Pope Benedict on the Mystery of "John the Presbyter"

Early Christian writers speak of a mysterious, 1st century figure called "John the Presbyter." Who was he, and why is he significant?
Early Christian writers speak of a mysterious, 1st century figure called "John the Presbyter." Who was he, and why is he significant? (photo: Register Files)

Recently we looked at the claim that Mark derived the information in his Gospel from St. Peter.

This claim dates to a first century source: a figure called "John the Presbyter," who was a disciple of Jesus.

According to some in the early Church--and according to Pope Benedict--we may have already met this mysterious figure in a surprising way.

Here's the story . . .


A John By Any Other Name

As we saw previously (CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1), John the Presbyter was a figure apparently distinct from John the Apostle.

He also goes by different names in English, since the Greek word for "presbyter"--presbuteros--can be translated "elder."

Thus sometimes we read of him as "John the Elder" or "the Presbyter John" or "the Elder John." It's all the same in Greek.

He has often been conflated with John the Apostle, for several reasons.

One is that they were both, apparently, disciples of Jesus, though the presbyter was not an apostle.

Another is that, in later years, they both apparently lived at Ephesus.

But they may be related in another way . . .


John the Presbyter and Scripture

There is some reason to think that John the Presbyter--like St. Mark--may have been one of those companions of the apostles who ended up playing a role in writing the New Testament.

You'll note that 2 John and 3 John are both addressed as being from "the Presbyter"/"the Elder":

2 John 1: " The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth . . . "

3 John 1: "The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth."

Thus St. Jerome reports:

He [John the Apostle] wrote also one Epistle which begins as follows That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands handled concerning the word of life [i.e., 1 John] which is esteemed of by all men who are interested in the church or in learning.

The other two of which the first is The elder to the elect lady and her children [i.e., 2 John] and the other The elder unto Gaius the beloved whom I love in truth, [i.e., 3 John] are said to be the work of John the presbyter to the memory of whom another sepulchre is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the evangelist [Lives of Illustrious Men 9].

Commening on the list of people Papias did research on, St. Jerome remarks:

It appears through this catalogue of names that the John who is placed among the disciples is not the same as the elder John whom he places after Aristion in his enumeration. This we say moreover because of the opinion mentioned above, where we record that it is declared by many that the last two epistles of John are the work not of the apostle but of the presbyter [ibid. 18]


Pope Benedict Weighs In

Over the centuries, the distinction between John the Apostle and John the Presbyter was obscured, but it has received new attention in recent years.

In Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, Pope Benedict writes:

This information is very remarkable indeed: When combined with related pieces of evidence, it suggests that in Ephesus there was something like a Johannine school, which traced its origins to Jesus’ favorite disciple himself, but in which a certain “Presbyter John” presided as the ultimate authority.

This “presbyter” John appears as the sender and author of the Second and Third Letters of John (in each case in the first verse of the first chapter) simply under the title “the presbyter” (without reference to the name John).

He is evidently not the same as the Apostle, which means that here in the canonical text we encounter expressly the mysterious figure of the presbyter.

He must have been closely connected with the Apostle; perhaps he had even been acquainted with Jesus himself.

After the death of the Apostle, he was identified wholly as the bearer of the latter’s heritage, and in the collective memory, the two figures were increasingly fused.

At any rate, there seem to be grounds for ascribing to “Presbyter John” an essential role in the definitive shaping of the Gospel [of John], though he must always have regarded himself as the trustee of the tradition he had received from the son of Zebedee.

I entirely concur with the conclusion that Peter Stuhlmacher has drawn from the above data. He holds “that the contents of the Gospel go back to the disciple whom Jesus (especially) loved. The presbyter understood himself as his transmitter and mouthpiece” (Biblische Theologie, II, p. 206). In a similar vein Stuhlmacher cites E. Ruckstuhl and P. Dschullnigg to the effect that “the author of the Gospel of John is, as it were, the literary executor of the favorite disciple” (ibid., p. 207) [Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, pp. 226-227].

Pope Benedict thus sees John the Presbyter as the author of 2 and 3 John and as having helped with the writing of the Gospel of John, based on the memories of John the Apostle.


Not an Act of the Magisterium

As Pope Benedict famously said in the preface to Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, the work is not an act of the Magisterium, and "everyone is free, then, to contradict me."

One might thus hold that John the Presbyter had no hand in writing the New Testament.

Or one might hold that the early Church writers are confused and that John the Presbyter is identical with John the Apostle.


New Testament Author Describes History of New Testament?

But what we have read raises the intriguing possibility that we have more than just a first century tradition regarding how Mark's Gospel was written.

We may, in fact, have a case of another New Testament author telling us about the origin of Mark's Gospel.

That wouldn't be the case if John the Presbyter had no hand in writing the New Testament. In that case, he would be merely a first century voice telling us about the origin of Mark's Gospel (which is exciting enough).

But it would be the case if Pope Benedict (and St. Jerome, and others) is correct that John the Presbyter is a distinct figure who had a hand in writing the New Testament.

And it also would be the case if John the Presbyter is identical with John the Apostle.

Either way, we would have the origin of St. Mark's Gospel revealed by one of the other authors of the New Testament.


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