Polycrates speaks about John as high priest - Richard Bauckham analysis

Steven Avery

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony - (2nd edition, 2017)
Richard Bauckham

Note this section begins on p. 438

p. 448
The idea that the high priesthood is a metaphor for Johns position of authority in the church can claim support from two allegedly parallel usages. First, in Didache 13:3 Christians are instructed to give the firstfruits of their produce to the prophets, “for they are your high priests” (archiereis humon). Secondly, Hippolytus (Refutatio 1 proemium 6) claims that the successors of the apostles participate with them in the same grace of high priesthood (archierateias). This may actually be based on a misunderstanding of Polycrates’ words about John,38 but in any case neither the Didache nor Hippolytus really parallels Polycrates here. The general idea of high priesthood might occasionally be used metaphorically (or perhaps we should say typologically) of Christian prophets or bishops, whose position in some respects resembled that of Jewish high priests. But in such a usage it would be odd to use the precise expression “wear the petalon.” Polycrates’ words are a straightforward statement that John officiated as high priest in the Temple. Their context offers no indication that they are meant other than literally, while their place in the sequence of statements about John naturally associates them with his early life in Jerusalem, where he had been a disciple of Jesus and could have been a high priest.

The other form of interpretation that has been offered by previous scholars takes seriously the apparently intended literal meaning of Polycrates’
words and explains them as a historical reminiscence of the Beloved Disciple or the author of John’s Gospel, who, it is suggested, belonged to a priestly family in Jerusalem and perhaps officiated in the Temple in some capacity. The difficulty in interpretations along these lines is that the historical basis they postulate for Polycrates’ words is historically plausible only when it is something much less than Polycrates states: that John was high priest. J. H. Bernard’s speculation that the petaloti might sometimes have been worn by ordinary Jewish priests in the late Second Temple period39 is contradicted by all the evidence. Internal evidence from the Gospel of John (including 18:15) alleged to show that the author — or the source of the author’s tradition — belonged to Jerusalem priestly circles may have some force,40 but does not really explain why Polycrates should have reached the much more remarkable conclusion that John actually held office as high priest.

The boldest historical speculation is that of Robert Eisler.41 Following Delff,42 he identifies John, the author of the Gospel, with the John who appears as a member of the high priestly family in Acts 4:6. Going further than Delff,43 he claims that this John actually was the high priest, by identifying him with Theophilus the son of Annas (Josephus, Ant. 18.123), who was high priest from 37 to 41 ce.44 He suggests that Theophilus was used as the Greek name roughly equivalent in meaning to Hebrew Yohanan or Yehohanan (John). This is quite possible, but the identification of the John of whom Polycrates speaks with the high priest Theophilus is achieved only by a series of unverifiable guesses and requires us to believe that only Polycrates has preserved any reference to the fact that the high priest Theophilus was a disciple of Jesus.

More recently, Rigato, apparently without knowledge of Eisler’s work, has taken Polycrates’ statement fully seriously, identified John the author of the Gospel with the John of Acts 4:6,45 and supposed that this John must at some time have officiated as high priest.46 Since Josephus (our main source for knowledge of the high priests of the late Second Temple period) does not refer to a high priest named John, Rigato allows three possibilities:47 (1) that Josephus’s record of the high priests is incomplete and does not happen to refer to John (perhaps the name of John, as a Christian, was subject to a kind of damnatio memoriae, expunged from the record), (2) that John was another name of one of those mentioned by Josephus, or (3) that on one Day of Atonement John substituted for the high priest, according to the practice of substituting another member of the family if the high priest was ill or ritually impure.48 Certainly these are possibilities, but it still remains surprising that only Polycrates should have preserved any reference to the remarkable fact that a disciple of Jesus, author of the Gospel of John, was or substituted for the high priest. It is worth noting that we know of one occasion when the reigning high priest was unable to officiate on the Day of Atonement owing to ritual impurity. This was the high priest Matthias (5-4 BCE), and the incident, along with the name of the relative who substituted for him (Joseph son of Elim), was not only recorded by Josephus (Ant. 17.165-67) but well remembered, as a precedent, in rabbinic tradition (Tosephta Yoma 1:4; b. Yoma 12b;y. Yoma 1:1,38d). James VanderKam comments: “It is understandable that an event so public as the temporary replacement of a high priest on the Day of Atonement would be remembered in the tradition.”49

