John Versus Paul:
Angry Accusations Abound in their New Testament Letters
James David Audlin
Adapted from The Writings of John Restored and Translated,
to be published summer 2014 by Editores Volcán Barú,
and The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volumes I and II,
already in publication by Editores Volcán Barú.
Copyright © 2013,2014 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved.
Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.
In the first half of the first century Jerusalem was in constant uproar, often teetering toward open revolt, with most citizens constantly fearfully anticipating a Roman obliteration, which eventually came about in 70 C.E. It would not have taken a prophet to know the Romans were certain to destroy the city. Yet John the Presbyter in any case would have been well informed of Roman policy in advance. Philo, his former teacher in Alexandria, for instance, had a brother named Alexander the Alabarch (“Chief Tax Official”) who not only knew General and future Emperor Titus but was shortly to be appointed his second-in-command during that annihilation. And the Presbyter also was acquainted with Sergius Paulus (Acts 13), who was friends with the naturalist Pliny the Elder, who in turn was also friends with Titus as well as another emperor-to-be, Vespasian his father.
Thus John, as did other members of this Jerusalemite community, knew enough to get out of the city. Eusebius writes that John left Jerusalem for Ephesus just as persecution was beginning in earnest against the apostles, in the late 40s or early 50s. 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.
In Ephesus John likely took up residence in one of the upscale condominiums on what is called Curetes Street, found by taking walkways between the stores and restaurants that faced the street under an attractive colonnade – a first-century “strip mall” that survives in part; it was manifestly much more attractive than the modern version. Each living unit was of more than one story, with interior walls decorated with pleasant 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 municipal system, and they even had ceramic heating pipes within the walls. The nights were illuminated by streetlights, a convenience and safety feature then otherwise found in the Roman Empire 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 with Philo. In 110 a gorgeous new edifice would be built to house it, the famous Library of Celsus (named not for the philosopher who criticized early Christianity but for a wealthy political donor), 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 he would see the Mithridates Gate, whose dedicatory superscription in Latin would have been striking to the former priest John as he wrote the gospel 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 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 Jewish teachers, Aquila and Prisca, drew him into Jesus’s theology (Acts 18:26), of which he had been ignorant. But Apollos moved on to evangelize in the city of Corinth before Paul, around the year 55, arrived in the city. I surmise that John the Presbyter took over the leadership of the church from Apollos around 54, though no text gives us this detail. Certainly the two men would have gravitated to each other; Apollos in fact was originally from Alexandria, where John had no doubt received his secular education. Being both Jews well learned in classical Greek studies, the two men may even have first known each other 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. The Muratorian Canon has John as already the regional bishop at the meeting whereat he was persuaded to write the gospel; thus serious work began on the gospel in 54.
Paul’s theology, as evidenced by his writings, was utterly different from that of John. Upon arriving, Paul barged his way into the local spiritual community in his usual way, preaching not the faith of Jesus but faith in Christ, as he preferred to call Jesus, as if it were his name. Paul preached Jesus as God incarnate, a Roman-style godling (Acts 19:2-7) in whom we are to place our faith. But what as we shall see particularly rankled the Presbyter is that Paul said it was fine to eat food that had been sacrificed to Roman idols – and that Jesus, being God, wore only the semblance of human flesh, not a real human body.
Needless to say, the local Jewish population was highly displeased. Their views surely echoed those of the synagogue leader, John, who unlike Paul had actually known esus. John was preaching in the Ephesian synagogue that we must follow the will of God as taught by God’s Messiah Jesus, a messenger from God, adopted as God’s son just as Jewish kings and priests traditionally were. Paul, in this context, was preaching intolerably un-Jewish views, arousing resistance so intense among the local Jewish community,that he was forced out of the synagogue. With Jerome Murphy-O’Connor I accept II Timothy as genuinely by Paul; 1:15 refers to this ouster of Paul. Thereafter, for about two years, he had to give his daily lectures in the auditorium of the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-10).
