From the just-released new edition of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II as published by Editores Volcán Barú available here.
In the following passage from the preface to his five-volume opus, Papias explains his own approach to establishing the truth about Jesus. Without doubt he was describing the historiographical method that his master John the Presbyter taught him, which means it is also the method John adopted in writing the gospel.
εἰ δέ που καὶ παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ἔλθοι, τοὺς τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀνέκρινον λόγους, τί Ἀνδρέας ἢ τί Πέτρος εἴπεν ἢ τί Φίλιππος ἢ τί Θωμᾶς ἢ Ἰάκωβος ἢ τί Ἰωάννης ἢ Ματθαῖος ἢ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ κυρίου μαθητῶν ἅ τε Ἀριστίων καὶ ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης, τοῦ κυρίου μαθηταί, λέγουσιν. οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης.
And so whenever anyone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would ask carefully for the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and persevering voice.
This quotation is not (as some have written) dismissing the value of books; certainly not when Papias wrote these words in a massive written work of his own. He is saying rather that when an actual eyewitness is still alive, still persevering in putting his vivid memories into words, again and again for different audiences, such a person deserves to be heeded more than a book, no matter how helpful the latter. He is saying that even the best of books are still of lesser value because they are indirect, coming between the student and the eyewitness descriptions, and that the eyewitness descriptions are superior because they are only one step away from the actual events themselves.
From the Presbyter’s historiographical approach (as mediated by Papias) we gain an insight into another matter that surely troubled John enough to call for the conference: if a book, no matter how good, is inevitably not as valuable as the account of an eyewitness, why should he put years into the solitary work of writing such a second-best rather than serving himself an eyewitness, using those years to tell as many people as he could about his experience of seeing and hearing Jesus? The answer he hit upon, as shall be seen, was not to write a book like any other, even a book as good as those by Herodotus or Plato or Homer – but to compose in book form the actual presence of Jesus. The logic is thus: if the gospel records the witness not of (just) human beings but of God, then the gospel records the truth of God, the absolute and objective truth, the perfect truth that mortal witnesses, even when they share and discuss their views together, can never fully reach. Since God is Creator, then for those who read and accept the gospel, the gospel creates for and within us the very presence of Jesus. To accept the gospel is to accept not only God’s truth, but to accept the Logos, to accept Jesus’s presence. As the Presbyter himself put it in I John 5:9-10:
ει την μαρτυριαν των ανθρωπων λαμβανομεν η μαρτυρια του θεου μειζων εστιν οτι αυτη εστιν η μαρτυρια του θεου οτι μεμαρτυρηκεν περι του υιου αυτου *και αυτη εστιν η μαρτυρια οτι ζωην αιωνιον εδωκεν ημιν ο θεος* ο πιστευων εις τον υιον του θεου εχει την μαρτυριαν εν αυτω ο μη πιστευων τω θεω ψευστην πεποιηκεν αυτον οτι ου πεπιστευκεν εις την μαρτυριαν ην μεμαρτυρηκεν ο θεος περι του υιου αυτου
If we receive human witness/testimony, God’s witness/testimony is greater. For this is God’s witness/testimony: that (God) has witnessed to / testified about his son, *and this is the witness/testimony, that Æonian life is given to us by God*. Those who believe God’s witness/testimony about his son have it within themselves; those who do not believe God have made him a liar, because they have not believed the testimony to which God has testified about his son.
To have God’s witness/testimony “within themselves” is John’s way of saying that those who experience the witness of God as a phenomenon become not just witnesses themselves, but committed witnesses, who have taken the experience into themselves. (Note that the phrase between asterisks is only found in one manuscript, the Codex Athous Lauræ (044 or Ψ), but, given its very Johannine reference to Æonian life, I lean toward the conclusion that it is original. Note for those who read Greek that I take του θεου in verse 10 as operating in possessive of both τον υιον and την μαρτυριαν.)
Modern historiography pays lip service to primary oral sources, but current-day histories rely mainly on previously written works, as any survey of published material will amply demonstrate. And modern historiography, when it does turn to oral sources, insists that the best eyewitness is dispassionate, perceiving and remembering facts without their being distorted by the lens of emotional attachment, free from subjective interpretation – in this case, spiritual understanding. The reader may have noticed that in this work I am unusual for a modern in not hesitating to rely on oral history, for instance what I heard in France about Jesus coming to Gaul in his later years, or about the continuing presence of Cathars.
