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James and John, the Sons of Zebedee

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. In Synoptic Gospels.-The sons of Zebedee are mentioned in the following passages in the Synoptic Gospels. The call of the two brothers is related in Mark 1:16-20 (= Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 5:1 ff.). After the call of Andrew and Simon and their immediate response, Jesus goes on further and sees the two brothers James and John in their boat, mending their nets. Their response to His call is equally prompt; they leave their father and the hired servants in the boat and go away after Him. The Matthaean account is practically identical with the Marcan, save for the omission of any reference to the hired servants, a characteristic cutting out of unnecessary detail. In these two accounts the call of the four disciples is the first event recorded after the beginning of the ministry; it is followed by the account of the entry into Capernaum and the teaching in the Synagogue. St. Luke in his Gospel places the incident later, after his record of events at Nazareth and Capernaum. It is not easy to determine whether his reason for the change is historical, to account for the promptness with which the call of an unknown stranger is obeyed, or whether he is following a different tradition. The relation of the Lucan account to the Johannine Appendix (ch. 21) is also difficult to determine. Competent scholars are found to maintain both the view that the Johannine narrative is based on an account (similar to the Lucan) of the call of Peter, and the view that St. Luke, in his record of the call to discipleship, has borrowed details from an account of a post-Resurrection appearance to Peter in Galilee. But the question as no direct bearing on the call of the sons of Zebedee, the Lucan additional matter having to do with Peter alone. The only detail which he adds with reference to John and James is that they were partners with Peter, which might have been deduced from the Marcan account. And the more obvious explanation of their prompt obedience is that suggested by the 1st chapter of St. John-previous acquaintance at an earlier stage, probably in connexion with the Baptist’s preaching (cf. below, § 5).

In St. Mark’s Gospel the four are represented as going with Jesus to Capernaum, and the same Evangelist also notices the presence of the sons of Zebedee in the house of Simon, on the occasion of the healing of his wife’s mother. This detail finds no place in the other Gospels. Their names appear next in the calling of the Twelve where they are found in all three lists among the first four, the only difference being that St. Mark places them before, the other Synoptists after, Andrew; and St. Mark also adds the giving of the name Boanerges.

No thoroughly satisfactory explanation of either part of this word has been found. βοανε is hardly a possible transliteration of בְּנֵי; it can only be accounted for on the supposition that it is due to conflation, either the ο or the α being a correction of the other. The second half of the word has been connected with Aram. רְגַשׁ (= Heb. רָגַשׁ, tumultuatus eat; cf. Psalms 2:1, Acts 4:25, and for רְגָשָׁא, Joel 3:14, strepitus, see Payne Smith, Thes. Syr. 1879-1901). But the root never has the meaning of ‘thunder.’ רְגַו has also been suggested; cf. Job 37:2 בָּרֹנֶז קֹלוֹ, of thunder, and Job 39:24 בְּרַעַשׁ וְרֹגָז. But the meaning of the word is ‘raging,’ not ‘thunder.’ Burkitt has suggested that the Syriac translator connected the word with Aram. רְנוֹשֶׂא (1 Kings 18:11 = הָמוֹן ‘crowd’) of which he took רְגֹשֵׁי for the status absolutus. Jerome conjectured that the name was originally בְּנֵי רְעֵם (on Daniel 1:8, ‘emendatius legitur bene-reem’), in which case the explanatory gloss, ὅ ἐστιν υἱοὶ βροντῆς, is older than the corrupt transliteration; but it would be difficult to account for the corruption of a correct transliteration of בְּנֵי רְעֵם into βοανεργές. Wellhausen suggests that possibly the name Ragasbal may point to Reges = ‘thunder,’ a meaning of which he says no other trace is found (Ev. Marci2, 1909, p. 23).

We have no evidence as to the occasion of the giving of the name. The incident recorded in Luke 9:54 may have suggested it, or the character of the brothers. The later explanations which refer it to the power of their preaching do not give us any further information.* [Note: Cramer, Catena, 1844, i. p. 297, διὰ τὸ μέγα καὶ διαπρύσιον, ἠχῆσαι τῇ οἰκουμένῃ τῆς θεολογίας τὰ δογματα, and see Suicer, s.v. βροντη.]

