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Theosophy and Religion

The Fourth-Gospel Problem


G R S Mead


First Published 1901

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The whole tradition of the apostle John's residence at Ephesus is based

on the assertions of Irenaeus, who thus endeavours to establish his claim that he (Irenaeus) was in direct contact with an apostolic tradition. In his very early youth, says Irenaeus, he had known Polycarp, who, he claims, was a direct disciple of the apostolic John. This latter assertion of Irenaeus is called into serious question by many scholars.


Turning to the evidence of Papias (about 140 A.D., or as Harnack would

have it 145-160 a.d.), we are confronted with the enormous difficulty of

his assertion that at his time two "disciples of the Lord," Aristion and

John the elder, were alive, and this too following his reference to

another John, a "disciple of the Lord," mentioned in a list with other

well-known names of apostles, who had passed away.


We have seen that the only way out of the difficulty which Dr. Abbott

can suggest is to expunge the words "disciples of the Lord" after the

names of Aristion and John the elder; how does Professor Schmiedel, in

his article on "John," overcome this difficulty? Papias distinctly says

that his interest was to hear from the followers of the elders what they

could tell him of what the elders had said about what certain "disciples

of the Lord" had said. These "disciples of the Lord" were dead and

Papias did not think much of either what was stated about them in books,

or what certain writers declared they said. Papias believed that he

would better get at the truth of the matter by direct oral tradition.


This in addition also to what he had already gleaned in early life

directly from certain other elders. But there was an additional

confirmation of the nature of the "commandments given by the Lord to

faith," for these same elders who had formerly known certain "disciples

of the Lord" who had passed away, also knew of certain living "disciples

of the Lord," namely Aristion and John the elder. Now in this connection

"elder" cannot refer to age, but must refer to office. The second John

is an elder, but further and beyond that he is distinguished as also

being a "disciple of the Lord." In our opinion, as we have already said,

this term signifies a grade, and marks out this John as enjoying the

direct inspiration of the Master after his death.


How does Professor Schmiedel overcome this difficulty? Of the phrase

"disciples of the Lord," he writes: "This expression has been used

immediately before, in the stricter sense, of the apostles; in the case

of Aristion and John the elder, it is clearly used in a somewhat wider

meaning, yet by no means so widely as in Acts 9.1, where all Christians

are so called; for in that case it would be quite superfluous here. A

personal yet not long-continued acquaintance with Jesus, therefore, will

be what is meant. Such acquaintance would seem to be excluded if Papias

as late as 140 or 145-160 A.D., had spoken with both." Professor

Schmiedel, however, thinks that Papias's words refer to an earlier time

than the period when he wrote his book; but even so, we shall have to

reckon with the new evidence that Aristion is perhaps the writer of the

appendix to our canonical Mk., in which case the date leans forward

again. Again Professor Schmiedel's assumption that Papias knew Aristion

and John the elder personally, is based on a translation of the text

peculiar to himself and out of keeping with the construction of the

sentence. Otherwise, as he well sees, there are two intermediate links

between John the elder and the apostles. We, therefore, prefer the

straightforward meaning of Papias and the extended meaning of the term

"disciples of the Lord."


Now Papias, in a fragment preserved by late writers, asserts that John

the apostle suffered martyrdom, "was put to death by the Jews," whereas

the "John" of Irenaeus is said to have died of old age at Ephesus.

Irenaeus, of course, would have it that this Ephesian John was the

apostle; but no other ecclesiastical writer of the second century knows

anything of the residence of the apostle at Ephesus. In the Fourth

Gospel, on the other hand, it is "presupposed" that John is not to die a

martyr's death, whereas the Gnostic Heracleon, about 175 A.D., confirms

the martyrdom of John the apostle.


How then are these contradictory assertions to be reconciled and the

"gross carelessness on the part of the leading authorities for ecclesiastical tradition" to be excused? As we have already seen from Papias, there were two Johns, the apostle and the elder, both "disciples of the Lord." John the elder may have resided at Ephesus. These two Johns have been confused together in the most unhistorical fashion by those who sought for an apostolic origin for the Fourth Gospel.


Now in the N.T. there are no less than five documents officially

ascribed to the authorship of the apostle John. Of these five two only

need engage our attention in the present enquiry. It is now claimed by

the canon that the apostle John wrote both the Fourth Gospel and also

the Apocalypse. On the other hand, no book of the N.T. has suffered such

vicissitudes of acceptance and rejection as the Apocalypse, so that from

the earliest times doubt was cast on its apostolic origin. But not only

this, the differences of style between this document and the Fourth

Gospel are so absolutely divergent that even the most uninstructed

reader can detect them freely with the most superficial inspection.