The classical historian, on the other hand, would aver that to be dispassionate, supposedly “objective”, to lack emotional attachment to the event – that is, to not care about what one has observed, reduces one’s effectiveness as a witness. To the classical historian there is no difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”, and both result in uninvolved and unreliable. The best witness, that historian would say, is one who is invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned so memory can carefully store the event away. The best witness is one who not just cares enough about the event to remember it well, but cares enough about it to recount it again and again to various audiences, who therefore has had good practice at the craft of putting memory into words, which strengthens the recall and prevents the memory from fading away. Witnesses involved in the event, who participated in it, are commonly not just preferred bur required in traditional Jewish law. Those who signed a ketubah (marriage contract) and someone who saw the first faint crescent of the new moon, for instance, are not mere dispassionate observers but involved in the matter being adjudicated, and as such, the Talmudic scholars agree, are needed for their reliable testimony.
Quite the opposite from a witness unmoved by the event, the classical historian would recognize that the ultimate objective nature of the truth can only be known to a Being with a universal perspective, as George Berkeley pointed out. We humans, with our limited, subjective viewpoints, can never as individuals know the truth perfectly. The best we can do, says the classical historian and philosopher, is share our views with each other, in Platonic-style dialogues, each person seeking not (as moderns do when they discuss) to win the debate, not to prove his or her view correct and the others wrong, but, through listening, speaking, and reflecting, to contribute to the common quest, to get as close as humanly possible to the objective truth known only to God. (We can see here again why those who walked with Jesus, including the Presbyter, were so offended by Paul’s teachings: not only was he never an eyewitness to Jesus, but he refused to join with those who had observed and listened to Jesus to strive with them in the quest to come closer to the truth: instead, he insisted that they were wrong and that his interpretation imposed on the life of a man he never met were right.)
So it is that in Luke 24:32 and John 20:19-29, for instance, we are told that the disciples joined together in discussion of the events they witnessed, precisely in order to seek the truth together. One individual alone has a very limited perspective on the truth about something, but when more individuals who have a perspective at all on that something (i.e., are eyewitnesses to it) join with that individual in dialogue, the larger the perspective grows: it can never be universal, never objective, never absolutely correct, as is God’s perspective, but at least by adding more individual viewpoints to the dialogue it becomes larger, thus to the same degree closer to the truth. This is why the superior classical historian sought to listen to as many eyewitnesses as possible: not to decide which individual was right about a certain matter (and thus that the others were wrong), but – since these witnesses were likely not together in the same place engaged in discussion – at least within the historian’s own mind and even in the written work the historian could enable these witnesses to discuss the truth, as he reflects on what they said. As it is put in The Circle of Life:
Traditional peoples see time and place in terms of story. Everything around us is alive, and has its story. To exist, to live, is to create story: when we fall in love, when we have a child, and so on, we’re beginning a story, and the only way we can learn how the story is going to come out is by creating the story. The past, to the traditional way of thinking, is the stories that have been told and can still be told; the future is the stories that have not yet been told. Thus, this present moment is ceremony in progress, stories in the making. This moment now, with you holding this book in your hands as you read it, is your story-in-the-making. Some day to come you will remember reading this book. You won’t have this book in your hands, but you will remember reading something in it that really struck you, and what it made you think about, and what you did that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. This remembering will be for you a story, part of the greater story of your life. Death, in this view, is an ending not of life, but of a story – and other stories will always follow.
This issue was no doubt important to Papias because, as the Gospel of John demonstrates, it was crucial to his mentor John the Presbyter. The book, the gospel, that John wrote seeks to be something unique: to be much more than just a book of history like other books of history, even the best of them. It seeks to be more even than merely an indirect witness to Jesus, a mere record of oral recollections like other written histories. In addition to seeking to be itself a direct observer and describer of the events, telling the reader the story about them just the way a witness does, it seeks to be the event itself, such that we are not mere readers of a text that quotes witnesses about the event of Jesus, but that we become direct witnesses to Jesus himself. A perfect map of the world would be identical to the world and thus be the world itself; likewise, a perfect history of Jesus would be the event of Jesus himself; where humanity cannot reach such absolute truth, God can bridge the asymptotic gap and create a history that is what it describes. As stated above, the best witness is “invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned and memory carefully storing the event away, … and cares about it enough to recount it again and again to various audiences”, which describes this gospel very well. For Jesus promises, in the gospel itself, that a new kind of eyewitness will come to the faithful; he speaks of it as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), “the Spirit/Wind/Breath of truth … that will bear witness concerning me” (15:26), adding, “Whatever it hears it will speak … [it] will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you” (14:26). That new kind of witness is the gospel itself. It is the event itself, the event of Jesus, and by attending to it we become the eyewitnesses to not so much the gospel but to Jesus himself.