The next mention of the brothers is in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51), where St. Mark and St. Luke record the admission of the three intimate disciples alone to the house of Jairus, a detail which does not appear in St. Matthew’s account. All three Synoptists record the presence of the same three on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2, Matthew 17:1, Luke 9:28). The next recorded incident is that of the ambitious request (Mark 10:35 ff., Matthew 20:20 ff.), attributed by St. Mark to the brothers themselves, by St. Matthew to their mother on their behalf. The later character of the Matthaean account is clearly seen in some details (use of προσκυνοῦσα; εἰπέ for St. Mark’s δὸς ἡμῖν; the omission of reference to the ‘baptism’ [?]), but the approved critical explanation of the change in the speaker is hardly convincing. To do honour to the sons of Zebedee by making them shield themselves behind their mother is a strange kind of reverence! The bearing of this incident on the question of the martyrdom of John must be discussed later. The indignation of the other disciples against the brothers is retained in both accounts. St. Luke omits the incident altogether. In Mark 13:3 (cf. Matthew 24:3, Luke 21:7) the question which leads to the eschatological discourse is attributed to the four disciples, for which St. Matthew has οἱ μαθηταί, St. Luke τινες. In connexion with Gethsemane, the three are mentioned by name in Mark 14:33 and Matthew 26:37. St. Luke only mentions the disciples generally (Luke 22:39; cf. Luke 22:39).

To these references, where the Synoptists seem to be almost wholly dependent on the Marcan account, we must add Luke 9:54, the desire of James and John to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritans, a story which may be connected with at least the interpretation of the name ‘Boanerges.’ On two occasions only is John mentioned without his brother. St. Mark (Mark 9:38) and St. Luke (Luke 9:49) record his confession that the disciples had ‘forbidden’ one who cast out devils in Jesus’ name because he followed not with them. And St. Luke (Luke 22:8) adds the detail that the disciples who were sent forward to prepare for the Passover were Peter and John.

In the Synoptic narrative, then, the sons of Zebedee are represented as forming with Peter, and occasionally Andrew, the most intimate group of the Lord’s disciples. No special prominence is given to John; he almost always appears with his brother; thrice in St. Mark and once in St. Matthew he is characteristically described as ‘the brother of James.’ His position is very clearly that of the younger brother, who takes no independent lead. There is no reason to suppose that ‘Q’ contained any additional information about the brothers. The special sources on which St. Luke drew added a few details. It is noticeable that in the Lucan list of apostles the name of John precedes that of James. This corresponds with the history of the Acts, which must next be considered.

2. In Acts.-The sons of Zebedee are placed next to Peter in the list of apostles (Acts 1:13), the name of John being placed before that of James, as in the Lucan Gospel. This is in accordance with the author’s view, who assigns to John a place of importance second only to Peter in the history of the growth of the Church in Palestine. He is still the companion of Peter, as in the Gospel he was the ‘brother of James,’ but in Peter’s company he is present at the healing of the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:1 ff.; see esp. Acts 3:4 : ἀτενίσας δὲ Πέτρος εἰς αὐτὸν σὺν τῷ Ἰωάνῃ, and Acts 3:11), and during the speech of Peter which follows. Apparently he is arrested with Peter (Acts 4:1; Acts 4:3); at their examination the Rulers are said to notice the παρρησία of Peter and John (Acts 4:13), and he shares Peter’s refusal to keep silence (Acts 4:19 f.). In Acts 8:14 Peter and John are sent to Samaria in consequence of the spread of the faith there. After the imposition of hands, and the episode of Simon, their return to Jerusalem is recorded. There is no further mention of John in the Acts, except that in the account of his martyrdom James is described as the brother of John (Acts 12:2). But the position assigned to John is fully borne out by the single reference to him in Galatians 2:9, as one of the ‘pillars’ who gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas, a passage which alone is adequate refutation* [Note: Except on the hypothesis of a very early date for the Epistle to the Galatians.] of the strange theory of E. Schwartz (Ueber den Tod der Söhne Zebedaei), who finds in the prediction assigned to Jesus in Acts 10:39 proof that both sons of Zebedee must have been killed by Herod on the same day! The account in Acts (Acts 12:1 ff.) of the martyrdom of James at the Passover of the year 44 has been supposed to show traces of modification by cutting out any mention of the death of his brother (E. Preuschen, Apostelgeschichte, in Leitzmann’s Handbuch zum NT, 1912, p. 75). The construction of v. 1, if harsh, is however not impossible, and the ‘Western’ addition in v. 3, ἡ ἐπιχείρησις αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοὺς πιστούς (D Lat. [vtp* vgcod] Syr. [hlmg]), even if original is adequately explained by the language of v. 1 (κακῶσαί τινας).