In considering the authorship of the Apocalypse we must first of all

proceed on the assumption that the book is a unity. "The spirit of the

whole book can be urged as an argument for the apostle's authorship" on

the ground that it is in entire keeping with the Synoptic description of

the "son of thunder." Its eschatological contents, Jewish-Christian

character, its "violent irreconcilable hostility" to enemies without and

false teachers within, its fiery prophetic utterances, all testify to

the justice of this by-name; still the writer does not call himself an

apostle, but only a minister of Christ.


On the other hand, the technical erudition and skilful arrangement of

the writer are hardly consistent with the synoptic description of John

as a poor fisherman, and with the Acts' designation of him as "an

unlearned and ignorant man." Above all we should expect "a livelier

image of the personality of Christ" from an eye-witness. And finally the

Apocalypse speaks of the twelve in "a quite objective way," without the

slightest hint that the writer is one of the twelve. These difficulties

are lessened, however, if we assume that John the elder was the author

and not John the apostle.


But even so we are not out of the wood, for it is no longer possible to

hold that the Apocalypse is a unity, and critical research has

demonstrated that it is in its simplest analysis a Jewish apocalypse

over-written by a Christian hand. The question thus becomes far more

complicated; was the apostle or the elder the over-writer or original

author of any part of it? The only hypothesis that can hold water in

this connection is the possible authorship of John the elder of the

Letters to the Seven Churches.


After reviewing the radical differences of language and spheres of

thought of the two documents under discussion, the Apocalypse and Fourth

Gospel, Professor Schmiedel concludes: "The attempt even to carry the

Gospel and the Apocalypse back to one and the same circle or one and the

same school . . . is therefore a bold one. It will be much more correct

to say that the author of the Gospel was acquainted with the Apocalypse

and took help from it so far as was compatible with the fundamental

differences in their points of view. On account of the dependence thus

indicated it will be safe to assume that the Apocalypse was a valued

book in the circles in which the author of the Gospel moved, and that he

arose in that environment and atmosphere."


To this we cannot altogether agree; it may be that the Apocalypse was a

valued book in the circle of the writer of the Gospel because of its

apocalyptic character, but it is manifestly certain that the writer of

the fourth Gospel did not arise in the intolerant and unloving

"environment and atmosphere," of the compiler and overwriter of the



Turning now to the Fourth Gospel itself, the method of enquiry adopted

by scientific research centres itself upon the question of this Gospel's

historicity. "In proportion as tradition concerning the authorship is

uncertain, must we rely all the more upon this means of arriving at

knowledge." The most important line of research is that of comparison

with the three synoptic writings, but here it has to be remembered that

we must not begin by postulating a higher degree of historicity for the

synoptists, all we can legitimately do is to discover the differences,

and then ascertain which is the more preferable account, and finally

enquire whether the less preferable can have come from an eye-witness.


To take the fundamental differences in order. The powerful personality

of the Baptist in the synoptics in Jn. becomes a mere "subsidiary figure

introduced to make known the majesty of Jesus." The scene of the public

ministry of Jesus in Jn. is very different from the synoptic account;

equally so is the order of the principal events in the public life.


The miracle-narratives in Jn. are "essentially enhanced" beyond those of the

synoptics, and Jn. adds new and more astonishing narratives; moreover

Jn.'s miracles can always be more easily explained symbolically. But

perhaps the most important difference of all is that relating to the

date of the crucifixion; moreover Jn. does not mention the celebration

of the last supper, but preaches the mystical doctrine that the Christian "passover" was the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Further "the difference in character between the synoptic and the Johannine discourses of Jesus can hardly be over-estimated."


As to Jn.'s representation of Jesus, it is always in harmony with the "utterances of the Johannine Christ," that He is the Logos of God. Nothing that would

savour of an earthly origin or nature is recorded of Jesus. The author

of the Fourth Gospel preaches the universality of salvation, spiritualises the eschatology and the "second advent." The sayings of Jesus regarding Himself assert his pre-existence from all eternity, and that He is the only Way and only Son of the Father; in brief He is identified with the Logos of the prologue.


This prologue Professor Schmiedel assumes to be written by the author of

the rest of the work, but we are of opinion that it is from some other

hand, and not only so but specially selected as an appropriate introduction, if not as a text upon which the leading doctrinal ideas of the Gospel are based.


And this may explain the following contradictory views of the critics, for Professor Schmiedel writes: "One might suppose it to be self-evident that the evangelist in his prologue had the intention of propounding the fundamental thoughts which he was about to develop in the subsequent course of the gospel." Whereas Professor Harnack's opinion is "that the prologue is not the expression of the evangelist's own view, but is designed merely to produce a favourable prepossession on behalf of the book in the minds of educated readers."


