John the Apostle




In the rest of the NT there are only a few scattered references to John. After the ascension of Jesus he remained in Jerusalem with the other apostles, praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts he appears with Peter in two important scenes. Soon after Pentecost they healed a man who had been lame from his birth, and while explaining the miracle to the astonished crowd gathered around them, they were arrested. The next day they were brought before the Sanhedrin. After being warned not to preach about Jesus any more, they were released (Acts.4.1-Acts.4.22). Later, after the gospel had been preached to the people of Samaria by Philip, Peter and John were sent by the apostles to Samaria; and they prayed and laid hands on the new converts that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts.8.14-Acts.8.15). John’s name is once mentioned in Paul’s letters—in Gal.2.9, where Paul says that on his second visit to Jerusalem after his conversion he met and consulted with James (undoubtedly the Lord’s brother), Peter, and John, who were pillars of the church and who gave him the right hand of fellowship. The only other mention of John in the NT is in Rev.1.1, Rev.1.4, Rev.1.9, where the authorship of the book is ascribed to him.

Five books of the NT are attributed to him—the Fourth Gospel, three letters, and Revelation. The only one in which his name actually appears is the last. According to tradition, he spent his last years in Ephesus. Very likely the seven churches of Asia enjoyed his ministry. The Book of Revelation was written on the island of Patmos, where he was exiled “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev.1.9). Tradition says that he wrote the Gospel of John in Asia at the request of Christian friends and that he agreed to do so only after the church had fasted and prayed about the matter for three days. He apparently died in Ephesus about the end of the century.

It is evident from all we know of John that he was one of the greatest of the apostles. He is described as the disciple whom Jesus loved, no doubt because of his understanding of and love for his Lord. The defects of character with which he began his career as an apostle—an undue vehemence, intolerance, and selfish ambition—were in the course of time brought under control, until he became especially known for his gentleness and kindly love.

Bibliography: C. F. Nolloth, The Fourth Evangelist, 1925; J. Marsh, Saint John, 1968; S. S. Smalley, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, 1978.——SB


Traditionally the author of the NT documents that bear the name of John: the fourth gospel, the epistles of John, and Revelation. He was the son of Zebedee, and the (probably younger) brother of James (Matt. 4:21). His mother was possibly the Salome who was present at the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:56; cf. Mark 15:40). The two fishermen brothers James and John were called Boanerges (“Sons of Thunder”) by Jesus (Mark 3:17), presumably because of their headstrong character. With Peter they formed an “inner group” of the Twelve, and were the only disciples present with Jesus on three important “revelatory” occasions during His ministry: the raising of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:37), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2), and the agony in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Luke also tells that Peter and John were the two disciples sent to prepare the final Passover meal for Jesus (22:8; cf. Mark 14:13). The Apostle John is not mentioned by name in the fourth gospel, although “the sons of Zebedee” appear in 21:2; but he may have been present at the call of the first disciples (John 1:35-41) and is usually but not always identified with the beloved disciple. In that case, we have further evidence about him (see John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2-10, 21:7; 21:20-23). The beloved disciple in the gospel of John* has the special function of witnessing to the reliability of the Johannine tradition (John 19:35; 21:24).

The Apostle John is mentioned in three passages of Acts, each time with Peter (1:13f.; 3:1-4:31; 8:14-25). He seems to have played an important part in the life of the early church (Gal. 2:9), despite his subordination to Peter, and was presumably present at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). He does not appear in the later part of Acts, and we do not know when he left Jerusalem (cf. Acts 12:17).

Later tradition connects John the apostle with Ephesus, where he is reported to have died a natural death in old age. The testimony of Irenaeus affirms also that John lived at Ephesus until the time of Trajan (a.d. 98-117). Although this tradition has been challenged, its chronology is plausible. Eusebius follows Irenaeus, but says that John was exiled to Patmos during the reign of Domitian (81-96) and afterward returned to Ephesus. Thus John the apostle could be the author of the Revelation. Eusebius, however, assigns this to John the Elder,* whom he mentions in association with the confused witness of Papias to the origins of John's tradition.

Various stories support the link between John and Asia Minor, but other accounts are less straightforward. Tertullian claims John was exiled from Rome, after he had been “plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil.” The Muratorian Canon says John was with the other apostles when he wrote his gospel, perhaps suggesting a Palestinian rather than Asian provenance. This evidence, however, is probably unhistorical, like the tradition that John was martyred early in life, possibly at the same time as James his brother (Acts 12:2; cf. Mark 10:39). The case for John's association with Ephesus in old age appears strong, although this does not by itself establish his responsibility for the final edition of the Johannine corpus. Its diversities of style and thought rather suggest origin in a school, behind which (no doubt) stood the Apostle John himself.

See under John, Gospel of. Also, A. Harnack, Die Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bis Eusebius (1893); P. Parker, “John and John Mark,” JBL LXXIX (1960), pp. 97-110; J.N. Sanders, “St. John on Patmos,” NTS IX (1962-63), pp. 75- 85.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

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 Ac 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 Ac 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:


2. Ac 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 Ga 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 Ac 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 nodetitle, 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 nodetitle, 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 Mr 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.

LITERATURE.

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

Additional Material




In the rest of the NT there are only a few scattered references to John. After the ascension of Jesus he remained in Jerusalem with the other apostles, praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts he appears with Peter in two important scenes. Soon after Pentecost they healed a man who had been lame from his birth, and while explaining the miracle to the astonished crowd gathered around them, they were arrested. The next day they were brought before the Sanhedrin. After being warned not to preach about Jesus any more, they were released (Acts.4.1-Acts.4.22). Later, after the gospel had been preached to the people of Samaria by Philip, Peter and John were sent by the apostles to Samaria; and they prayed and laid hands on the new converts that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts.8.14-Acts.8.15). John’s name is once mentioned in Paul’s letters—in Gal.2.9, where Paul says that on his second visit to Jerusalem after his conversion he met and consulted with James (undoubtedly the Lord’s brother), Peter, and John, who were pillars of the church and who gave him the right hand of fellowship. The only other mention of John in the NT is in Rev.1.1, Rev.1.4, Rev.1.9, where the authorship of the book is ascribed to him.

Five books of the NT are attributed to him—the Fourth Gospel, three letters, and Revelation. The only one in which his name actually appears is the last. According to tradition, he spent his last years in Ephesus. Very likely the seven churches of Asia enjoyed his ministry. The Book of Revelation was written on the island of Patmos, where he was exiled “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev.1.9). Tradition says that he wrote the Gospel of John in Asia at the request of Christian friends and that he agreed to do so only after the church had fasted and prayed about the matter for three days. He apparently died in Ephesus about the end of the century.

It is evident from all we know of John that he was one of the greatest of the apostles. He is described as the disciple whom Jesus loved, no doubt because of his understanding of and love for his Lord. The defects of character with which he began his career as an apostle—an undue vehemence, intolerance, and selfish ambition—were in the course of time brought under control, until he became especially known for his gentleness and kindly love.

Bibliography: C. F. Nolloth, The Fourth Evangelist, 1925; J. Marsh, Saint John, 1968; S. S. Smalley, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, 1978.——SB