Author: Michael J. Kok
Publishers: Cascade Books
Page Count: 186 pages
Price: $24.00 (paperback)
Indispensable to my dad’s conversion to Christianity, an event that happened when he was around thirty years of age, was the Gospel of John. Having received a copy of it from a believing friend, he read it through in one night and then, following the guide printed in the back of the stand-alone edition, asked Jesus to be his savior. Of the many Bible verses my dad has memorized, it is those from the Fourth Gospel that stand out the most:
When recommending where Bible readers should start in their journey through scripture, my dad invariably tells them to start with John’s Gospel.
But how do we know that John’s Gospel is John’s Gospel? The only John that appears by name in the text is that of the Baptist, and he surely didn’t write the work. At best, the work is attributed to an unnamed disciple of Jesus given the moniker “the Beloved Disciple” – “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them” (John 21:24, NRSV).1 But for most Christians, this Beloved Disciple is none other than John the son of Zebedee, a disciple (and apostle) of Jesus of Nazareth. How did that come about? That is the topic of Michael Kok’s book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist.
Following a brief introduction to the subject matter (pp. xi-xix), Kok has three projects designed for ch. 1 (pp. 1-29). The first is to delineate the so-called traditional view of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel (pp. 2-10). The second is to present a case against such a view (pp. 11-19). Finally, the third is to figure out the literary role the “beloved disciple” plays in the Johannine narrative (pp. 19-28). In ch. 2 (pp. 30-57), the author ponders the Johannine epilogue found in John 21. Having surveyed what he deems to be “inconclusive” data surrounding textual, stylistic, and thematic issues (pp. 31-42), Kok asserts that there are two “anachronisms” that situation the origins of John 21 in a second century context: authorial self-representation (pp. 43-50) and the crucifixion of Peter (pp. 50-56). Chapter three (pp. 58-102) attempts to explain how John the Elder known to Papias became John the author of the Fourth Gospel. There were three Johns: the brother of James headquartered in Jerusalem, the so-called Revelator (Revelation 1:1), and John the Elder in Ephesus. Through conflation and confusion these became one in the same person. In ch. 4 (pp. 103-126), Kok considers the function of an author in an ancient text like the Johannine Gospel. For ancient interpreters, the authority of the text was directly connected to that text’s source. Thus, if a disciple of Jesus named John did not stand behind the text, then the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity could be called into question, at least for some Christians. To round out the volume (pp. 127-129), Kok writes that for a Galilean fisherman to be “an exemplary disciple who had a close bond with Jesus, an exile languishing on the island of Patmos, an aging patron who shepherded a Christian assembly in Asia Minor, an instructor of influential bishops in Hierapolis and Smyrna, and an author of five writings within the New Testament” constitutes an “impressive dossier” (p. 127). However, it is a wholly unnecessary one as the value of the Fourth Gospel depends not on whatever its authorial backing purports to be but in its own unique contribution to an early vision of Jesus of Nazareth.
Most readers of the Fourth Gospel can sense the difficulty with ch. 21 of the work. The previous chapter closes quite naturally: an empty tomb (vv. 1-10), appearances to Jesus’s followers (vv. 11-29), and a conclusion that expresses the aim of the bios (vv. 30-31). It exhibits some of the characteristics of the other canonical bioi. But then suddenly there is in ch. 21 a new story, one about Jesus’s meeting with seven disciples and Peter particularly (vv. 1-19), as well as an addendum that attempts to explain the demise of the Beloved Disciple and its connection with the Parousia (vv. 20-23). In closing the Johannine account, the author attaches it to the “testimony” of this disciple (v. 24). But, as Kok observes, “The disclosure that the beloved disciple was the fount of the whole tradition seems utterly unexpected in light of the character’s absence from everything that happened before John 13:23” (p. 30). Kok argues in ch. 3 of The Beloved Apostle? that the final chapter of the Fourth Gospel doesn’t belong to the work’s original author. And there is not one but two smoking guns: anachronisms that point to an author working sometime in the early second century CE.
In his classic commentary on the Gospel of John, legendary New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann was skeptical that the author of John 1-20 was the author of John 21. He wrote, “That the Evangelist himself added it, and put it after his first conclusion [i.e., John 20:30-31], then to append yet a second concluding statement (vv. 24f.), is extraordinarily improbable.”2 He detected in the “postscript” tell-tale signs that the Johannine author was not its original composer. These include language and style, sentence connections, vocabulary, and more. Taken together, they give us pause for reconsidering the claim made in 21:24. But not everyone agreed with Bultmann’s take and, as Kok observes, “specialists are split over whether 21:1-25 deviates enough from the linguistic and stylistic traits of John 1-20 to be statistically relevant” (p. 34). Not even apparent thematic discontinuity is warrant for thinking two hands were involved. “Up until now,” Kok writes, “it may seem impossible to decide whether the evangelist or the redactor was the creative genius behind the Johannine epilogue” (p. 42). Enter the smoking guns.
