John the Presbyter: Eusebius’ Imaginary Friend

Many common staples of modern Biblical scholarship of the 20th century are complicated edifices built on some small mention in a Patristic source or other early Christian writers. St. Jerome’s reference to an ancient tradition regarding Ezra led to a generations-long rabbit trail in Torah criticism. The existence of a sayings Gospel known as ‘Q’ has not only been hypothesized but “reconstructed” into a critical edition based on Eusebius of Caesarea stating that St. Matthew, before completing his Gospel, compiled the ‘logia‘ of Christ in an orderly way.  Another of these constructs also stems from the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea: “John the Elder.” In this case, however, modern scholars have not picked up on some small mention and run with it.  Rather, Eusebius quite deliberately created this figure for his own purposes.  Scholars, even Orthodox scholars, to the present day have accepted the existence of this hypothetical person as mere fact and utilized him for all manner of purposes in the criticism of St. John’s Gospel and the book of Revelation.  All such theories, however, are houses of cards built on Eusebius’ self-admitted speculation.

The authorship of the book of Revelation by St. John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee is attested by sources as early and as unanimously as the authorship of St. John’s Gospel. Sts. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Melito of Sardis, Clement of Alexandria, and the author of the Muratorian Canon, writing through the second and third centuries, testify unanimously to this authorship, alongside that of the other Johannine literature. St. Papias of Hierapolis, a figure of the late first and early second century, likewise testified that Revelation was written by an apostle John, though this testimony would later come to be the subject of reinterpretation, and this testimony is available only secondhand, as St. Papias’ works are not currently extant.

Further, these claims to authorship were not made based on comparisons between one text and another or upon identifications that had already become traditional. Rather, they are claimed to be made based on a direct report from Christian leaders of the apostolic era. St. Irenaeus, in particular, makes the claim that he knows of the Johannine authorship of both the Gospel and the book of Revelation directly from St. Polycarp, himself a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Neither St. Irenaeus, nor any of these other authors, makes a distinction regarding the source of their knowledge of the authorship of these two works but speaks of them together.

At the time of Eusebius’ testimony to the state of canon formation in the late fourth century, chiliasm remained an issue of contention and was being actively repudiated by the broader Christian community. Because the book of Revelation had not been received authoritatively by Eusebius’ community in the East, Caesarea, it was unknown to him, and the perceived connection between Revelation 20:1–6 and chiliasm led him to repudiate it. As a historian addressing the issue of the authority of these various texts, however, Eusebius desired to maintain the validity of the testimony of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus to the provenance of the Gospel of St. John, while simultaneously invalidating it with regard to the book of Revelation.

Because St. Irenaeus made use of the testimony of Papias, who had been a hearer of the apostles and a friend of St. Polycarp, Eusebius found a passage in St. Papias’ then extant testimony which he found suggestive:

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If then, anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,–what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

From this citation, Eusebius distinguishes between a disciple of the Lord named John who is numbered along with the apostles, and another disciple of the Lord, an elder John. From this, Eusebius argues that there were in fact two Johns, one the son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve, the other, John the Elder, a disciple of the apostles and a member of the second generation of Christians. He then posits that it is the second John who is the author of Revelation, while it is the first who wrote the Gospel (Ecclesiastical History 3.39).

Making this distinction, and maintaining it in such a way as to maintain the validity of the early testimony of Johannine authorship of the Gospel while disputing the same authorship of the book of Revelation requires reinterpretation of all of the relevant texts in St. Justin and St. Irenaeus to make each reference refer to one or the other John, though no source earlier than Eusebius, except perhaps Papias, refers to their being two. It likewise requires that both of these Johns, the son of Zebedee and the elder from the next generation of Christians, be referred to with the title apostle without distinction. Further, it requires that St. Irenaeus’ information was not as firsthand as he presents, but rather comes through St. Irenaeus’ interpretation of the works of St. Papias. Finally, it requires that that interpretation by St. Irenaeus be incorrect, and Eusebius’ interpretation, two centuries later, be correct.

