The Apostle John And Canonization
The apostle Peter was in Rome when he wrote his Second (and last) Epistle. Paul was then dead, and Peter himself had only a short time to live. This is why he told his readers in Asia Minor that he along with the apostle John were leaving them some official documents (which included the epistles of Paul) to keep them informed of the truth until the return of Christ. The authority to perform such a task was essentially given to three apostles who had been with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration: Peter and the Sons of Zebedee (James and John). And since Peter said that “we have the word of prophecy more confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19) it shows that the apostle John was still alive and involved with Peter in this first, or initial, canonization of the New Testament.
We will see shortly that it was actually the apostle John who had the commission from Christ to finalize and to complete the full canon of the New Testament. This is one of the main reasons that Christ gave to John the promise that he would live beyond the martyrdom of Peter, even to remain alive “until I come,” or as Christ expressed it in the Greek, “until I am coming” (John 21:22–23). All of this has to do with the canonization of the New Testament, as we will soon see.
The traditional beliefs of the early church were strong that John was in Asia Minor or had close connections to the Christians in Asia Minor (notably in Ephesus) from the middle 60s C.E. until his death, and that Peter died in Rome about 66 or 67 C.E. There is little reason to doubt the truth of these beliefs. We also know from further research into this period of the last part of the 1st century, that John also had a definite connection with the Christians who returned to the Jerusalem area after 74 C.E.
Though this is true, we find that the apostle John kept up his association for about thirty years with the people in Asia Minor to whom the apostle Peter wrote in his Second Epistle. In effect, Peter in his Second Epistle was telling John what he and Paul had done in Rome concerning the partial canonization of the New Testament scriptures. That last epistle of Peter’s informed the Christian people of Asia Minor that Peter was putting in the hands of the apostle John the final job of sanctioning and completing an ordained body of inspired scriptures for the Christian community. To Peter, the apostle John was the only other person who had the prophetic spirit to accomplish such a task, since he was the only person left alive who was given that commission on the Mount of Transfiguration. There also was another special reason why John was the one selected by Christ to complete the canonization. Let us see.
This special authority of John can be seen in a number of verses within the New Testament revelation. For one, it should be noted that the three men who witnessed the Transfiguration were the only men of the original apostles who were given specific titles by Christ. There was Simon (whom he titled Peter, a stone) and James and John (whom he called the Sons of Thunder). See Mark 3:16–17. These original apostles were given distinctive titles by Christ in order to convey some special assignments that they were expected to complete.
Peter was to be associated with Christ (the Rock Himself) in the creation of the Christian ekklesia. This was accomplished in its initiation phases with Peter on the Day of Pentecost some 50 days after the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2). Peter was also given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). These “keys” were to allow him the power to open “the doors of the kingdom” to those who would hear the Gospel. It even entailed an authority to bind or to loose people regarding their entrance into that kingdom. 1 And it appears certain that one of the main methods by which Peter would be able to exercise the power of the “keys” was to be in charge of the canonization of the New Testament. The information in the canon would “open the doors” to all people who would read and heed the written messages therein.
The other two apostles who received specific titles were the sons of Zebedee James and John. They were reckoned by Christ as being the Sons of Thunder. This title has proved a little mysterious to many interpreters of the Bible because it gives one the impression that the two brothers were headstrong, impetuous, intolerant and authoritarian. And, this is true. But when it comes to analyzing the letters of John, he appears to sanction a conciliation among peoples especially those who claim the common Christian faith, and that love and harmony ought to exist in Christian relationships (1 John 2:9–11). John was also the one that Christ had a natural fondness for more than the other apostles (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20).
When one looks at the biblical account about the actions of these two brothers, they do appear to be stern and uncompromising in their attitudes toward evil. They were the ones who asked Christ if fire should come down on the heads of the Samaritans (Luke 9.54), and (with their mother) their ambitions were so high that they asked Christ for positions of supreme leadership alongside him (Matthew 20:20–24). They were certainly not mild-tempered. They were to be men of “Thunder.” In Hebrew “thunder” (kol) meant the Voice of God (Exodus 9:23; Psalm 29:3; Jeremiah 10:13; etc.). The title could signify that they were to speak like God himself as personal spokesmen for God.
