John the Presbyter, Author of the Gospel of John


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

John the Presbyter (also known as “John the Elder”, the latter being a loose translation of the cognomen Πρεσβύτερος), as amanuensis to Lazarus, was the formal author of the Gospel of John. According to early accounts John had actually seen and heard Jesus teach. Of course many people had done without it changing their lives one whit, but moreover he had accepted Jesus as his spiritual master, and he dedicated the rest of his life to passing on the wisdom of his master. Therefore, he is also described as a “disciple of the Lord”, albeit not one of the inner circle that comprised Simon (Peter), Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and certainly Lazarus. These disciple-eyewitnesses, when they had the talent to instruct and exhort, were authorized by the movement’s leaders as rabbis, in effect, teachers who imparted the genuine message of Jesus to communities here and there in the Roman Empire.

Little is known of John the Presbyter’s early life, other than that he was apparently a priest in one or another Jewish temple. Eusebius quotes or paraphrases from a letter written by Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus to Victor, Bishop of Rome, written toward the end of the second century. The salient sentence reads as follows:

ἔτι δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἐπὶ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ κυρίου ἀναπεσών, ὃς ἐγενήθη ἱερεὺς τὸ πέταλον πεφορεκὼς καὶ μάρτυς καὶ διδάσκαλος: οὗτος ἐν Ἐφέσῳ κεκοίμηται.

And moreover John, who reclined on the Lord’s bosom, and who became a priest and wore the petalon, and a witness and a teacher: he sleeps at Ephesus.

Before discussing what this sentence does tell us, one phrase in it must first be dismissed as not original to it. A couple of centuries after Jesus, Christian apologists often conflated John the Presbyter with John the Apostle the son of Zebedee, in a process Richard Bauckham rather kindly calls “exegetical procedure”, but which I call confusion, not always unintentional. It is all but certain that Eusebius added the phrase about reclining on the Lord’s bosom (referring to John 13:23) surely trying to be helpful to his readers in identifying just who this John was. For Polycrates, as bishop in Ephesus, where memories of his august predecessor John the Presbyter would have been fresh, who was a disciple of Polycarp, Irenæus, and perhaps even Papias in his last days, men who were themselves disciples of the Presbyter, would never have confused him with the son of Zebedee. Papias, in fact, is quoted as saying in his masterwork introduced below that James and John the two Zebedee brothers ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἀνῃρέθησαν (“were killed by the Jewish authorities”), which would effectively rule out the old age, death, and burial at Ephesus that he ascribes to the Presbyter. Besides, there is nothing in the early Christian writings to suggest that John Zebedee’s son, a fisherman, was a Temple priest. What is more, the bosom reference is out of chronological order with the the rest of the sentence, which comprises a brief summary of John’s life: it first mentions John being a priest, which would have been before John’s discipleship to Jesus, followed by his time as a witness to Jesus, then later in life as a teacher about Jesus, and closing with his death at Ephesus.

That highly doubtful phrase laid aside, this quotation tells us that John was a priest, and that at least briefly he was high priest. In the salient Jewish literature no John is listed as serving as high priest in the first century, and attempts to identify him as High Priest Jonathan fail especially in view of Acts 4:6, which names that son of the notorious Annas (Ananus) who tried Jesus as among those standing in judgement of Peter and John – John the Presbyter. Yet it was not uncommon for ordinary priests, especially those likely to advance in the sacerdotal ranks, to temporarily be permitted to put on the petalon (the medallion that the high priest wore) and fill in if the actual high priest were sick or travelling or otherwise unavailable.

