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The History and the Dating of John’s Gospel

The records of the historians are consistent with one another.

According to the Old Latin Prologue to John, Bishop Papias of Hierapollis (60-138) related that he had written the Gospel as John had dictated it to him (RO 150). This claim may have been concerning the last chapter only.  Papias said John had composed it at the request of the bishops of Asia against Cerinthus and other heretics, especially the Ebionites. Papias added that John knew the other three gospels and had written to supplement them. (RO 151).

Irenaeus (120-180) wrote: ‘Later on too, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had even reclined on his bosom, he too brought out a Gospel while he was dwelling in Ephesus of Asia’. (RO 129). [Present day Turkey]

A long fragment of the Muratorian Canon was discovered in 1740 by Cardinal Muratori in the Ambrosian library at Milan. Internal evidence shows it was composed between 141- 155 AD. Some attribute its authorship to Hippolytus. The Latin text, confirmed by other finds, appears to have been translated from the Greek. (RO 138-139)

It explains that John wrote: at the insistence of his fellow-disciples and bishops. John agreed and asked them “to fast with him for three days, and what shall have been revealed to each let us, relate to one another”. That same night it was revealed to the Andrew, one of the Apostles, that whatever came to the minds of them all, John, in his own name, should write it all down. (EH 6:14, 5-7 and RO 139).

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) mentioned that John wrote the forth Gospel after being urged by his friends (EH 6:14 and CCHS 777a).

The Anti-Marcionite Prologue of John: says the bishops of Asia [present day Turkey] asked the Apostle John to answer Cerinthus and other heretics, and this was the reason why John wrote his gospel ((AMJ and RO 151- 2)).

At one time it was accepted that John wrote his gospel about 96AD. ((CCHS 781j)). But recently, Tresmontant ((CTH 324)), Thied ((CTR xii)), Orchard ((BOO 18)) and Robinson ((JATR 311)) separately concluded that the first twenty chapters were written prior to 70AD with chapter 21 added about 95AD.

In the first 18 verses, John gave a theological answer to the Gnostic challenge and then turned to comment on specific subjects.

The Gnostic Challenge

The Gnostic belief, that men were good immortal spirits imprisoned in evil bodies, was widespread in various forms throughout the Greek-speaking world. This imprisonment led to a battle between light and dark, spirit and flesh. While its influence may be seen in much of pagan and non-canonical early Christian literature, we do not posses coherent statements of the beliefs of its various sects.

The word ‘Gnostic’ meant ‘knowledge’, but heretics used it to mean ‘secret knowledge’. In his Epistle to the Colossians Paul writes: “See that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceits,… according to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Col. 2:8). It is widely accepted, that this letter was sent while Paul was in prison earlier than 70 AD. 

In 1st.Timothy 6: 20 we read: “Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, …”  Pope John Paul II considered Paul was here referring to Gnostic teachings ((JPFR 4:37)).  In the Apocalypse (2:6 and 15) we read a warning regarding the Nicolaites, a Gnostic sect.

In the second century, the Gnostics became more organised, but their ideas were causing problems for Christians much earlier. Ireneaus described the beliefs of Cerinthus before he described those of the Ebionites. He accused the Ebionites of ‘worshipping Jerusalem’. This indicates the Ebionites, and therefore the Cerinthians, were active prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Irenaeus records that John had in mind: ‘the errors sown by Cerinthus and earlier still by those called Nicolaites’ ((IAH 3: 11, 1 and CCHS 778h)). The Gnostics claimed to be ‘the knowing men of light and knowledge’.

Irenaeus and others made many references to the Gnostics, and Henry Owen in 1764 used this information to construct an outline of their teachings. The following is based on the work of Owen, but it needs to be remembered that the Nicolaites, Cerinthians, Ebionites and many more sects, varied from one another in their precise beliefs.

