John Wycliffe: heretic? or hero?

One of the gifts that is treasured by many believers around the world is the ability to read the scriptures on their own language. It is something that we take for granted; but it is not something that has always been available to people of faith.

On this day it is good to pause and remember that we have the Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic writings of scripture translated into English and available for us to read. On this day perhaps we English-speaking people might spare a thought for the 14th century theologian and preacher, John Wycliffe (1328–1384), who is remembered as the person who made the first English translation of the Bible.

This copy is a facsimile reproduction of the very first translation of the Scriptures into the English language. The Wycliffe translations were hand-written manuscript Bibles, pre-dating printing by 70 years [Gutenberg, 1455].

That is the legend; in fact, scholars believe that Wycliffe translated the Gospels, oversaw the translation of the rest of the New Testament, and outsourced the translation of the Old Testament to a team led by Nicholas of Hereford; the whole was later edited and revised by John Purvey. See

In fact, the Anglican Church designates today, 31 December, as a day to recall John Wycliffe. See Wycliffe is also often honoured as “the father of English prose”, because the clarity and the popularity of his writings and his sermons in the Middle English dialect did much to shape our language today; see

From his theological writings, it has been deduced that Wycliffe believed that “scripture was the only authoritative reliable guide to the truth about God”. That was a view that was later expressed by the key figures in the various Reformations that took place in the 16th century. Wycliffe therefore maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics—a position that drove Martin Luther two centuries later, in his criticisms of the church.

It follows from this, that all Christians should have direct access to those scriptures to nurture their own faith. “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English”, he wrote; “Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” The many translations of the Bible into English that were made in the ensuing centuries stand on the foundation of Wycliffe’s work.

Blogger MJH writes that, as a translator of the Bible, “John Wycliffe and his successors such as Tyndale and Coverdale stand in line with Christian tradition, with the anonymous Latinisers and Jerome, with the anonymous translators of the Coptic Bible and the Syriac Peshitta, with Cyril and Methodius.” See

Certainly, the long list of people who translated the scriptures into their own vernacular attest to the importance of contextualising scripture and making it widely available to the people of God—a commitment that has enriched the lives of believers over the centuries. My own denomination continues that commitment with an affirmation that “the Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures [and] commits its ministers to preach from these” (Basis of Union, para.5).

As a pre-Reformation protestor, Wycliffe said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy (as did Luther). He also taught predestination (as did Calvin and Zwingli) and the consubstantiation of the elements in communion (as is sometimes attributed to Luther), in distinction from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His theology also prefigured the Reformers in his affirmation that “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation” (cf. Luther’s sola fide).

All of this, of course, set Wycliffe up for conflict with the authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 were issued after a synod called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas of Arundel. This decree aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and specifically named John Wycliffe as it banned certain writings, and noted that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity was a crime punishable by charges of heresy.

In May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for heresy. In all, the Catholic Church in England tried him three times, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but Wycliffe was never imprisoned nor ever went to Rome.

Three decades after his death, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415, and banned his writings, effectively both excommunicating him retroactively and making him an early forerunner of Protestantism. Many Protestants consider Wycliffe to be something of a hero, for he stood against the Roman Church by insisting that the scriptures should not be locked up in Medieval Latin, but rather should be available in the vernacular—in his case, Middle English.

So, John Wycliffe: Bible translator and theologian, preacher and pre-Reformation protestor, a Roman Catholic declared a heretic whose name is remembered and highly valued by Protestants … how do you assess him: heretic? or hero?

Convicted (5): Nathan Taylor

My ancestor Nathan Taylor arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Adelaide 173 years ago, on 24 December 1849. He had been sent to the Colony as a convict. For reasons that are explained below, Nathan was granted a Ticket of Leave just six days after his arrival in the Colony, on 30 December 1849—173 years ago today.

Nathan was my great-great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s paternal line. He is the fifth reason that I was born in Sydney (along with Joseph Pritchard, Bridget Ormsby, and James Jackson, all from my father’s line, and Elizabeth Lawrence and her daughter Louisa, from my mother’s line.)

Nathan Taylor was born on 7 January 1815, the seventh of ten children born to Joshua and Mary Taylor, of Longwood, a village near Huddersfield in Yorkshire. Joshua and Mary were “non-conformists”, who attended the Salendine Nook Baptist Chapel at Quarmby-cum-Lindsey, a village to the west of Huddersfield,
in West Yorkshire.

This Chapel had grown out of the meeting of a group of Scottish dissenters, who came to England seeking religious freedom just over a century before. A meetinghouse was built between 1739 and 1743, and worship has continued there for nearly three centuries.

