John the Apostle

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Saint John the Apostle
Segna di Bonaventura. St John the Evangelist. Metroplitan, N-Y.jpg

John the Apostle
Son of Zebedee, The Divine, Apostle of Charity, Beloved Disciple,The Evangelist
Born c. 6 C.E. in Galilee
Died c. 101 in Ephesus, Asia Minor
Venerated in All Christianity
Feast December 27 (Western Christianity)
May 8 (Eastern Christianity)
Attributes book, a serpent in a chalice, cauldron, eagle
Patronage authors, burns, poisoning, theologians, publishers, booksellers, editors, friendships, and painters

John the Apostle, also known as John the Divine and John the Son of Zebedee, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Christian tradition identifies him with the authors of several New Testament works, including the Gospel of John.

According to the New Testament, John came from a family of fisherman. He became part of the core group of three disciples who witnessed certain key events in Jesus' ministry. As "the disciple whom Jesus loved," John is noted for his faith and loyalty to Jesus. However, together with Peter and James, John failed to keep watch and protect Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane at a crucial moment in Jesus' ministry. Nevertheless, he alone among the Twelve is believed to have stood by Jesus at the Cross.

According to the Book of Acts, John was a significant leader in the earliest church, but he drops out of the biblical record after Paul mentions him as a "pillar" of the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2. Tradition holds that he went to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary and founded several churches in Asia minor. He is recognized as a saint in all Christian traditions which venerate holy persons, and is believed to be buried at Ephesus.

Writing and identity

John the Apostle is most clearly identified as John the son of Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman. He has also been identified in Christian tradition as the author of all of the New Testament works in which "John" appears in the title. However, in modern times several different authors are often suggested for these works.

The creator of the Gospel of John is usually known as John the Evangelist, John the Theologian, or John the Divine. This text contains references to the "disciple whom Jesus loved," traditionally taken as a self-reference by the author, and therefore a reference to John the Apostle.

The writer(s) of the epistles of John calls himself simply the presbyter (elder), and numerous theories have been suggested about the relationship of these letters to the Gospel of John and to each other.

The Book of Revelation is the only one of the texts which actually claims to have been written by a person named John. This author is usually known as John of Patmos or John the Revelator. As his writing style differs greatly from the other Johannine literature, it is debated whether or not he is the same person who wrote the Gospel and epistle of John.

The apocryphal second-century Gnostic text called the Secret Book of John was also attributed to John, though not by the orthodox Christian traditions.

In the Bible

John as "the disciple whom Jesus loved"

John the Apostle was the son of Zebedee, and the brother of James. By comparing Mark 15:40 and Matthew 27:56, we can surmise that his mother's name was Salome. John and his brother originally were fishermen and worked with their father in the Lake of Genesareth. From the fact that he is usually listed after James, he is traditionally thought to have been the younger of the brothers. Although they are not named, John and James are often thought to have been among the Galilean fishermen who first became followers of John the Baptist before leaving his group and joining Jesus (John 1).

John had a prominent position among the disciples as one of the three apparently most trusted by Jesus. Peter, James and John were the only witnesses to the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37), to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), and to Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37). His position was such that his mother felt that it as appropriate to ask that he be considered to sit at Jesus' right hand after the messianic kingdom was established (Matthew 20:20). He and Peter were sent into the city to make the preparation for the final Passover meal, the Last Supper (Luke 22:8). At the meal itself—assuming John was indeed the same person as the "disciple whom Jesus loved"—his place was next to Jesus, on whose chest he leaned (John 13:23).

At Gethsemane, however, John is portrayed as failing in an important duty. There, he and the other two core disciples were commanded by Jesus to keep watch while Jesus prayed. All three of them tragically fell asleep, not once, but three times, failing to warn Jesus of the approach of Judas Iscariot with the Temple guards who came to arrest him. After this, Matthew reports that "all the disciples deserted him and fled." (Matthew 26:56)

The Gospel of John alone presents Peter and another disciple as not entirely deserting Jesus after this moment. According to tradition, John was the "other disciple" who, with Peter, followed Jesus after the arrest into the palace of the high priest (John 18:15). Though still unnamed, John's Gospel presents the beloved disciple as the only one of the Twelve who remained near Jesus at the foot of the cross on Calvary, along with Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and the other pious women. He was instructed by Jesus to take his mother into his care, as Jesus' last instruction on earth (John 19:25-27).


Artist William Hole's description of John and Peter discovering Jesus' empty tomb.

After the Resurrection, John and Peter were the first of the disciples to run toward Jesus’ grave and the unnamed John was the first to believe that Jesus had truly risen (John 20:2-10). After Jesus’ Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, John took, together with Peter, a prominent part in the founding and guidance of the church. He is with Peter at the healing of the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:1 seq.). With Peter he is also thrown into prison (Acts 4:3). He is also with Peter visiting the newly converted in Samaria (Acts 8:14).

There is no positive information concerning the duration of this activity in Judea. It is assumed that John, in common with the other Apostles, remained some 12 years in this first field of labor, until the persecution of Herod Agrippa I led to the scattering of the apostles through the various provinces of the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 12:1-17).

