Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Disciples of St. John

Reading N°28 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

John did not come alone to Ephesus. With him he brought companions and disciples, or at least he was visited and aided by several of them.

Among these brethren in the apostolate, we know especially the Apostle Philip.[1] Like John, he was born on the shores of Lake Tiberias, and a particular bond of friendship seems to have united the two Apostles. It was to Philip that Christ had addressed those profound words: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?"[2] The earliest traditions tell us that he preached the gospel in Phrygia; all the records agree that he spent the last years of his life at Hierapolis. He had three daughters: one of them, who was married, was buried at Ephesus; the other two remained virgins and aided the Apostle by devoting themselves to works of charity.[3]

John's three principal disciples, whose names are handed down to us, were Ignatius, Polycarp and Papias. Ignatius was probably a native of Syria. This, at least, is the conjecture of several scholars.[4] We have very little information about his life or his labors in the Church of Antioch, of which he was bishop.[5] But the letter he wrote to the Christians of Rome, on his way to martyrdom in that city, enables us to penetrate the depths of his great soul. History can boast of none more courageous in the face of death.

Polycarp is likewise known to us by his glorious martyrdom, but we are ignorant both of his family and birthplace. Tertullian relates that Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna by St. John.[6] It is by his authority, often appealed to by his disciple St. Irenaeus, that the Church of Gaul glories in having received the pure ApostolIc tradition. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in his old age, wrote as follows to the heretic Florinus:
These opinions [that you teach], O Florinus, that I may speak sparingly, do not belong to sound doctrine. These opinions are inconsistent with the Church. [...] I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to the people, how he reported his intercourse with John, and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life. [...] I listened eagerly even then to these things through the mercy of God which was given me, and made notes of them, not on paper, but in my heart. [...] I can bear witness before God that if that blessed and Apostolic presbyter had heard anything of this kind he would have cried out and shut his ears. [...] He would have fled even from the place in which he was seated or standing when he heard such words.[7]
We saw Papias' testimony in connection with the question of the composition of the Gospels. Of his life we are as uninformed as in the cases of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. We know that he was bishop of Hierapolis. Eusebius calls him "a man of varied education and notably well versed in the Holy Scripture." He took great pains to gather the oral traditions regarding the Savior's life and words; for this purpose he visited several churches and summed up what he learned in five books entitled Exegesis of the Words of the Lord. The extant fragments of this work are of the highest value for the history of Christian origins.[8] Although conscientious in what he relates, Papias seems to have lacked tact and discernment in the interpretation of doctrine. Eusebius says: "I suppose that he got these notions by a perverse reading of the Apostolic accounts, not realizing that they [the Apostles] spoke mystically and symbolically."[9] Thus it happened that his work, undertaken to preserve the most genuine traditions, was later used by the millenarians, who appealed to his authority in behalf of their fanciful views.

Among the "disciples of the Lord" whom Papias had seen and consulted, he mentions Andrew, Peter, Thomas, James, and Matthew.[10] These Apostles must have visited their brethren in Asia only in passing. The two chiefs in whom the East gloried were John and Philip. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, writes:
Two great stars have set in Asia, but they will rise at the last day: Philip, one of the Twelve, whose remains lie at rest at Hierapolis, and John the Apostle, who slept upon the Savior's breast, and who, martyr and doctor, has his tomb at Ephesus.[11]
The real head of the churches of Asia was John the Apostle. We shall presently see the proof of this in the Letter to the Seven Churches. When St. John reached Asia, the churches founded by St. Paul were about to assume the definite form generally adopted later; one after the other, they were abandoning that assembly of ancients which had governed them, under the direction of a resident bishop or under that of an Apostle, and were placing themselves directly under the authority of a bishop. John, while not attaching himself particularly to any one see, exercised over them all that universal jurisdiction vested by Christ in His Apostles, a jurisdiction that was to end only with the last of them. 


[1] Eusebius seems to confuse the Apostle Philip with Philip the deacon. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus in the latter part of the second century, who had every means of being well informed, says positively that St. John's companion in Asia was the Apostle Philip. The fragment from Polycrates is in Eusebius, III, xxxi.
[2] John 14:10.
[3] Eusebius, H. E., III, xxxi.
[4] But their arguments are contested by the Maronite Assemani, Bibl. orient., vol. III, part 1, p. 16.
[5] Cf. Eusebius, Chron., 11th year of Trajan.
[6] Tertullian, De praescr., 32.
[7] Eusebius, H. E., V, XX, 4-1.
[8] They were published by Harnack, Patrum apostolicorum opera, and by Funk, Patres apostolici. In the thirteenth century, the Exegesis of Papias was still extant. Mention is made of it in a catalogue of the cathedral of Nimes dating from that century.
[9] Eusebius, H. E., III, xxxix, 12. Eusebius calls him "a man of very little intelligence." (Ibid., no. 13.)
[10] Eusebius, H. E., III, xxxix.
[11] Idem, III, xxxi, 3.


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