3. Evidence of martyrdom of John.-The other evidence, however, for the martyrdom of John deserves serious consideration.

(1) Papias.-So long as we had only the statement of Georgius Hamartolus (circa, about a.d. 850), or perhaps of some corrector of his text, whose additions are found in the Paris manuscript , Coislin. 305: [Ἰωάννης] μαρτυρίου κατηξίωται. Παπίας γὰρ ὁ Ἱεραπόλεως ἐπίσκοπος, αὐτόπτης τούτου γενόμενος, ἐντῷ δευτέρῳ λόγῳ τῶν κυριακῶν λογίων φάσκει, ὅτι ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἀνῃρέθη, it was possible, in the light of his reference to Origen, to explain the statement as due to homoioteleuton omission in his source of the Papias quotation, Ἰωάννης [μὲν ὑπὸ τοῦ Ῥωμαίων βασιλέως κατεδικάσθη μαρτυρῶν εἰς Πάτμον, Ἰάκωβος δὲ] ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἀνῃρέθη. De Boor’s discovery of the excerpts, probably going back to Philip of Side, in Cod. Baroccianus 142 (Oxford), among which is found the sentence, Παπίας ἐν τῷ δευτέρῳ λόγῳ λέγει, ὅτι Ἰωάννης ὁ θεολόγος καὶ Ἰάκωβος ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἁνῃρέθησαν places the matter in a wholly different position. There must have been some such statement about the death of John, the son of Zebedee, at the hands of the Jews, in Papias’ work. As C. Clemen, whose discussion of the whole evidence should be consulted (Die Entstehung des Johannesevangeliums), says, this does not prove the historical accuracy of the statement, but it is important evidence of a different tradition from that which represents the son of Zebedee as living on in Ephesus to an advanced old age, and dying a peaceful death. Zahn’s suggestion (Introd. to NT, Eng. translation , iii. 206), that the statement referred to John the Baptist, is hardly satisfactory in spite of the clear evidence of confusion between the two afforded by the Martyrologies. In the light of the common tradition, why should anyone have made the mistake? The silence of Eusebius is an important factor in the case, but it is not conclusive, as Harnack (Chronologie, Leipzig, 1897, p. 666) suggests, against the presence of such a sentence in Papias. Eusebius might well suppress as μυθικώτερον a statement so completely in contradiction to the received tradition on the subject. The real difficulty is to account for the growth of a different tradition at Ephesus, if the tradition of John’s martyrdom was known at Hierapolis in Papias’ time.

(2) The evidence of Heracleon (see Clem. Alex. Strom. IV. ix. 71) should never have been brought forward. Heracleon is distinguishing between those who confessed ‘in life’ and ‘by voice’ before the magistrates. No one could have included John among those who had not made the confession διὰ φωνῆς, in view either of Patmos or of the legend of the cauldron of oil. His absence from Heracleon’s list therefore proves nothing.

(3) The evidence of the tract de Rebaptismate (Vienna Corpus, iii. p. 86), which shows that the saying of Mark 10:38 was interpreted of the baptism of blood, and the testimony of Aphraates (Homily 21), who speaks of James and John following in the footsteps of their Master, if they point to the tradition of martyrdom, also suggest the natural explanation of its origin, if it is not historical, viz. the attempt to find a literal fulfilment of the words of the Lord.