The Unknown most high God lived in heaven with the chief spirits or Aeons. He generated an only-begotten son, called MONOGENES, who begat the inferior LOGOS [The Greek for WORD]. There were two high Aeons called LIFE and LIGHT. From these Aeons proceeded inferior orders of spirits, including CHRIST and DEMIURGUS. It was DEMIURGUS who created this visible world out of eternal matter. This DEMIURGUS was ignorant of the supreme God and much lower than the invisible Aeons. He was protector of the Israelites and sent Moses to them with laws of perpetual obligation. [Many of the heretical sects observed Jewish traditional laws].

Jesus was a mere man, the real son of Joseph and Mary. But CHRIST descended on him in the form of a dove when he was baptised. CHRIST revealed to him the unknown Father and empowered him to work miracles. Similarly the Aeon, LIGHT, entered into John the Baptist. As LIGHT was superior to CHRIST, John the Baptist was in some respects to be preferred to Jesus.

After Jesus had propagated the knowledge of God, he came to suffer. So CHRIST left him and fled to the uppermost heaven. It was Jesus only who suffered. CHRIST would return to reign for a thousand years, with humanity the slave of lust and pleasure ((EH 3: 28)). Some groups denied that Christ had risen and there would be a resurrection of the dead ((HO 92)).

Knowing this background, we are able to understand the early words of John’s gospel.

John says that CHRIST is the LOGOS [The WORD] of God (John 1: 1). The WORD and MONOGENES [the only begotten son of God] are one and the same person (1: 14). CHRIST, or The WORD, is not an inferior Aeon, but God (1: 1). Christ was not ignorant of God, but knew him always and perfectly in heaven (1: 18). Christ is not to be distinguished from the DEMIURGUS for he is the creator of the whole world (1: 10). LIFE and LIGHT are not particular and separate spirits, but the same as the LOGOS and CHRIST (John 1: 4, 7-9).

So John is saying that CHRIST, the LOGOS [The WORD], LIFE, LIGHT and MONOGENES (the only-begotten) are not distinct Aeons [Spirits], but one and the same Divine person. John says that an Aeon, LIGHT, did not enter into John the Baptist and communicate to him supreme knowledge of the Divine Will. He was a mere man and though inspired, much inferior to Jesus being only the forerunner of him (John 1: 6, 8, 15).

John explains that the Supreme God was not entirely unknown before the time of Christ. Men were enlightened in their own consciences, but they did not want to know him (1: 9-10). The Jews were not the particular people of an inferior god, DEMIURGUS, but of CHRIST, himself the only-begotten son of God (1: 11). Eventually he became man (1: 14) and fulfilled the Law of Moses, which was only a shadow of good things to come, and instituted its fullness. CHRIST came for all men not for the Jews only (1: 12-13). Jesus was Son of the Father (1: 14). 

In his following verses and chapters, John selected incidents and miracles to support what he had affirmed.  John refutes the idea that John the Baptist, by preaching the Law of Moses, was superior to CHRIST (John 1: 15-34).

John showed Christ was superior to John the Baptist. The passages above show that Irenaeus was correct in the reason he gave why this Gospel was written. So it is logical to accept him as being correct when naming John the Apostle as its author.

Some Markan priorists claim Cerinthus did not live until after John had died. But according to Eusebius, Cerinthus founded his religion ‘at the time under discussion’ ((EH 3: 28, 1)).  As he had just been writing about the Ebionites this must have been very early.

We also have a graphic story recorded by Irenaeus: ‘The apostle John once went into a bath-house to wash, but when he knew Cerinthus was within, leapt out of the place and fled from the door, for he did not endure to be even under the same roof with him, and enjoined on those who were with him to do the same, saying “Let us flee, lest this bath-house fall in, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” Irenaeus added that he had obtained this story from bishop Polycarp, who had known John personally.  ((EH 3: 28, 6)).

We also read: “At his time, too, there existed for a short time the heresy of the Nicolaitans of which the Apocalypse of John [Apoc. 2: 6 and 15] also makes mention”. ((EH 3: 29, 1)). So we see again that Irenaeus was writing about a very early period.

John Supplementing and clarifying the Synoptic Gospels

In his gospel, John does not repeat details already to be found in the three existing gospels. If he had written without knowledge of the existing gospels, it would be incredible that he could so successfully have avoided repeating so much contained in them, such as: The Transfiguration and Christ’s confession of divinity before Caiaphas ((CCHS 778h)).

