For almost 2,000 years the incorrect naming of the Fourth Gospel as ‘The Gospel According to John’ has misled its readers. It would be more correct to say ‘The Gospel According to John if you believe Irenaeus.’ The Fourth Gospel identifies its author as ‘The Beloved Disciple’, never as John.
The idea that Mary Magdalene wrote the Fourth Gospel is not new but generally supposes that the text was tampered with or deliberately changed to masculine. Such thinking misses the point that the Fourth Gospel was written from the perspective of a ‘Beloved Disciple’ – in other words, a person who is unidentified by gender. Koine Greek had to default to masculine when written from that perspective; it followed the rules of grammar for a ‘person in general’ .
There were many reasons for the author of the Fourth Gospel to write from the perspective of a ‘Beloved Disciple’. Perhaps the most encouraging is the message that in God’s eyes, gender, nationality, and worldly qualifications were of absolutely no importance. The qualifications of a Beloved Disciple are not whether you are born male or can prove a lineage back to the Twelve Apostles – qualifications important to men. The Fourth Gospel explains what is important to God – to believe in Jesus and follow Him.
“To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:12-13
TRADITION OF JOHN
The traditional view has been that the apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel. This attribution of authorship goes back to Irenaeus. Many scholars (such as Elaine Pagels) now doubt the traditions that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote any of the gospels –
“Now, today, scholars of the New Testament wouldn’t agree with Irenaeus, because we don’t know who wrote the gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, any more than we know who wrote the Gospel of Thomas. They’re all attributed to disciples of Jesus, but we don’t really know who wrote them.” (Elaine H. Pagels: The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Emergence of the Four Gospel Canon)
Even the Catholic Encyclopedia now states:
“The first four books of the New Testament are supplied with titles …which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. […] It thus appears that the present titles of the Gospels are not traceable to the evangelists themselves.”
Around 150 AD Marcion used the gospel known as Luke (minus some of the Jewishness) without any attribution of authorship. This drew scathing criticism from Tertullian (a ‘Church Father’) at the end of the second century –
“Marcion, on the other hand, you must know ascribes no author to his Gospel, as if it could not be allowed him to affix a title to that from which it was no crime to subvert the very body. And here I might now make a stand, and contend that a work ought not to be recognised, which holds not its head erect, which exhibits no consistency, which gives no promise of credibility from the fullness of its title and the just profession of its author.” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4)
There are no original gospel records, only copies of copies. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament dates to approximately 350CE. By this time the manuscripts complete with attributions of authorship were firmly established amongst the Orthodox Church. The question is, when were authors first attributed to the gospels?
The earliest attestation we have that John wrote the Fourth Gospel is by Irenaeus – one of the ‘Church Fathers’ . In his book Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) c.180CE he said
“Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. For that according to John expounds his princely and mighty and glorious birth from the Father, saying, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ and, ‘All things were made by him, and without him nothing was nothing made’ . Therefore this Gospel is deserving of all confidence, for such indeed is his person.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.8)
Irenaeus was making the point that the Fourth Gospel was worthy of confidence. It would be logical to assume that he needed to do this because there was uncertainty over which gospels should be accepted. If John were the author of the Fourth Gospel it would bolster its credibility amongst the Orthodox Church which wanted links to the apostles. Whilst the Fourth Gospel itself is deserving of confidence, Irenaeus and his opinion that John wrote it are not. His book ‘Against Heresies’ opposed those who did not conform to his own orthodox traditions. He maintained that the only safe way to understand the scriptures was via a line of approved male bishops who could trace their learning back to the first apostles. Thus it was important to establish the links to the apostles, especially regarding the unnamed gospels.
It is important to understand the influence Irenaeus had on the church. In 2005 Pope Benedict XV1 described him as the founder of Catholic theology –
“In the second century, the founder of Catholic theology, St Irenaeus of Lyons, described very beautifully this bond between catholicity and unity” (Pope Benedict XV1, Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, St Peter’s Basilica, 29th June 2005)
AUTHORITY OF BISHOPS
The following passage by Irenaeus demonstrates his belief in the authority of church appointed bishops
“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church, – those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismaries puffed up and self-pleasing” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4 Chapter 26
In response to the numerous groups of Christians, the Orthodox Church believed there should only be one group who could prove a holy lineage of male bishops.
The importance of establishing a line of orthodox bishops must have been more important to Irenaeus than establishing the truth of his statements. Irenaeus made the claim that Peter and Paul established the church in Rome but Paul specifically says he did not –
Claim of Irenaeus Concerning Roman Church
“It would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere .” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3, Section 2)
In contrast to this is Paul’s Letter which affirms he did not establish the church in Rome with Peter or anyone else.
