Restoring the Original Bible
The Rejection of the Apostle John
With this in mind, we should remember an event in the history of Christianity which might give us some information on why the authority of John was not acknowledged by many within the Christian community. In the year 154 C.E., Polycarp made a journey to Rome in order to talk with Anicetus who was Bishop of that city. Though the meeting was friendly, there was one major doctrinal matter that needed to be solved (among a number of minor ones). It concerned the time for completing a short fast period before the celebration of the Eucharist.
Polycarp stated most emphatically that he, and the other Bishops of Asia Minor, had been taught by the apostle John to observe the time of the Eucharist on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month — on the day before the Passover of the Jews. This meant that the time for celebration could fall out to any day of the week.
The Romans, however, started about 140 C.E. to keep the Eucharist on a Sunday following the Passover week. Though John set the example of following Jewish calendar indications in this matter, Polycarp was unable to persuade the Bishop of Rome to abandon the new method of observance adopted by the Romans. This was a clear example of Roman authorities expressing a superiority over the opinions of the apostle John.
There was a reason for doing this, and the change seemed a logical one. Before the Jews in Palestine went to war with the Romans in 132 C.E. (which ended in the complete destruction of Jewish power in Judaea by 135 C.E.), it was common for the beginning of all Jewish years (and consequently their months and holydays) to be determined by the Sanhedrin that had been set up at Jabneh (Jamnia) in the coastal region west of Jerusalem. But when the Emperor Hadrian so disrupted Jewish influence in Judaea after 135 C.E., no more official announcements for determining the beginning of the calendar year were permitted the Jews. This put their calendar into confusion. Consequently, the times for the Jewish annual holydays began to slip out of their normal seasons for observance.
The Jewish year was a Lunar-Solar one. The normal Lunar Year is about 11 days shorter than the Solar and about every three years an extra (thirteenth) Lunar month had to be added to the calendar in order to keep it abreast with Solar time. In a period of 19 years, there were seven extra months added to the calendar in order to maintain the Jewish festivals in their proper seasons of the Solar Year. This was not done haphazardly. In fact, it required an official body of Jewish elders in Jerusalem (when the Sanhedrin was there) and then Jabneh (after 70 C.E.) in order to accomplish this task. The Jewish community throughout the world was then informed, usually a year or so in advance, when the proper years and months could begin.
However, after the disastrous war of 132 to 135 C.E., the Sanhedrin at Jabneh was prevented from functioning and Jews throughout the world were denied any official sanction for the beginnings of their years and months. Chaos resulted over the Jewish calendar. It meant that no Leap Months (the thirteenth months) were being utilized. Progressively, the Jewish festivals began to be celebrated eleven days earlier each year. Without the addition of the “Leap Months,” by 142 C.E. (a short seven years after the Jewish/Roman War) the Passover was beginning to be observed as early as January. 1 This was an intolerable situation and something had to be done about it. The problem was dealt with by the establishment of a new Sanhedrin in Usha of Galilee about 142 C.E. From then on the Jews were once again provided with official pronouncements concerning the times of the beginnings of their years and months.
This new calendar was, unlike the former ones, based primarily on calculations rather than on actual observations of the moon. This is because the emperor Hadrian forbade any Jew from approaching the city of Jerusalem, and his decree, for practical purposes (and especially for calendar matters) remained in force for another 200 years. This presented a problem to Christians because the new calendar had one feature about it which was offensive to many Christians.
In the 17th year of the Jewish calendar cycle the Passover came to be observed two days before the Vernal Equinox. This was contrary to all tradition of earlier times. In the past it had become a cardinal rule that Passover had to be celebrated after the start of spring. Anatolius, an early Christian scholar, called attention to the fact that all previous Jewish authorities vouched that in the time of Christ the Passover was always held after the Vernal Equinox. He said:
“This may be learned from what is said by Philo, Josephus, and Musaeus; and not only by them, but also by those yet more ancient, the two Agathobuli, surnamed ‘Masters,’ and the fatuous Aristobulus, who was chosen by among the seventy interpreters for the sacred and divine Hebrew Scriptures. These writers, explaining questions in regard to the Exodus, say that all alike should sacrifice the Passover offerings afterthe Vernal Equinox in the first month”
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2
And, in the very year that Polycarp went to Rome to inform Anicetus that the Eucharist should be celebrated according to the calendar of the Jews, that year was the 17th of the Jewish Metonic cycle.