Entry in the register of the Salendine Nook Baptist Chapel,
for the birth of “Nathan Taylor”, to Joshua and Mary Taylor

The Chapel register contains the records for the birth of ten children to Joshua and Mary, over the period of 1803 to 1824 (see below). All ten children have biblical names, reflecting the strong religious convictions of these Baptist parents. (Notice the spelling “Nathen”.)

Marriage and children

At the age of 24, Nathan Taylor married Elizabeth (Betty) Clegg, the daughter of John and Betty Clegg, at Almondbury, a village to the south-east of Huddersfield. The marriage took place on 15 September 1839; it was conducted by the vicar, George Hargreaves, in the Parish Church, and their place of residence is listed as Almondbury Bank. It seems that the Clegg family were members of the established Church of England.

Extract from the UK Register showing the 1839 marriage
of Nathan Taylor and Betty Clegg.

A son, William, was born in 1839. (Perhaps he was the reason that Nathan and Elizabeth married?) Sadly, William later would die by drowning at the age of 18. Then a daughter, Mary, was born in 1841.

The returns for the 1841 Census for the division of Upper Agbrigg (Agbridge) in Huddersfield, Yorkshire (pictured below) list a family of Nathan Taylor, 25, Clothier, his wife Elizabeth, 20, a daughter, Mary, aged 5 months, living in Schofield Lane in the township of Huddersfield.

There is no mention of a son, William, in this record. However, it does appear to be the correct Taylor family, for in the building next door in Schofield Lane, there is recorded a family which is most likely to be the family of origin for Elizabeth (Betty).

This family comprised the mother, Elizabeth Clegg, aged 45, and children John, 20, Sarah, 15, William, 15, Robert, 2, and Taylor, 2. Elizabeth’s father, John Clegg, would appear to have died by the time of the Census.

A second son, John, was born to Nathan and Betty in Huddersfield on 7 January 1845, and then a further son, Ben (presumably short for Benjamin) was born on 19 January 1847. The record of baptisms in the parish of Huddersfield (see below) indicate that John and Ben were both baptised on 7 March 1847, by the parish priest, Rev. J. Haigh.

John was given the maiden name of his mother, Clegg, as his middle name, and he consistently appears in official records as John Clegg Taylor. (That’s a neat connection for me, as my middle name is Taylor, my mother’s maiden name—John Taylor Squires, the same pattern as my gtgtgtgtgrandfather, Nathan Clegg Taylor!)

The surname Clegg appears to have a local origin in northern England. It appears in earlier records from north Lancashire, initially with a prominent family at Clegg Hall at Rochdale, about 20 miles from Huddersfield. The name is most densely concentrated today in Oldham (near Rochdale) and Holdfirth (just south of Huddersfield). See

Active as a Chartist

However, within two years, the family, was torn apart. On 6 March 1847, at the age of 33, Nathan Taylor was tried at the York Assizes, on the charge of “Warehouse breaking”. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Also tried with him that day were John Johnson, 33, and Thomas Waddington, 37, both of whom received the same sentence for their crime of “Robbery in company with violence”. (See the court records below.)

Intriguingly, on the day immediately after this (as noted above), the two sons of Nathan and Betty, John and Ben, were baptised in Huddersfield!

John Johnson, Thomas Waddington, and Nathan Taylor were amongst 302 convicted men who subsequently were transported to the colony of New South Wales on board the ship Adelaide. They were Chartists.

A whole group of a Chartists had been sentenced to ten years, and then sent to the Colony, under special arrangements (as detailed below).

Chartism was a movement in Britain during the period of 1838 to 1857 which was initiated by the promotion of a Peoples Charter in 1838. The Chartists held mass protest meetings and collected petitions which were presented to Parliament. There were protest activities by Chartists in many English cities. It was especially strong in the northern regions of England—precisely where Nathan Taylor was living.

The Chartists were seeking a series of reforms to the political system (reforms which were eventually adopted, and which are taken for granted in modern democracies)—the vote for all adult males, the use of a secret ballot, the removal of a requirement for property ownership by Members of Parliament, payment of Members of Parliament, electorates with equal numbers of electors, and annual Parliamentary elections.