John was without doubt instrumental in booting Paul out; not just because John was the leader of the synagogual community, but because he knew the man, having previously had difficult dealings with Paul. In 50 C.E. or not long before, Paul had been called to Jerusalem to meet with Jesus’s brother James the Just, Simon (Peter), and John the Presbyter, ostensibly to decide between their view that gentile converts had to be circumcised and Paul’s view that they did not. The deeper issue, of course, was whether this growing Jesus movement was a Jewish sect (in which case males had to be circumcised) or a new Roman-style cultus (in which case they did not). The only descriptions of this meeting come from Paul (Galatians 2:1-10) and a Paul-friendly book, Acts 15:1-29; still, even in these texts it is apparent that the agreement was at best a compromise uncomfortable for both sides. The agreement apparently was that gentile converts did not have to be circumcised, but Paul did need to hold them to the so-called Noahide laws (eating food containing blood, food offered to idols, or food that came from strangled animals; and refraining from ritual sexual impropriety, such as the ceremonial sexuality practiced at both the Jerusalem and Samaritan Temples at various times) and to “remember the poor”. As will be seen shortly, Paul evidently proceeded to ignore this compromise, further infuriating the Jerusalemite leaders.
Now, five years later in Ephesus, John deals Paul another setback: he and his followers are made to remove themselves from the synagogue. This suggests that the orthodox group meeting in the synagogue under John’s leadership thought of itself as Jewish, simply as a new and somewhat amorphous branch of the faith that adhered to the very Jewish teachings of Jesus. This also tells us that Paul’s heterodox group and its like in other cities was well on the way toward becoming a separate religion, Christianity. Paul was at the time (cf. I Corinthians 1:2, Romans 16:1) starting to call his congregations not synagogues but 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. And he was calling his packaging of Jesus ἡ Ὁδός (hē Hodos, “the Way”; Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4). The Roman Empire was the first truly modern economy focused entirely on the marriage of the institutions of politics, the military, religion, communication, and education for the sake of pecuniary gain, and Paul fit right in: he was an early innovator of modern advertising gimmicks – includinga catchy name and a simple, oft-repeated “sound-byte” message.
But Paul, after getting himself evicted from the synagogue, managed to arouse even more antagonism in the much larger gentile population of Ephesus. Paul was preaching that the Roman gods, being “made by human hands”, were not gods but idols, and urging residents and visitors to the city not to buy idols, let alone to worship them. Paul was in effect organizing a boycott of the statuettes sold by a guild of artisans to faithful pilgrims who came from all over the Western world to venerate Artemis at her temple in Ephesus. Paul’s attack was much more than on a major revenue source for the city, however, since Artemisa Ephesia, the Bringer of Light, was much more than the Ephesians’ mother goddess: she was their προτοθρονια (protothronia), the source of their power, safety, and well-being, their collective heart and soul: their fate was inextricably one with that of Artemis (Diana). Examples of the statuettes Paul railed against have been found throughout the former Roman Empire; they were careful copies of the great statue of Artemis said to have come down from heaven, housed in her marble temple the Artemisia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. An angry speech by one artist, a man named Demetrius, sparked a massive public uprising and, apparently, legal proceedings against Paul. As a result, Paul was forced to leave the city and never come back (Acts 19:23-20:1). Unable to set foot in Ephesus, he was forced to meet with the leaders of his Christian congregation in Miletus (Acts 20:16-17), blaming everything on “the plots of the Jews”, that is, Jewish leaders like John (Acts 20:19), insisting on his innocence (Acts 20:26) and warning them about λυκοιβαρεις, “oppressive wolves” who will speak διεστραμμενα , “deviances”, to entice away members of Paul’s congregation into their own (Acts 20:29-30).
And, ironically, Paul’s diatribes against the religion of Artemis had no lasting effect; according to Rick Strelan (Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus) it continued at full strength at least until her temple was burned by Christianized Goths in 268, and probably even then persisted a couple centuries longer. In further irony, several of the temple’s stately marble pillars were incorporated into the famous Christian church in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia, in 537.
