Today’s topic, the identities of the five authors of New Testament texts “by John,” brought to mind the classic sketch by Abbot and Costello involving mixed names and identities. You can enjoy this at your leisure, or listen to it now as a set up for the confusion to come.
Our problem at hand is this: currently the Sunday and weekday readings of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (see Office of Hours for May 5 and/or the second and third readings for next Sunday, April 10) are all drawing from the authorship of John. As early as the fourth century the Church historian Eusebius reported confusion about the identity about various persons named john; in his day the popular belief had it that as Jesus had entrusted his mother to the “disciple whom he loved” (who was believed then to be the Apostle John), this disciple took Mary to Ephesus as his new mother where he started what would become a major seat of Christianity. The late scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown elaborates a hypothesis about such a unique community in The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1978),
But is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” the same person as the Apostle John? A close look at the Gospels raises serious doubts. John and his brother James are collectively referred to as boanerges, “the sons of thunder.” (Mark 3: 16-17) and in Matthew’s Gospel (20: 20-28) we discover that John already has a mother, and quite a gal at that. She demands of Jesus that her boys get places at the left and the right of Jesus’ throne and with mother in tow, the boanerges boys assert that they are ready to drink the chalice of suffering.
We still have the question of whether either the Apostle John or “the disciple whom Jesus loved” actually wrote the Gospel of John. Scholar Pheme Perkins observes that the advanced theology of John’s Gospel would have been way beyond the abilities of a Galilean fisherman. The “beloved disciple” is referred to in the Gospel text in the third person, certainly an odd literary feature if he were the author. The best explanations I was taught—and I haven’t seen anything to contradict this line of thinking—involve a third party author or school of disciples who recorded and arranged the Gospel material from the teachings of their leader whom they loved. The identity of this disciple may be beyond our ability to know, although the final authors are clear that their leader was an original witness to the Risen Christ.
There are three brief epistles under the name “John.” Interestingly these letters were not widely used in the first two centuries of Christianity; a bit surprising if these letters were believed to come from the hands of an Apostle. The content of the letters addresses challenges in the Church of a later time: for example, a large number of Jews and others who denied that Jesus was the pre-existent Son of God, divine from the start. If you recall the very early catechetical sermons from Acts, Peter preached that God raised Jesus from the dead and established him as divine. There is quite a difference between “early and later Christology” and the letters of John reflect a later phase in the Church’s understanding of Christ. Similarities in the text and ideas with John’s Gospel strongly suggest that the final author of the letters was either the same final composer of the Gospel or at least a kindred spirit.
This leaves us with the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse.) Adela Collins is correct to point out that there is no other book quite like it in the New Testament. Its preponderance of apocalyptic mystical episodes has made it a favorite for futurists. The first Christian writer to speculate on its authorship is St. Justin Martyr c. 160 A.D. Justin argues that the author John is “one of the Apostles of Christ.” However, the actual author refers to himself in the text as simply “a servant of the Lord” and he claims as his inspiration heavenly origin. The current consensus is that the book’s author was an early Christian prophet by the name of John, or John the Presbyter, or John the Elder, unrelated to the authors we have cited above. This text is dated late in the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.), a ruler who persecuted Christian rather severely. Apocalyptic literature often springs from persecution and trial: its mysterious language is used to deceive persecutors; there is the hope of a dramatic return of God to destroy the peoples’ persecutors. Apocalyptic is not limited to Scripture; this mindset inspired many nuclear themed films in previous recent generations, including “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
Anyone who has read both John’s Gospel and Revelation has probably come away with the sense that these are works with significantly different agendas and differing views of the future. Of all the New Testament books, Revelation requires significant introduction and commentary, as it lends itself to serious misinterpretation if taken literally.