Only the most ridiculous fundamentalist-type will push the argument that John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John or Revelation. It’s quite obvious that the illiterate fisherman could never have ever written such elegant Greek, as I’ve droned on in earlier posts.
So people who argue in support Jesus’s historicity will say it was John the Evangelist…obviously, right? This position is a cop-out, and nothing more than an apologetic.
The John the Evangelist construct wasn’t the original narrative, as I mentioned in my post “Who Invented Jesus“. It was constructed by Eusebius, who understood that illiterate Aramaic speakers don’t write elegant Greek.
Irenaeus wrote in “Against Heresies” between 170 and 180:
Later, John, the Lord’s disciple — the one who lay on his lap — also set out the gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor…
Is this description by Irenaeus a minor detail? A simple blunder? Something that can be swept under the rug as a minor incorrect assertion by some marginal early church leader?
The whole narrative that posits Christ as a human being hinges on this one specific detail.
If John the Apostle didn’t write his gospel, then the apostle was not Polycarp’s teacher. And if John was not Polycarp’s teacher, then John probably didn’t live in Ephesus in Western Turkey.
If John the apostle never lived in Ephesus, then the French-Roman Irenaeus, Polycarp’s supposed student, had no apostolic authority. And if Irenaeus had no apostolic authority, then he had no official authority to assemble the first official canon, nor did he have any special insight into what the apostle believed or wanted, nor did he have any insight into the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, Irenaeus’ view of Jesus was no more likely correct than any of the competing Gnostic or docetic groups at the time. And despite Irenaeus’ insistence to add historical legitimacy to Jesus, all the gospel texts that make claims are nothing more than anonymous texts. There is no historical thread that allows us to traverse history and find this Jesus character.
Let’s examine the supposed relationship between Polycarp and Irenaeus to see if we can get any insight into what was going on here. Of course, the relationship between Irenaeus and Polycarp was never actually claimed by Irenaeus. Instead, it was first claimed by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History Book v. Chapter v:
Pothinus having died with the other martyrs in Gaul at ninety years of age, Irenæus succeeded him in the episcopate of the church at Lyons. We have learned that, in his youth, he was a hearer of Polycarp.
Interestingly enough, it was also Eusebius who seems to be the first orthodox claimant that Polycarp was not a student of John the Apostle. In effect, Eusebius robs from Peter to pay Paul to add historical legitimacy to Irenaeus, and in the process, destroys the historical likelihood of Jesus AND John the Apostle.
Polycarp’s surviving epistle is a hodgepodge of quotes from various letters of Paul (including the most obvious forgeries – the pastorals – 1&2 Timothy and Titus), and quotes from the gospels (or perhaps the Diatessaron, a harmony gospel that probably existed at the time, purportedly compiled by Justin Martyr’s student, Tatian (120-180)…but might very well have been compiled by Justin Martyr, who incidentally was said to be another teacher of Irenaeus – a detail I think is more plausible than Irenaeus’ direct link to Polycarp). The epistle looks suspiciously similar to the Pastorals; it should…Polycarp and the Johannines probably wrote them.
We get a couple clues from Polycarp in this epistle:
For neither am I, nor is any other like unto me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who when he came among you taught face to face with the men of that day the word which concerneth truth carefully and surely
Here, Polycarp uses Paul as his proxy…the same Paul who called the apostles hypocrites in Galatians. Does that sound like a student of the apostle John? Yet Irenaeus continued this lie anyway.
Take note of this quote, which I think betrays something much more insidious:
For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist: and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the firstborn of Satan.
Polycarp here insists that Jesus Christ was a human.
This sounds suspiciously like Irenaeus’ anecdote about when the same Polycarp met Marcion, the Northern Turk who also revered Paul. When Marcion asked Polycarp if he knew him, Polycarp replied “I do know you, the firstborn of Satan”. Here’s what I think is insidious: this word-for-word quote sounds contrived. It seems to me that Polycarp’s epistle, given the combination of Paul quote-mining and word-for-word similarity with Irenaeus’ anecdote, might very well have been written later for the purpose of arguing for an earlier claim to Jesus’ historicity. Could it be that Irenaeus himself wrote this epistle on behalf of Polycarp? I can never prove that, but this seems pretty likely to me.
In my mind, the perfect bridge between the Gnostics and the historicizers occurs in Justin Martyr’s first apology when he describes the Eucharist – remember, Justin Martyr was purported to be Irenaeus’s teacher:
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them
In the Valentinian and Sethian systems, the Word (Logos) lived in the Pleroma, and was sent to rescue trapped wisdom (Sophia). As this Gnostic mythos evolved, so did Jesus – he eventually came to rescue humanity, too.
So what is Justin saying when he says “made flesh by the Word of God”? He’s saying that the Logos, emanated by the Monad, manifested as flesh.
I don’t think most Gnostic groups needed their theology to be any more robust than that. For the pragmatists of the group, though, there is an implication: if the Logos manifested on Earth, then there must be some place on Earth where it did. That’s why, when the Gospels started getting written (between the late 1st and mid-2nd century), they hardly agree on anything at all – because those people peppering this theology with historicity were simply inventing details about a geographic area they knew nothing about. That’s why we see imagery described by Philo of Alexandria (the Therapeutae), as well as liftings from Josephus…because they needed to add authentic details about the area.
It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that the time that early Christian leaders started writing apologies to Rome is the exact same time that leaders became insistent that Jesus was a real person. It was out of necessity. These apologies were written to save Christian lives, and what better way to do that then to have a robust theology that includes a real historical person?