The End of the Apostolic Age
Historically, the last Apostle to die was John, and up until this time, still nowhere is there to be found a canon or codified list of New Testament writings. If the Apostles wanted to leave as their legacy that after they all died out that Christians were supposed to practice the doctrine of “Scripture Alone”, shouldn’t they have at least left a list telling Christians in the years to come, which books and letters were in fact “scripture?” The evidence shows, they didn’t because they didn’t even have a concept of so-called “scripture alone.” The Early Church still did not yet have the New Testament in complete written form. The Church was teaching the Gospel, not delivering “bibles.”
By the late 1st Century, approximately 50-70 years after the Resurrection, the Church has just begun to spread throughout the Roman Empire. We are nearing the end of the Apostolic Era. Finally, in 96AD we get the Gospel of John and his three letters. Ten years after his Revelation and 25 years since the Gospel of Matthew was written. So with very conservative numbers it took 62 years before ALL of the eventually accepted canon of scripture would be written. That is a long time.
Now, I’m not going to go into the argument of whether or not John actually wrote this Gospel. It was pretty much accepted throughout the Early Church that he did. It wasn’t until the 18th century that this actually was brought into question.
What is interesting is why John waited so long before he wrote down his account of the Gospel and why it contains elements that are very different from the other three gospels. The Gospel of John seems to really emphasizes throughout, that Jesus is both divine, and a flesh and blood man. NewAdvent.org has this to say about the origins and purpose of John’s Gospel.
As to the date of its composition we possess no certain historical information. According to the general opinion, the Gospel is to be referred to the last decade of the first century, or to be still more precise, to 96 or one of the succeeding years. The grounds for this opinion are briefly as follows:
- the Fourth Gospel was composed after the three Synoptics;
- it was written after the death of Peter, since the last chapter – especially xxi, 18-19 presupposes the death of the Prince of the Apostles;
- it was also written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, for the Evangelist’s references to the Jews (cf. particularly xi, 18; xviii, 1; xix, 41) seem to indicate that the end of the city and of the people as a nation is already come;
- the text of xxi, 23, appears to imply that John was already far advanced in years when he wrote the Gospel;
- those who denied the Divinity of Christ, the very point to which St. John devotes special attention throughout his Gospel, began to disseminate their heresy about the end of the first century;
- finally, we have direct evidence concerning the date of composition. The so-called “Monarchian Prologue” to the Fourth Gospel, which was probably written about the year 200 or a little later, says concerning the date of the appearance of the Gospel: “He [sc. the Apostle John] wrote this Gospel in the Province of Asia, after he had composed the Apocalypse on the Island of Patmos”. The banishment of John to Patmos occurred in the last year of Domitian’s reign (i.e. about 95). A few months before his death (18 September, 96), the emperor had discontinued the persecution of the Christians and recalled the exiles (Eusebius, Church History III.20.5-7). This evidence would therefore refer the composition of the Gospel to A.D. 96 or one of the years immediately following.
The place of composition was, according to the above-mentioned prologue, the province of Asia. Still more precise is the statement of St. Irenaeus, who tells us that John wrote his Gospel “at Ephesus in Asia” (Against Heresies III.1.2). All the other early references are in agreement with these statements.
John’s Gospel was probably written at such a late date to clear up some errant beliefs that started cropping up in the early Church, such as early Jewish/Christian Gnostic sects and an early divergent sect known as Docetism.
Docetism comes from the Greek word, Docetic, meaning “to appear.” Those who proposed this heresy maintained that Jesus really did not possess, or inhabit a physical body, but only “appeared” to have a body. The basis of docetism is that Jesus was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.
There are aspects of the New Testament that suggest docetism was already a problem in the first century. Some scholars believe John’s gospel contains some anti-docetic texts, for example in chapter 21 where Jesus eats fish with disciples. It seems that 1 John may have also been written to combat this heresy, “…every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God.” 1 John 4:2
The gospel begins before Genesis’ 1:1 with “In the beginning.” John 1:1 starts out before the creation when there was only God and with God was the Word and the Word was God (1:1-2) and this Word, Jesus Christ, became flesh (Gen 1:14) but did not originate as mankind did…that is by flesh and blood (1:13). Some ancient cults believed that man could become God but the Bible teaches that God became Man in the Person of Jesus Christ. The gospel is both apologetic and evangelistic. John writes with a sense of purpose and intentionality in an effort to convince the reader that Jesus Christ is divine, and that He is the incarnate God-Man, being both God and Man. It is apparent that he is responding to a growing trend toward gnosticism and docetism in the early church. Docetism taught that Jesus only appeared to be a man, but was not and gnosticism teaches that our bodies are bad, and only our spirits are good. John seems to be refuting this and really driving home the flesh and blood reality of Christ as well as His divinity.
It is also very interesting that the Bread of Life discourse of John 6 only occurs in his gospel, as if to continue to emphasize the incarnate reality of Christ. If John 6 is only teaching that we just have to have faith and “eat” the word of God, as many protestants teach, then that would be right in line with Gnosticism which taught things very similar. In essence that the body is bad, but only spiritual knowledge is of any use. But, I contend that John, places that whole exchange in his Gospel to emphasize that Jesus Christ is indeed flesh and blood, that the Bread from Heaven is His REAL Flesh and that the Flesh and Blood he wants us to eat and drink is His REAL flesh and blood, not just a spiritual symbol of His word.
John was clearing up false teachings and correcting divergent sects that were cropping up, very early in the Church. As we will see in the coming next few centuries, were it not for a organized, teaching Church with apostolic succession, the early Christians would have been hard-pressed to maintain any consistent teachings and suppress any heresies if the “church” was just an invisible body of believers as many protestants today believe. Without a centralized authority and hierarchy in place, maintaining a constant and concise theology is absolutely impossible. If you doubt this, just look around today at how many different and divergent theological variants exist in the many different denominations of protestants.
By the end of the Apostolic Age, Scripture Alone still would have been an impossibility.
Coming up next: Part 5 – The Early Church and Authority