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Yeshua in Context » Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Formation of the Gospels, General » Tracking Down the Beloved Disciple, Polycrates

Tracking Down the Beloved Disciple, Polycrates

This Sunday (July 10), I’m repeating the “Eyewitnesses in the Gospels” seminar here in Atlanta (want to bring it your way?). The last of the five sessions is on the Beloved Disciple and the Fourth Gospel. The entire seminar is based on Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and, to a lesser degree, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple.

I’ve had a number of “Beloved Disciple” articles here (see “The Beloved Disciple: Who is He?” and “The Beloved Disciple in Relation to Peter”).

Now, I’m summarizing Bauckham’s historical detective work following the trail leading to the identity of the Beloved Disciple. It’s a twisted trail sorting through evidence with a number of errors which require explanation. It’s fascinating to historically understand how simple the identification of the Beloved Disciple is and why the information has been obscured in ancient mistakes.


THE WITNESS: Polycrates was the Bishop of Ephesus in Asia Minor writing to Victor of Rome around 190 CE about the Paschal Controversy (look up “Quartodecimanism” or “Easter Controversy” in wikipedia). Keep in mind the tradition that the fourth gospel was written by “John” (but which John) in Ephesus.

STATEMENT: “John too, who leant back on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest, wearing the sacerdotal plate, both martyr and teacher.”

LEANT BACK? The Beloved Disciple leaned on Yeshua’s breast at the Last Supper and Polycrates says the Beloved Disciple is none other than John, see John 13:25 and 21:20. But wait! Which John does he mean?

SACERDOTAL PLATE? In Greek, the πεταλον (petalon), which is the plate that has God’s name on it worn by the High Priest only. But wait! Was John, according to Polycrates, supposed to have been the High Priest? Major problem.

COULD POLYCRATES HAVE MEANT IT FIGURATIVELY? Not likely. There is a similar misnomer about James, the brother of Yeshua, who is said in Epiphanius, citing a passage in Eusebius quoting Hegesippus, to have been High Priest and to have worn the sacerdotal plate also. Bauckham explains how Epiphanius misunderstood Hegesippus and how this error possibly came to be. But it suggests that early Christians were susceptible to claims like High Priesthoods for apostolic figures.

COULD IT BE TRUE THAT JOHN WAS HIGH PRIEST? Several scholars have suggested it could actually be true and they use Acts 4:5-6 as a basis, “On the morrow their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.”

HOW DO WE EXPLAIN POLYCRATES’ MISTAKE? Bauckham points to another mistake made by Polycrates in the same passage. Speaking of Philip who came to live in Hierapolis, “Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who has fallen asleep in Hierapolis.” Polycrates is actually speaking of Philip the evangelist (Acts 6:5, throughout ch. 8; 21:8), and not Philip, one of the Twelve (Mk 3:18 and many other references in all four gospels). Bauckham explains that there was a trend in the early Christian writers to assume that characters with the same names were identical, which explains Polycrates’ mistake regarding Philip. Likewise, then, he might have assumed that the John in Acts 4:5-6 was the John the Beloved Disciple of the fourth gospel (and equated him with John, son of Zebedee as well.

THE NAME YOCHANAN (JOHN): Is the 5th most popular Palestinian Jewish name on record from the period of the New Testament (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 85).

ACTS 4:5-6 AS A FURTHER CLUE: The “John” in Acts 4:5-6 is not the son of Zebedee. We know this because John, son of Zebedee appears as a separate character there (vs. 13).

THE IDENTITY AT LAST!! Thus, the beloved disciple, as far as Polycrates is concerned, is not John, son of Zebedee, but another John. We know of another John, also a disciple, but not one of the Twelve, who, along with Aristion, resided in Ephesus and was an elder there. He is John the elder (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4) a.k.a. John of Ephesus.

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Filed under: Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Formation of the Gospels, General

2 Responses to "Tracking Down the Beloved Disciple, Polycrates"

    As of September I shall no longer have my own computer for e-mail because I am supposed to move to Italy after being here since 1958, therefore informaition pertaining to this subject which I have gleaned from early souces in Aramaic and Greek ought to be of interest to the author of this fascinating article I very much admire and treasure. If during August the author wishes to contact me, I shall be happy to relay details while I still have direct access to the internet. Otherwise, I may not have any time for such correspondence until November or later when I am able to get myself a lap top and hopefully be connected to the internet.

    + Bishop Jacob Barclay [Eastern Orthodox]
    This is Friday forenoon here in Jerusalem 22 July

    Congratulations for your article and in addition to which I am quite sure several related subjects will be of interest to the author and those who benefit from his website

  2. I have typed out my congratulations for this splendid website therefore my “reply” is complete, and I hope to receive word from persons who find my “reply” if what I say is of any interest.

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