In 57, only a year or so after being evicted from Ephesus, Paul was severely upbraided by the Jerusalemite leaders (James the Just is named; Simon Peter doubtless took part, and in view of Paul’s later invectives, John the Presbyter probably did as well) for failing to live up to the Council of Jerusalem compromise, mentioned above, to keep the Noahide laws – as Paul freely admits in I Corinthians 10:25. Paul took to the mikvah to spiritually purify himself, thereby implicitly admitting his guilt (Acts 21:26), but a group of Jews from Asia (whence Paul had so recently been evicted!) raised a ruckus about Paul’s egregious breaches of the Torah. This made him feel so imperiled that he pulled rank as a Roman citizen, demanding a trial before the emperor, merely to save his own skin.
One suspects that Paul (no doubt unfairly) blamed all of these untoward experiences – expulsion from the synagogue, eviction from Ephesus, and the near-riot in Jerusalem – in major part on John the Presbyter. For the rest of his life Paul claimed to have founded the Ephesian synagogue, at best an exaggeration, and this thought led him to believe he should have been rewarded with praise and gratitude, not eviction. And for the rest of his life he was choked with bitter hatred for the Presbyter.
Paul made the Council of Jerusalem sound very positive and chummy, claiming the three leaders authorized his ministry to the gentiles (Galatians 2:1-10), but subsequent events suggest it was in fact quite contentious. And one hears the hissing sarcasm in Galatians 2:6, where Paul describes the three leaders as
…των δοκουντων ειναι τι οποιοι ποτε ησαν ουδεν μοι διαφερει προσωπον ο θεος ανθρωπου ου λαμβανει εμοι γαρ οι δοκουντες ουδεν προσανεθεντο
… those esteemed (by others) to be something – whatever they used to be makes no difference to me; (though) God does not accept a man’s outward seeming – these esteemed had, indeed, nothing to add.
Note that the adjective δοκουντων, dokoyntōn, is a double entendre. In this quotation it appears to suggest the meaning of “esteemed” or “held in high opinion”. However, in his next phrase, Paul suggests that the people who hold these three in such high esteem aren’t aware of their relatively humble origins, or perhaps certain unpleasant facts about their past, and so have been taken in by their outward seeming; literally, the “face” that they show the world. (Paul was in no position to make such insinuations, considering his own rather despicable past deeds, though at least to his credit he often mentioned them.) But God is not so taken in, he goes on, adding with arch piety that since God is not fooled as are their followers, their past history makes no difference to him. Yet that he alludes to this alleged past history at all implies it does make a difference to him, and he sounds gossipy for hinting at whatever the ugly history may be.
Paul uses the adjective δοκουντων again in verse 9 to modify the noun στυλοι (styloi), which usually means “pillars”, hence “esteemed pillars”. But the latter word was also used to refer to writing styluses (in fact the English word is descended from it), and δοκουντων can also mean “opinionated” or even “judgemental”. Thus, no doubt intentionally, Paul intends this phrase to carry a second meaning: “judgemental styluses”; by implication, “judgemental writers”. And immediately after this taunt, Paul drives it home by relating the story about Simon being hypocritical about keeping kosher.
Paul began by calling John a “judgemental stylus” (see page 185), and continues several times to lash out in public letters against John. In the following quotation (from I Corinthians 15:32-34 and 16:8-9), he calls John a wild animal, reminiscent of “oppressive wolf”, and someone who knows nothing about God. Then he goes so far as to burlesque the Epicurean philosophy that he thinks John espouses, quoting the Greek playwright Menander in a way that deliberately mocks John’s highly literary style of preaching and writing:
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.
Evidently Paul was disgusted by John’s teaching that at death those who accept the Λογος go to live in the Æon, the heavenly realm; Paul found such a statement no different from saying believers, when they die, are just as dead as nonbelievers; Paul, rather, promised his followers that, if they died putting their faith in Christ at some point in the future they would be resurrected back into their physical bodies, miraculously restored to health and youth – certainly an appealing promise to the credulous.