(4) The evidence of the Martyrologies also points to the same tradition, even if they are capable of another explanation. The Syriac Calendar which Erbes (Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte xxv. [1904]) dates 411, and 341 for the part concerned, gives for Dec. 27: ‘John and James, the Apostles, in Jerusalem.’ Bernard’s explanation that such a celebration does not necessarily imply martyrdom (see Irish Church Quarterly, i. [1908] 60ff.) is not altogether convincing. The Latin Calendar of Carthage also gives for Dec. 27: ‘Sancti Johannis Baptistae, et Jacobi Apostoli, quem Herodes occidit,’ which may possibly point the same way, as June 24 is the day of commemoration of the Baptist. And according to Clemen (op. cit. p. 444) the Gothic Missal, ‘which represents the Gallican Liturgy of the 6th or 7th century,’ represents James and John as martyrs.

The evidence is certainly not negligible. Whether the tradition owes its existence to attempts to interpret the Synoptic saying, or is a reminiscence of actual fact, is in the light of our present knowledge difficult determine. From the available evidence we must regard the martyrdom of John the son of Zebedee as probable. But as to time and place our ignorance is complete. Erbes’ suggestion that the son of Zebedee met his death in Samaria in the troubles of the year 66 (Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte xxxiii. [1912]) cannot be discussed fully here. It cannot be said to have risen above the class of ingenious conjectures, out of which it is unsafe to attempt to reconstruct history. The Synoptic saying about the cup and baptism (Mark 10:38) is certainly insufficient proof of actual martyrdom. St. Mark, and even the other Synoptists, have much matter which later reflexion found it necessary to modify or did not care to emphasize. But everything was not cut out which caused difficulty. And we may perhaps venture to say that there are traces of modification and omission in regard to this very saying which suggest that it did cause difficulty. St. Matthew drops the mention of the baptism, retaining only the drinking of the cup, and St. Luke omits the incident altogether. The position assigned to John, as compared with James, in the Acts would be difficult to explain if he met with an early death.

4. John’s residence in Ephesus.-Even if the story of John’s death at the hand of the Jews is historical, it does not exclude the possibility of his residence at Ephesus, though it certainly overthrows the traditional account of his long residence there till the reign of Trajan and his wonderful activity in extreme old age as the last surviving apostle and ‘over-bishop’ of Asia.

In the question of the Apostle’s residence in Ephesus we are confronted with another problem of which our present knowledge offers no certain solution. The absence of any reference to such a residence in the later books of the NT affords no conclusive evidence against the possibility that John visited Asia and resided there. The silence of the Ignatian letters is more significant. Why are the Romans reminded (Ep. ad Romans 4:3) of what Peter and Paul did for them, and the Ephesians addressed as Παύλου συμμύσται (Ep. ad Romans 12:2), while there is no mention of John in the Ephesian Epistle? The immediate occasion of the reference to Paul-the passing through Ephesus of martyrs ‘on their way to God’-precluded the mention of John. But the reference in the preceding chapter to the presence of apostles at Ephesus (xi. 2: οἳ καὶ τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πάντοτε συνῆσαν)-even if συνῆσαν and not συνῇνεσαν be the true text-is not much to set against the absence of any direct reference.

The fact that Polycarp never mentions him in his Epistle to the Philippians has very little bearing on the question. The natural interpretation of Papias’ Prologue is that at the time when he was collecting his information (circa, about a.d. 100) John the son of Zebedee was dead. His name occurs in the list, introduced by the past tense τί εἶπεν; as contrasted with the ἄτε λέγουσιν which follows. But this does not preclude an earlier residence at Ephesus.

It is probable that Polycrates of Ephesus, in his list of the μεγάλα στοιχεῖα of Asia which he gives in his letter to Victor of Rome (a.d. 190), regards as the son of Zebedee the John whom he places-no doubt in the chronological order of their deaths-after Philip ‘the Apostle.’ But his account of the ἐπιστήθιος is clearly legendary, and sufficient time had elapsed since the death of the John of Ephesus (? 110), to whom he refers, for the growth of confusion, whether ‘deliberate’ or unconscious.

The evidence against the Asiatic residence of the Apostle which Corssen (Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft v. [1901], p. 2ff.) finds in the Vita Polycarpi has been carefully discussed by Clemen (p. 421). It is not conclusive.

