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John The Apostle | John the Baptist | John, First Epistle of | John, Gospel of | John, Second Epistle of | John, The Apostle | John, The Epistles Of, Part 1-3 | John, The Epistles Of, Part 4-9 | John, The First Epistle General Of | John, The Revelation Of | John, The Second And Third Epistles Of

John, The Apostle


JOHN, THE APOSTLE - Sources of the Life of John:

The sources for the life of the apostle John are of various kinds, and of different degrees of trustworthiness. There are the references in the Synoptic Gospels, which may be used simply and easily without any preliminary critical inquiry into their worth as sources; for these Gospels contain the common tradition of the early church, and for the present purpose may be accepted as trustworthy. Further, there are the statements in Acts and in Galatians, which we may use without discussion as a source for the life of John. There is next the universal tradition of the 2nd century, which we may use, if we can show that the John of Ephesus, who bulks so largely in the Christian literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, is identical with the son of Zebedee. Further, on the supposition that the son of Zebedee is the author of the Johannine writings of the New Testament, there is another source of unequaled value for the estimate of the life and character of the son of Zebedee in these writings. Finally, there is the considerable volume of tradition which gathered around the name of John of Ephesus, of which, picturesque and interesting though the traditions be, only sparing use can be made.

I. Witness of the New Testament.

Addressing ourselves first to the Synoptic Gospels, to Acts and to Galatians, we ask, What, from these sources, can we know of the apostle John? A glance only need be taken at the Johannine writings, more fully discussed elsewhere in relation to their author.

1. The Synoptic Gospels:

That John was one of the two sons of Zebedee, that he became one of the disciples of Jesus, that at His call he forsook all and followed Jesus, and was thereafter continuously with Jesus to the end, are facts familiar to every reader of the Synoptic Gospels. The call was given to John and to his brother James at the Sea of Galilee, while in a boat with their father Zebedee, "mending their nets" (Mt 4:21,22, and parallel passages). "Come ye after me," said Jesus, "and I will make you to become fishers of men" (Mk 1:17; on the earlier call in Judea, Jn 1:35 ff, see below). That Zebedee was a man of considerable wealth may be inferred from the fact that he had "hired servants" with him (Mk 1:20), and that his wife was one of those women who ministered of their substance to Jesus and His disciples (Mt 27:55,56). Comparison of the latter passage with Mk 15:40,41 identifies the wife of Zebedee, John's mother, with Salome, and it seems a fair inference from Jn 19:25, though all do not accept it, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Salome, the wife of Zebedee, were sisters. On this view, James and John were cousins of Jesus, and were also related to the family of John the Baptist. The name of John appears in all the lists of the apostles given in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 10:2 and parallels). While his name appears rarely in a position by itself, he is still one of the most prominent of the disciples. With Peter and James he is present at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51 ff). These three were also present at the transfiguration (Mt 17; Mk 9; Lk 9). They were nearest to the Lord at the agony of Gethsemane. In all these cases nothing characteristic of John is to be noted. He is simply present as one of the three, and therefore one of the most intimate of the disciples. But there is something characteristic in an incident recorded by Luke (9:54), in which James and John are represented as wishing to call down fire on a Sam village, which had refused them hospitality. From this can be inferred something of the earnestness, zeal, and enthusiasm of the brothers, and of their high sense of what was due to their Master. Peter, James, John, and Andrew are the four who asked Jesus about the prophecies He had uttered: "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?" (Mk 13:4). Then there is the request of their mother as to the place she desired for her sons in the coming kingdom (Mk 10:35 ff). To Peter and John was entrusted the task of preparation for the keeping of the Passover (Lk 22:8). Once John stands alone, and asks what we may consider a characteristic question: "Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us" (Mk 9:38; Lk 9:49). From these notices we see that John was in the front rank of the disciples, and we see also that he was so far conscious of the position he held, and of the intimate connection he had with the Master. We note further that John was a young man of fiery zeal, and of a tendency toward intolerance and exclusiveness. The zeal and the intolerance are in evidence in the desire to call down fire upon the Samaritan village, and the tendency toward exclusiveness is manifested in the request of his mother as to the place her sons were to occupy in the kingdom. They desire to have the highest positions. These tendencies were not encouraged by Jesus. They were rebuked by Him once and again, but the tendencies reveal the men. In harmony with these notices of character and temperament is the name given to the brothers by Jesus, "Boanerges," "Sons of thunder" (Mk 3:17), which, whatever else may be meant by it, means strength, unexpectedness, and zeal approaching to methods of violence.

2. Acts and Galatians:

John is found in company with Peter in the opening scenes in Acts. He is with Peter while the man at the gate was healed (3:1 ff). He is with Peter on the mission to Samaria (8:14 ff). He is with Peter and James, the Lord's brother, at the interview with Paul recorded in Gal 2, and the three are described by Paul as the pillar apostles (2:9). This interview is of importance because it proves that John had survived his brother James, whose death is recorded in Acts 12; at all events that John and James were not killed by the Jews at the same time, as some now contend that they were. This contention is considered below.

