Lindisfarne and St. John the Beloved

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.


22 thoughts on “Lindisfarne and St. John the Beloved

  1. Ok–so how do you interpret the tradition of Bede’s final days; that he was finishing a translation of the Gospel of John? Does it speak for or against your hypothesis?

  2. I don’t know that Bede’s last translation necessarily says anything about Lindisfarne either way. We know that he greatly admired Cuthbert and Aidan, and I think he also saw Boisil as a role model. Interesting that Bede’s own disciple, who wrote the letter on his death, was also named Cuthbert.

    Bede actually did a significant amount of work on John. He didn’t do a commentary on the Gospel of John, but this could have been because he thought they already had a good commentary. He was in the business of plugging gaps in Jarrow’s library. He did write commentaries on Revelations and was the first person in the West to write a commentary on the letters of John. A quick look at his homilies shows that 21 out of 50 homilies were on the Gospel of John. I didn’t think to look at them until now, so I still need to read them all. Then of course, as you mention he was translating the Gospel of John into English when he died.

    So you are the homily man, what do you make of all those homilies on John? Is he just making up for not doing a commentary on the whole of the gospel of John? Which is a more personal work, the homilies or a formal commentary?

  3. I’m away from my sources at the moment, but if I recall correctly, the homilies on John were for appointed Temporale passages not covered by Gregory in the 40 Gospel Homilies. So, again, plugging gaps.

  4. Back to your original question, Bede may have increased the emphasis on the Gospel of John in his Life of Cuthbert, but someone else put John in Cuthbert’s coffin. Bede’s homily on the Feast of St. John is really interesting. Bede obviously had a very high opinion of John.

    So how do you think Bede’s interest in John affects my hypothesis?

  5. Bede did have a high opinion of John. The sermon for the feast of John is interesting for many reasons, one being its length. I didn’t measure it but it feels a bit longer than many of his others. In terms of sources, he draws widely in its composition but, of course, Augustine is a major note. (And he touches on the legend of his death from the Apocryphal Acts of John which, of course, Aelfric draws from heavily for his sermon on the day.)

    I think Bede does affect it because it makes me wonder if the attraction to John is an Irish thing, or an Insular thing, or a period thing. Aelfric seems to have a similar connection–which might serve to discount the Irish connection. I’m thinking right off hand of the rather surprising insertion of the long section about John in the Letter to Sigeweard and also of the appearance of John as the prototypical virgin in some of his church discipline letters. What does Rabanus Maurus do or not do with John (i don’t know as I’m fairly unfamiliar with his corpus)? That might help convince me one way or the other…

  6. I’ll reply more to this tomorrow, but one quick thing I did notice. His homily II.21 is for the “feast of Saints John and Paul (or St. James)”. I’m not sure what day this is supposed to be for. The catholic encyclopedia says that John’s feast day in December was originally for James and John, ie. the brothers, but was soon reserved for John alone. Bede already has a feast day for John alone in December with his Christmas season homilies. John and Paul together is interesting because it makes me wonder if there was once a feast for John and Paul, like there is for Peter and Paul. In fact, his homily II.22 is for Peter and Paul. Do you know where this feast for “John and Paul” comes from?

  7. Yes, there was anciently a feast of John and Peter celebrated on June 26th (Lenker’s ‡61). Entries for it are found in most of the older (Chavasse’s Type 2) Anglo-Saxon lectionaries, but it seems not to have carried into many of the Type 3 lectionaries. It also shows up in the Neapolitan lectionaries that entered Northern England in the 7th century—Bede is following this tradition that uses the Matt 20:20-23 text instead of the more common Luke 12:1-8 passage…

  8. The feast is for “Saints John and Paul (or St. James)”. It is not for John and Peter. I read the homiliy last night and its really about James and John, the ‘sons of Thunder’, but even then he really focuses on John. Paul is really used to support his theology of John drinking from the chalice.

    On the earlier issue of it being an ‘insular thing’, I think that Bede himself was what I would call Anglo-Celtic (or Hiberno-Roman). He was devotedly Roman but obviously admired the Irish so much that I see no reason why they would not influence his theology. He considered Aidan’s lifestyle to be that which should be imitated. As far as Aelfric and other later writers, I think we can look to Bede’s influence on them. Bede certainly focuses on John as a virgin.

  9. I think that Bede himself was what I would call Anglo-Celtic (or Hiberno-Roman). He was devotedly Roman but obviously admired the Irish so much that I see no reason why they would not influence his theology.

    Ok… I’d agree with that—but that doesn’t give you anyone from the general time and place who *wasn’t* a big fan of John, does it? Is it useful to call it a Celtic/Hibernian thing without demonstrating that this was a special affection lacking in 0ther regions/ecclesial circles?

  10. First of all, in my original blog above, I never said that John wasn’t favored elsewhere. All I said is that John was favored at Lindisfarne (and her daughter houses). Wilfrid and his monastic family seem much more fond of Peter and Andrew.

    Aldhelm would be better to compare to Bede on St. John. I don’t remember what Aldhelm wrote about John in his ‘On Virginity’, or his other writings.

  11. Ah–see, there you go. The Ripon data does bear you out then.

    Aldhelm is a beast unto himself… Hermeneutic Latin gives me the willies… 😉

  12. As far as I know, they only had relics of their local saints. Besides, where would they get relics from John? Theodore of Tarsus is the only person we know of from the East to come to Britain in those years and I’m sure if he had any relics of John they would have stayed in Canterbury.

    I need to dig out the Anon Life of Cuthbert and see how it uses John. The Anon Life of Cuthbert is the one piece of original prose that we know was written on Lindisfarne. Although of course, Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert was commissioned and went through at least one draft after Lindisfarne reviewed it, so Bede’s use of John must have been approved and perhaps even suggested by Lindisfarne.

    Comparing translations of Aldhelm and Bede on John would also be useful. Thinking of Aldhelm’s training at Canterbury, its interesting that Bede didn’t travel anywhere for training. You would think that he would have wanted to travel to Canterbury for research and study, although by the time be began to write the History, his health may have been too bad for travel. His symptoms look like heart failure to me, which would develop slowly over years.

    1. Worth remembering that it wasn’t actually an eagle, which doesn’t go fishing, but an Osprey which spends its life over Scottish rivers, and is skilled at identifying salmon ‘from the air’. It has to be careful to aim for small ones, though, not much more than 4 lbs in weight, as it would be drowned by latching on to a larger fish: the reflex action in its talons makes it hard to unlock them once they are gripping a fish…and bigger fish would be impossible to lift clear of the water.

  13. Thanks for a thoughtful and informative blog…I recently had accepted for publication a picture book about Saint Cuthbert and the Ravens, and am now thinking about a second book, this time the story about the Eagle and the fish. Pondering about Cuthbert’s missionary/pastoral journeys in the hills while he was prior of Melrose, I’ve been wondering– surely he must have taken some books with him? The gospel of John would seem to be a good candidate. Perhaps also he would have needed some service books …any thoughts?

  14. The most common book for traveling monks, I would think, would have been the psalter. Usually the Book of Psalms was bound separately. He might have had a few prayers added to his psalter, but I don’t know that he would have had a service book.

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