When we look at the excerpt from Papias in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4, it appears that he is familiar with two separate individuals named John. The first John is listed among the seven “disciples of the Lord” and is probably John, the son of Zebedee. The second John is prefaced with the title “Elder” or “Presbyter” and appears alongside Aristion who, though also identified as “disciples of the Lord,” are likely still teaching when Papias recorded his traditions. We do not hear about the “Elder John” or Aristion in the New Testament, but Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham (along with several other scholars) believe that the Elder John was the beloved disciple and author of the fourth Gospel. Here is a brief summary of their case:
- Although scholars as early as Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies 5.33.4) imply that Papias heard the apostle John directly (cf. D. A. Carson, Robert Gundry, Andreas J. Köstenberger, Craig Blomberg, Monte A. Shanks), many other scholars side with Eusebius that Papias referred to two different Johns. Granted, Eusebius was biased against Papias’s belief in a literal millennial kingdom of Christ and resorts to hearsay about two tombs for John in Ephesus (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.6, 11-13), but he seems to more accurately interpret the Greek passage that he cites from Papias.
- A case can be made for Papias’s knowledge of John’s Gospel. Papias’s list of 7 “disciples” rather than “apostles” corresponds with their order of appearance in John’s Gospel with the exception of “Matthew.” Papias may find Mark’s chronological or literary arrangement (taxis, “order”) deficient in light of John’s account and his language about truth has a Johannine ring. Although Eusebius notes Papias’s knowledge of 1 John (cf. Ecclesiastical History 3.39.17), he is silent about John’s Gospel and some scholars are less certain that Papias used it (cf. Ulrich Körtner, Enrico Norelli, Francis Watson, Dennis MacDonald, and myself).
- A case can be made that the beloved disciple was not a member of the Twelve and was a elite Judean follower (cf. John 18:15-16). A key difference between Hengel and Bauckham is that the former allows that the Gospel conflated the Elder John with the Apostle John in its portrait of the beloved disciple.
- The anonymous writer of the epistles calls himself the “elder” or “presbyter” (2 John 1; 3 John 1).
- The external church tradition ascribes the Gospel to “John” but not all the writers clarify that the author is the Apostle of that name. Bauckham makes the case that the references to the disciple John in the Muratorian Canon and Irenaeus do not have to be to John, the son of Zebedee, and that Polycrates identification of John as a high priest (Ecclesiastical History 5.24.2) seems to rule out the Galilean Apostle.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006; The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Hengel, Martin. The Johannine Question. Translated by J. Bowden. London: SCM, 1989; Die Johanneische Frage: Ein Lösungsversuch. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993.