Commonly misdefined, Docetism properly speaking is the doctrine that Jesus had a body, but not a human body, one of flesh; his only appeared to be human flesh. Scholars still argue today about whether Paul was a Docetist; perhaps he was, perhaps not, and perhaps as on so many other things he waffled in this matter, depending on his audience. The important question here, however, is whether John the Presbyter might have reason to believe Paul was a Docetist. And the answer is clear. In Philippians 2:6-7 Paul says that though Jesus “existed in God’s own form [μορφην] … he voided [εκενωσεν] his nature, taking on the form [μορφην] of a slave, coming in human semblance [ομοιωματι], and was found to be human in appearance [σχηματι].” In Romans 8:3 he writes: “God sending his own son in the semblance [ομοιωματι] of sinful human flesh.”
John’s own replies are clear but relatively patient, no doubt following Jesus’s teaching to be forgiving with enemies. Here, for example, is his warning about Paul in II John 7,9:
οτι πολλοι πλανοι εξηλθον εις τον κοσμον οι μη ομολογουντες ιησουν χριστον ερχομενον εν σαρκι ουτος εστιν ο πλανος και ο αντιχριστος … πας ο προαγων και μη μενων εν τη διδαχη του χριστου θεον ουκ εχει ο μενων εν τη διδαχη ουτος και τον πατερα και τον υιον εχει
For many deceivers have gone off into the cosmos, those not confessing Jesus the Anointed One (as) coming in flesh. This is the deceiver and the anti-Anointed-One…. Anyone who leads (others) outside of, who does not abide within, the teaching of the Anointed One does not have God.
Still rankling some years later, and never at a loss for words to express his views, Paul let loose again in his second surviving letter to the same community (II Corinthians11:12-15):
ο δε ποιω και ποιησω ινα εκκοψω την αφορμην των θελοντων αφορμην ινα εν ω καυχωνται ευρεθωσιν καθως και ημεις οι γαρ τοιουτοι ψευδαποστολοι εργαται δολιοι μετασχηματιζομενοι εις αποστολους χριστου και ου θαυμα αυτος γαρ ο σατανας μετασχηματιζεται εις αγγελον φωτος ου μεγα ουν ει και οι διακονοι αυτου μετασχηματιζονται ως διακονοι δικαιοσυνης ων το τελος εσται κατα τα εργα αυτων
So what I am doing I will keep on doing in order to cut off the opportunity for those who seek one, to be taken in their boasting as equal to us. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder; Satan himself transforms his appearance into an angel in light! So it is no surprise if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness, whose end will be in accordance with their deeds.
Here Paul says he himself is an apostle, and that John is not – an astonishing statement, when in fact it was the other way around. In the early usage, an apostle was someone who had heard and seen Jesus, and whose life had been changed by Jesus, and who then dedicated his life to spreading his first- hand accounts of Jesus’s teachings. Paul never witnessed Jesus in the flesh as the Presbyter did, and Paul’s demand to be accepted as a full apostle therefore grated on the real apostles, especially Jesus’s closest friends and family in the leadership community based in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 C.E.
Paul says Satan is transforming his appearance into (μετασχηματίζεται) “an angel in light” (αγγελονφωτος). The verb suggests that Satan is turning his appearance into its exact opposite: from a demon of shadow into an angel of light. This comment is most interesting, since scholars have never been able to point to any such reference in the Tanakh, or even in what was to become the New Testament. However, the phrase does evoke a resounding echo of δυοαγγελουςενλευκοις in John 20:12, the “two angels in shimmering light” (λευκοις is a poetic synonym for φωτος). This is not a direct quotation from the written text of the Gospel of John, which of course was only published after Paul’s lifetime, so in any case he could not read it. Yet it is entirely possible that Paul or one of his acolytes attended a sermon by John and heard John talking about what Mary had told him about the resurrection of Jesus. (Spying on competitors seems to have been common; cf. e.g., Galatians 2:4.) John, of course, would have emphasized that the hierogamy of Jesus and Mary beside the tomb, their total union physical and spiritual, sexual and mystical, shows us how to heal the spiritual wound, the aloneness and emptiness in every human individual, and opens the way to the Æon. But Paul, who was not only rather misogynistic but rather strongly disgusted by the very idea of sexuality, found it most offensive that John was preaching Jesus in an erotic embrace with Mary at his resurrection, and outright heretical that John suggested Jesus showed the way to heaven in (to borrow Blake’s lovely phrase) “the lineaments of gratified Desire”.