Anicetus would have none of it. As a matter of fact, when the Jewish calendar began to be in disarray at the end of the Jewish/Roman War (135 C.E.), many Christian authorities took it upon themselves to calculate their own full moon for the Eucharist ceremonies. And some, notably those at Rome, simply abandoned an association of the Eucharist with the full moon and decided to observe it on a Sunday (the day of Christ’s resurrection) after the full moon of spring had occurred. Polycarp, however, felt it better to remain with the Jewish calendar determinations on this matter.
Polycarp was not able to convince Anicetus that the Jews should have authority on this issue. He and Anicetus simply observed their own respective Eucharists and parted in a friendly manner. This shows that there were no other major doctrinal differences between the two Christian communities in 154 C.E. But it does indicate that the opinions which came from those who followed directly in the footsteps of the apostle John in Asia Minor and the eastern region of the empire had no influence upon the clerics at Rome.
The parting of Polycarp and Anicetus in a friendly way was not the end of the story. About the year 190 C.E. another controversy came up over this same matter. This time, Victor, the Bishop of Rome, was not at all pleased with the people in Asia Minor who continued to follow the disciples of John. Victor brazenly excommunicated those who looked to Ephesus and other areas of the east as the center of Christian authority. Irenaeus, who sided with the Roman way of calculating the time for the Eucharist, still rebuked the Bishop of Rome for such a unilateral decision. 3 Again it must be recognized that there is no hint that there were other major doctrinal differences between the two regions of Christianity.
For what it is worth, the Jewish convert to Christianity, Hegesippus, mentioned that on a trip from the east to Rome in the middle of the 2nd century, he consulted with a number of Bishops about their doctrinal positions and found them all in general agreement. 4 And, when one surveys the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin it seems that this opinion of Hegesippus’ was in the main correct for the orthodox communities. The congregations around Ephesus (and in Palestine, as we will see) would have been little different from those in Rome on the basic Christian doctrines — except in the matter of celebrating the Eucharist.
There was, however, a distinct desire for some Bishops to exercise administrative power over others. Irenaeus considered this wrong. This is why he felt compelled to admonish Victor of Rome not to be so rash in his dealings with the congregations of Asia Minor where John’s disciples remained. Nevertheless, Rome was slowly beginning to exercise a position of leadership among most Christian congregations.
It was Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage, about 250 C.E., who finally stated that Rome had inherited the Petrine authority of primacy (the “keys” being given by Christ to Peter), but even then Cyprian did not think this gave supreme authority to Rome in all doctrinal and administrative matters. 5 In fact, Cyprian even disputed with the Roman Bishop on numerous issues and quoted the statement of Christ (John 20:21ff) that “all the apostles” had been given a type of equal authority. 6 It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. that the Petrine theory of supremacy for the Roman Bishop was finally made “official” in the empire, and that is when Christ’s reference of the “keys” being given to Peter was introduced to prove that leadership. 7
The witness of Polycarp and others from Asia Minor make it clear that there were no major doctrinal differences between the Christian congregations which had been under John’s control and those in Greece and Italy. Also, in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians there were no major doctrinal differences between the congregation at Rome and that at Corinth. The dissensions occurring at Corinth did not involve doctrinal issues. Ignatius’ seven epistles show a doctrinal unanimity between the Christian congregations of Asia and Rome. In fact, Ignatius was warning the congregations about the same Gnostic beliefs that John himself was worried about (believing that Christ had not come in the flesh). Since the doctrinal positions were reasonably stable, why, then, was there a non-recognition of John’s opinions by these men in the late 1st century and up to the last part of the 2nd century?
One might imagine that John may have wanted to heed Jewish ways more than those in Greece and Rome (because the controversy over the time for celebrating the Eucharist was whether Christians should observe it according to the calendar of the Jews or a new Christian one). True, John may have expressed more attachment to Jewish ways, but anyone who reads his Gospel is fully aware that John had no sympathy with the actual observance of the Jewish Sabbath or their holydays.
To John, the Mosaic holydays had become “the Jews’ holydays” and he made a plain statement that Christ had canceled the weekly Sabbath for Christians (John 5:18, see Greek). He even showed Christ’s lack of attention to the Mosaic Passover period of the Jews because he records that Christ was feeding the five thousand in Galilee (John 6:1–15) when the Law expressly taught that all able-bodied males should be in Jerusalem for the festival (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). Christ also failed to arrive at the Feast of Tabernacles on time though his presence was required by Mosaic law (John 7:1–17). The fact is, Christians believed Christ to be “the Prophet” of Deuteronomy 18:15–19, and this gave Him authority to do as He pleased.
