may be, with a tone of great assurance—he yet cannot in conscientious self-examination feel any true confidence in his work."

It only remains to add that, in our opinion, the same remarks, with slight modification might be made with regard to by far the greater part of the synoptical writings as well.

But that such a poor answer as the one we are led to deduce from the general point of view of advanced criticism, will satisfy the question: "What think ye of Christ?" is and must be highly repugnant to those who not only love but also worship Him. What, then, are the grounds for this intuition of greater things, which refuses to sacrifice itself on the altar of "science"? Our next paper will be devoted to a general consideration of this question.