Eusebius reports that the three existing gospels were distributed to all, and John testified to their truth. [So John endorsed all three]. John then supplemented them ((EH 3: 24, 7 and 11)) and, by correcting any false impressions they may have given, closed openings for heretical attacks.

By looking at various passages we are able to see how he accomplished this. We may note how John presumes many of his readers had a vivid knowledge of the environment of Christ’s preaching, which was radically changed in 70 AD. 

1.      It would have been strange for the Messiah not to have preached in Judea and Jerusalem or attend the great feasts. Yet the Synoptics mention Galilee only. John provides the additional information (John 6: 1, 5: 1, 3: 22, 4: 54). He ignores the Galilean ministry, except for one incident, where there is a specific reason to mention it.

2.     This specific reason concerned the Eucharist. The Synoptics had given accounts of its institution, (Mt 26: 26-27: Luke 22: 19-20 and Mark 14: 22-24), but not the earlier promise of Christ to do so. In chapter six John provides an elaborate Eucharistic discourse, including Christ’s promise (John 6: 54-58) and a long account of the last supper. He does not repeat the institution of the Eucharist itself,

3.      The Synoptics report the great enthusiasm of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but not what had caused it. John explains that Christ had just raised Lazarus to life (John 11: 17).

4.      Matthew recounts how Christ called Peter, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples (Mt. 4: 18-22), and Luke provides a similar but shorter account (Luke 5: 10-11). Critics could say that the manner of this call provided neither sufficient time for serious intelligent consideration, nor the opportunity to provide for dependents.

Mark had indicated that the father of James and John would not be left without assistance         (Mk 1: 20). But it is John, who was there, who provides a fuller explanation. He reports that two of the disciples of the Baptist had talked for a long time in private with Christ           (John 1: 35-51). What was said during that day and night we do not know, but we may presume they were told clearly what was required of them. Following this, Christ spoke to the others he intended call.

Matthew and Luke tell us that Christ then went into the desert for over a month, and followed this with a period of preaching (Mt 4: 1-2, Luke 4: 1- 2 and Mk 1: 12-13). There was no need for John to repeat this information. By the time Christ finally calls His disciples (Mt.4:18-22) each had had time to consider seriously his call and provide for his dependents.

5.      Matthew reports the intention of Christ to appoint Peter as leader of His church        (Mt. 16: 18), but not how Peter got this name. So John supplies this information (John 1: 42). The change of name was important because in Aramaic ‘Kepha’ was the word for both ‘Peter’ and ‘Rock’. But John does not repeat the account of the formal promise of the appointment because Matthew had already done so.

6.      Matthew tells us that Christ was born in Bethlehem, and mentions the prophecy that Christ would come from there (Mt 2: 1-6), but not of Bethlehem being the town of David. John adds this important detail (John 7: 42).

7.      Matthew’s Gospel reads as if Simon carried the cross for Christ (Mt 27: 32). The words of Luke (23: 26) and Mark (15: 21) convey the same information. But John makes it clear that Christ was “bearing his own cross” (John 19: 17) and does not mention the assistance of Simon. Note how by introducing the word ‘own’, John emphasises the meaning of his sentence. We know that heretics were claiming that Christ had not suffered because he had left the body of Jesus before the crucifixion. They were probably quoting Matthew’s account, so as to ‘prove’ it was Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross because Jesus, now a mere man, had been too weak.

8.      Matthew reports in 27: 35 that the soldiers divided the garments of Jesus by lots. This was similar to the prophecy in Psalm 22 (23) but Matthew did not mention what had happened to the tunic of Christ. Critics could say that the reports in the Synoptics did not fulfil the prophecy exactly. Matthew had fled the scene so was reporting second hand. Luke (23: 34) and Mark (15: 24) merely provide abridged versions, so did not clarify the question. It was John, having been present, who was able to provide a detailed account of the discussion between the soldiers and the reason they treated the tunic of Jesus differently. It is the account in John 19: 23-24 which shows the events fitted the prophecy exactly.

