Theosophy and Religion
The Fourth-Gospel Problem
G R S Mead
First Published 1901
The whole tradition of the apostle John's residence at
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
As to the place of composition of the Fourth Gospel, Professor Schmiedel
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
however, nothing to prevent us referring the origin to an Alexandrian
circle, and the carrying of an early copy of the document to
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.