The Apostle John

JOHN, THE APOSTLE. Second most prominent member of the Twelve, John the son of Zebedee was one of the best remembered as witnessed in lit., tradition, art, and archeology. Basic to a study of the man are the literary sources on which the researcher depends.

I. Sources

II. Life history

The amount of lit. relating to John and his writings is very large in NT studies. More has been written about him and attributed to him than any of the other twelve apostles.



Most of the information about John the son of Zebedee comes from the NT itself; there is no mention of him in Josephus, for example.

Sources that refer to John the apostle

Canonical books.

b. The Acts and epistles. In Acts, James is in the background and John is ranked along with Peter as one of the two leaders in the apostolic circle. Peter was spokesman for the group (Acts 1; 2). John was with Peter at the healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1ff.), and was arrested and placed on trial with Peter (4:3-21); together they investigated the reception by the Samaritans of the Word of God (8:14-25).

The only reference to John in the epistles is in Galatians 2:9 where John, together with Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, are refered to as “pillars” in the Early Church. The fact that John was alive at this time after the death of his brother James (Acts 12:1, 2) refutes a late tradition that he was martyred at the same time as his brother James.

Noncanonical sources.

Earliest patristic records make little mention of John, but he is very prominent in the records from the latter part of the 2nd cent. through the 4th. One of the earliest extracanonical sources was a Gnostic document titled the Acts of John, dated “not later than the middle of the second century” (M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament [1924], p. 228). This work contains a report of miracles and discourses attributed to the Apostle John near Ephesus. It tells of his return from Patmos, a shipwreck, the healing of Cleopatra and the raising of her husband to life, the destruction of the temple of Artemis, and many other tales. In it “John” tells of his early association with Jesus. It closes with an account of John’s death at which time he was thankful for his celibate life. The book is strongly Docetic in nature, quite at variance with the emphasis of the First Epistle of John. No confidence can be placed in this document as a historical source for the Apostle John.

The earliest known exegesis of John’s gospel is that of Ptolemaus, of the school of Valentinus. Dated at approximately a.d. 150, it speaks of the fourth gospel as having been written by John, the Lord’s disciple (Iren. Her. I. 8. 5.). Another early commentator was a Gnostic named Heracleon who flourished in the latter half of the 2nd cent. In his commentary on John 1:18, he implies that the author of this v. was a disciple of the Lord, namely, the Apostle John. There is an indirect reference to John the apostle as the author of the fourth gospel in Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. a.d. 160). Another writing entitled, “The Secret Book of John,” is found in the Berlin Gnostic papyrus and in the recently discovered Gnostic library at Nag-Hammadi in Egypt. It contains this interesting passage: “one day when John, the brother of James (these are the sons of Zebedee), went up to the temple, there a Pharisee...said to him ‘This Nazarene deceived you’” (R. M. Grant, Gnosticism [1961], p. 69). Other Gnostic works, such as the Gospel of Philip, quote extensively from the fourth gospel but do not mention the author, the implication being that they believed John the apostle to be the author.

By far the most impressive of these witnesses to John the apostle comes from Irenaeus who flourished in the last quarter of the 2nd cent. It is he who testifies to a personal acquaintance with Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who had learned the Gospel directly from John and others who had seen the Lord. Irenaeus adds that after the three synoptic gospels had been written, “John, the disciple of the Lord who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself write a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (Iren. Her., III. i. 1). He also states that Polycarp taught that John, a disciple of the Lord, saw Cerinthus in the public bath and fled saying, “Let us flee, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” He states that the church at Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them until the time of Trajan (a.d. 98-117), is a true witness of the tradition of the church (Iren. Her., III. iii. 4). Another witness is Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus (a.d. 189-198) who stated that “John, who also leaned on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest wearing a mitre and marter, witness and teacher, he sleeps at Ephesus” (cited in Euseb. Hist. III. xxxi. 3). Eusebius (c. a.d. 325) accepted and quoted this evidence as indicating John as author of the “undoubted writings of this apostle.” He presents him as having lived to a very old age contemporary with the emperors Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan, and bishops Clement, Ignatius, and Simeon. This John he concludes, wrote the fourth gospel, “read in all the churches under heaven” as an undoubted writing of the apostle. He adds that whereas the fourth gospel and the first epistle are undoubtedly the works of the apostle the second and third epistles and the Apocalypse perhaps may be the works of others by the name of John (Euseb. Hist. III. xxxiv. 13).