9.      At the time of Christ there were two high priests. Matthew tells us that when Christ was arrested he was taken to Caiaphas the high priest, the scribes and the elders. They sent him to Pilate because they wanted him to be executed (Mt. 26: 57). Luke and Mark add little to Matthew’s account. Although according to Jewish law the position of high priest was held for life, Annas had been deposed by the Romans and replaced by Caiaphas.

So a critic could argue that the true high priest had not been guilty. John answers this by stating; “First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was the high priest for that year” (John 18: 13).

John then reports the trial before Annas (John 18: 19-24), which took place prior to Annas sending Christ to Caiaphas.  John is showing how both high priests were involved and therefore responsible for the death of Christ. It also appears that the arresting party consisted of men employed by Annas. Note how John introduces the word ‘First’ (Verse 13), which emphasises the meaning of the sentence.

10.  Groups of pious Jews were following the tradition of repentance as preached by John the Baptist. They did not accept the superiority of Jesus and his greater claims, and could argue that Jesus had submitted to John for baptism. Also, the Baptist’s words could have been referring to someone yet to come.

Matthew had not been an eyewitness, so his account (Mt. 3: 11-15) was second hand. John, having been a close disciple of the Baptist and present at the baptism of Jesus, was able to give personal testimony that Jesus was: ‘The mighty one’ (John 1: 26-42).

11. The words: ‘For John [the Baptist] was not yet cast into prison’ (John 3: 24) are interesting because they presume readers knew of the imprisonment of John, as reported by the Synoptic gospels.

12.  Because Matthew constructed his Gospel in a liturgical non-chronological form, it conveys the impression that the public ministry of Christ lasted for one year only. John corrects this by making it clear that it took place through three Paschs.  ((CCHS 779c)).

13.  Matthew in constructing his liturgy passes quickly from the supper at Bethany to the crucifixion, (Matt: 26; 2 and 6) and this could give the impression that both occurred within twenty-four hours. Our modern liturgy, by celebrating the supper on Maundy Thursday, continues this model. But the activity between the two events would have required a longer period. John explains that the supper at Bethany took place some days earlier (John 12: 1).

There are other apparent inconsistencies of time concerning this week. But archaeology shows that the Essenes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees each had their own calendars for the festivals ((CTH 292 and CTJ 118)), so this could have caused confusion. Also, just as Matthew had condensed three years into one to suit his lectionary, he would have felt free to condense the events of Holy Week.

14.  Some have raised an alleged problem of dating the census of Quirinius.  But if Luke had made a serious error, this would have been challenged at the time. Yet John does not take the opportunity to clarify or amend the date. The census dating of Luke was apparently not a problem for those living in the first century.

15.  Our Lord had promised the spiritual supremacy to Peter (Mt. 16: 19). John in his final chapter reports when Christ fulfilled that promise by charging Peter with looking after all his sheep. (John 21: 15-17).

We are able to make observations regarding the above.

a).  While the Gospel of John contains many theological insights; it also aims to provide accurate historical data concerning the same period as covered by the other Gospels. He speaks of the same Apostles and holy women, and mentions Caiaphas, Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea and many incidents from the lives of John the Baptist and Christ.

b).   Today we often hear the Gospel of John called ‘a spiritual Gospel’. This is true, but the word ‘spiritual’ should not be allowed to exclude its historical aspect. John repeatedly claimed to be a reliable eyewitness of events in the life of Christ.

(John 19: 35;   20: 30-31;   21: 24).  Just as in the opening words of his first Epistle.

c).   The action of John in supplementing the Synoptics with such precise and small historical details and explanations, should be pondered. It shows he was treating them as historical documents, not ‘creative theology’. It also indicates that John was very much alive to the real needs of the churches.

d).  Matthew reports that the unnamed disciple mentioned by John (John 1: 35), who had been with John the Baptist, was also named John (Mt 4: 21). This explains how the author of the fourth Gospel was able to write with authority regarding the detailed narrative concerning the mission of John the Baptist. It showed how he knew the conversation just prior to the meeting with Christ (John 1: 6, 15-37), and also of the ministry of Christ.