We need to take a closer look at Acts 4:6. The occasion is a meeting of the high priest’s council at which the apostles Peter and John are accused of
stirring up the people by preaching the resurrection of Jesus. “The high priest’s family,” we should probably infer, is that of the powerful ex-high
priest Annas (high priest 6-15 ce), father-in-law of the reigning high priest Caiaphas and father of no less than five other high priests in the period 16-62 CE. John and Alexander, neither of whom is mentioned by Josephus, presumably also belong to this family. In place of “John” (Ioannes), which is the reading of the majority of manuscripts, there is a variant reading “Jonathan” (Ionathas), which would refer to the son of Annas who was briefly high priest after Caiaphas, according to Josephus (Ant. 18.95) and who played quite a prominent role in Josephus’s narrative of later events.50 Since the name John is very frequent in the New Testament while the name Jonathan occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, some have supposed that “Jonathan” was the original reading for which scribes substituted the more familiar name “John.”51 But a more common judgment has been that the well-known historical figure Jonathan has been substituted for the otherwise unknown John by knowledgeable scribes.52 In fact, it may now be possible to identify this John, since the discovery in Jerusalem of the ossuary of Yehohanah (Joanna) daughter of Yehohanan (John), the son of the high priest Theophilus, who was a son of Annas.53

The improbable and speculative nature of Eisler’s proposal has distracted attention from the way in which Acts 4:6 really can explain Polycrates’ words about John. The simplest explanation is that Polycrates (or the Ephesian church tradition he followed) identified John the Beloved Disciple,
who had died at Ephesus, with the John of Acts 4:6 (whether or not “John” was the original reading, it is so common in the manuscripts that it is easy to suppose it to be the reading known in Ephesus and to Polycrates). But Polycrates made this identification, not because he had any historical information to this effect, but simply as a matter of scriptural exegesis.54 The tradition that John the Beloved Disciple was a high priest is neither metaphorical nor historical, but exegetical.

As we have already noted in connection with Polycrates’ identification of the two Philips, it was common practice for early Christian exegetes of the
New Testament writings to identify characters who bore the same name. Other examples are the identification, in the second-century Acts of Pau (written in Polycrates’ time), of the Judas who was Paul’s host in Damascus (Acts 9:11) with Judas the Lord’s brother (Mark 6:3),55 or the identification that the Protevangelium of fames (23-24) makes between Zechariah the father of John the Baptist and the Zechariah who was murdered in the Temple (Matt 23:35). We may also recall how prominent figures of the early post-apostolic church — comparable with John the Elder of Ephesus — were assumed to be the same person as persons of the same name who appear in New Testament writings: Clement of Rome was identified as the Clement of Phil 4:3 (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.4.9), Linus of Rome was identified as the Linus of 2 Tim 4:21 (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.3; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.4.8), Hermas the prophet, author of the Shepherd, was identified as the Hermas of Rom 16:14 (Origen, ad loc.). These last two instances may have some historical plausibility, but these identifications were doubtless made in the same way as the others — as an exegetical procedure.

It is quite likely that the identification of the Beloved Disciple with the John of Acts 4:6 was facilitated by John 18:15, which, if it is understood to refer to the Beloved Disciple, depicts him as intimately acquainted with the high priest. In Acts 4:6 John is listed third after Annas and Caiaphas. Someone who knew that in the late Second Temple period the Jewish high priests mostly held office for short periods only, or who was misled by John 18:13 into thinking the office was filled annually, would easily suppose that such a prominent member of the high-priestly family as the John of Acts 4:6 appears to be must have him himself held the office of high priest at some time. The motive for identifying John the beloved ...

with this John will have been — in addition to the general exegetical practice already mentioned — the natural desire of the Ephesian church to find their own John, author of the Gospel they prized, mentioned somewhere else in the writings of the emerging New Testament canon. But the identification also served well Polycrates’ particular purpose in his letter to Victor of Rome: the justification of the Quartodeciman observance in line with the Johannine chronology of the passion. An eyewitness of the passion who actually himself served as high priest could be expected to remember correctly its precise chronological relationship to the Jewish festival. It is quite likely that Polycrates, who in his letter prides himself on his considerable knowledge of the Scriptures, himself made this identification of his own illustrious relative with the John of Acts 4:6. But whether Polycrates made this identification or inherited it, it is of considerable importance. For it is now clear that when the Ephesian church looked for its own John, the Beloved Disciple, in New Testament writings other than the Gospel of John, they did not identify him with John the son of Zebedee. The identification of him with the John of Acts 4:6 makes it impossible to identify him with John the son of Zebedee,1113 who appears in the same narrative as one of the two disciples who are there interrogated by Annas, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander. The Ephesian church’s own tradition about their own John evidently made them sure that he could not be John the son of Zebedee and obliged them, even at the end of the second century, to resist this identification, which was already proving irresistible in some other places and seems to have become universal in the next century.

