st-john-receiving-revelation-on-the-island-of-patmosShifting our focus back from controversies over doctrine, to more basic ones over the nature of Scripture, I want to say something about Jessica’s favourite Gospel – that according to St. John.

When I was a young man at University my tutors had a firm line on St John’s Gospel. They were agreed that it was a second century document; that it was a product of Hellenistic thinking; that it had in it Gnostic elements; and that whoever had written it, it could not have been the Beloved disciple who stood at the foot of the cross. One of the pleasures of growing older has been to see nearly every element in this exploded.

The conclusion that it was second century came from the belief among scholars back then that its theology was far too complex for the early Church. The fragment of St John’s Gospel now at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, known as P52, is thought to date from around 120 AD. It was found in Egypt. No one believes it was written there, so it is a copy. We cannot know where it originated or how many copies there were in circulation at the same time. We do know it takes time for copies to be made and to circulate, and it is not unreasonable to suppose it might have taken a decade between the composition of the Gospel and its arrival in Egypt. Modern scholarship suggests, in other words, that c.100 A.D. is probably the latest date for its composition.

At the very least, that suggests that the superior attirude to the early church – that is that it could not have had an understanding of Jesus as the Logos of God is wrong.

The authorship is also a vexed question. It is usually supposed that the tradition of Christianity is that the author is the Beloved disciple and that one of the triumphs (I use the word with a heavy tone of irony, if not plain sarcasm) of modern scholarship. In fact, from the earlier times there have been those who doubted that claim.

Possibly our earliest independent witness, Papias of Hieropolis, writing in the early second century, and acquainted with those who had talked with the Apostles and other eyewitnesses. What survives of his prodigious output are small fragments embedded in Eusebius. On this basis, scholars such as Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham have challenged the views of more liberal scholars, that the book was a compilation, and even the view of Raymond Brown that it was the product of a ‘Johannine cmmunity’, and attributed it to the ‘John the elder’ mentioned by Eusebius as the author of ‘Revelation’.

Their arguments are ingenious, but unnecessary, and they do what is all too common in modern scholarship, fail to take into account the authorial voice. It would be very hard to read John’s Gospel and not assume he was the one who had leant on the Lord’s breast at the last supper. If (and Hengel and Bauckham suggest) this John ‘the elder’ was prominant enough in the church to have produced 4 or 5 books of the New Testament canon, more steps would have been taken to distinguish him from John the son of Zebedee. The early church went to great lengths to distinguish between James the brother of Jesus and James the son of Zebedee, and between the numerous men named “Judas.” It seems strange that this John the elder would fall off of the historical radar. (Note also the distinction in the Synoptics between John the Baptist and John the son of Zebedee. If it weren’t for the latter John, perhaps John the Baptist would just be known as “John.”)

I can see no reason to suppose that in place of the eye-witness of the Last Supper we need another chap called ‘John’. It reminds me of the old joke that the Illiad wasn’t written by Homer, but by another fellow of the same name.