GOOD NEWS FROM EPHESUS is what I can best describe as a conversational commentary on what has, from the earliest times, been called the Gospel of John. The book started life as a series of Bible studies conducted on a private Facebook page for Facebook friends in the church I belong to in Bradford, West Yorkshire – Bolton St James. When I began to write the first of the studies, I had no intention of writing it in the form of dialogues between the author of the Gospel and members of the church in Ephesus, but that’s how it turned out; and everyone seems to think it is an entertaining and thought-provoking approach.
At the centre of all the conversations that this book contains is the writer of the Gospel – the ‘John’ of the Gospel’s title – but who was he? It’s a good question, but it is, alas, an unanswerable one for no-one knows for certain. All we do know is that whoever penned the ‘Gospel of John’ certainly intended us to see it as the recollections of and reflections on the words and works of Jesus by John the Apostle; that is to say, John the son of Zebedee who was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. As Archbishop William Temple famously wrote: ‘I regard as self-condemned any theory which fails to find a very close connection between the Gospel and John the son of Zebedee.’
If that is correct, what do we know about John the Apostle?
John’s father, Zebedee, was a prosperous fisherman whose business was located on the shores of Lake Galilee in northern Israel – we know he was prosperous because he had ‘hired servants’ (Mark 1:20) – and his mother was Salome, the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which would, of course, make John a first cousin of Jesus. (The detective work needed to establish this involves the comparison of Mark 15:40 with Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25. You might like to do the sleuthing for yourself; it’s fun!)
John had an older brother, James, and both were probably still only in their late teens or early twenties when, in around AD 30, while working in the family business, they responded to the call of Jesus to become two of his disciples (Mark 1:19-20). At the time of their call, the two brothers, were of such explosive temperaments that their nickname was ‘Boanerges’ which means ‘Sons of Thunder’ (Mark 3:17). Take a look at Luke 9:51-55 to get some idea why! They were ambitious too, wanting Jesus to promise them top jobs in his ‘Cabinet’ when he swept in to power as the King of the Jews (Mark 10:35 ff). But, despite all that, John, along with his brother and another fisherman, Peter, found themselves chosen by Jesus as his inner circle of companions and confidantes (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33), and in the book of Acts, John is always depicted as the companion of Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13; 3:1 etc). Furthermore, Paul names John as one of the three pillars of the early church (Galatians 2:9).
John, it seems, remained in Jerusalem for a long time; but tradition has it that he eventually travelled to, and settled in, Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, becoming a much-revered minister and teacher in the church that Paul had earlier established there. There, in Ephesus, according to tradition, John the Apostle, a very old man then in his nineties, died in around AD 100.1
So, in what way does the Gospel of John point to the Apostle John being the person behind it?
First, it is striking that, although John’s Gospel names the other apostles, it never mentions John. However, it does mention an otherwise unidentified apostle whom it calls ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ At the last supper, that unnamed disciple is found leaning on Jesus’ breast (13:23-25), and it is to that unnamed disciples that Jesus, from the cross, entrusts the future care of his mother, Mary (19:25-27). On Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene comes running from the empty tomb at dawn, it is Peter and the unnamed disciple that she encounters (20:2) and, some time later, as the risen Jesus takes Peter aside and talks to him on the shores of Galilee, it is that same unnamed disciple who follows them (21:20). Putting all this together, who else but John the Apostle could ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ be?
Fine, but would John really give himself the fancy title of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved?’ Wouldn’t it be just too presumptuous and arrogant?
It’s a good point; but what if it were not John himself but someone close to him who was actually writing the gospel down? That close and trusted friend might well give his beloved teacher such a lovely pseudonym. And, you know what? That is exactly what a document known as the Muratorian Canon, written in Rome in about AD 170, claims to have been the case. Indeed, that book and other early writings say that, at the urging of his friends, John, in his extreme old age, after 70 or so years of musing on what Jesus said and did and what it all meant, was persuaded to recount the story to the bishop of nearby Hierapolis – someone known as John the Elder – who then wrote it down, adding such comments and explanations of his own as he saw fit.
Well, that, at any rate, is the scenario I have adopted in writing this ‘conversational commentary’ on John’s Gospel. I hope you enjoy it.
1 Tour guides in modern-day Turkey will show you the house in Ephesus where John supposedly lived and where, they will claim, looked after Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, nice as it would have been to have Mary as one of the ‘symposium’ in John’s courtyard, that would be stretching everyone’s credulity a little bit too far; if Mary ever got to Ephesus with John (and I’m taking it that she did, but only just), she would have to have been in her late nineties when she arrived, and about 120 at the time I’ve set John’s dictation of his Gospel in this book!
Next: 1. The Prologue