The Death of the Last Apostle claim

The last of the 12 Apostles to die was John, the author of the Gospel and the Book of Revelation. A number of sources make the claim that public revelation (Tradition and Scripture) was completed or closed with “the death of the last Apostle”.

For example, this article (no author stated) at Catholic Answers:

“The Catholic Church teaches that public revelation was completed, and therefore was concluded, with the death of the last apostle (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 4)….”

The citation of Dei Verbum 4 contains no such assertion. The phrase “death of the last Apostle” or even “last Apostle” does not appear in Dei Verbum. The full text of Dei Verbum 4 follows:

4. Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as “a man to men.” (3) He “speaks the words of God” (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13).

Also, in a recent post, prolific writer of whatever random thoughts happen to pass through his mind, Mark Shea, makes the same claim:

Two basic tenets of Catholic teaching are that 1) God revealed himself in a progressive revelation that was completed with the death of the last apostle and 2) since then the Church’s understanding of that complete revelation has deepened and developed.

The deepening and developing tenet is correct. But the claim that public revelation “was completed with the death of the last apostle” is most probably false, and certainly not a “basic tenet” of Catholic teaching.

A search of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also fails to find any reference to the death of John or “the last Apostle”. A search of the Vatican website finds two sources for this assertion: a working document from the Synod of Bishop and documents from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Neither source is sufficiently authoritative to justify the broad claim “the Church teaches that” the death of the last Apostle represents the close of the Canon of Scripture or of public revelation.

A search of Google books for the phrase “death of the last apostle” turns up two points of interest. First, the phrasing seems to have originated in Protestant sources, not Catholic teaching, nor Catholic theology. Second, the phrasing seems to have been brought into the realm of Catholic theological opinion by Karl Rahner (A new Christology, Karl Rahner, Wilhelm Thüsing, Burns & Oates, 1980).

The basis for this claim seems to be the idea that the books of Sacred Scripture written by John were the last to be written. So once the last book of Scripture is completed, the canon of Scripture is closed.

Whether or not the “Canon” of Tradition has ever been closed is an interesting question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Second Vatican Council do teach that we await “no new public revelation” before the Return of Jesus (Dei Verbum 4). And public revelation consists of Tradition and Scripture only. However, Sacred Tradition is always considered a living Tradition. In some sense, the canon of Tradition is closed. But as a living Tradition, we attain new insights into that canon as the Church lives the Faith.

So the operative question here is whether or not the canon of Scripture was closed with the death of John the Evangelist. In other words, were any book or parts of books of the Bible written, under inspiration, subsequent to the death of John.

To my mind, it is clear that some books and parts of books of the New Testament were written, under inspiration, after the death of John the Apostle. I take the traditional view that the Gospel of John was written by John the Apostle. However, biblical scholars believe that a group of John’s disciples subsequently edited his work. This point is clear from certain passages:

{21:24} This is the same disciple who offers testimony about these things, and who has written these things. And we know that his testimony is true.
{21:25} Now there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if each of these were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to contain the books that would be written.

The disciples of John are the “we” in “we know that his testimony is true.” And the main editor among them is the “I” in “I suppose”. If John were still alive, his disciples would not have felt free to take up his work and edit it.

Other edits in John take the form of commentary on John’s account of the events:

{21:14} This was now the third time that Jesus was manifested to his disciples, after he had resurrected from the dead.

The editors are considering John’s account, and making comments as observers or listeners, rather than as the person relating the account. Then there is the phrase: “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in various places in the Gospel. It is highly unlikely that John, the humble disciple, would have given himself that epithet. But John’s disciples would have no qualms about using the phrase. So this phrase represents another edit to John’s Gospel under inspiration.

It may even be the case that the entire interaction between Jesus, Peter, and John after the Resurrection — which gave rise to the rumor that John would never die — was related by John to his disciples, and only written in the Gospel after his death. The event of his death would warrant this addition, so that Christians of that time would understand that Jesus never said John would not die; it was a false conclusion some persons made based on that interaction.

The fact that these edits fall under inspiration, unlike the work of subsequent translators, copyists, editors, and publishers of the Bible, is clear from the content of the edits. Whole verses and significant additions to verses are part of this editing under inspiration by John’s disciples. No editor or translator, subsequent to the close of the Canon, would dare to add anything to the text in this way.

More evidence is found in the Book of Revelation by John, which also has clear edits, probably by the same loose-knit group of disciples who edited the Gospel. The first three verses are a preface to John’s letter to the Seven Churches:

{1:1} The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, in order to make known to his servants the things that must soon occur, and which he signified by sending his Angel to his servant John;
{1:2} he has offered testimony to the Word of God, and whatever he saw is the testimony of Jesus Christ.
{1:3} Blessed is he who reads or hears the words of this Prophecy, and who keeps the things that have been written in it. For the time is near.

Then the actual letter begins:

{1:4} John, to the seven Churches, which are in Asia. Grace and peace to you, from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are in the sight of his throne….

John would not write such a preface, referring to himself in the third person. Then, throughout the book, John refers to himself in the first person (“I” and “me”) as he describes his visions.

Finally, we must consider whether the letters of John were actually written by John the Apostle, or by another John. The early Church Fathers did not agree on this point, with some saying that at least the last two of the three letters were written by a different John.

To my mind, the content of all three letters indicates that this John “the elder” was a disciple and imitator of John the Apostle, but with his own style of writing and his own theological point of view. And it seems most likely that someone who was a disciple of John, but also old enough to be an elder would be writing after the death of John the Apostle.

Therefore, some books and parts of books of Sacred Scripture were written after the death of John the Apostle. Therefore also, the canon of Sacred Scripture was not closed with the death of John the Apostle.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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