Paul offers a further allegation in Colossians 2:18-19a. He makes it clear that he knows fully well that John was basing his apostolic authority on his having been an eyewitness to Jesus, and Paul’s wording here is very close to I John 1:1. But Paul sharply dismisses this as John’s intellectual “ego-trip” hidden within a false cloak of humility.
μηδεις υμας καταβραβευετω θελων εν ταπεινοφροσυνη και θρησκεια των αγγελων α εορακεν εμβατευων εικη φυσιουμενος υπο του νοος της σαρκος αυτου
Let no one disqualify you who delights in humility, who venerates angels whom she saw while entering in / inspecting carefully, vainly hyperventilating over the thought of his body.
The verb καταβραβευω (katabrabeuō) is a sports term for when an umpire declares a play to be out of bounds or ejects a player from the game: Paul is saying John (and Peter and James) have set themselves up as umpires, as judges of others, simply because they studied with Jesus. Furthermore, Paul says Umpire John did not see the event in question, but relies on someone else’s doubtful testimony: Paul accuses John of venerating angels whom someone else (the pronoun could refer to a man or a woman) saw. This someone else, who entered into and inspected something carefully and saw angels is clearly Mary, who entered into and inspected (the verb εμβατευω (embateuō) means “to enter into” and/or “to inspect carefully”) the interior of Jesus’s tomb and saw two angels (John 20:11-12). And Mary’s testimony on which John relies is untrustworthy, because, as John has it in the gospel, she (like Jesus) was sexually aroused at the resurrection, “vainly hyperventilating over the thought of his body.” Thus Paul says John is a hypocrite for saying he is an eyewitness of Jesus: it was Mary, not John, who professed she saw these angels.
But Paul is far from done. Next, he says in Colossians 2:20-23, though John relies on the testimony of Mary, who was sexually aroused at the resurrection, John nevertheless insists the “Do not…” prohibitions of the Torah will help people “restrain the indulgence of the flesh”. Not only is John again clearly hypocritical, in Paul’s view, but the mitzvot of the Torah are useless in subduing physical desires. Rather, Paul goes on in Colossians 3:1-5, if we were resurrected with Christ, then we should keep our attention on the spiritual realm, and “kill”/”deaden” (νεκρωσατε, nekrōsate) the bodily organs that give rise to the idolatry of sexual desire, i.e., the genitalia. Bear in mind that Paul was almost certainly a eunuch!; see The Gospel of John, page 464.
Thus Paul paints John as a hypocrite who, despite claiming to be an eyewitness, relies on hearsay. And, even if John was a disciple of Jesus, Paul says he is better than John (and Peter and James, for that matter) because he doesn’t go around bragging about having been Jesus’s disciple. Thus Paul, with his usual skill at debating, seeks to turn his biggest deficit – that he never even met Jesus – into a strength. As always, Paul judges others to be judgemental and vindicates himself as unjudgemental; he brags about his lack of braggadocio, he is loudly proud of his humility.
These verses that open this late work of the Presbyter, I John, make it clear that the concern about Paul that he expressed some twenty-five years previously in II John, that Paul claimed to be the only true apostle of Jesus and dismissed “Peter, James, and John” as mere pretenders to that august station, was still the case. Paul, in short, wanted to establish a monopoly on who mediated the nature and teachings of Jesus; in all of his writings the only person he approves of as an apostle without any qualifications whatsoever is himself. And, while Paul evidently never met Jesus, he was nevertheless still, a quarter-century later, a serious threat to John and his disciples: in fact, the evidence points to Paul as the one who, even as this letter of John’s was being drafted, was betraying John to the Roman authorities.