3. The Johannine Writings: Gospel and Revelation:

Much is to be learned of the apostle John from the Fourth Gospel, assuming the Gospel to have been written by him. We learn from it that he was a disciple of John the Baptist (1:35), that he was one of the first six disciples called by Jesus in His early ministry in Judea (1:37-51), and that he was present at all the scenes which he describes in the Gospel. We find later that he had a home in Jerusalem, and was acquainted with many there. To that home he took Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom the dying Saviour entrusted to his care (19:26,27). Much more also we learn of him and of his history, for the Gospel is a spiritual biography, a record of the growth of faith on the part of the writer, and of the way in which his eyes were opened to see the glory of the Lord, until faith seems to have become vision. He was in the inner circle of the disciples, indeed, nearest of all to Jesus, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20), and, because of that love, became the apostle of love (see, further, JOHN, GOSPEL OF; JOHN, THE EPISTLES OF; JOHANNINE THEOLOGY).

The Book of Revelation, likewise traditionally ascribed to John, bears important witness to the apostle's banishment in later life to the isle of Patmos in the Aegean (1:9). There he received the visions recorded in the book. The banishment probably took place in the reign of Domitian (see REVELATION), with whose practice it was entirely in consonance (on the severity of such exile, compare Sir W.M. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, chapter viii). The testimony is of high importance in its bearing on the disputed question of John's residence in Asia, a point now to be discussed.

II. Alleged Early Martyrdom of John: Criticism of Evidence.

1. Recent Denial of John's Residence in Ephesus:

The consentient testimony of the church of the 2nd century is that the later years of John were spent at Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel, and gathered round him many disciples (see the evidence drawn out in detail in Godet, Commentary on Gospel of John, 43 ff; compare also Lightfoot, "The School of Ephesus," in Essays on the Work Entitled "Supernatural Religion"). Before, however, we can use the traditions connected with this residence at Ephesus, it is needful to inquire into the statement alleged to be made by Papias that John, the son of Zebedee, was killed by the Jews at an early date. It is plain, that, if this statement is correct, the apostle could not be the author of the Johannine writings in the New Testament, universally dated near the end of the 1st century.

2. Grounds of Denial:

The evidence for the statement that John was early killed by the Jews is thus summed up by Dr. Moffatt: "The evidence for the early martyrdom of John the son of Zebedee is, in fact, threefold: (a) a prophecy of Jesus preserved in Mk 10:39 = Mt 20:23, (b) the witness of Papias, and (c) the calendars of the church" (Intro to Lit. of New Testament, 602). Our limits do not admit of an exhaustive examination of this so-called evidence, but, happily, an exhaustive examination is not needed.

(a) The first head proceeds on an assumption which is not warranted, namely, that a prophecy of Jesus would not be allowed to stand, if it were not evidently fulfilled. In the present instance, a literal fulfillment of the prophecy ("The cup that I drink ye shall drink," etc.) is out of the question, for there is no hint that either James or John was crucified. We must therefore fall back on the primary meaning of martyrdom, and recognize a fulfillment of the prophecy in the sufferings John endured and the testimony he bore for the Master's sake (thus Origen, etc.).

(b) Dr. Moffatt lays great stress on what he calls the testimony of Papias. But the alleged testimony of Papias is not found in any early authority, and then occurs in writers not of any great value from the point of view of critical investigation. It is found in a passage of Georgius Hamartolus (9th century), and is held to be corroborated by a fragment of an epitome (7th or 8th century) of the Chronicle of Philip Sidetes (5th century), a thoroughly untrustworthy writer. The passage from Georgius may be seen in convenient form in Lightfoot's Apostolic Fathers, 513-19. It tells that John survived to the time of Nerva, quotes a saying of Papias that he was killed by the Jews, states that this was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus above referred to, and goes on to say, "So the learned Origen affirms in his interpretation of Matthew's Gospel, that John was martyred, declaring that he had learnt the last from the successors of the apostles" (Lightfoot, op. cit., 531). Fortunately, the statement of Origen can be tested, and it by no means, as Moffatt admits (op. cit., 604), bears out the meaning attached to it. Origen is of opinion that the prophecy of Jesus was sufficiently fulfilled by the fact of John's banishment to Patmos and his sufferings there. This, according to him, is what tradition taught and what the prophecy meant. From the whole statement of Georgius, which expressly declares that John survived till the time of Nerva, nothing can be inferred in support of the so-called quotation from Papias. It is to be remembered that the writings of Papias were known to Irenaeus and to Eusebius, and it is inconceivable that, if such a statement was to be found in these, they would have ignored it, and have given currency to a statement contradictory to it. No stress, therefore, can be laid on the alleged quotation. We do not know its context, nor is there anything in the literature of the first 3 centuries corroborative of it. In the citation in the epitome of Philip, Papias is made to speak of "John the divine" (ho theologos). This title is not applied to John till the close of the 4th century.