It must have been while he was still a priest that John the Presbyter saw and heard Jesus – for he was a witness to Jesus, as Polycrates, and others who will be quoted below, confirms. Very likely he took part in some of the Gospel of John’s extended debates with Temple priests, especially those in Acts Two and Three, and his own memories joined with those of the Beloved Disciple Lazarus in reconstructing those conversations. He may indeed have been present at the deliberations of the Sanhedrin that started the process of sentencing Jesus to death, though the description in the gospel (11:47-53) may have come, instead or also, from Nicodemus and/or Joseph of Arimathæa, who were friends and supporters of Jesus. And clearly John must have left the priesthood, no doubt persuaded to do so in part by the persuasive power of Jesus’s teachings, and ultimately by his resurrection, which would have been more than ample proof that he was Messiah. After Jesus was gone, among his followers, he would have surely been respected as a former priest who had defected to their cause; he became part of the central leadership of the Jerusalemite community of Jesus followers, along with Simon the Rock (Peter) and James the Just, a brother of Jesus.

As a priest, John would have received a superlative education. It was common in those days for Jewish religious leaders to be well instructed not only in the Torah but also in the Hellenic classical culture that was by then universal. Josephus and Philo come immediately to mind as near-contemporaries who were masters of both branches of learning. The Saduccee priests display knowledge of Roman law in John 18:31b and 19:12,15. Paul, too, who as a Pharisee studied with the legendary Rabbi Gamaliel I, also showed off his familiarity with the great Greek literature; for instance, the playwright Menander in I Corinthians 15:33, a paradox composed by the poet Epimenides in Titus 1:12-13, and probably Epimenides again as well as another poet, Aratus, in Acts 17:28. Paul also refers to the spectacles presented in the coliseums – theatrical plays, footraces, and the like – suggesting he often enjoyed these very Roman events. (Thus, by the way, it strikes one as hypocritical that Paul accuses Simon Peter of living like a gentile, in Galatians 2:14.)

In that time, students did not study Greek as they do now, by memorizing verb charts and vocabulary, but by memorizing particularly eloquent passages from the Greek (and often Latin) classic writings. The Gospel of John is especially replete with paraphrases of Plato, Homer, and Euripides – and this particular set of literary giants strongly suggests John received his classical education in Alexandria, Egypt. With about one million Jewish residents, the city had more members of the faith than any other city in the world, including even Jerusalem. They worshipped not only at a major synagogue in Alexandria but also at the only Temple outside the Levant, in nearby Leontopolis, where professional priests were ready to help local Jews make the sacrifices required in the Torah. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint was translated, the famous Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures; that is, the Tanakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Though its extensive library had been largely destroyed in a fire in 48 B.C.E., the collection was largely restored by the time John would have studied there. This edifice was one of the major institutes of learning in the empire, particularly renowned for its high-level textual analyses of Homer and Plato – the two literati most prominent in the Gospel of John.

John certainly would have studied with Philo of Alexandria, a Jew who wrote and taught about Plato and the Torah. Certainly the Gospel of John’s focus on the Λογος, the Logos, and such concepts as “circumcision of the heart”, which appears in the gospel at 7:22, show strong signs of Philo’s philosophy. John may have begun as a priest in the Leontopolis Temple, but must have continued his upward career after returning to Jerusalem.

It was after that return that he saw and heard Jesus teach, and committed himself to this new Jewish sect for whom Jesus was the mary, the master. He became close with Simon Peter (Acts 1:13; 3:1,3,4,11; 4:13,19; and 8:14), and inevitably also James – these three are often mentioned together in the New Testament as the leaders in Jerusalem of the sect. These passages in Acts, as well as Galatians 2:9, begin the confusion of John the former priest, who will be called the Presbyter, and John the son of Zebedee. That this is the former priest is suggested by his entry into the Second Temple and and of course by how he and Simon are quickly recognized. But John son of Zebedee is referred to only once, at 12:2, well after the former priest has faded from the story told in the book.