Now it is to be noticed that there is no positive teaching in the Gospels, or in the N.T. generally, as to the origin of things except in this proem. It is further to be noticed that just as the later followers of Plato specially singled out the Timaeus for study and commentary, so did the most philosophical among the Christians (for instance, the Gnostics of the second half of the second century) single out this proem for commentary. The Timaeus is evidently based on and compiled from fragments of more ancient writings, and we are of opinion that this also

is the case with the proem of the Fourth Gospel.


But when Professor Schmiedel writes: "The perception that the prologue

is deliberately intended as a preparation for the entire contents of the

gospel has reached its ultimate logical result in the proposition that

the entire gospel is a conception at the root of which lies neither

history nor even tradition of another kind, but solely the ideas of the

prologue," we are not quite certain that this is altogether the case. We

rather hold that the prologue by itself was not the basis of the Gospel,

but that the author was brought up in an atmosphere in which such ideas

as those contained in the prologue were current, and that the prologue

itself is a scrap of a lost document. We hold, further, that there was a

distinct tradition of these ideas differing considerably from the

synoptic tradition, though at the same time we do not deny the personal

inspiration of the writer of the Fourth Gospel and his independent

treatment of both the outer and inner traditions. This does not of

course assume the historicity of the "Johannine tradition," but it

assumes a mystical tradition of not only equal authority with the outer

traditions, but of greater authority, in the mind of the writer of the

"Johannine" document, than the view of the synoptists.


Professor Schmiedel, in summing up the comparison of Jn. with the

synoptics, writes: "We shall be safe in asserting not only that the

synoptists cannot have been acquainted with the Fourth Gospel, but also

that they were not aware of the existence of other sources, written or

oral, containing all these divergences from their own account which are

exhibited in this Gospel." This seems to be the correct conclusion from

the evidence; at the same time it must be remarked that though the

writer of the Fourth Gospel was acquainted with the main materials used

by the three synoptists, and treated them with the greatest freedom, and

though the synoptists seem to have known nothing of the written or oral

traditions used exclusively by Jn., that all this does not necessarily exclude their being contemporary writers.


As to the internal evidence for the nationality of the evangelist, "his

attitude—partly of acceptance, partly of rejection—towards the O.T.,"

and his "defective acquaintance with the conditions in Palestine in the

time of Jesus," lead to the conclusion "that he was by birth a Jew of

the Dispersion or the son of Christian parents who had been Jews of the

Dispersion." It has, however, been strongly argued that the writer could

not possibly have been a Jew.


Now as the formal conclusion of the Fourth Gospel is to be found at the

end of chap. 20, chap. 21 is "beyond question" an appendix, and moreover

can be clearly proved not to have come from the same author as the

writer of the rest of the book. The main purpose of the second half of

this appendix is the "accrediting" of the document—a fact which shows

that the authorship and contents were already called into question.


The authors of this appendix assert that it was a certain disciple whom

Jesus loved who had written "these things," and that they (the authors)

know that his "testimony" is true.


The Gospel's writer's own account of the author is that "he who saw it

bare record and his record is true: and the one knows that he speaks

true." The greatest possible ingenuity has been exhausted on these words

so as to make them a statement of the writer concerning himself, but

this is manifestly an impossibility. Finally, in the supposed other

testimony as to himself the designation of the unnamed disciple as "the

disciple whom Jesus loved," speaks "quite decisively" against this

assumption. In all of this, therefore, we have no certain fact as to

authorship from internal evidence.


Passing next to the external evidence for the genuineness of the Fourth

Gospel, Professor Schmiedel has of course to traverse the same ground

which we have already reviewed in referring to Dr. Abbott's labours.


This he does in a very full and scholarly manner, and in summing up his

estimate of the evidence writes: "We find ourselves compelled not only

to recognise the justice of the remark of Reuss that 'the incredible

trouble which has been taken to collect external evidences only serves

to show that there are none of the sort which were really wanted,' but

also to set it up even as a fundamental principle of criticism that the

production of the Fourth Gospel must be assigned to the shortest

possible date before the time at which traces of acquaintance with it

begin to appear. Distinct declarations as to its genuineness begin

certainly not earlier than about 170 A.D."


It is quite true that nothing can be definitely proved beyond this; but,

as we have already indicated, we are inclined to assign as early a date

to the Fourth Gospel as to the synoptics, and attribute its later

recognition, as compared with that of the synoptics, to the difficulty

which the general mind always experiences in assimilating mystical and

spiritual doctrine.