This title gave them a special rank of authority and, along with Peter, they were the only apostles to witness the Transfiguration and to hear the voice of God the Father himself (and in vision to see Moses and Elijah, Matthew 17:1–9). This experience rendered the jurisdiction of those three men as superior to the other apostles and it singled them out for a special purpose. Peter was to be in charge of congregational affairs (Matthew 16:17–19), but James and John were to have the distinction of being “the Sons of Thunder” — to thunder forth his words to the people as did Moses. And though James died early without being able to show his own authority in a lasting way, his brother John was responsible for writing every word of the Book of Revelation. This was Jesus Christ using John to be his spokesman, to be the Voice of God to the people of the world. He was “the Thunderer” to the world of God’s message of judgment.
“And I saw another strong angel ... his face as the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and when he cried, the seven thunders spake their VOICES. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, and I heard a voice from heaven saying, Seal what things the seven thunders SPOKE.”
The apostle John was specifically commissioned to write what the Voice of God (like the Thunder) would relate to him. This is why he wrote his Gospel and the Book of Revelation to be included in the canon of the New Testament. Such a task shows that John was more specially selected to produce a canon of scriptures which would proclaim the official Voice of God than even Peter or Paul. This is no doubt the reason that Peter sent his Second Epistle (with the partial canonization that he and Paul had accomplished in Rome) directly to John in Ephesus.
It was recognized that John was the actual one in charge of authorizing the final scriptural books. This is why Peter emphasized the experience that he and John had witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration with Christ (2 Peter 1:16–19). The fact that this display of Christ’s authority was given only to Peter and the Sons of Thunder showed their high rank among the apostles and the Christian community. It even got them into trouble with Christ temporarily when their mother, who understood the special relationship of her two sons to Christ, asked that both of them sit on either side of Him when He came into his kingdom (Matthew 20:20–23). Christ could not give them that authority since that was only within the power of the Father, but John did sit by Him and recline in his bosom at the Last Supper (John 13:23). This may indicate the special relationship after all.
There may be more concerning the rank of John than meets the eye. It is usually not understood, but the mother of James and John was none other than Salome (Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40) who was the sister of Mary, the mother of Christ. 2 This means that Christ and John were first cousins as far as legal matters were concerned among the Jewish people. James, the head of the Christians at Jerusalem, and Jude (the writer of the short epistle) were also his first cousins. Unlike Peter or Paul, the apostle John would have been acquainted with Christ from childhood. No wonder he had been close to Christ.
It seems that a “family tie” to Christ was important in an authority sense. The first cousin status of John to Christ may account, in one way, why he and his brother were afforded such a high position of rank. Along with Peter, the two Sons of Thunder were prominent in the history of the Christian community both before and after the resurrection of Christ. Note some indications which show this.
Besides having been specially selected to witness the Transfiguration and hear the voice of the Father Himself, Peter, James and John were with Christ when He raised Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37). In addition:
The association of Peter and John together in crucial times for teaching the Gospel, or in receiving important doctrinal teachings from Christ, was no accident. And even the fact that Peter’s name consistently appears before that of John’s when they are mentioned together shows a rank of authority. It is significant that in the manuscript order of the New Testament books, Peter’s two epistles among the seven General Epistles are positioned before the three of John. This arrangement of names is according to the rank of authority of the men.
One more thing about John should be mentioned. Not only were his mother and Christ’s mother sisters (and this gave John some preeminence), but we find that Mary, and obviously her sister, Salome, were in some way connected with priestly ancestry. Polycrates in the late 2nd century said that “John, who leaned back on the Lord’s breast, became a sacrificing priest wearing the mitre, a martyr and a teacher; he too sleeps in Ephesus.” 3 If John was indeed of priestly ancestry, then it follows that his father Zebedee was a priest. Both Salome, John’s mother, and her sister Mary could have had Aaronic (priestly) ancestry as well.