And John would quickly have become acquainted with Simon’s dear young friend Lazarus (Eliezer). Probably still at most hardly more than a teenager, Lazarus was not one of the leaders, but he was loved for being Jesus’s adopted son (as will be explained in the Commentaries). The rumor was swirling around then that the young man was never going to die again, because Jesus had raised him from death – not only among the apostles (John 21:23), but among the public at large (12:9-11). Soon John undertook to help Lazarus with a writing project, composing a letter to be circulated among the spiritual community, aimed at dispelling that false assumption. Posthumously, this letter was grafted onto the Gospel of John as a kind of appendix (chapter 21), probably by Polycarp, the redactor.

That first effort clearly led the two men to commence the larger undertaking, the writing of the gospel itself. By several accounts, this work was done in Ephesus, away from the dangerous place that Jerusalem had become; this is borne out by the way John is simply not mentioned again after Acts 8:14; if he had been martyred, as were the sons of Zebedee, that would have been noted. It is self-evident that John and Lazarus, and no doubt other members of this Jerusalemite community, got out of the city, which was in a constant frightened expectation of obliteration by Rome, which eventually came about in 70 C.E.

John likely lived in one of the upscale condominiums on what is called Curetes Street, found by taking walkways between the stores and restaurants that faced the streets under an attractive colonnade – a first-century “strip mall”. Each unit was of more than one story, with several rooms decorated with frescoes or mosaics, surrounding an interior patio or courtyard that provided the rooms with abundant light and fresh air. These living quarters were provided with water from a citywide system, and they even had ceramic heating pipes within the walls. The nights were illuminated by streetlights, a convenience and safety feature otherwise found at the time only in Rome and Antioch.

On a plaza at the end of Curetes Street was a public library that John would have found delightfully reminiscent of the gigantic library in Alexandria where he had studied. In 110 a gorgeous new edifice would be built to house it, the famous Library of Celsus, but it was already in John’s time one of the largest in the Roman Empire, with some twelve thousand books. Adjacent to the library was the Mithridates Gate, whose dedicatory superscription in Latin would have been striking to John and Lazarus as they wrote about Jesus son of God; it began: “From the Emperor Cæsar Augustus, son of the god, greatest of the priests…”.

The spiritual community in Ephesus was first led, beginning around 52-53 C.E., by Apollos, a Jewish follower of John the Immerser (Acts 18:24), though soon a husband-wife pair of Jesus evangelists, Aquila and Prisca, drew him into Jesus’s theology (Acts 18:26). But Apollos moved on to evangelize in the city of Corinth before Paul arrived in the city, around the year 55. I surmise that John the Presbyter took over the leadership of the church from Apollos, though no text gives us this detail. Certainly the two men would have gravitated to each other; they were both Jews well learned in classical Greek studies. Apollos in fact was originally from Alexandria, where John had no doubt received his secular education. The two men may even have remembered each other from when they were students back in Egypt; if not, they had enough in common to have quickly become friends in Ephesus. Apollos was likely a secondary source for the Gospel of John’s narrative sequences about the Immerser.

Upon arriving, Paul barged his way into the local spiritual community in his usual way, preaching his message of not the faith of Jesus but faith in Christ, as he preferred to call Jesus, as if the Greek translation for “Messiah” (Anointed One) were his surname. However, his rather heavy-handed evangelism method, which recast the rabbi as a Roman-style godling (Acts 19:2-7), aroused such resistance that he was forced out of the synagogue, and thereafter for about two years he gave his daily lectures in a school auditorium (Acts 19:8-10). That Paul and his followers were the ones to move out of the synagogue suggests that the “orthodox” group that still met in the synagogue thought of themselves as Jewish, simply as a new and somewhat amorphous sect of the faith that adhered to the very Jewish teachings of Jesus – and that Paul’s “heterodox” group and its like in other cities was well on the way toward being a separate religion, Christianity. Paul was at the time (cf. I Corinthians 1:2, Romans 16:1) starting to call his congregations εκκλησια (ekklesia), literally “called out of and into” – that is, literally called out of the synagogues and into Paul’s new, non-Jewish religion – the root of “ecclesiastical” in English and of the words for “church” in the Romance languages, such as eglise in French and iglesia in Spanish. As the leader of the synagogal community, John was then without doubt instrumental in booting Paul out. John’s theology, as evidenced by his writings, is extremely different from Paul’s. John saw Jesus not as God incarnate, upon whom we are to place our faith, but as a messenger from God, God’s messiah, adopted as God’s son, who teaches us how to follow the will of God.