Some interpret the Book of Acts to indicate that a community of believers in Jesus was already in existence at Ephesus before Paul's first visit there (cf. "the brethren," Acts 18:27, in addition to Priscilla and Aquila). Some thus hold that John went to Asia Minor and was the first to exercise the apostolic office in various provinces there. Moreover, the fact that the Holy Spirit reportedly did not permit Paul, on his second missionary journey to proclaim the Gospel in Asia, Mysia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6 sq.), may refer to John's previous missionary activity there.

Less speculatively, John seems to have been present for the apostolic Council of Jerusalem (c. 51 C.E.) described in Acts 15, since Paul mentions John explicitly along with Peter and James the Just one of the "pillars of the church" there.

Of the other New Testament writings, it is only from the three epistles of John and the Book of Revelation that anything further is learned about John, and this information depends on whether one accepts him as the author of these works or not. If so he lived for a long time in Asia Minor, was thoroughly acquainted with the conditions existing in the various messianic communities there (called the "seven churches" in the Book of Revelation), and had a position of authority recognized by some, but apparently not all of the churches in this region. Both Revelation and the epistles speak of various schisms and heresies which had arisen, against which the author writes. In addition, the letter known as 3 John indicates that its author has been rejected by some of the leaders with whom he had communicated. Revelation adds that its author was on the island of Patmos "for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus," (Revelation 1:9), meaning that he had become the "confessor" who had apparently been exiled to Patmos on account of his faith.

Other traditions concerning John

The traditional tomb of John the Apostle in Ephesus, Turkey
John the Evangelist

Catholic and Orthodox tradition say that John, together with the the Virgin Mary, moved to Ephesus, where both eventually died. According to Tertullian, John was banished (presumably to Patmos) after being plunged into boiling oil in Rome and miraculously suffering nothing from it. Some believe his tomb is located at Selçuk, a small town in the vicinity of Ephesus.

In his Dialogue with Trypho (Chapter 81) Justin Martyr refers to "John, one of the Apostles of Christ" as an eye-witness of Jesus' ministry who had lived "with us" at Ephesus. Irenæus declares that he wrote his Gospel at Ephesus (Adv. haer., III, i, 1), and that he had lived there until the reign of Trajan. Eusebius and Jerome related that John was the teacher of the Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Syria. When John was old he is believed to have trained the future Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in today's Turkey. Polycarp is thought to have carried John's message and apostolic authority to a new generation, until he himself became a martyr for the faith.

John is revered as a saint by most of Christianity, except for those tradition that to not specially honor saints. His role in the Orthodox Church is somewhat more prominent than in the Catholic Church, which looks more to Saint Peter as the supposed first pope. The Roman Catholic Church commemorates him on December 27, and he is also remembered in the liturgy on January 3. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates him on September 26, and also remembers him on May 8, on which date Christians used to draw forth from his grave fine ashes which were believed to be effective for healing the sick. In art, John is often depicted with an eagle.

John in the apocrypha

Two important works of the New Testament Apocrypha are directly connected to John: the Acts of John and the Apocryphon of John. The former is known through several fragmentary texts that have survived, while the Apocryphon of John had been lost until its rediscovery at Nag Hammadi in the mid-twentieth century.

Although the Acts of John was condemned and destroyed because it contained several clearly Gnostic chapters, much of its content is related to the aforementioned traditions regarding John's two journeys to Ephesus. Among other acts, John converts the believers in the goddess Artemis after destroying her temple and performs several resurrections.

The Apocryphon of John (Secret Book of John) was an important Gnostic work reportedly conveying the contents of a revelation of the resurrection to John the Apostle. It offers one of the clearest descriptions of a Gnostic myth of humanity's creation, fall, and salvation. It survived as an actively used scripture until at least the eighth century.

Critical views

John of Patmos

John is traditionally held to be the author of five books of the New Testament, including the Gospel of John. Modern experts, however, usually consider the author to be an unknown non-eyewitness from as late as the early second century. While the Church Fathers agree that John was its author, Epiphanius takes note of an early Christian sect, the Alogi, who believed the Gospel was actually written by Cerinthus, a second-century Gnostic teacher.

Like the Gospel writer, the author of the epistles of John does not give his name, but refers to himself as the Presbyter (Elder). Eusebius, (Hist. eccl., III, xxxix, 4), relying on an account of Papias, makes a distinction between this Presbyter (John) and the Apostle John, and this distinction was also accepted by Saint Jerome. Nevertheless, there are clear literary connections between the Gospel and the epistles of John, leading some to conclude that there existed a "Johannine" Christian community which produced this literature.

The Book of Revelation's writing style is very different from any of the above-mentioned works. Moreover grammatical errors lead scholars to believe it was written by a non-Greek (a Jewish Christian), whereas the other Johannine literature shows an excellent command of written Greek. Few critical scholars hold that John of Patmos and the author of the other Johannine literature can be the same person.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barrett, C. K. The Gospel According to St. John. S.P.C.K. 1960. ASIN: B000O2IJ7U
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. Paulist Press, 1979. ISBN 9780809121748
  • Culpepper, R. Alan. John, the Son of Zebedee The Life of a Legend. Studies on personalities of the New Testament. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000. ISBN 978-0800631673
  • Hamburger, Jeffrey F. St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. ISBN 9780520228771
  • Hill, Charles E. The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006. ISBN 978-0199291441
  • Moore, Beth, and Dale McCleskey. The Beloved Disciple: Following John to the Heart of Jesus. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003. ISBN 9780805427530


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