From time to time, I will mention to someone that St. John or the Gospel of John was the favored scripture of the Irish or Lindisfarne/Iona specifically. Much of the time I get a very puzzled or skeptical look in return, so my topic today is the Lindisfarne/Iona affinity for St. John the Beloved.
First, it is easy to see why John was their favored apostle and evangelist. They often refer to John as being worthy to lay his head on Christ’s shoulder during the Last Supper as proof that he was a favored disciple. John is, of course, usually identified with the ‘beloved disciple’ of the Gospel of John to whom the Blessed Mother is entrusted.
As a writer, John was believed to be the most productive of the twelve apostles. John was reputed to be the author of the Gospel of John, three letters, and Revelations. In Galatians (2:9), Paul refers to John as one of the pillars of the church along with Peter and James the Just, Jesus’ brother. Of the four evangelists, John’s Community in Asia Minor was also the largest and most prominent. (To be fair, Iona also had considerable interest in Egyptian spirituality, representing the community of Mark.) The point is, that it was fairly easy to privilege John over Peter.
Synod of Whitby: The most important evidence comes from Bishop Colman’s defense at the Synod of Whitby. His first defense of Lindisfarne’s Easter calculation is that it was that of St. John the Evangelist; only when Wilfrid overturned this, did Colman appeal to Anatolius’ calendar. What is important here is not whether Lindisfarne and Iona were correctly using John’s calendar or not, but that Colman initially put St. John up against St. Peter. When that failed to sway, he turned to Anatolius and then Columba. While the scene is climatically portrayed as being St. Columba vs. St. Peter, the debate Colman wanted to have was St. John vs St. Peter. Had the calendar not been an issue and it was only which disciple the church follow, it would have been a much more difficult decision.
St. John of Beverly: Anglo-Saxons and the Irish very rarely took biblical names during the early medieval period. Hagiography and Bede’s letters show us that they sometimes took pet names primarily from the church fathers, but it was very rare for these names to replace their native birth name. There are a few, Columba, Boisil (probably from Basil) and Benedict Biscop (Baducing) but they are the exceptions and none of them are biblical names. There are only three native people in Bede’s History with biblical names: John of Beverly, Bishop of Hexham and York; Tobias Bishop of Rochester, and Thomas, Bishop of East Anglia. It is significant that this Whitby-trained bishop took the name John.
St Boisil’s last week: St Boisil was an Irish prior of Melrose, who must have arrived in Northumbria during Aidan of Lindisfarne’s life. He was prior of Melrose to Abbot Eata when Bishop Aidan dies in 651. According to Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, Boisil was Cuthbert’s mentor. When Boisil has a prophecy that he only has a week to live, he chooses a seven part commentary of the Gospel of John as his last lesson to Cuthbert. This highlights the Gospel of John in the Life of Cuthbert and as what Boisil found the most important to teach Cuthbert.
St. Cuthbert’s Gospel survives today, commonly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel. It is a palm size copy of the Gospel of John, produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow during Coelfrith’s abbacy, and was placed in St. Cuthbert’s hand within his coffin. This is the correct period for both Cuthbert’s death in 687 and his first translation in 695. It was probably placed in his hand in the first shrine in 695. Indeed, one wonders if this gospel book was commissioned by Ceolfrith specifically as a gift from Wearmouth-Jarrow to the new saint at his translation or his original grave. From hagiography and letters, we know that it was common to send gifts to a saint, even while they lived, to be used for their grave. However, it is interesting that Bede did not mention his own monastery’s gift to the shrine in his Life of Cuthbert. This may suggest that the gospel was given to Cuthbert during his lifetime, and unknown to Bede, who would have been a youth in 685-687. His ordination in 685 would have been an occasion when such a personal gift would have been appropriate. Whenever the gospel was given, it is significant that Cuthbert was enshrined with a copy of the Gospel of John in his hand.
These breadcrumbs may look like thin evidence but when we consider how little evidence we have from Lindisfarne’s Irish period, I think it is significant. This is not to say that the Irish did not value the other three gospels; all four evangelists were carved into Cuthbert’s original coffin and the Lindisfarne Gospels provides elaborate carpet and opening pages to all four gospels. Yet, if we are to understand Iona and Lindisfarne, and their influence through the ages, glimpses at their theological preferences can be enlightening.