Recall that Mary was a kinswoman to Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias who was an Aaronic priest and the father of John the Baptist, and Elizabeth herself was recognized as “a daughter of Aaron” (Luke 1:6). This means that both Mary and Salome could be reckoned as being of priestly descent.
A great error of some is to imagine that the genealogy of Christ as given in Luke is Mary’s genealogy. In no way is this true. Mary’s ancestry is not even discussed in the two genealogies of Christ that are found in the Gospel. Both genealogies are those of Joseph, one actual and the other legal (Joseph’s “father” Jacob was Joseph’s stepfather).
The Bible would allow that Zebedee and Salome (the father and mother of the apostle John and his brother James) were both of priestly ancestry, thus John himself would have been a priest. At the last supper, John sat directly on one side of Christ. He was close enough to hear Christ whisper to Judas. 4 Such a position of eminence would have been natural in such a social setting. Besides that, when Christ was taken to Caiaphus the High Priest in Caiaphus’ Temple house on the morning of his crucifixion, John was able to walk into the quarters of the priests and was known intimately by Caiaphus (John 18:15–16). 5
These biblical indications alone are enough to show that the apostle John was of priestly ancestry, but there is also the teaching in the Book of Revelation that John was able to go into the innermost sanctuary of the Temple and to count those who did service there (Revelation 11:1–2). This entering the inner Temple shows that John (and his brother James) were no doubt of priestly ancestry. These two cousins of Christ being priests gave them a proper authority to canonize books for the Bible. There is an Old Testament principle that shows this. When Moses finally finished writing and authorizing the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah, he then took those official books and placed them into the care and protection of the priests in the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 31:9–11, 20).
In a word, the canonical writings were placed by Moses into the hands of the priests. The books were in the domain of priests for preservation. Recall that Ezra the priest not only gave the Old Testament to the Jewish people in his day, he even had authority to edit the texts and to bring them up-to-date with his own additions.
And so it was with the priests in the time of Christ and the apostles. Paul even said that the “oracles of God” had been committed by God to the Jewish people, and in particular it was the priestly aristocracy that had the ultimate control and the authority to preserve them. Thus, with the sons of Zebedee acknowledged as being of priestly aristocracy in the nation, this gave them an authority in regard to canonization that the other apostles did not have. Even Peter did not have the ultimate authority in a canonical sense. But John and his brother James did have that authority. Besides that, they knew Christ from childhood.
The “Sons of Thunder” (John and James) would have grown up with Christ in Nazareth. They would have known him very well. This is why John (with Peter) had “the word of prophecy more confirmed.” This special rank is no doubt the reason Peter handed the material that he had collected and arranged in Rome to the apostle John in Ephesus for the final canonization of the New Testament. John had the special role of being a “Son of God’s Voice” and was eminently qualified to do the job. The title that Christ gave him points to that authority; and the fact that he witnessed the Transfiguration was another proof.
John, then, became the final “Thunder (Voice) of God” to the Christian community. He became the official spokesman for the truth. This role seems to be reflected in the introduction of his first epistle. He represented many of the original apostles when he wrote First John. Note how clear this plurality of witnesses is in John’s prologue.
“What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we beheld,
[what] and our hands handled,
concerning the word of the life
(and the life was manifested, and we have seen and witness, and declare to you the life, the eternal, which was with the Father, and was manifested to us);
what we have seen and heard declare we to you also,
that you also may have fellowship with us, yes and our fellowship is with the Father, and [our fellowship is] with his Son Jesus Christ, and these things WE WRITE that our joy may be full.