The Presbyter makes it clear with the opening words of his I John that he intimately knew Jesus, and hence fully merits the title of apostle. That opus also (4:2-3) warns against “false prophets” who do not preach Jesus as having come “in the flesh”, including as having all the same desires anyone has for physical and sexual union.
In 68 John again published his specific views on Paul, perhaps appreciating the irony that after Paul arranged John’s arrest and exile, Paul was himself arrested and deported to Rome for trial. This quotation comes from a letter to the principals of the synagogue in Ephesus, the very one from which John had kicked Paul out. It is given a context of being dictated to John by Jesus in a vision; elsewhere in the seven letters Paul is condemned for saying the faithful may eat food sacrificed to idols (2:14). That may or may not be so, but the following verse (from Revelation 2:2) certainly represents John’s own view:
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 [the synagogue’s] 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.
We may have a hint of John’s views on Paul in how he uses the word λαμβανω (lambanō) in his writings: with the same antonym dual meanings of the English verb “to grasp”: λαμβανω can mean to grasp something in the sense of understanding it and accepting it, or to mean to take hold of something in order to subdue or destroy it. Paul, in the minds of not only John the Presbyter but also his close allies Simon Peter and James the Just, did not “grasp” Jesus’s teachings in the sense of understanding and acceptance, but in order to control them, to make himself the monopoly on interpreting and marketing Jesus– but the Jesus he presented to the world was the antonym of the Jesus they had personally known and walked with.
The schism in Ephesus caused by Paul eventually was resolved by time, and in his favor. The synagogue community centered on Jesus’s teachings eventually became a church centered on faith in Jesus as God, its community of Jews was replaced by gentile Christians, and it adopted, as all Christendom did, the doctrines pioneered by Paul. By spreading his Romanized Jesus-God far and wide in the empire, Paul created an environment in which eventually other theologies, including John’s, which was Jesus’s, died of asphyxiation.
However, the battle with Paul was not the only untoward event to strike John’s spiritual community in Ephesus. Another was his arrest, which led to exile on the island of Patmos. It was there, in fact, that he must have written the letter quoted just above. In his own words, recorded in Revelation 1:9, John was convicted δια τον λογον του θεου και την μαρτυριαν Ιησου, “because of the Logos of God and the witness to Jesus.” This is a reference either to the Gospel of John or to John’s preaching to his congregation about what was being written in the gospel – or both.
The phrase “Logos of God” refers to the written gospel, which from its very first verse focuses 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 ourselves risk annihilation. And the gospel speaks of itself as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), “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. This verse, Revelation 1:9, confirms that John had written 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 final phrase, “the witness to Jesus”, refers to John’s preaching and teaching what he remembered of Jesus’s deeds and orations, to which John was an eyewitness. The Presbyter must have felt the hand of Rome groping for him, especially when he heard of the assassination of John Mark in Alexandria, where the Presbyter had studied with the great philosopher Philo (John Mark’s death is discussed on page 203).
It seems most unlikely that John should be arrested for what he had actually written in a work-in-progress, a gospel in draft only, not yet finished (nor would it ever be) and far from published. There is nothing in the surviving literature to suggest he showed the incomplete gospel to anyone, other than possibly Mary the Beloved Disciple, before his move to Cyprus, and certainly not Paul or any of his associates, against whom John often in his letters (cf. The Writings of John) warns his own disciples. What is more, if the written text had been the focus of his arrest, it would surely already have been confiscated by the Roman authorities – but, since it was not, or we would not have it today, his arrest had to have been precipitated on some other grounds.
What seems most likely is that in the synagogue John preached the same theology that fills the gospel, perhaps even reading aloud passages from the manuscript to illustrate his theological points. And John may have called attention to Jesus’s provocative statements about the Roman hegemony, of which the following lines from 12:31-32, in which Jesus is speaking to his followers at the Last Supper, are an example:
νυν κρισις εστιν του κοσμου τουτου νυν οαρχων του κοσμου τουτου εκβληθησεται εξω καγω εαν υψωθωεκ 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.