The modern sense of time is strictly linear: ancient events and people are divided from us by an unbridgable gulf of past centuries. For classical people that gulf could be breached in ceremony, uniting the present and past in kairos, uniting us with our spiritual ancestors in the “Eternal Now”; indeed, becoming spiritually one with them (cf. The Circle of Life). Still today the Passover Haggadah stresses that in sharing this meal we today are there with our ancestors as God brings them forth from Egypt (Exodus 13:14). And Jesus here shares the Samaritan Passover with his disciples and by extension us. Thus, after often comparing Jesus favorably to the ancient patriarchs, here Moses especially, whom this sacred meal invokes, is present at this climactic meal, in effect supporting Jesus, going with him to the cross – and when we read this gospel, the Paraclete, Jesus’s presence today, they are both with us now.
The Last Supper discourse helps to show that the Paraclete, the “Spirit/Breath/Wind of Truth”, is this gospel. It will not speak for itself (being a book, not a person), but what is written therein “it will speak”; it will take Jesus’s words and deeds and “declare them to you,” and “remind you of all the things that I said to you.” In all ancient literature this phrase the “Spirit/Breath/Wind of Truth” appears only in this discourse (14:17, 15:26, 16:13) and the Community Rule (3:18, 4:21,23) of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the phrase “the Sacred Spirit/Breath/Wind” (traditionally rendered “the Holy Spirit”) also is found only here (14:26) and likewise in the Community Rule (4:21). Later dogma turned it into a “person” in the Trinity.
The end of the gospel proper, verse 20:29, further supports the thesis that this gospel is the Paraclete, Jesus’s continuing physical presence in this world. John’s cognomen “the Presbyter” was applied by the movement’s early leaders to those like he who had heard Jesus preach and who became his followers as a result, but who were not among Jesus’s first and most central disciples. In concluding the gospel with this statement, therefore, the amanuensis is saying to us, “This gospel represents the man I saw and heard, and I believe. Now you have read this gospel; now you know exactly what I know: everything about Jesus. So now I ask you: Do you believe?”
This gospel is the Paraclete, the reminder, the messenger. It is like Jesus himself an emissary from God. It is, in effect, the presence of Jesus. Jesus calls himself the truth (14:6), and says the Paraclete will be the spirit of the truth (15:26, 14:26) – his spirit. It gives us the teachings and signs that Jesus did. It shows us the wounds, as it were, as Jesus did to Thomas. And here at the end, miraculously, it gives us Jesus, speaking directly to us, to you and me, the reader.
In this the last verse of the gospel proper (before the Envoi) Jesus steps out of the narrative framework, outside the telling of the story, to address the reader directly. This is a stylistic technique that was not rediscovered for nearly two millennia, despite the provenance of the Bible putting this example in front of pretty much every Western novelist since. Of course, you the reader realize intellectually that Jesus cannot directly address you personally; you realize that this is merely a literary technique never otherwise used in scriptures, even the most erudite of them, such as Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, and, later, the Qur’an. But then you start wondering: Jesus could have said this; it is immediately followed (20:30-31) by a certification of the eyewitness, and then you are moved because the gospel is saying that Jesus knew the Λογος so well that he knew the Beloved Disciple would remember his words and some day dictate them to his amanuensis, and that he knew some day you, the reader, would read those words.
he technique is highly effective: you read it and see, in your mind’s eye, Jesus look up from his twin brother to you, look up from the page of the book to you, the reader, and speak directly to you. At this last verse of the story proper, this technique draws you firmly into the microcosm of the gospel. It causes the gospel – like a mirror that is a universal, for it reflects all things but shows us only one thing, ourselves – to show you yourself in the story. You realize that it is not just Thomas who is Jesus’s twin, but you yourself, the reader; Jesus, like Baudelaire, calls you mon semblable, mon frère. He is saying in effect, “You, reader, like Thomas, were not with me when I came the first time. You, reader, like Thomas, demand proofs. But hearken to me; this gospel is the proof. This gospel is my presence in your life. And you are hereby invited to see the marks from the nails in my hands, to see and to believe. You too are my twin brother, my Διδυμος, for no longer do I call you ‘disciple’ but ‘brother’ (15:15) or ‘sister’, and I will come to you if you keep my word (14:23). You are invited to be reborn, this time of the Spirit/Wind/Breath of God. So blessed are you if you have not seen and yet believe, for, through this gospel, you have seen – and you too can be a gospel, a witness (μαρτυριαν), a messenger (αγγελος), a prophet (προφητης, literally, someone who speaks for another) to my words of truth about the Λογος.”
