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In my first blog, I covered cultural differences preventing our appreciation of the Bible’s imagery. Today is about an interesting theory Alfred Edersheim has for the disciple John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Edersheim believed John was formerly a priest serving at the temple like Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father (Luke 1:67-79).
Some scholars debate whether this same John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (See John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20 and 21:24). Likely this is the fisherman, John. We also know there were, besides the chief priests, many lower priests with other occupations as well. From Edersheim’s book The Temple,
According to Jewish tradition, half of each of the twenty-four “courses,” into which the priesthood was divided, were permanently resident in Jerusalem; the rest were scattered over the land…. When a “course” was on duty, all its members were bound to appear in the Temple. Those who stayed away…prevented from “going up” to Jerusalem in their turn, had to meet in the synagogues of their district to pray and to fast each day of their week of service, except on the 6th, 7th, and the 1st …as the “joy” attaching to the Sabbath rendered a fast immediately before or after it inappropriate.
Edersheim had a few significant reasons—besides the imagery in Revelation—to think John was a priest. I’ll address these afterward. But first,
There is a marked peculiarity and also a special charm about the allusions of the ‘beloved disciple’ to the ‘Temple and its services.’ The other New Testament writers refer to them in their narratives, or else explain their types, in such a language as any well-informed worshipper at Jerusalem might have employed. But John writes not like an ordinary Israelite. He has eyes and ears for details which others would have left unnoticed…. This, as we shall have frequent occasion to show, appears in his Gospel, but much more in the Book of Revelation. Indeed, the Apocalypse as a whole may be likened to the Temple services in its mingling of prophetic symbols with worship and praise. But it is especially remarkable, that the Temple-references with which the Book of Revelation abounds are generally too minutiae…as only personal contact and engagement with them could have rendered him, would scarcely have been noticed, certainly not employed as part of his imagery. They come in naturally, spontaneously, and so unexpectedly, that the reader is occasionally in danger of overlooking them altogether, and in language such as a professional man would employ, which would come to him from the previous exercise of his calling.
Three other reasons Edersheim thought John was a priest were more convincing to me. Two were at the end of the Lord’s ministry. After Jesus was captured and was being brought to his first mock trial, John 18:15-16 says,
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in.
The second reason is when Jesus was dying, John 19:26-27 says,
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Edersheim pointed out that priests sometimes had a second home in the Jerusalem area. That is if they lived far away and could afford it. It took about a week to travel to Galilee. Edersheim wrote James and John were likely well off because they had “hired servants” (Mark 1:20).
The third reason is John talks more about Christ’s ministry in Jerusalem whereas the Synoptic Gospels speak more of Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Edersheim thought John must’ve been in Jerusalem more often than the others. Also, John seemed more familiar with what went on behind closed doors among the corrupt, religious elite there. (Conspiracies plotted in Jerusalem, not in Galilee: John 5:16, 18; 7:11, 13, 25, 30, 32, 35-36, 44-52; 8:22; 9:8-34; 11:45-57; 12:9-11, 17-19, 42-43.)
This makes me think John was too close for comfort to the corruption and oppression of the chief priests in Jerusalem. God ordained the sacrifices and commanded the sanctity of the priestly offices. Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20). What John put up with would’ve been loathsome. It makes me wonder how much Jesus “connected with” John. Because Jesus also came too close for comfort to all kinds of sin when he was born in this world. The grievous nature of what they’d each witness would’ve weighed on them both. Although on Jesus it would’ve weighed much more heavily.
Was this why John was called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? I don’t believe Jesus thought John was better than the rest of us. But I do wonder whether Jesus felt more of a “kindred spirit” in John. This can be comforting if and when we have to work alongside, or live beside, evil and hardened hearts.
The above artwork was scanned from The Holy Temple of Jerusalem.