Canonical books attributed to John the Apostle

The gospel.

The author of the first epistle likewise appears to have been an eyewitness (1 John 1:1-3). If the apostle wrote the fourth gospel it seems certain that he also wrote the first epistle. This is the easiest way to account for the high degree of similarity in language and ideas between the two documents. Common to both is the vocabulary of simple words, which include knowledge, world, witness, life, and truth.

The epistles.

The author of the second and third epistles is said to be the Elder. The evidence that this is written by the author of the gospel and the first epistle is somewhat less weighty than that for a common authorship of the gospel and the first epistle. On the basis of Papias, quoted by Eusebius, the author of these two short letters as well as the Apocalypse could well have been another John, named the Elder (Euseb. Hist. III. xxxix. 13).

The Apocalypse.

The author of the Apocalypse describes himself simply as a fellow servant named John. He does not address them from the viewpoint of an apostle or even that of an elder, rather, that of a brother, a companion in tribulation. The style, likewise, is different from that of the epistle or gospel, as many, from the time of Clement of Alexandria on down, have noticed. Those who reject the apostolic authorship of the gospel are more ready to admit it in reference to the Apocalypse, for the author of the Apocalypse seems to fit better the synoptic description of John as the “son of thunder” and as one who would like to command fire to come down to consume the noncommitted. Many think the same person could not have written books as diverse as the fourth gospel and the Apocalypse. But one cannot be sure that the difference of circumstances would in itself be sufficient reason for the change of style and imagery encountered in the Apocalypse. There are many other instances in history when widely diverse literary styles come from the same source, but under different circumstances. This may be seen, for example, in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Luther, Kipling.

Life history

The character and temperament of the Apostle John as seen in these sources is one who maintained high Christology in stressing Jesus as the Son of God. He was thoroughly familiar with the OT and with Jewish culture in general, as seen in the synoptic gospels and Acts. His spiritual insight and maturity led to his inclusion in the inner circle on several occasions. This is consistent with the picture in the fourth gospel as one for whom Jesus had a special affection. On the negative side John had an apparent ambition for preferential treatment. His reaction to the inhospitality of the Samaritans indicates a certain volatile nature, which could easily pass from righteous indignation to vindictiveness. As reflected in the fourth gospel, he is seen to be one who quickly acquired an acute understanding of the Hel. mind as indicated by his vocabulary that demonstrates an ability to communicate to the sophisticated as well as to the simple. He tended to see things in simple terms of black and white, good and evil; there were few median shades of gray in his perspective. To him everyone was either for or against the Lord; either a child of God or a child of the devil; either a child of light or a child of darkness. Christian maturity brought a measure of gentility to his natural sanguine temperament so that he became preeminently the “apostle of love” as his first epistle bears witness.

These two elements in his nature continued apparently to the end. In the first epistle, perhaps the last thing he wrote, there is the emphasis upon love and life and a corresponding warning against heresy and sin. As reflected in the Apocalypse he is the “son of thunder” living between two worlds, the world of the righteous who were overcome by their testimony, and the world of the wicked who persist in unbelief even under affliction. There is the same insistence on walking in the light and living according to the law of love. Thus he is seen to be a person with many facets, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, who was able to communicate his ideas in the medium of Hel. idiom to the intellectually elite of his day, yet who could speak to the simplest in elemental terms, e.g., light, life, darkness, water, and bread.


C. F. Nolloth, The Fourth Evangelist (1925); J. H. Bernard, The Gospel According to St. John (1929), I. xxxiv-lxxviii; F. V. Filson, “Who Was The Beloved Disciple?” JBL, LXVIII (1949), 83-88; E. L. Titus, “The Identity of The Beloved Disciple,” JBL, LXIX (1950), 323-328; C. Goodwin, ‘How Did John Treat His Sources?” JBL, LXXIII (1954), 61-75; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (1955); R. H. Lightfoot, St. John’s Gospel, A Commentary (1956); P. Parker, “John the Son of Zebedee and The Fourth Gospel,” JBL, LXXXI (1962), 35-43; G. A. Turner and J. R. Mantey, Evangelical Commentary on John’s Gospel (1964); J. W. Bowker, “The Origin and Purpose of St. John’s Gospel,” NTS, XI (1965), 398-408; E. Malatesta, St. John’s Gospel (1965); J. Marsh, Saint John (1968).