As the Introduction [to this translation] suggests, this gospel was written after Jesus was no longer on the earth, and at a time when those who had seen and heard him were dying, often at the hands of Rome. This forced the movement to change from a widespread belief that Jesus was “returning soon”, such that there was no need to write anything more than letters to answer issues of the moment, to a recognition that the world was going to continue on as it always had, and thus that there was a need to write down eyewitness recollections of Jesus’s deeds and teachings before these eyewitnesses had all died.
These final verses of the gospel proper make this clear; the gospel was written to be an “eyewitness” (the Paraclete) that cannot die but continue to testify to the actual, observed, words and deeds of Jesus, such that the message from God that he so eloquently delivered might keep on being delivered. Indeed, it is a miracle that we have this ever-living Paraclete gospel, since it could have been destroyed when John was arrested, or confiscated in Pontus, or edited into a dutiful mimic of the later dogmas, or a thousand other things. But we do have it, and so at least in this sense, Jesus is wrong in 12:8, since, through this gospel, we do always have him with us. This gospel, therefore, is presented to us as his continued presence on earth; it is like a living thing; that is why, as noted above, it is an aleph, a finite thing that contains in microcosm the entire universe. Parenthetically, the Śri Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikh faith, also is a self-testifying document that states it is its own witness, rather than any guru or holy spirit.
To recapitulate a point made in the commentaries to the Prologue: Jewish mysticism speaks of the physical and spiritual Torah as a pair of complements. The former, the five books in their form that is written on paper, is a physical approximation or refection of the latter, the spiritual Torah, which is ineffable and eternal, in the Æon, the wisdom of God that God consulted when preparing to bring this universe into being (as discussed in the commentaries to the Prologue). The parallel is like that of the body to the spirit: the body needs the spirit in it to live, and the spirit needs the body in order to manifest itself effectively in this physical world. This pairing of physical and spiritual Torah is similar to the teaching about the physical and spiritual Chanunpah Wakan (Sacred Pipe), as discussed in The Circle of Life.
The tale is told about the deeply revered Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer) dancing first with a Torah scroll in his arms, and then with his arms empty. A disciple observing this said, wisely, that he had “put aside the physical Torah and taken up the spiritual Torah.” In this manner, as we read the last words of the gospel, we are implicitly asked by Jesus himself to put aside the physical gospel and take up the spiritual gospel with our minds and hearts and souls:
“You [ i.e., Thomas] believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!”
Jesus’s words during the Last Supper and again to Thomas here mark this gospel as the Paraclete, as not just a book but much more as the living presence of Jesus, such that this verse tells us who did not see him “in the flesh” that we can witness him in the spirit, by way of this gospel. Therefore, this gospel can be seen, just like the Torah, as a book (the physical Paraclete) or as the sacred presence of Jesus (the spiritual Paraclete). The physical Jesus, like the physical Torah, made it possible for him to teach and heal in this physical world, and the physical gospel in the same way can be printed and distributed throughout the world, such that anyone can read it. The spiritual Jesus, like the spiritual Torah, is his presence in the minds and hearts of the faithful, and the spiritual gospel is essentially identical to the spiritual Jesus in this way. The physical Torah/Jesus/gospel is the way the spiritual Torah/Jesus/gospel gets around in this world. For those who have “not seen” Jesus, they can read this gospel, and, by the time they get to this final verse thereof, they have seen him.
But, as noted before, many people saw and heard Jesus during his ministry – only a relative few observed and listened to him, only a relative few had their lives change as a result. For the rest he was just another man spouting religious teachings. It is the same thing with this gospel: many millions have read it over the millennia, and a large part of that many believe their lives are different as a result of reading it, but the fact is they have only accepted the worldly dogmas invented by other human beings. Only a few will not just read but attend to this gospel, such that their lives change, and as a result they follow the Logos and become fully a part of the Æon. For them, this is not a book, or even an inspired spiritual work; it is Jesus looking at them and saying, “Blessed are you because you have not seen me and yet you believe.”