The evidence as to who turned John in points to Paul. As documented above, he had the motivation: he bore a lasting grudge against John for taking part with Peter and James in upbraiding him and for throwing him out of the Ephesian synagogue; probably too Paul (unfairly) blamed him for being thrown out of Ephesus altogether, and the near-riot in 57 sparked by “the Jews from Asia” (Acts 21:26) that forced Paul, in his desperation to avoid being killed by the mob, to accept Roman arrest and deportation. It may have seemed to Paul that getting rid of his enemy John would allow him to regain control of Ephesus, or else his own followers, since he was banned from the city; in Paul’s own language, “to win it back for Christ”. (And besides, early Christian writers record that indeed Paul was not exonerated in Rome, but executed.) Paul speaks of a plan in I Corinthians 26:9, and of measures being taken in II Corinthians 11:12 to remove the thorn John from his paw. On trial before the emperor himself in Rome, Paul would have nothing to lose and something to gain (leniency) in turning John in. He could also have provided proof; as established above in the discussion of II Corinthians 11:12-15, Paul and/or his followers were evidently listening to and taking notes on John’s preaching, as was common practice among enemies (cf., e.g., Galatians 2:4). As circumstantial evidence, it is worth noting that John offers his own views on Paul at Revelation 2:2, only a few verses after Revelation 1:9, where he talks about his being exiled to the island of Patmos.
It is unlikely that Cerinthus turned John in, since as we shall see they were good friends despite their theological differences.It is also unlikely that it was one of the Nicolaitans, a group John also criticizes in the Revelation letters (2:6,15), but this was written later in his life, and not vehemently. Though I think Paul is the prime suspect, we will never be certain. We may only assume that one of John’s auditors must have reported John for publicly describing Jesus’s Last Supper prophecy of the fall of imperial power, and his warning that he and/or his followers – a group that included John himself – meant to use Jesus as a figurehead, a rallying point, for taking control of the “cosmos”, a synonym for the Roman Empire.
Most of those accused of such seditious talk were at the least imprisoned, more likely executed; indeed, for far less malfeasance many were crucified. But John had connections in high places, which may have saved him from such a punishment. As noted, his teacher Philo’s brother Alexander the Alabarch was by now serving as the military second-in-command to the general and future emperor Titus, and the naturalist Pliny the Elder, with whom he was acquainted (perhaps indirectly through Sergius Paulus), was an intimate of Titus and his father Vespasian.
The sentence meted out to John was in its way fitting. John had said, as the above quotation illustrates, that the emperor would be banished – and so John himself was banished by the emperor’s court! For his part, John certainly thought of the references he had written into the gospel about disciples turning in their spiritual masters. In 13:18, not far from the above verses, the gospel refers to David’s turncoat advisor Ahithophel, not unlike how John perceived Paul as a “turncoat” by Romanizing Jesus in ways the master would never have accepted. John likely also drew strength from knowing his master Jesus had also been turned in by a colleague and sometime companion.
Indeed, ironies abound; in time the Christian religion did exactly what John’s quotation from Jesus predicts: it vanquished the Roman Empire and took over the reins of power as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, and as the Holy Roman Empire, it lifted the cross up over the entire earth and took over the “cosmos”, the entire Western world, and enslaving and exploiting the non-Christian world, “drawing everything to itself”. John, could he have seen the future, would have vehemently objected to such 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 Λογοςand seeking another, better world, the Æon.
At the time John was arrested in 68 or shortly before, with the gospel close to finished, 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 are never in accordance with one’s natural instincts; moreover, they are constantly changing such that one never can be sure, always dreading sudden arrest and summary incarceration or execution without trial. In John’s case, someone must have become so afraid after reading certain lines in the gospel or hearing them in a sermon that the individual erred on the side of caution and turned John in – or most likely someone, I think Paul, betrayed him hoping to gain favor in his own trial before the emperor.