The arrangement concerning convicted Chartists was that such men would be sentenced to ten years and then sent to the colonies, and if they exhibited “exemplary” behaviour on the voyage to the south, they would be pardoned on arrival. This appears to have been what was done in relation to Nathan Taylor. See

Transported on the Adelaide

The Adelaide departed London on 17 August 1849, with John Johnson, Thomas Waddington and Nathan Taylor amongst the 302 convicted men who were on board. The Adelaide was a wooden ship which had been built in 1832 and was used three times as a convict transport (1849, to New South Wales; 1855, to Western Australia; and 1863-64, to Gibraltar.)

An extract from the ship’s record, listing the convicts on board, including Nathan Taylor.

The Sydney Morning Herald 30 November 1849 published this report from England:

Portland, England. On Monday morning, a party of 132 well-conducted convicts left the convict establishment, and were embarked for Port Phillip in the ship Adelaide, which had been some days waiting for them. We understand that, upon arriving in the colony (should their conduct on board be proved exemplary), they will each be presented with a ticket of leave which will entitle them to work for themselves, being comparatively speaking, free.

In addition to the above, there were 170 selected from Pentonville, the hulks, and Parkhurst prisons, who will be allowed a similar indulgence. A guard, composed of 50 soldiers, will accompany them on the voyage, selected from her Majesty’s 63rd, 65th, and 99th regiments of foot. There is an experienced surgeon on board, who has the care and management of the convicts, and also a religious instructor. The Adelaide was still in the roads on Tuesday night, waiting for a fair wind. See

The last convict ship

The Adelaide duly arrived in Hobart on 29th November, where 40 men were disembarked. The ship sailed on to Port Phillip, with the intention of offloading more men, but it was refused entry and sailed on northbound to Port Jackson.

The settlement at Port Phillip had received around 1,750 convicts sent as political prisoners (often referred to as “Exiles”) in the years 1844 to 1849, but resistance to their presence grew in those years and was strong by 1849, as it attested by the failure to offload all the men on the Adelaide.

The Adelaide eventually arrived in Port Jackson on 24 December 1849, after a journey on the high seas that had lasted for 129 days. The Adelaide was the last convict ship to arrive in Sydney. Transportation, which began in 1788, had ended in Moreton Bay (Brisbane) in 1839, but continued to Van Diemen’s Land until 1853, and to Western Australia until 1868.

Arrival in the colonies

Once the ship had docked in Port Jackson, three prisoners were sent to the Hospital at Sydney and three were sent to Cockatoo Island on the recommendation of the Surgeon. The remaining prisoners on board were discharged daily as they were hired, commencing ship on 31 December 1849 and concluding on 9 January 1850.

The relevant page of the ship’s record relating to Nathan Taylor

Ticket of Leave

Within a week of arrival in the colony, the prisoners on board the Adelaide were given Tickets of Leave, by order of the Secretary of State. Nathan Taylor’s Ticket of Leave, number 49/1450, was granted on 30 December 1849 (see below).

Nathan was permitted to remain “in the district of Port Macquarie”, which stretched well north of Sydney, and included the northern rivers region (which is where later records place Nathan). From this point on, Nathan Taylor was once again a free man.

The journey of Betty and children on the Ramillies

His wife, Elizabeth, and two children, William and John, were still in Yorkshire. (Mary appears to have died by this time.) However, records indicate that Elizabeth and her two sons sailed to New South Wales on the ship Ramillies, which departed from Plymouth on 18 April 1850.

The Ramillies was a 757 ton barque ship which had been built at Sunderland in 1845. The Hobart Courier reported on 24 July 1850:

Arrived the ship Ramillies, 757 tons. [Master] Carvell, from Plymouth 18th April, with 271 bounty emigrants, and the following cabin passengers — Peter Nicholls, Esq., James Murphy, Esq., Mr. and Mrs. Linnell, one servant; Surgeon Superintendant, Dr. Fletcher. Cargo general. Health good, a few cases excepted. The ship’s records report that there were 97 women, 84 men, 31 boys and 23 girls who travelled in Steerage as Bounty Emigrants.

The records of the Assisted Immigrants Passenger Lists identify the passengers by name. These records include specific reference to Elizabeth Taylor, 34, House Servant, of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, daughter of John and Elizabeth Clegg, “both dead”; along with William, 11, and John Clegg, 5, as arrivals on board the ship Ramillies (see below).

In the column “Relations in the Colony” is written, “Husband Nathan Taylor, ‘Adelaide’, Huddersfield, 1847, present address Unknown” (presumably the year refers to the time of Nathan’s activity which caused his arrest). Elizabeth, William and John were all in a good state of “bodily health, strength and usefulness”, and they had no complaints about their treatment on the ship.

