How was John’s Gospel Transmitted to Us?

The forth book of the New Testament is the Gospel of John. John was a disciple and Apostle of Jesus and witnessed his ministry, death and resurrection. There are three people known to be students of John: Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp.

Ignatius (born 35 AD, died 117 AD)[1] (he called himself “Theophorus”, which means “God Bearer”) became Bishop of Antioch (Turkey). He wrote a number of letters to different churches, of which some copies still exist. Ignatius quotes or refers to many New Testament books, and shows that the core doctrines of Christianity were in place by the end of the first century.

Papias (born 60 AD, died 163 AD)[2] was described as a “an ancient man who was a hearer of John and companion of Polycarp” by Irenaeus[3]. He became the Bishop of Hierapolis (Turkey). None of Papias’ writings are known to still exist, but later church fathers indicate he quoted from the Gospels.

Polycarp (born 69 AD, died 155 AD)[4] was a friend of Ignatius, and became a Christian based on the testimony of the Apostles themselves. Polycarp became Bishop of Smyrna (Turkey) and wrote a letter to the Philippians that references at least fourteen of the New Testament books. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp:

  • But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.[5]

Irenaeus (born 120 AD, died 202 AD)[6] was born in Smyrna, where Polycarp was Bishop. He was raised in a Christian family and heard Polycarp talk of his conversations with the Apostle John. Irenaeus became the Bishop of Lugdunum (Lyons, France). His most famous work is Against Heresies, written in response to Gnosticism, addresses the issue of Scriptural authority, and refers to about twenty-four New Testament books as Scripture.

Hippolytus (born 170 AD, died 235 AD)[7] was born in Rome and church tradition says he was a disciple of Irenaeus. Hippolytus wrote a ten-volume work Refutation of All Heresies, in which he refers to about twenty-four New Testament books.

These were the first three generations of Christians who are known to be spiritual descents of the Apostle John:

  1. Ignatius, Papias, Polycarp
  2. Irenaeus
  3. Hippolytus

Because of what these early Christians wrote, and their influence on succeeding generations, we can be certain the Gospel of John we have today accurately reflects the teachings of Jesus, through the Apostle John, to the early third century.

Resources

Footnotes

[1] Exact birth and death dates for Ignatius are unknown.

[2] Exact birth and death dates for Papias are unknown.

[3] Irenaeus. Against Heresies (about 180 A.D.) 5.33.4 (Early Christian Writings)

[4] Exact birth and death dates for Polycarp are unknown.

[5] Irenaeus. Against Heresies (about 180 A.D.) 3.3:4 (Early Christian Writings)

[6] Exact birth and death dates for Irenaeus are unknown.

[7] Exact birth and death dates for Hippolytus are unknown.

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