In addition to these required interpretive moves in order to substantiate this distinction, there are a number of other difficulties with this interpretation. It can be noted in other extant fragments of St. Papias, and in the writings of St. Justin Martyr, that the term ‘presbyter’ is used flexibly, and often applied to the apostles themselves, not only to members of the second generation of Christians. Further, there was by Eusebius’ time already a single, traditional tomb of St. John the Apostle in Ephesus, not two. Particularly because Eusebius desires to maintain Johannine authorship of the Gospel and at least the first of the epistles, this presents a serious problem in having both of these Johns actively ministering in the same area during the same time period, yet with only one of them being preserved in memory. This would mean that the two Johns would have to have begun to be confused at a very early date, within a generation of the death of the latter of the two. Papias himself must not have clearly distinguished between the two figures, beyond the interpretation of the previously cited passage, else Eusebius surely would have quoted the place where he clearly distinguished between John and his disciple of the same name in support of his argument. This further means that what is known concerning the Apostle John from early sources must be divided between the two figures, and this distinction has no basis in evidence or fact from available sources. The relationship, if any, between these two Johns, the fate of the son of Zebedee, and all other details must be posited based purely on conjecture. There is only information regarding one St. John from Palestine who ministered and ultimately ended his life in Ephesus, and so this distinction requires the details of the son of Zebedee’s life to have gone unreported and forgotten by Christian history, unlike all of his fellow apostles, and for another John to have essentially taken his place, without this transition being anywhere reported or acknowledged.

Eusebius’ argument served its purpose in the fourth and fifth centuries despite these critical problems. The distinction between St. John, son of Zebedee, and the Presbyter John allowed Christian communities in the East in which the Gospel of John functioned as an authoritative text, yet which did not know the book of Revelation a basis for their distinction between the two. In so doing, it provided an argument with reasonable antiquity for modern critical scholars who again came to doubt Johannine authorship not only of the book of Revelation but also of the Gospel and the epistles. These scholars face fewer difficulties in utilizing Eusebius’ description, as for the most part, Johannine authorship of other texts and a rejection of the validity of early church tradition and patristic testimony leaves a wider space for conjectural history regarding the two posited Johns. This despite the fact that contextually, were it not for a need to combat chiliasm, Eusebius’ distinction likely never would have been made.

In addition to all of the aforementioned difficulties, Eusebius’ citation of St. Papias does not actually reference the authorship of any work. There is no reason, given the consistent, early testimony we have from the early fathers who were disciples of the Johannine school of Ephesus, to imagine that the works which they attribute to a single author are, in fact, authored by two different people. The “problem” faced by Eusebius was generated purely by his rejection of the canonicity of the book of Revelation. The imaginary character he invented as a solution is, therefore, irrelevant to Christianity which has, for more than a millennium, accepted Revelation as canonical.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Richard Bauckam goes off into Presbyter John territory in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” It seems like an odd diversion. I keep a critical response to those assertions from the Bulletin of Biblical Research tucked in next to it in my library.

  2. It was not too long ago when I first heard of this controversy regarding the authorship of the Gospel according to St John. My initial reaction was nothing short of incredulity. My mind falls somewhat short in the academic part of theology. As a result, I fail to understand what motivates some scholars to develop these theories, and more so, why? What is the purpose of setting out to prove that St John did not write the fourth gospel (you show us Eusebius’ motive, but the scholars…?) ? Or that Moses did not write the Pentateuch; or that there is a mysterious author of the gospels named “Q”; or a Deuteronomist theory in which there are various authors whose source is referred to as “p”riestly and “y”ahwist. I think it was in reference to that same theory where it is said that there were never any tabernacles in the wilderness. Moses never really did this. What is to stop this from a trajectory towards denial of great swaths, or even to the whole, of Scripture?
    Many of us, when we read the Bible it is with a desire to know, if you will, “what the Spirit says to the Churches”. We want to learn, as much as possible, about God, man, the seen, the unseen, the ‘beginning’ to the ‘end’ and beyond… all that God reveals to us. And we also want to know the truth in response to some of these unheard-of assertions that suddenly appear in modern time.
    Fr Stephen, I was delighted to see this post. I was delighted to see your words that are clear and concise. All of your work is presented in a manner where all your readers, from the learned to the ‘fishermen’ (that is, all of whom are called to be ‘sons of God’) can understand and leave with a sense of enrichment and enlightenment.
    Lastly, thank you for the link to the article on St Jerome and Ezra. Not only is the article well written and helpful but you offer a source to additional valuable articles – the Journal itself.
    Thank you Father. Many thanks.

  3. Thank you for this, dear Father. The question must still be faced as to what Papias actually meant. Did he mean to distinguish between John the Apostle and John the Elder? If not, why mention John twice? Donald Guthrie in his book “New Testament Introduction” points out that the verb tenses Papias uses are different. He suggests that Papias is differentiating between what John the apostle/elder said in the past [Greek eipen, past tense] and what he heard him say in the present [Greek legousin present tense]. Papias is thus not referring to two different John, but to the one John in two different circumstances. He also suggests that the dramatic differences between the almost ungrammatical Greek of the Apocalypse and the better Greek of the Gospel may be accounted for by the use of an amanuensis.

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