And though John emphasized getting back to the Christianity that was given “from the beginning,” 8 John was not speaking of keeping the rituals of Judaism. He was making an appeal to return to the teaching which he was presenting in his Gospel. John gave a thoroughly spiritual interpretation to the teachings of Christ and they had nothing to do with the physical performance of keeping Sabbaths, Feast Days, or observing Temple ceremonies. John’s teaching was far from Judaism. John was referring to his Gospel when he told his readers that they ought to get back to the teachings of Christ which were given “from the beginning.” He did not mean that his readers ought to return to the teachings of Moses. Indeed, John accepted the writings of Paul (which he helped to canonize) and they also made it clear that observing the food and drink laws of the old Testament and the Mosaic holydays were not required in the Christian dispensation (Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16–17).
Actually, when one analyzes the teachings of John in his Gospel and epistles, it becomes evident that he could not have been teaching too much out of the mainstream of Christian doctrines which were then being taught in the world. This includes what was being instructed at Rome and Corinth. If one will look at the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians and the seven letters of Ignatius, there is hardly a syllable of doctrinal teaching that varies from that of Paul and Peter — and even that of John himself.
This is an extraordinary thing. Why is it that the main doctrinal positions seem to be the same (or the differences were of no major consequence) and yet the authorities of Greece and Italy (from the records we have available) pay no attention to the apostle John or his authority?
The answer may come from the writings of John himself. In his Third Epistle, John said that a certain Diotrephes was one who liked to have first place among those in the congregation (3 John 9). Diotrephes was not accepting John’s authority, and he was casting out of the congregation those who wanted to rely on the apostle John. It seems almost impossible for some of us moderns to believe that someone like Diotrephes could continue to call himself a Christian while rejecting the authority of the apostle John to his face. But John records that such a thing was happening. And note this. At no time does John accuse Diotrephes of teaching false doctrines. He may have been, but John says nothing about such a deviation. It seems that Diotrephes simply wanted to have the first place of rulership within the Christian community, and he had the power within the congregation to dispense with John’s authority (who was nothing less than an apostle of Christ). But why did Diotrephes turn against the authority of John? Why didn’t Clement and Ignatius mention John?
A key to this “power struggle” may be found in John’s account in his third epistle. Indeed, to explain this very matter may have been the central reason why Third John (as short in length as it is, and seemingly inconsequential in proving doctrinal truths) was placed in the New Testament canon. In that short letter is one main theme — in fact, the only theme! It concerns the rejection of a team of men, called by John “the brethren” (a select group of John’s representatives), who were touring among the congregations under John’s control (verses 5 & 6). John tells Gaius, the recipient of Third John, not only to receive “the brethren” as John’s personal representatives, but to provide them with the needed financial support so that they could complete their tour assignment (verse 6). But John had specifically given them orders to take no support from “the Gentiles” (verse 7). Diotrephes (the one rebelling against John’s authority) would not receive “the brethren” that John had sent on this tour. It could well have been over a matter involving the issue of not taking support from “the Gentiles.”
These Gentiles mentioned by John could hardly be a metaphor which referred to people outside the congregation because non-Christian Gentiles would not be supporting John’s representatives anyway. These Gentiles were in the Christian congregation. This indicates that a matter of race in the Christian congregation was somehow part of the issue leading to the dispute. Since John was highly conservative, he may have taken seriously the agreement that was reached between Paul and the “pillar” apostles (James, Peter and John) that Paul was to be responsible for teaching the Gentiles, while James, Peter and John were to concentrate their teaching with the Jews (Galatians 2:9). Though Peter had a history of being flexible in such matters of Jews in relation to Gentiles (Galatians 2:11–14), there is no record that John shared Peter’s flexibility.
It could well be (and the central message of Third John suggests it strongly) that John felt his apostolic mission was to be directed principally to the Jews while that of Paul and his helpers were commissioned to teach the Gentiles. This may account for the stricture of John that his representatives on their official tour should in no wise accept financial support from “the Gentiles” — and in this case John meant Gentiles in the Christian congregations (verse 7.). His command is so curt and matter-of-fact, that this gave Diotrephes and his supporters a strong negative reaction to this stance of John’s. John had the habit of not mincing words in his teaching. His demeanor was strict, to the point, and sometimes verging on harshness in his criticisms. Certainly, John was no mild-mannered person as he is sometimes wrongly characterized.