"If," however, "on independent grounds some period shortly before 140

A.D. can be set down as the approximate date of the production of the

Gospel," then new importance is to be attached to a passage (5.43) where

Jesus is made to say: "I am come in the name of my father and ye receive

me not; if another will come in his own name, him will ye receive." This

is to be taken as a prophecy after the event, as is the case in thousands of instances in contemporary apocalyptic literature. Barchochba, claiming to be the Messiah, headed a revolt of the Jews in 132 A.D., which ended in the complete extinction of the Jewish state in 135 A.D.


Furthermore, in reviewing the nature of the external evidence as to the

Gospels, Professor Schmiedel gives a valuable warning to those who have

to decide between the conservative and independent views on the matter.


After citing a number of declarations of the Church Fathers (with regard

to other writings) which are admitted by both sides to be fantastic or

erroneous, he writes: "When the Church Fathers bring before us such

statements as these, no one believes them; but when they 'attest' the

genuineness of a book of the Bible, then the conservative theologians

regard the fact as enough to silence all criticism. This cannot go on

for ever. Instead of the constantly repeated formula that an ancient

writing is 'attested' as early as by (let us say) Irenaeus, Tertullian,

or Clement of Alexandria, there will have to be substituted the much

more modest statement that its existence (not genuineness) is attested

only as late as by the writers named, and even this only if the quotations are undeniable or the title expressly mentioned."


After this declaration it is strange to find the learned critic adopting

the statement of one of these Church Fathers on a most debatable point

without the slightest hesitation.


We have already seen the strong mystical bias of the writer of the

Fourth Gospel, and we naturally turn to Professor Schmiedel's exposition

to learn his opinion on the relation of this Gospel to Gnosticism. He

admits that "the gospel shows clearly how profoundly Gnostic ideas had

influenced the author"; but on this very important subject Professor

Schmiedel has no light to offer. He seems to accept the entirely

polemical assertion of Hegesippus, as handed on by Eusebius, that

"profound peace reigned in the entire Church till the reign of Trajan

[98-117 A.D.]; but after the second choir of the apostles had died out

and the immediate hearers of Christ had passed away, the godless

corruption began through the deception of false teachers, who now with

unabashed countenance dared to set up against the preaching of truth the

doctrines of Gnosis, falsely so-called. There is no reason for disputing

the date here given."


On the contrary, there is every possible reason for disputing not only

the date, but every single item of the statements, as we have shown at

great length in our recent work on the subject. Here again, as

everywhere else in connection with the Gnosis, the new Encyclopaedia

reveals its vulnerable side, as we shall endeavour to prove in our

concluding paper.


As to the place of composition of the Fourth Gospel, Professor Schmiedel

inclines to Asia Minor, as the easiest hypothesis; it is only on this

assumption that we can explain how the Gospel could be ascribed to some

John living there. But the strongly Alexandrian ideas of the Gospel are,

in our opinion, somewhat against this, though of course Gnostic ideas,

and very probably Alexandrian, could be current in Asia Minor. There is,

however, nothing to prevent us referring the origin to an Alexandrian

circle, and the carrying of an early copy of the document to Asia Minor.


But before leaving the subject it should be mentioned that the criticism

of the Fourth Gospel, which has so far proceeded on the assumption of

its unity (excepting, of course, the appendix and the prologue), is

further complicated by hypotheses of "sources," and the question of

interpolation. The question of sources, however, does not help us at

present to an any more satisfactory solution of the problem; there may,

indeed, be interpolations, "but if it is proposed to eliminate every

difficult passage as having been interpolated, very little indeed of the

gospel will be left at the end of the process."


With regard to the whole question of Fourth Gospel criticism Professor

Schmiedel says that there is only "positive relief from an intolerable

burden," when "the student has made up his mind to give up any such

theory as that of the 'genuineness' of the gospel, as also of its

authenticity in the sense of its being the work of an eye-witness who

meant to record actual history. Whoever shrinks from the surrender can,

in spite of all the veneration for the book which constrains him to take

this course, have little joy in his choice. Instead of being able to profit by the elucidation regarding the nature and the history of Jesus, promised him by the 'genuineness' theory, he finds himself at every turn laid under the necessity of meeting objections on the score of historicity, and if he has laboriously succeeded (as he thinks) in silencing these, others and yet others arise tenfold increased, and in his refutation of these, even when he carries it through—and that too even, it may be, with a tone of great assurance—he yet cannot in

conscientious self-examination feel any true confidence in his work."


It only remains to add that, in our opinion, the same remarks, with slight modification might be made with regard to by far the greater part

of the synoptical writings as well.


But that such a poor answer as the one we are led to deduce from the

general point of view of advanced criticism, will satisfy the question:

"What think ye of Christ?" is and must be highly repugnant to those who

not only love but also worship Him. What, then, are the grounds for this

intuition of greater things, which refuses to sacrifice itself on the altar of "science"? Our next paper will be devoted to a general consideration of this question.



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