(c) As regards the 3rd line of evidence instanced by Dr. Moffatt--church calendars, in which James and John are commemorated together as martyrs--it is even more worthless than the other two. On the nature and origin of these martyrologies, Dr. J. Drummond may be quoted: "They were constructed in process of time out of local calendars. At some period in the 2nd half of the 5th century, a martyrology was formed by welding together a number of provincial calendars, Roman, Italian, Spanish, and Gallic, into what was in effect a general martyrology of Western Europe. At Nicomedia, about the year 350, a similar eastern martyrology was formed out of the local calendars, and this was translated with curtailments into Syriac at Edessa about the year 400. It is a copy of this, made in 411, which is now in the British Museum" (Inquiry into Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel, 232). If this is a true account of the rise and origin of martyrologies we need not be surprised that Sir W. M. Ramsay speaks as follows: "That James and John, who were not slain at the same time, should be commemorated together, is the flimsiest conceivable evidence that John was killed early in Jerusalem. The bracketing together of the memory of apostles who had some historical connection in life, but none in death, must be regarded as the worst side, historically speaking, of the martyrologies" (The First Christian Century, 49, note).

III. The Ephesian Traditions.

1. John the Apostle, and John the Presbyter:

Thus the early traditions of the churches are available for the life of John the son of Zebedee. But there still remain many blank spaces in that life. After the reference to the pillar apostles in Gal, silence falls on the life of John, and we know nothing of his life and activity until we read of his banishment to Patmos, and meet with those references to the old man at Ephesus, which occur in the Christian literature of the 2nd century. One point of interest relates to the (genuine) quotation from Papias, preserved by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, III, 39), regarding a "Presbyter John," a disciple of the Lord, who was one of his living authorities. Were there two Johns at Ephesus? Or was there only one? Or, if there was only one, was he John the Evangelist, or only John the Presbyter? Here there is every possible variety of opinion. Many hold that there were two, and many that there was only one. Many who hold that there was only one, hold that the one was John the son of Zebedee; others hold, with equal assurance, that he was a distinct person. Obviously, it is impossible to discuss the question adequately here. After due consideration, we lean to the conclusion that there was only one John at Ephesus, and he the son of Zebedee. For the proof of this, impossible within our limits, we refer to the learned argument of John Chapman, in his work John the Presbyter and the Fourth Gospel (1911).

2. Characteristic Traditions:

Into the traditions which cluster round John in Ephesus it is not necessary to enter in detail (compare Godet, op. cit., 57 ff). According to the tradition universally accepted in the church, John survived till the time of Trajan (98 AD). Striking and characteristic things are told of him in harmony with the touches we find in the Synoptic Gospels. The story of his rushing forth from the bath when Cerinthus, the heretic, entered it (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., iii.3, 4) recalls the characteristics of him whom Jesus called "son of thunder." The same tone of exclusiveness, modified by larger experience, is found in the 1st Epistle, which so frequently and so decisively discriminates between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not.

IV. The Character of John.

The general character of this great apostle is already sufficiently apparent. While we recall the illustrative facts found in the Synoptics, that James and John were the two who wished to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable village, that John was one of those who desired one of the chief places in the kingdom, that he it was who forbade the man to cast out demons in the name of Jesus because he followed not with them, we do not forget that on each of these occasions he was corrected and rebuked by the Master, and he was not the kind of man who could not profit by the rebuke of Jesus. So that vehemence of disposition was held in check, and, while still in existence, was under control, and allowed to have vent only on occasions when it was permissible, and even necessary. So in his writings, and in the reflections in the Gospel, we note the vehemence displayed, but now directed only against those who refused to believe in, and to acknowledge, Jesus.

"A quiet and thoughtful temperament is by no means inconsistent with a certain vehemence, when, on occasions, the pent-up fire flashes forth; indeed, the very violence of feeling may help to foster an habitual quietude, lest word or deed should betray too deep an emotion. Then it is not without significance that, in the three narratives which are cited from the Gospels to prove the overbearing temper of John, we are expressly told that Jesus corrected him. Are we to suppose that these rebukes made no impression? Is it not more likely that they sank deep into his heart, and that the agony of beholding his Master's crucifixion made them ineffaceable? Then, if not before, began that long development which changed the youthful son of thunder into the aged apostle of love" (Drummond, op. cit, 410, 411).

But love itself has its side of vehemence, and the intensity of love toward a person or a cause may be measured by the intensity of aversion and of hatred toward their contradictories. There are many reflections in the Gospel and in the Epistles which display this energy of hatred toward the work of the devil, and toward those dispositions which are under the influence of the father of lies. We simply notice these, for they prove that the fervent youth who was devoted to his Master carried with him to the end the same disposition which was characteristic of him from the beginning.


In addition to books mentioned in article, see the list of works appended to article on JOHN, GOSPEL OF.

James Iverach

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