e).  In John 5: 2, we see John referring to Jerusalem in the present tense. Critics may try to explain this away, but they have no evidence that the verse should not be understood as it is written. This indicates that the first part of John’s Gospel was written prior to 70 AD.

f). Matthew recounts how an unnamed person cuts off an ear of the High Priest’s servant   (Mt 26: 51-52). Luke 22: 50 and Mark 14: 47 also report this, but all are careful not to disclose the name of the person using the sword. This would have laid him open to prosecution. But John in 18: 10 says it was Peter, and the victim was Malchus. We have a sign here that the Synoptics were written during Peter’s lifetime, when the Apostles had to protect him. But John, writing after Peter’s execution in 65 AD, was free of this constraint.

It is interesting that Matthew, an eyewitness, does not specify which ear was cut off. Peter, reading from this section of Matthew’s Gospel, and so reported by Mark, does not add anything. But Luke specifies that it was the right ear. As Luke was not present at the incident this must have been second hand information and therefore may have been seen as unreliable. But now John, who had been present at the incident, confirms Luke’s information.

g).  From our findings, especially e) and f), we are able to date the writing of the main section (i.e. without the final chapter) of the Gospel according to John as between 65-70 AD.

h).  If we accept that most of the gospel of John was written pre-70 AD, and that it clarified the Synoptic Gospels, then these gospels must also have been in circulation before 70 AD.

i).  Markan priorists claim that Matthew and Luke reported the destruction of Jerusalem by means of non-historical parables. It is interesting to consider the reaction of John. He was clarifying the gospels of Matthew and Luke. So if the Markans are correct and John was writing after 70 AD, why did he fail to clarify the meaning of the Synoptic parables? References to the destruction of Jerusalem are intermingled with those concerning the end of the world.

j).  Palestine at the time of Christ was a peculiar and very complicated society. The Romans shared administration with the Council of Jewish judges, known as the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was often in conflict with the civil officials, taxes were paid in Greek money, Roman money was used in commerce and Temple dues paid in Jewish money. Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin were spoken. Public and private life was affected in many subtle ways by this diversity of language, culture and division of authority.

Yet in the gospels we find countless references to geographical features and transient social and religious conditions. This society was completely swept away in 70 AD, followed by changes in population and government. How could a writer portray the life of this society, so accurately and minutely, living a secluded life far from Palestine, fifty or more years later?

k).   A person who lives on one side of a river, such as the Thames in London, will often refer to the other side as: ‘over the water’. The author of this gospel uses this expression when referring to the Jordan (1: 28). This implies he was a native of Palestine or had at least lived there for a long period. It also indicates that he was aware of another Bethany. This is a small illustration of how the writer’s portrayal of Jerusalem’s society is so accurate.

l).  The author uses the expression: ‘The disciple Jesus loved’, six times. These are at the Last Supper; at the foot of the Cross; being entrusted with Mary’s protection; outrunning Peter; being first to recognise the Lord; and when Christ says he will have a long life. In Chapter 21: 24-25 he at last explains that, ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ was writing the gospel. Tradition has always seen the phrase as referring to the author who felt embarrassed by reporting himself in such a privileged position. Many of the instances were of a private or semi-private nature, where only the one involved would have  been able to provide a detailed record.

m).  Matthew, Luke, Mark and John ignore the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, the persecution under Nero and the martyrs at that time which included Peter and Paul. If they were writing after these events, why would they omit them?

SOLID  EYEWITNESS EVIDENCE                                                                 

By accepting the Clementine Tradition, we see that Matthew’s Gospel was composed by an  Apostle who had been an eyewitnesses of the life and preaching of Christ.  Luke’s Gospel was used, and thereby authorised, by another eyewitness – Peter.  Mark wrote exactly what the eyewitness Peter, had spoken. Then the eyewitness Apostle, John, endorsed the Synoptic gospels in his own Gospel.

So the four Gospels owe their importance to having been either authored by an eyewitness or having been approved by an eyewitness.


Version 28/3/13

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