It is impossible to repeat in detail the well-known evidence of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, for the accepted tradition of their time. It is too wide-spread to be derived from any one single source, and is difficult to reconcile with the view that the son of Zebedee had no connexion at all with Asia and Ephesus. However we interpret the relation of lrenaeus to Polycarp, and the former’s account of the latter in his Letter to Florinus, we cannot be sure that the John of whom Polycarp used to speak was really the Apostle and not the ‘Elder,’ or the author of the Apocalypse (if these two are not to be identified). Justin’s attribution of the Apocalypse to the Apostle proves that the tradition connecting his name with Asia is at least as old as the middle of the 2nd century. And if Irenaeus derived from Papias not only the words of the Elders but also the description which he gives of them, the words ‘non solum Joannem, sed et alios apostolos’ (Iren. II. xxii. 5) would show that Papias also knew of the tradition.

On the whole, the least unsatisfactory explanation of the evidence, with all its difficulties and complexities, is the hypothesis that the Apostle did spend some years of his later life in Ephesus, where he became the hero of many traditions which belonged of right to another or to others.

5. The Fourth Gospel.-The use which may be made of the Fourth Gospel as a source of information about the sons of Zebedee depends on questions of authorship which cannot be discussed in this article. They are never mentioned by name in the Gospel, and only once in the Appendix (John 21:2). Probably the author of this Appendix identified the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ with the younger son of Zebedee, and not with one of the ἄλλοι δύο, unless indeed he intends to introduce a new-comer in John 21:20. He certainly identifies the loved disciple with the author of the Gospel (John 21:24, if this verse comes from his pen). The natural interpretation of John 19:35 distinguishes between the author and that disciple, if the ‘witness’ of that verse is to be identified with the loved disciple. The only other definite references to the disciple whom Jesus loved are John 19:26 (‘Behold thy son’) and John 13:23 (the unmasking of the Traitor). The customary identification or him with the ἄλλος μαθητής of John 18:15 f. (known to the high priest who gained admission for Peter into the αὐλή) and of John 20:3 f. (who went with Peter to the Tomb), is probable but not necessary. He is usually found in the other disciple of the Baptist, who at his suggestion followed Jesus (John 1:37). The phrase τὸν ἀδελφὸν τὸν ἴδιον Σίμωνα cannot be pressed to indicate this. In the Greek of the period ἴδιος is hardly more than synonymous with the possessive pronoun. And the natural interpretation of the passage is that Andrew first finds his (own) brother Simon, and next day, when wishing to return home to Galilee, Philip, to whom Jesus says, ‘Follow me.’ At the same time the whole story of Jesus’ first meeting with the disciples who came over to Him from John contains much which is difficult to explain (see, however, M. Dibelius, Die urchristl. Überlieferung von Johannes d. Taüfer in Forschungen zur Religion und Litteratur des alten und neuen Testaments, Göttingen, 1911, p. 106ff.) as apologetic invention. It suggests the recollection of early and treasured experiences, and gives a wholly probable account of the relations between Jesus and John, and the undoubted connexion between the two, to which the Synoptists bear witness, though other and later elements in the story are abundantly clear.

On the whole, though the pre-eminence of John in the Synoptic account is hardly such that he must have appeared in the Fourth Gospel, if he were not the author, yet the facts of the Gospel and the traditions of later times about it are most easily explained by the view that ‘behind the Gospel stands the Son of Zebedee’ (see Harnack, Chronologie).

Literature.-In addition to the ordinary Commentaries on the Synoptic and Fourth Gospels, the following books and articles may be mentioned: T. Zahn, Introduction to the NT, Eng. translation , London, 1909; C. Clemen, Die Entstchung des Johannesevangeliums, Halle, 1912; J. B. Mayor, article ‘James’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) (where the usual references will be found for the legendary history of St. James in Spain); P. W. Schmiedel, article ‘John, Son of Zebedee,’ in Encyclopaedia Biblica ; B. W. Bacon, The Fourth Gospel in Research and Debate, London, 1910; J. Réville, Le Quatrième Evangile, Paris, 1901; E. Schwartz, Ueber den Tod der Söhne Zebedaei (AGG [Note: GG Abhandlungen der Göttinger Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften.] , new ser. vii. 5), Berlin, 1904, also article ‘Johannes und Kerinthos,’ in Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft , xv. [1914]; W. Heitmüller, ‘Zur Johannes-Tradition,’ ib.

A. E. Brooke.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'James and John, the Sons of Zebedee'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​j/james-and-john-the-sons-of-zebedee.html. 1906-1918.
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