An additional annotation reports “£5.0.0 paid by self and £10.0.0 paid by the Relieving Officers of Huddersfield”. Relieving Officers were appointed under the Poor Law Act of 1834, to oversee the administration of relief to the poor. It appears that the system was such that Elizabeth was able to petition to be reunited with her husband in the Colony.

Life together in the colony

The Ramillies duly arrived at Port Jackson on 11 August 1850, at which time Elizabeth made enquiries regarding the whereabouts of her husband, Nathan, and ultimately Nathan was reunited with his wife and children.

Indeed, records indicate that, over the next decade, a further five children, three daughters and two sons, were born to Elizabeth and Nathan, all in the Richmond River region in northern New South Wales. Sadly, one of those sons, Charles, died in 1860, during the first year of his life; whilst William, the firstborn, had died by drowning three years earlier, in 1857.

Nathan himself appears to have lived a full life in the Northern Rivers Region, where he was employed initially as a Labourer. In 1856 he bought land in East Ballina, and in 1862 additional land in Casino (see record below).

Nathan was appointed as a Foot Constable in the Northern Police District, on 22 November 1858. Police records describe him as 5’8” tall, with light brown hair, brown/grey eyes, and a sallow complexion. He worked as a Constable for six years (Number 782) before resigning on 31 October 1864.

After this, Nathan conducted a store and then was licensed as the publican of the “Horse Shoe Inn” in Lismore in the 1870s. He later bought the warehouse and hotel of Henry Brown, which he kept until his death.  

Extract from the Police Gazette for 1873,
listing publicans licensed in the Casino District.

The final years

Elizabeth died of apoplexy in Lismore on 25 June 1871, and Nathan married Caroline Penelope Browning three years later on 28 May 1874, in the Lismore Presbyterian Church. Caroline had been married to Henry Johnson Brown in 1846 and had given birth to fourteen children over the period of 1847 to 1867. Henry died a year later, in 1868, aged on 47 years.

Record of the death of Nathan Taylor, Publican, on 7 August 1874

Soon after this marriage to Caroline, Nathan’s lungs became inflamed, and he died just ten weeks after his marriage, in Lismore, on 7 August 1874. He is buried with Elizabeth in the North Lismore Cemetery. (See his death certificate, above, and their tombstone, below.) Caroline subsequently married, for the third time, in 1878, and lived on until 1894.

My line of descent from Nathan and Betty Taylor is through their second son, John Clegg Taylor (1846–1878), who married Eliza Jane Wotherspoon; their son Herbert Taylor (1871–1936), who married Ada May Lee; and their son Jack Leslie Taylor (1897–1968), who married Hazel May Barron; they are the parents of my mother.


See also

The depth of God’s presence in our midst

Today (in the Eastern Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It was celebrated yesterday in the Western Church.) This festival day commemorates the story of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod, and recorded in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (and nowhere else). It is a tragic story, a myth which is filled with pathos, and it resonates with events in the world we live in today. It is a story with great power (as are all myths).

But this story is strikingly absent from the usual array of carols that are sung at this time of the year. Sugar-coated reminiscences of the cute li’l baby Jesus (“holy infant so tender and mild”, “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, “gentle and lowly lived below”) take us well away from the murderous acts of the tyrannical ruler.

Most of the traditional carols really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, so they move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time.

Some of the traditional carols take us to the edge of the story of violence and repression, and then leave it unspoken, or rather, unsung. “Unto us a boy is born” refers to the fury unleashed by Herod in slaughtering the baby boys, but fails then to go on and narrate the flight undertaken by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. In “The first Nowell”, the three wise men see the star in verse 4 and come to find Jesus in verse 5, but nothing further is told of the ensuing events of Herod—slaughter—flight into Egypt.

A similar dynamic happens in verse 4 of “O come, all you faithful”, verse 3 of “Angels, from the realms of glory”, verse 3 of “Silent night, holy night”, and in verse 3 of the rollicking calypso carol, “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy”. “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning” spends one verse describing the cradle scene and two verses reflecting on the gifts brought to the infant Jesus, but nothing more as to how the visitors had come to him via Herod.

“As with gladness, men of old” devotes three verses to the story of the men of old seeing the star and bringing their gifts, but then dovetails into a pietistic plea to Jesus to “keep us in the narrow way”. No mention of the scenes of slaughter of the innocent infants and the fearful flight of refugees in these carols.

The star and the visitors from the east get prime billing; the murdered children and the hastily-departing family of Jesus, seeking the safety of refuge in a foreign country, are passed over very quickly.