Paul, for his part, did not take the ouster blithely. Evidently he was infuriated by John’s teaching that at death we will go to live in the Æon, the heavenly realm; Paul found it no different from just being dead as are nonbelievers when they die; Paul, rather, promised his followers that, if they died putting their faith in Christ they would be resurrected back into their physical bodies, miraculously restored to health and youth, at some point in the future.

The New Testament retains to this day each man’s summary opinion of the other. In the following, Paul is not content with calling John a wild animal, and someone who knows nothing about God; he goes so far as to burlesque the Epicurean philosophy that he thinks John espouses, and to quote the Greek playwright Menander – deliberately mocking John’s highly literary style of preaching and writing (I Corinthians 15:32-34, 16:8-9):

ει κατα ανθρωπον εθηριομαχησα εν εφεσω τι μοι το οφελος ει νεκροι ουκ εγειρονται φαγωμεν και πιωμεν αυριον γαρ αποθνησκομεν μη πλανασθε φθειρουσιν ηθη χρηστα ομιλιαι κακαι εκνηψατε δικαιως και μη αμαρτανετε αγνωσιαν γαρ θεου τινες εχουσιν προς εντροπην υμιν λαλω … επιμενω δε εν εφεσω εως της πεντηκοστης θυρα γαρ μοι ανεωγεν μεγαλη και ενεργης και αντικειμενοι πολλοι

If in human terms I fought with wild beasts in Ephesus, of what benefit is it to me if the dead are not to be raised up? “We may as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be misled! “Bad friends corrupt a good character.” Get yourselves legally sober and do not make an error! For indeed certain people know nothing about God! I am speaking to your shame! … But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a big, useful door has been opened to me, and there are many enemies.

And, about a decade later (in 68), John shot back with these words. They are found in a letter to the principals of the synagogue he led in Ephesus before and after his exile to Patmos, a letter that Jesus dictated to him in a vision (Revelation 2:2). Here, John touches Paul at his most vulnerable point: that he claimed to be an apostle of Jesus, to the intense irritation of James and Simon Peter and the other Jerusalemite leaders who had been Jesus’s closest friends and family, Paul was usurping a term normally reserved for that innermost circle of Jesus’s disciples, those who had been with him through his entire ministry – even though Paul had never even met Jesus.

οιδα τα εργα σου και τον κοπον και την υπομονην σου και οτι ου δυνη βαστασαι κακους και επειρασας τους λεγοντας εαυτους αποστολους και ουκ εισιν και ευρες αυτους ψευδεις

I know your works and your labor and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evildoers, and that you tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and that you found them to be liars.

Yet the local schism caused by Paul, unpleasant though it obviously was, did not have a lasting impact on John or even the Ephesian community. On the other hand, John’s arrest several years later by Roman authorities did. In his own words in Revelation 1:9, John was convicted δια τον λογον του θεου και την μαρτυριαν Ιησου, “because of the Word of God and the witness to Jesus.” This is without doubt a reference to the Gospel of John, which is described in two ways. The gospel focuses from its very first verse on the Logos – a Greek term that no English word, including “Word”, fully conveys; it means God’s beautiful and natural plan for the entire universe, which, if we act in accordance with it, leads us to the Æon, the heavenly realm; but, if we oppose it, our deeds eventually come to naught, and we risk the same annihilation. And the gospel speaks of itself as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), the Advocate, “the Spirit/Wind/Breath of truth … that will bear witness concerning me” (15:26): as a witness to Jesus equivalent to the men and women who were his disciples, but not dead already or soon to die as mortals are, especially in times of persecution.