And this message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”
1 John 1:1–6
John makes it plain that when he wrote his first epistle, many of the original apostles and others must have still been alive. They were now associated with him as witnesses to the truth of what John was saying. But then, beginning with chapter two, John ceases to mention the “‘WE” (the plurality of authors) and starts to use the singular pronoun: “My little children, these things I write unto you” (1 John 2:1). His reference to the first person singular continues throughout the rest of the first epistle, and is only abandoned in one verse (1 John 4:14) where he reverts to the “WE.” The point is, the role of John in the writing of that epistle shows him being a Spokesman for a body of witnesses who saw Christ in the flesh. This is John exercising his commission as being a Spokesman for others which was given to him by Christ.
The Gospel of John must have been written for the generality of the Christian community as a final summing-up of the teachings of Christ. It has seemed reasonable to most people that John had the other three Gospels in front of him when he wrote his account, and that his Gospel was an attempt to round-off and complete the message which Christ had given in the flesh. Everything points to it as being the latest of the Gospels to be written. Not only is it squeezed into a position between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (which normally should be in tandem to one another), but it records events which people of a later time would find relevance.
For example, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most outstanding miracles in the Bible, but it has been a headscratcher why the other three Gospels said not one word about it. But if the other Gospels were written sometime earlier (when Lazarus was still alive) and they recorded the occurrence of that miracle, it stands to reason that such publicity would have made it impossible for Lazarus to carry on any kind of normal life. He would have been deluged with questions from his admirers, and his enemies would have wanted to silence his testimony to the extraordinary power which was manifested by Christ. 6 But by the time John wrote his Gospel, Lazarus could have been dead and the account of his miraculous resurrection could be presented to people without there being any personal injury to Lazarus. This explanation is as good as any as to why that outstanding miracle was not recorded in the earlier Gospels. It can also show that John’s Gospel was not written early.
The Gospel of John appears to be a late composition because there is a fully developed theological position presented on every major event in the life and teachings of Christ. In fact, John’s account is a thoroughgoing interpretation of Christ’s life rather than a simple historical narrative. It is decidedly contrary to the materialistic concepts often associated with Messianic beliefs in ordinary Jewish theology. John gives a “spiritual” twist to almost all the various teachings of Christ. His concepts show that a good deal of long and well thought out doctrinal principles had been determined as representing Christianity, and they were then very distinct from Judaism.
The general feeling that one gets in reading John’s Gospel is that it was written to supplement and to round-out the information supplied by the first three Synoptic Gospels. John emphasized the fact that “all THE truth” was then in one’s grasp through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, and that all future events which were important to know for the Christian community were then completely available. Note again the teachings of Christ in John 16:12–13.
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he shall guide you into ALL the truth, for he shall not speak from himself; but whatsoever things he hears, these shall he speak, and he will declare unto you the things to come.”
John 16:12–13, see Greek for the definite articles
It is significant that John insists that the Holy Spirit will deliver “all the truth,” that it will come through divine inspiration, and that it would involve the understanding of future (prophetic) events. These two verses given by John are a powerful vindication that the Christian message was complete when John wrote his Gospel. John’s final comments in his Gospel reflect this same conclusion.
“And many other things did Jesus also do, the which if they be written every one, I suppose that not even the world itself would in the future find a place to contain the books written.”
John 21:25, Greek expanded
These concluding remarks by John make one feet that John thought any further Gospels were redundant. In paraphrase, John was saying:
“Thousands of Gospels could be written in the future about Christ, but these four are enough. 5o be content and don’t be desirous of obtaining more information about Christ and his teachings other than that which I have given you.”
1 This power was later extended to all the apostles, John 24:23.
2 James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), p. 846.
3 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III.31 and V.24.
4 Judas also was a priest, as I have shown in my book Secrets of Golgotha (Portland, OR: ASK, 1996), pp. 266–269.
5 For proof that Christ’s trial before the Sanhedrin took place within the Temple, see my Secrets of Golgotha, pp. 221–235.
6 Recall that the Pharisees sought to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus after Lazarus’ physical resurrection (John 12:9–12).
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