Why is this state of affairs so? The lack of reference to the murderous acts of Herod and the fearful flight of the family of Jesus indicates that our Christmas carols sanitise and sanctify this foundational story, gilding the lily, reshaping our perspective on the story. They completely omit any references to a part of the story that has gained such traction, and that occupies such attention, in the minds of carefully critical contemporary Christians. Children continue to be sacrificed today, in the course of jingoistic warfare waged for ideological reasons. The tragedy continues today …

A number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight; Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul.

There where terror plies its trade; Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course.

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn.

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story retold at Christmas resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

In the resources for Daily Prayer with the Northumbrian Community, that Elizabeth and I currently use, there is this wonderful prayer for this day:

Where is the sound of hope, the cry of the child that wakes?
 The dull, aching, continued breathing of the mother
 becomes a wail of grief, a weeping for the children who are no more.
 The silent landscape shudders.
 God of mercy, light in darkness, hold gently to Your heart
 the tiny ones we cradle in our prayer whose life was over before it had begun. Amen.


See also 


On the fifth day of Christmas: five gold rings

So today we come to the five gold rings in the twelve days of Christmas — you know, the place in the song where everyone turns into bathroom baritones (or the female equivalent), holding forth with the long notes in the “five go-old riiiiiiiiiiiiings” line!

And here we meet head-on the pietistic rhetoric about the song having hidden meanings—the five gold rings stand for the five Books of Moses, just as the two turtledoves signify the two testaments of the Bible, the three colly-birds point to the three persons of the Trinity, the ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, and the twelve drummers drumming symbolise the twelve points of The Apostles’ Creed. Pietistic tosh, clearly debunked by!

See further at

But beware: another danger lurks here! Recently, no less a venerable and reliable source than the UK Mirror (!!) has quoted a Canadian astrophysicist, Dr Anna Hughes, who tweeted that “’five gooolden riings’ is not in fact referring to 5 literal golden rings, but to five ring-necked pheasants, aka more birds”. Perhaps she felt that commenting on popular christmassy songs would bring her more fame and renown than her PhD is astrophysics and her research in quantum computing? (Thanks to my friend James Ellis for bringing this *learned* article to my attention 😁)

Sadly for the Mirror, and Dr Hughes, this theory is not new. In a 1951 article, Ben Shahn had suggested that “the five golden rings refer to the ringed pheasant”. A decade later (1962) William and Ceil Baring-Gould published a book in which they reiterate this idea, which implies that the gifts for first seven days are all birds. The Mirror, and Dr Hughes, are rather late to the party!!

According to Dr Wikipedia, “Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. In his blog entitled “The Illustrated Etymologicon”, journalist and author Mark Forsyth suggests “the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There’s a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.” So why pheasants?


However, the original 1780 publication of the song included an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.

Five Gold Rings from “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” in Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court,
for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell [ca. 1780 or 1800?])

Further light is shed on the gold rings by Dr Pamela Patton, an art historian who has specialised in medieval Spanish art and currently teaches at Princeton University. Dr Patton writes, “the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher!”

On a roll, she continues, “It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.”

The publication she refers to is Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909). She records all of this on her blog site, “The Index of Medieval Art”. (The arrangement by Austin is not medieval, and the song itself falls just beyond her area of expertise, having first been published in the 18th century, but her blog post contains a fine exposition about a number of gold rings from antiquity in various museum collections.)

So the combination of the artwork and the musical arrangement would point to the five go-old rings being just that—not a gift of yet more birds, but rather an expensive jewellery gift from the true love in the song!

The counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus

Today (in the Western Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It is celebrated tomorrow in the Eastern Church.) This festival day commemorates a tradition known as “the slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod.

Continue reading “The counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus”

John: fisherman and follower, eyewitness and evangelist, apostle and saint

Today is the feast day of John, remembered in the Catholic tradition as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, and included in the Uniting Church’s list of commemorations as John, Witness to Jesus.

The fourth Gospel in the New Testament has long been accredited to the disciple named in the three Synoptic Gospels as the fisherman who was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19: 3:17; Matt 4:21; 10:2; Luke 5:10; 6:14). Ironically, however, this disciple is not specifically named in the fourth Gospel. (Apart from John the baptiser, the other John noted in this Gospel is the father of Simon Peter; John 1:52; 21:15–17).

In the early fourth century CE, Eusebius wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (6.14.7) that Clement of Alexandria had described this Gospel as the “spiritual” Gospel, written to complement the “physical” depictions of Jesus found in the other three Gospels. (Clement was Bishop of Alexandria at the end of the second century CE.)