Let us recognize some points about the temperament of John. Of all the apostles, he is the one least understood by most modern interpreters. Most have considered him to have been a loving and mild-mannered person who primarily emphasized conciliation between peoples and especially a brotherly love among all Christians. True, he emphasized those things but his attitude was far from being weak, wishy-washy and non-resolute. Just the opposite was the case.
Christ gave John and his brother James (who were both his first cousins) the title “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Being given this title signified that they were to be the very spokesmen of God. It meant they would speak the words of God in the manner in which thunder would roar from the heavens. This typified the brashness of their temperaments. A good example of showing this was the incident of the Samaritans who rebuked Christ.
“And when the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?’”
Though Christ had to reprove the two brothers for their harsh attitude, this shows the outward boldness that they both displayed. With this in mind, it seems to be no accident that it was John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Its theme could well have suited John’s personality in the basic sense. It is a book of judgment, of “blood and guts,” of punishment for all wrong-doers. Indeed, there is no mercy extended within its pages for those deserving retribution. It describes God’s dealing with sin and sinful humans with a vengeance. Was the apostle John selected to record these final judgments against unrighteousness because his attitude blended in with their manner of delivery?
The two Sons of Thunder were also highly ambitious (along with their mother) in petitioning Christ for seats of authority on either side of Christ (Matthew 20:20). The other apostles became angry with these two brothers for their audacious attitudes in wanting to rule over everyone else.
There is another illustration which expresses John’s nature. He seemed to be one who would not “give and take” on matters that he considered important. Things had to go exactly the way he thought proper, and he was not considerate of those who would show a deviation from his opinions. Indeed, if anyone taught anything different from John or his assistants, John allowed no one leeway in dealing with such an individual. In his Second Epistle he taught that if any man would come to a person’s home and not bring the exact teachings that John was relating then no one was permitted to speak with him (2 John 10–11). While such a trait is admirable when matters of essential doctrinal truths are at stake, it may appear to be a very severe attitude if the opinions involve insignificant social customs or traditions. This may be one of the things that caused some Christians to have reservations about being in the company of John and his assistants. Scholars have long recognized this. Professor Riggs, in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, relates:
“It is commonly thought that John was of a gentle, contemplative nature, and almost effeminate in character. Contemplative he was, and the Gospel is but an expression of his profound meditation upon the character and work of his Master, but a moment’s reflection upon some of the scenes of the Gospels (see Matthew 20:20–24, Luke 9:49, 54), in correspondence with which are some of the legends regarding his later life, will show that this Apostle was, at least in earlier life, impetuous, intolerant, and ambitious. Doubtless he was effectively molded by the Spirit of Christ during his long discipleship, but he was always stern and uncompromising in his hatred of evil and in his defense of truth.”
vol. 1, p. 869 9
This temperamental trait of John may well be one reason why many Christians around the world (who wished a more conciliatory approach to Christian ethics and doctrines) found an uneasiness around John and his assistants. And since John no doubt took seriously his belief that he was essentially an apostle commissioned to go to the Jewish people, and not the Gentiles like Paul (Galatians 2:9), and that he reinforced his belief by commanding his representatives on tour to take no support from “the Gentiles” (3 John 7), this made it difficult for all sections of the Christian community (especially in Gentile areas such as Rome and Corinth) to get along amicably with the apostle John.
But there was more to it than John’s temperament. There was another factor in the life of the apostle John that made him to be held in suspicion more than any of the other apostles. Let us now look at a major reason why Christian people were questioning the authority of John in his later years. Many people had reasons not to respect John’s opinions.
1 Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), pp. 236–239, 274.
2 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VII.32:14–19.
3 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24.
4 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.22.
5 Herbert Newell Bate, ed., Catholic and Apostolic: collected papers of Cuthbert Hamilton Turner (London: Mowbray, 1931), p.228.
6 Cyprian, Unity of the Church, p.4.
7 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from Its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English, American ed. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1979), pp. 340–341.
8 See 1 John 1:1; 2:7, 13f, 24; 11; 2 John 1:5–6.
9 James Riggs, “John the Apostle” in James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), p. 869.
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