Why he should be arrested in connection with a gospel that was in draft only, not yet finished (nor would it ever be) and far from published, is not at all clear. (In passing, we can note that Revelation 1:9 confirms that John wrote the gospel, or as much of it as he was to complete, before being sent to Patmos, not after his return to Ephesus, as some aver.) The possibility that seems most likely to me is that John took someone into his confidence, reading passages from the manuscript to that individual or allowing him to read it himself, maybe a new acquaintance at the public library on Curetes Street. And perhaps that someone read in the gospel a number of lines, of which the following at 12:31-32, in which Jesus is speaking to his followers, are an example:

νυν κρισις εστιν του κοσμου τουτου νυν ο αρχων του κοσμου τουτου εκβληθησεται εξω καγω εαν υψωθω εκ της γης παντας ελκυσω προς εμαυτον

Now is the judgement of this cosmos: Now the ruler of this cosmos will be banished. And I, should I be lifted up over the earth, shall draw everything to myself.

and surmised, correctly, that this was a prophecy of the fall of imperial power, and moreover a warning that Jesus, and/or his followers, meant to take control of the cosmos, which was often used as a synonym for the Roman Empire.

It was very possibly deemed a fitting sentence that John was banished in the emperor’s name for writing that the emperor would be banished! And John certainly thought of the reference he had written into the gospel, not far from the above verse (in 13:18), to David’s turncoat advisor Ahithophel, part of the passage about Judas turning Jesus in to the authorities. John likely drew strength from knowing his master Jesus had been turned in by a friend too.

Indeed, ironies abound; in time the Christian religion did exactly what the verse predicts, banishing the Roman Empire and taking over power as the new Christian empire, lifting the cross up over the entire earth and taking over the “cosmos”, the entire Western world, and enslaving and exploiting the rest of the world, “drawing everything to itself”. John, could he have seen the future, wuld have objected to a religion in Jesus’s name controlled by merchants in mitres – this world conquest was the work of the movement descended from Paul’s teachings of domination of the world, not John’s of living by the Λογος and entering into another, better world, the Æon.

At the time John was close to finishing the gospel, in the sixth decade of the first century, widespread public fear was prevalent, like that in any country ruled by a mad, willful dictator; I think of the Noriega years here in this country of Panamá, so terrible that several people I know continue to suffer from various symptoms of serious post-traumatic stress. The fear is, in brief, a debilitating, dehumanizing, unceasing fear of inadvertently doing the “wrong thing” or failing to do the “right thing”, for what is wrong and what is right is constantly changing and one never can be sure, and being suddenly arrested and executed without trial. In John’s case, someone became so afraid after reading certain lines in the gospel that th individua erred on the side of caution and turned John in – or else it was someone who betrayed him hoping to curry favor with the emperor’s minions.

Nero – the mad emperor through the years that the gospel was being drafted (from 13 October 54 to 9 June 68) – was especially sensitive to anyone who prophesied against him. He was fascinated by magic and astrology and the like, but only when it foretold what he wanted to hear, though he at least tolerated those that were well entrenched and could not be shut down without risking a major uprising, such as the famous Delphic Oracle discussed in the essay on page ###. But he often took angry action when what might be called unauthorized fortune-telling said things that he found discomforting or threatening. However, bear in mind that many reasonable Roman citizens would have agreed with him; even a dangerous emperor had a genius that must be protected for the sake of peace and plenty for the people, and many people would have considered such prophecies an offense against Nero’s genius, and hence a threat to their financial and physical security, and the security of the empire as a whole against unrest within and invasion from without. (The Latin term genius refers to an emperor’s right to rule, as ordained by the gods and fate [cf. John 19:11]; in other words, to the pervading spirit that emanated from the emperor into all parts of the realm and maintained the status quo throughout.) Moreover, this manuscript was written by a Jew about another Jew, and Nero knew well that Judæa was constantly turbulent, and a locus of possible insurrection. As a result his distrust of and dislike for Judaism, there was during Nero’s reign more persecution of Jews and those who would become known as Christians than any other; what is more, Nero was the ruler who ordered the destruction of Jerusalem, though it actually took place after his assassination, in 70.