This view has exercised a widespread influence throughout Christian history; in the twenty–first century, John’s Gospel is often cited as the easiest way for new converts to understand the “spiritual truths” of the Christian faith. It is frequently said that it contains the most direct expression of the simple Gospel message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).

More recent scholarly study of this Gospel, however, has indicated that it is a complex and intricate piece of literature. The literary style of this Gospel is distinctive amongst the Gospels found in the New Testament. Jesus speaks at far greater length than the succinct sayings and compressed argumentation reported of the Synoptic Jesus. Some of the key images included in these speeches are ripe with symbolic significance.

There are multiple layers of meaning to be explored in the fourth Gospel. A number of key words contain ironic references or wry puns. Some scenes tell of misunderstandings which arise because of the different meanings built into the text. A hint of secrecy runs through the narrative—secrecy regarding the deeper, hidden meaning of Jesus and his story. The work is a complex literary creation.

An anonymous figure among the disciples—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—lays claim to be the author of this work (John 21:20, 24). Who is this figure? Over time, the evangelist came to be equated with the disciple John, son of Zebedee, brother of James. Nothing in the text itself explicitly supports this, however.

Over the past few decades, a different understanding about the origins of this work have developed from scholars who have explored the authorship of this Gospel and the context in which it was written. There is widespread agreement that this work was not written, in the form that we have it, by this John who was one of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Some scholars developed the notion that this figure of “the beloved disciple” was a symbol embedded within the narrative, representing an earlier authority for the evolving traditions about Jesus. The Gospel itself, they consider, came to be written down many decades after this authority figure had first begun to recount the story of Jesus. The shape of the Gospel was heavily influenced by the nature of the community of faith through which these stories were passed, over a number of decades.

This has led to a detailed hypothesis concerning the origins and development of the community of believers which gave birth to this Gospel in written form. (The North American scholars most often associated with this line of interpretation are Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn.) This hypothesis makes two central claims.

The first claim is that, in its earliest stages, the community which produced this Gospel had been essentially Jewish. That community received and retold stories which may well have come from the John who was a follower of Jesus. The second claim is that, by the time the body of the Gospel was written in the form that we know it, this community found itself in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant form of Judaism. This opened the way for Gentile ideas, so that they are found mixed with Jewish ideas in the final form of the Gospel.

So if this Gospel was indeed stimulated by the teachings of one of the first followers of Jesus, a Jewish man in Galilee, known as John, it reflects a remarkable trajectory in the first century of the movement initiated by Jesus, tracing its development from a Jewish renewal movement towards a global religion. The stories from the Apostle have presumably been reworked and reshaped over decades as that trajectory develops.

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” certainly occupies a prominent place in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. He reclines on the breast of Jesus at the final meal in Jerusalem (John 13:23) and stands at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (19:26–27).

After Mary Magdalene announced that the stone at the entrance of the tomb where the crucified Jesus had been laid had been removed (20:1–2), he runs to the tomb, with Simon Peter (20:3), arrives first, and sees that the tomb is empty (20:4–5)—but leaves it to Peter to see the inside first (20:6–7), before himself entering and attesting to the empty tomb with his own eyes (20:8).

Later, when seven of the disciples are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, this same beloved disciple is the first to recognise Jesus standing on the beach next to their fire; this time, he announces the identity of Jesus to Peter (21:7). A little later, Peter draws from Jesus the words about this disciple remaining with him (21:20–23). Finally, the same beloved disciple has the last word in the later-added Appendix to the Gospel, affirming his role as eyewitness and evangelist (21:24).

This is the figure that, in the tradition, is linked with John, the fisherman brother of James, the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, accorded a place as one of The Twelve Apostles.

In the book of Acts, the disciple John visits Samaria with Peter, in order to authorise and sanction what Philip had been teaching and doing in that region (Acts 8:14–17). That episode indicates the respect and authority that John was held to have as the movement developed—although the author of Luke and Acts writes some decades after the events he describes, at the end of the first century, and his material is filtered through various intermediaries (see Luke 1:2).

“Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria,”
by Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, Italian.

However, in one of his early letters from the 50s, Paul himself acknowledges this important position of John, along with James (brother of Jesus) and Peter, the “acknowledged pillars” of the church. Paul relates how he went, with Barnabas and Titus, to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), in order to receive the approval from the mother church for his activity amongst the Gentiles. Accordingly, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).

This corroborates the view we find in Acts, that John had a position of importance in the early church. It doesn’t demonstrate, however, that this John wrote the book of signs, the work we know as the Gospel of John.