Paul’s letter to the Romans –
“From Jerusalem and round about even to Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. Yes, making it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation. But, as it is written: They shall see, to whom no tidings of him came, and they who have not heard shall understand. Therefore I was hindered these many times from coming to you. But now, there is no need for me in these regions, and having these many years a longing to come to you, I hope to see you during my journey”. Romans 15:19-24
This passage shows that Paul did not establish the church in Rome, he did not wish to build on “another man’s work” – the church there was already established by someone else.
Paul was the apostle to the gentiles; Peter was the apostle to the Jews.
“When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision, even as Peter with the Gospel to the circumcision (for he that worked through Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, worked through me also to the Gentiles.)” Gal. 2:7-8
The New Testament contains no evidence that Peter was ever in Rome. 1 Peter 5:13 indicates that Peter went to Babylon, where there was a very large Jewish community which continued for many years. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled between the third and fifth centuries in Babylon. Peter preached to the circumcised, the Jews. It would be logical for him to go to Babylon where a large group remained from the time of the exile.
Some say that Babylon was a code for Rome, but there seems no justification for this. The persecution of Christians at this time was sporadic and limited. There are no other examples of people or places resorting to code names. It seems a suggestion of the Orthodox Church only, to use as Biblical evidence that Peter was in Rome.
Just as Irenaeus wanted to establish a line of bishops going back to the church in Rome, so he also wanted to establish the apostolic ties to the unnamed gospels. Only bishops and books with connections to the first male apostles were to be accepted by the Orthodox Church. Irenaeus made sure two of the gospels were attributed to two of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew and John) and two gospels had connections to Peter and Paul, with these connections they would be above reproach and accepted. Irenaeus defined the gospel authors –
“Matthew also published a gospel in writing among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter & Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. But after their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing what Peter used to preach. And Luke, Paul’s associate, also set down in a book the gospel that Paul used to preach. Later, John, the Lord’s disciple — the one who lay on his lap — also set out the gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1, Section 1)
Yet this John, the one Irenaeus claimed lay on the Lord’s lap, was confused with another John who lived in Ephesus.
Eusebius, quoting from a lost work of Polycrates (c.125-196CE) cites his reference to the death and burial of John in Ephesus –
“Moreover, there is also John, who reclined at the bosom of the Lord and who became a priest wearing the high priest’s mitre, and a martyr and a teacher. He fell asleep at Ephesus.” (Eusebius, Eccleiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 24, Setion 2-3
John the elder was a priest of Ephesus, not John the son of Zebedee. John the Son of Zebedee would never have worn a high priest’s mitre which was against the teaching of Christ . Clearly there was confusion in the early church concerning the whereabouts of John the apostle.
Tertullian (another ‘Church Father’) also emphasized the connection of the gospels to the apostles –
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel. Since, however, there are apostolic men also, they are yet not alone, but appear with apostles and after apostles; because the preaching of disciples might be open to the suspicion of an affectation of glory, if there did not accompany it the authority of the masters, which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters. Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.” (Tertullian, Adversus Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 2)
The Church Fathers created their own line of bishops going back to Peter in Rome, with the supposed authority of the Apostles. They also decided on who the authors of the four anonymous gospels should be – they wanted a tradition so they created one – and in so doing directly contradicted Christ who said –
“You have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.” Matt. 23:8-10
The Orthodox Church only allowed its own bishops to explain the scriptures or indeed have access to them. This type of thinking created a church where the common people were led in their thinking by church bishops who interpreted the scriptures for them. Tertullian was one such bishop who believed that heretics should not have access to the Scriptures:
“We are therefore come to (the gist of) our position; for at this point we were aiming, and for this we were preparing in the preamble of our address (which we have just completed),–so that we may now join issue on the contention to which our adversaries challenge us. They put forward the Scriptures, and by this insolence of theirs they at once influence some. In the encounter itself, however, they weary the strong, they catch the weak, and dismiss waverers with a doubt. Accordingly, we oppose to them this step above all others, of not admitting them to any discussion of the Scriptures.
If in these lie their resources, before they can use them, it ought to be clearly seen to whom belongs the possession of the Scriptures, that none may be admitted to the use thereof who has no title at all to the privilege.” (Tertullian, The Prescrioption Against Heretics, Chapter XV, Translated by Peter Holmes)
DIVISIONS OVER WOMEN
Irenaeus and Tertullian were both opposed to house churches where women had equality. Irenaeus made his opinion plain in his writings about Marcion and the women in his church.
Tertullian’s opinion of women and their role in the church is evident from his writings below –
“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert–that is, death–even the Son of God had to die.” (Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, Book 1, Chapter 1)
“These heretical women how audacious they are! They have no modesty: they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize” (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 41)
It’s apparent from their writings that the Church Fathers were opposed to the equality of women in church. Women only had equality amongst the groups they labelled as heretics – unlikely then that the church fathers would attribute any gospel to a woman.
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