The first is that of “authorial self-representation.” Drawing on the work of Armin Baum,3 Kok writes, “Unlike the historiographers and biographers in the Greco-Roman world who identifies themselves, the New Testament Gospels were patterned on the history books of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern historians in giving maximum priority to their historical subjects” (p. 43). He also observes that if it weren’t for John 21, the rest of the Johannine Gospel would be “consistent with the Synoptic Gospels in their deliberate anonymity” (p. 44). What happened? In short, the otherwise inconsequential Beloved Disciple received an “upgrade” as it were, going from eyewitness to author. The work’s redactor believed that “the beloved disciple was the most suitable choice for a fictive author based on his exemplary virtue and perceptiveness within the Fourth Gospel” (p. 49). Additionally, the “we” of John 21:24 functions to verify the testimony of this disciple, ensuring its authenticity.
The second smoking gun is the anachronism of Peter’s crucifixion alluded to in John 21:18-19. While in the narrative this is prophetic, its inclusion in the Johannine epilogue is ex eventu. Bradford Blaine, Jr. writes, “Readers are not supposed to know simply that Peter was martyred but that he was martyred in a particular way, by crucifixion, the manner of Jesus’ death.”4 But it is in this description of Peter’s demise that Kok detects “an underappreciated clue to the general dating of the Johannine epilogue” (p. 51). Whether or not Peter was really crucified is beside the point. There was a tradition among early Christians that Peter was the victim of this tortuous form of execution. But as Kok notes, early evidence places Peter in Rome (e.g., 1 Clement 5:4, etc.) and, well, when in Rome you do as the Romans do. Or, better, you have done to you as the Romans do: crucifixion. But these traditions belong to the late first and early second centuries, not earlier. Thus, its presence in the Johannine Gospel’s ending is suggestive of it belonging not to the early first century but later.
Kok observes, however, that even though the redactor’s work happened later than the other sections of the Gospel were written, “the Johannine epilogue was published at an early enough date that the beloved disciple was not yet merged with the apostolic son of Zebedee in John 21:2” (p. 57). And this is where things get both interesting and complicated. Through ch. 3, Kok makes his case that the journey from a beloved follower of Jesus to specifically John the son of Zebedee involved multiple characters and, arguably, a whole lot of stretching. It begins with Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis of whom Eusebius wrote that “[h]e was very limited in his comprehension” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.13).5 Papias, Kok writes, “was a collector of the Christian folklore floating around” Hierapolis (p. 59) and he claimed to be a disciple of an elder named John. Despite attempts to connect this elder to John the Apostle and, ultimately, the Fourth Gospel, Kok thinks this is little more than stretching. With Justin Martyr connecting the apostle to the book of Revelation and people like Irenaeus espousing Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, the wires got crossed and the Elder John of Papias, a man who was not an apostle, became the apostle John who wrote the canonical Gospel.
This tradition from Papias through to Irenaeus is not exactly the surest ground upon which to build the case that the author of the Fourth Gospel is, in fact, the apostle John. And as Kok contends, the rather late traditions surrounding John’s authorship of the text betray the idea that authorship alone was a primary concern for canonicity. Rather, it was used in concert with other criteria. (Take, for example, the book of Hebrews.) Does this diminish the value of the Gospel? By no means! It stands as an excellent example of the reception of the Jesus tradition by the community of the Beloved Disciple. It is their own response to previous traditions found in the Synoptics as well as stories that no doubt circulated in their own community.
Undoubtedly, much more could be said about Kok’s work but the best advice I can give is to recommend you read it. Because it is not a long work, readers should be able to get through it in a short time and from it they will glean much. Those who hold to traditional authorship of the Gospel will find a respectful discussion of why that position doesn’t seem tenable. Skeptics of traditional authorship will find reasons to remain skeptical all the while gaining more respect for the genius of the redactor of the Fourth Gospel. This is a book to which I will no doubt turn to again and again.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.
2 Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, translated by G.R. Beasley Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1971), 700.
3 Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008), 120-142.
4 Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 173.
5 Translation taken from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, translated by C.F. Cruse (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).