The scholar Jerome, born in Dalmatia (now Albania), lived for some time in Palestine in the late 300s. Jerome recounts an anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.”

This, of course, is the central mantra in the first of the three letters that bear the name of John (see 1 John 3:11-17; 3:23; 4:7–12; also 2 John 5; 3 John 6). The legend explains how these anonymous letters were attributed to the apostle John.

Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that the Apostle John lived a long life, which ended peacefully in Ephesus around the year 100 CE. If that was so, then John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. That may then equate him with the John who claims authorship of the book of Revelation, exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). However, the style and language of this last book of the New Testament differs significantly from the style of the Johannine gospel and letters.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that two rival sites at Ephesus initially claimed the honour of being the grave of John. One eventually achieved official church recognition, becoming a shrine in the 4th century. By the 6th century the healing power of dust from John’s tomb was famous, and the church of Ephesus claimed to possess the autograph of the Fourth Gospel. We don’t have that manuscript today, however.

John was said to have written the Acts of John, a domestic work that was known in the second century; but it was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. And so the traditions about John continued to grow.

Indeed, in some Medieval and Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

St. John the Apostle by Jacques Bellange, artist
and printmaker from the Duchy of Lorraine, c.1600

All of which demonstrates the maxim that I hold for early Christian writings: the further away from the first century we get, the more information is known about the writers of the Gospels!!

Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing

Today is the second day in the season of Christmas, which technically runs from 25 December to 5 January. This day brings together an unlikely combination of characters, worth pondering.

Continue reading “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing”

The Twelve Days of Christmas: some explanatory explorations

So, it is the night of Christmas Day, and it feels like it is all over—done and dusted, finished, put to bed. Hold it—not so fast!! This is only just the start. Christmas Day is just the first of twelve days of the Christmas season. You might have heard about those twelve days in the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. This is an English Christmas Carol which is often sung in the lead up to Christmas. It actually belongs to the Christmas season—that is, the days on and after Christmas Day.

Now, some have claimed that this song had a pietistic purpose: a kind of sung catechism about the central features of the Christian Faith, put into code by Roman Catholics in England when their faith was outlawed. (One is Jesus, two symbolises the two testaments, three indicates faith, hope and love, four refers to the Gospels, five to the Books of Moses, ten to the Ten Commandments, twelve to the apostles, and so on …)

Nice theory, but there is no evidence at all that this was the case … and the origins of the theory go back no further than a speculation by a Canadian hymn writer in an article published in 1979. (And agrees; you can read the detailed rebuttal at

The Twelve Days of the #twelvedaysofchristmas technically refer to the days from Christmas Day, the first day of Christmas, through to Twelfth Night. So the song should be sung from Christmas Day onwards. And the gifts that are given each day accumulate until the twelfth night, the evening before Epiphany, when gifts were given to Jesus by the Magi visiting from the east.

Professor Bruce Forbes writes that “In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English, called Christmastide. On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days.” (Christmas: A Candid History, 2008; see p. 27).

Forbes also notes that there are divergent chronologies at work in different parts of the church: “If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.”

There’s a suggestion that The Twelve Days of Christmas song was originally sung in French . . . or, at least, that the line for the First Day originally included both French and English terms for the bird; thus, “partridge” (in English, and then in French, “perdrix” (pronounced per-dree) . . . which makes no sense, really; but this is a Christmas Carol, and such songs don’t really have to make sense, do they?

On the Second Day, two turtledoves are to be given. But for what purpose? Since this song relates to Christmas, can we assume that there is some religious or spiritual significance with this gift??

Turtle doves could be offered as a sin-offering (Lev 5:7). Is this why they were given? Or perhaps, as the alternate offering for a poor woman, seeking purification after giving birth (Lev 12:8)? This at least links in to the Christmas story (at Luke 2:24), which is what the song is supposed to be about! But it does seem like a long shot …

So, what about as a guilt-offering when cleansing a leper (Lev 14:22)? Or maybe for a Nazirite who has touched a corpse (Num 6:9)? Or as a means of cleansing after sexual discharge (Lev 15:14)? Or maybe the text is multivalent, and we are supposed to bring all of these allusions to mind. Because we know our Bible so well. And we know this is meant to be symbolic. Eh?

Next, on Day Three, the gift to be given is three French hens. Some suggest they are Faith, Hope and Charity, the key Theological Virtues. But only three? There are actually four types of French Hens (Faverolles, La Fleche, Crevecoeurs and Marans). So do we know which one of the four missed out on its moment of glory in this Christmas carol? It’s a worry.