There is more reason to conclude that John’s banishment resulted from something written in the draft copy of the Gospel of John: the manuscript disappeared around this very time. It was only after John’s death, well past the horrible Neronic years, that the monograph, plus a number of his letters, turned up again in the Pontus, in what is now Turkey. This peaceful town, far from the madness of Nero and the tensions that engulfed the entire Roman Empire, was a pretty place on the shores of the Black Sea, surrounded by mountains and forests of tall pines mentioned in the odes of Horace. The nature of this location strongly suggests that, when John was arrested, trusted allies in Ephesus spirited his gospel and other writings there, to be kept safe by the large community of Jesus followers in that peaceful, distant city.

John was sentenced to exile on Patmos, a small island well out to sea southwest of Ephesus. Tacitus (Annals, 3:68, 4:30, 15:71) makes passing reference to the use of these Ægean islands for the banishment of those who had lost imperial favor. Still, John was clearly not confined to a cell but had the freedom to roam the shores and low hills – and one day he was vouchsafed a vision which he wrote down in Aramaic; this is the work known today as the Revelation or the Apocalypse.

John lived on the island for roughly a year, after which his sentence was commuted. Clement of Alexandria writes (On the Salvation of the Rich Man, 42):

επειδη γαρ του τυραννου τελευτησαντος, απο της Πατμου της νησου μετηλθεν επι την Εφεσον, απηει παρακαλουμενος και επι τα πλησιοχωρα των εθνων, οπου μεν επισκοπους καταστησων, οπου δε ολας Εκκλησιας απμοσων, οπου δε κληρον, ενα τε τινα κληρωσων υπο του Πνευματος σημαινομενων.

When, on the tyrant’s death, he returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.

Clement does not specify which emperor following Nero allowed John’s return from exile. It was surely neither Galba nor Vitellius, both cruel, but rather Otho, whose reign of only three months at least at least began well. Plutarch (Life of Otho 1:1-3) says among his first royal acts was the abrogation of a considerable number of like sentences, so John no doubt benefited too.

Remaining in Ephesus for the rest of his life, John took on an elder statesman role, writing letters to the faithful in various communities as did Paul, Simon Peter, Jesus’s brothers James and Judas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and others. John’s letters (like those of Jesus’s brothers and unlike Paul’s) are clearly directed to Jewish followers of Jesus’s teachings. Of his death, Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3:1) tells us only that Ἰωάννης τὴν Ἀσίαν, πρὸς οὓς καὶ διατρίψας ἐν Ἐφέσῳ τελευτᾷ (“John was in Asia, and after much time living there, died in Ephesus.” Polycrates adds, οὗτος ἐν Ἐφέσῳ κεκοίμηται (“He sleeps in Ephesus”), which hints that his tomb was not infrequently visited by faithful pilgrims.

Let us close this summary of John’s life with how his devoted disciple Polycarp describes the way a presbyter should comport himself – for these words not only summarize the teachings of Polycarp’s beloved master, but no doubt are an accurate assessment of the life and example of John the Presbyter himself, and a fitting eulogy to this spiritual leader:

Και οι πρεσβυτεροι δε ευσπλαγχνοι εισ παντας ελεημονεσ, εποστρεφοντες τα αποπεπλανημενα, επισκεπτομενοι παντας ασθενεις, μη αμελουντες χηρασ η οπφανου η πενητος αλλα προνοουτες αει του καλου ενωπιον θεου και ανθρωπων, απεχομενοι πασης, προσωποληψιας, μυ ταχεως πισευοντες κατα τινος, μη αποτομοι εν κρισει, ειδοτες οτι παντες οφειλεται εσμεν αμαρτιας.

And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those who wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always “providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man”; abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from. all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against anyone, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.