38. R. Eisler, The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel (London: Methuen, 1938) 55, quotes an apparently unpublished fragment of a lost work of Hippolytus that refers to John as “Ephesian high priest” (archiereus Ephesios). Whether genuine or not, this is certainly dependent on Polycrates. If genuine, it would explain Hippolytus, Refutatio 1 proemium 6.

39. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, vol. 2, 596; cf. Colson, L'Enigme, 37, who defies all the evidence in asserting “il n’est pas prouve que l’usage, au temps de Jesus, n’etait pas plus etendu.” Of course, the negative cannot be proved, but there is no reason at all to suppose that it was.

40. E.g., Burney, The Aramaic Origin, 133-34: Colson, I.'Enigme, 18-27,94-97: Hengel, The Johannine Question, 109-11, 125-26; M.-L. Rigato, “L’‘apostolo ed evangelista Giovanni,’ ‘sacerdoto’ levitico,” Rivista Biblica 38 (1990) 469-81.

41. Eisler, The Enigma, 36-45.

42. Delff, Geschichte, 95.

43. Delff, Das vierte Evangelium, 9-10, supposed that this John stood in for the high priest on one occasion. This possibility is also suggested by Rigato, “L’‘apostolo,”’ 464 n. 33 (see below).

44. See VanderKam, From Joshua, 440-43.

45. Rigato, “L’‘apostolo,”’ 465-66.

46. Rigato, “LKapostolo,’” 463-65.

47. Rigato, “LKapostolo,”’ 464-65 n. 33.

48. VanderKam, From Joshua, 409-11.

49- VanderKam, From Joshua, 411.

50. VanderKam, From Joshua, 436-40.

51. E.g., J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (tr. F. H. and C. H. Cave; London: SCM, 1969) 197 n. 161; VanderKam, From Joshua, 438 n. 114.

52. B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1975) 317-18.

53. D. Barag and D. Flusser, “The Ossuary of Yehohanah Granddaughter of the High Priest Theophilus,” IE] 36 (1986) 39-44

54. That Polycrates was well acquainted with the early chapters of Acts is shown by his quotation of Acts 5:9 later in his letter.

55. Coptic text of a section of the Acts of Paul, translated in E. Hennecke, W. Schneemelcher, and R. McL. Wilson, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2 (revised edition; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 264.

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (2007)
Richard Bauckham
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Steven Avery

Have additional notes discussing with Dean Furlong.

Lardner was very good in his 1753 book.
https://books.google.com/books?id=6H49AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA449 - 1838 edition

And Valerius supposes that St. John actually wore such a plate; which supposition is fully confuted, and ridiculed as it deserves, by E. S. Cyprian, in his notes upon that chapter of Jerom’s Catalogue. Me thinks that Polycrates speaks figuratively ; not that St. John really wore a golden plate as the Jewish high-priest did; but that he had a like authority among Christians; and that his rule or practice, about the time of keeping Easter, was decisive. ... By Witsius this story is considered as false, without so much as the appearance of truth or probability. Le Clerc was inclined to think, that Polycrates spoke allusively and figuratively. F. A. Lamper approves of Solomon Cyprian’s arguments, and calls this story a mere fable, and though the literal sense of the words be very absurd, yet he conceives it may be the true meaning of Polycrates. Dr. Heumann takes a quite different course, and proposes this ingenious observation: That the priest bearing a plate, intended by Polycrates, is not John, but Jesus Christ; and that his Greek, as preserved in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, ought to be translated after this manner; “And John, who leaned on the Lord’s breast, (who was made priest, bearing a plate,) and was a witness, and master,” or rather, “ And John, that witness and master, who lay in the Lord’s bosom, who was made priest, bearing a golden plate.”

More planned.
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