On Day Four, four birds form the gift. Ah, but what type of birds? Calling birds? So you might think. But older versions of the song identify them as Colly Birds. Which are … …??? A colly bird is a black bird. A coal mine is called a colliery, so ‘colly’ or ‘collie’ is a derivation of this and means black like coal. So, no more whitewashing, let’s sing “four black birds”, and be clear about it, eh?

And … while we are at it … Day Five: Five Golden Rings? But they are surrounded by flocks of birds (swans, geese, colly birds, hens de la France, turtle doves, and a partridge). Rings are out of place. So, it is believed that this verse originally referred not to jewellery but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant. So, let’s now sing: “five ring-necked birds”! Context is everything!

The sixth of the #twelvedaysofchristmas is the midpoint of the 12 days, when we can look back on the story of Christmas (the birth and the shepherds), and forward to the story of Epiphany (the visit of the Magi). The gift for the Sixth Day focusses on new life: six geese a-laying.

It is said that, while chickens lay eggs regularly (usually each day ), geese only lay 30-50 eggs a year. This means they are a less productive bird to keep. It takes longer to increase the size of the flock for meat production. And their eggs are very high in cholesterol. Was this a wise gift? (Of course, you may well score the goose that lays the golden egg.)

On Day Seven, the gift is seven swans a-swimming. Well, yes; that’s what swans do. But who in their right might give this as a gift? Where would they all be put so that they could keep swimming? In a huge bathtub? This is quite unrealistic. Anyway, I guess it proves that the carol was not written by a football-mad fanatic. (They would have had swans kicking goals.)

On Day Eight, we are exhorted to give eight maids a-milking. In older English, to “go a-milking” could mean to ask a woman for her hand in marriage; OR to ask a woman to go “for a roll in the hay”, as it were. Is this Christmas carol concealing a reference to illicit sexual encounters? And does that make it more interesting than just getting some milk in order to make some cheese?

Next: Day Nine. Nine ladies dancing. Liturgical dances, I presume? In explore the significance of these ladies, I am somewhat stumped. Any clues, anyone?

Meanwhile, I am starting to compile my list of ‘not relevant in Australia’ secular Christmas carols. Because here, downunder, we are in the midst of summer—not winter, as all the upover northern hemisphere Christmas songs assume. So, not relevant to downunder would include: Anything with snow, for a start. And bells. And holly. And fir trees. And … well, the possibilities are endless.

On Day Ten, the gift is to be ten Lords a-leaping. Alliteration, indeed; but why leaping? Perhaps there is a textual transmission problem here. Maybe it should be: Lords a-leasing? (what to do with their huge old castles and manors)? Or Lords a-sleeping? (in the upper chamber of the British parliament)? Or perhaps Lords a-weeping? (at the decline of their much- loved aristocratic powers). Who knows?

Which brings us to the eleventh day of (the season of) Christmas. On Day Eleven we meet eleven pipers piping. So perhaps this comes from a Scottish variant (like day one comes from the French version). Perhaps the Scots packed their song full of food? In this, the gifts would include twelve alka seltsers, eleven Blue Lagoons, ten creme de menthe, nine vodka and limes, eight nips of whisky, seven rum and cokes, six Carlsberg specials…you get the picture? (Yes, I know, this is becoming quite speculative!!)

Or — does the Scottish reference (bagpipes) mean that I should refer to the crackpot theory that this whole carol was a coded reference to the right of Bonny Prince Charlie to regain the British throne? Yegods … …

But I do note that, in other versions, there are eleven ladies spinning, eleven ladies dancing, eleven lads a-louping, eleven bulls a-beating, and eleven badgers baiting!! Make of them, what you will.

And then, we come to the ultimate (last) of the #twelvedaysofchristmas. Day Twelve. Twelve drummers drumming.

Since the gifts are cumulative, and repeated on each day, on Day Twelve we actually have drummers drumming, along with piping pipers, leaping lords, bleating cows, tapping toes, shuffling shoes, a horde of aviary escapees, and the whole schemozzle. 78 gifts in all (count them) just on this last, twelfth, day. Presumably the others gifts from earlier days are still there. That’s one heck of a menagerie!! It’s all too loud, I think — and the incessant fights amongst all those squawking birds! Oh dear; time for a doze, instead.

The evening of Day Twelve is thus Twelfth Night. The day after is Epiphany, a day to celebrate the coming of the magi to the infant Jesus. Time, indeed, to rest—when you get there. But, for the moment, there’s some geese to be sourced. And some drummers. And milkmaids … and Lords (Lords??) … and ………….


See also