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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

John the Apostle

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JOHN THE APOSTLE . The materials for a life of St. John may be divided into three parts: (1) The specific information given in the canonical Scriptures; (2) early and well-attested tradition concerning him; (3) later traditions of a legendary character, which cannot be accepted as history, but which possess an interest and significance of their own. But when all the evidence on the subject is gathered, it is impossible to give more than a bare outline of what was in all probability a long life and an unspeakably important ministry. The present article must he taken in conjunction with those that follow, in view of the controversies which have arisen concerning the authorship of the ‘Johannine’ writings.

1. The Scripture data . John was a son of Zebedee, a master-fisherman in good position, plying his craft in one of the towns on the Lake of Galilee, possibly Bethsaida. It is probable that his mother was Salome, one of the women who ‘ministered’ to Christ in Galilee ( Mark 15:41 ), a sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. This may be inferred from a comparison of Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 ; Mark 16:1 with John 19:25 .

The last passage is best understood as naming four women who stood by the Cross of Jesus His mother, His mother’s sister Salome, Mary wife of Clopas who was also mother of James and Joses, and Mary Magdalene. The interpretation which would find only three persons in the list, and identify Mary ‘of Clopas’ with the sister of Jesus’ mother, is open to the objection that two sisters would have the same name, and it involves other serious difficulties.

In John 1:40 two disciples are mentioned as having heard the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus and having accompanied the new Teacher to His home. One of these was Andrew, and it has been surmised that the other was John himself. If this was so, the incident must be understood as constituting the very beginning of John’s discipleship.

In Matthew 4:18-22 , Mark 1:16-20 an account is given in almost the same words of the call of four fishermen to follow Jesus. Two of these were John and his elder brother James, who were with their father in a boat on the Lake of Galilee, mending their nets. In Luke 5:1-11 a different account of the call is given. Nothing is said of Andrew; Peter is the principal figure in the scene of the miraculous draught of fishes, while James and John are mentioned only incidentally as ‘partners with Simon.’ Directly or indirectly, however, we are told that to John, whilst engaged in his craft, the summons was given to leave his occupation and become a ‘fisher of men.’ The call was immediately obeyed, and constitutes an intermediate link between the initial stage of discipleship and the appointment to be one of twelve ‘apostles.’ In the lists of the Twelve ( Matthew 10:2 , Mark 3:14 , Luke 6:13 ), John is always named as one of the first four, and in the course of Christ’s ministry he was one of an inner circle of three, who were honoured with special marks of confidence. These alone were permitted to be present on three occasions the raising of Jairus’ daughter, narrated in Mark 5:37 , Luke 8:51 ; the Transfiguration, described in three accounts ( Matthew 17:1 , Mark 9:2 , Luke 9:28 ): and the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, mentioned by two of the Synoptists ( Matthew 26:37 and Mark 14:33 ). On one or perhaps two occasions Andrew was associated with these three possibly at the healing of Peter’s wife’s mother ( Mark 1:29 ), and certainly at the interview described in Mark 13:3 , when Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and was ‘asked privately’ concerning His prophecy of the overthrow of the Temple.

On two notable occasions the brothers James and John were associated together. They appear to have been alike in natural temperament. It is in this light that the statement of Mark 3:17 is generally understood ‘he surnamed them Boanerges , which ‘is Sons of thunder.’ Some uncertainty attaches to the derivation of the word, and the note added by the Evangelist is not perfectly clear. But no better explanation has been given than that the title was bestowed, perhaps by anticipation, in allusion to the zeal and vehemence of character which both the Apostles markedly exhibited on the occasions when they appear together. In Luke 9:54 they are represented as desirous to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan village which had refused hospitality to their Master. In Mark 10:35 they come to Christ with an eager request that to them might be allotted the two highest places in His Kingdom, and they profess their complete readiness to share with Him whatever suffering or trying experiences He may be called to pass through. According to Matthew 20:20 , their mother accompanied them and made the request, but Matthew 20:24 shows that indignation was roused ‘concerning the two brethren,’ and that the desire and petition were really their own. Once in the Gospels John is described as associated with Peter, the two being sent by Christ to make ready the Passover ( Luke 22:8 ). Once he figures by himself alone, as making inquiry concerning a man who cast out demons in the name of Jesus, though he did not belong to the company of the disciples ( Mark 9:38 , Luke 9:49 ). As an indication of character this is to be understood as evincing zealous, but mistaken, loyalty. Christ’s reply was, ‘Forbid him not’; evidently John was disposed to manifest on this occasion the fiery intolerant zeal which he and his brother together displayed in Samaria. Though the words ‘ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of’ do not form part of the best-attested text in Luke 9:1-62 , they doubtless describe the kind of rebuke with which on both occasions the Master found it necessary to check the eagerness of a disciple who loved his Master well, but not wisely.

In the early part of the Acts, John is associated by name with Peter on three occasions. One was the healing of the lame man by the Temple gate (Acts 3:4 ). The next was their appearance before the Sanhedrin in ch. 4, when they were found to be men untrained in Rabbinical knowledge, mere private persons with no official standing, and were also recognized by some present as having been personal followers of Jesus, and seen in His immediate company. In Acts 8:15 we read that the two were sent by their brother-Apostles to Samaria, after Philip had exercised his evangelistic ministry there. Many had been admitted into the Church by baptism, and the two Apostles completed the reception by prayer and the laying on of hands, ‘that they might receive the Holy Spirit.’ These typical instances show that at the outset of the history of the Church Peter and John came together to the front and were recognized as co-leaders, though they were very different in personal character, and Peter appears always to have been the spokesman. This note of personal leadership is confirmed by the incidental reference of Paul in Galatians 2:9 , where James (not the son of Zebedee), Cephas, and John are ‘reputed to be pillars’ in the Church at Jerusalem.

Our knowledge of John’s history and character is largely increased, and the interest in his personality is greatly deepened, if he is identified with ‘ the disciple whom Jesus loved ,’ the author of the Fourth Gospel, and the John of the Apocalypse. Both these points are strongly contested in modern times, though the identification is supported by an early, wide-spread, and steadily maintained tradition. An examination of these questions will be found on pp. 479, 483, 797 b ; but here it may be pointed out what additional light is shed on John’s life and character if his authorship of the Fourth Gospel is admitted. In John 13:23 the disciple whom Jesus loved is spoken of as ‘reclining in Jesus’ bosom’ at the Last Supper. The phrase implies that on the chief couch at the meal, holding three persons, Jesus was in the middle and John on His right hand, thus being brought more directly face to face with the Master than Peter, who occupied the left-hand place. This explains the expression of John 13:25 ‘he, leaning back, as he was, on Jesus’ breast’; as well as Peter’s ‘beckoning’ mentioned in John 13:24 . John has been also identified with the ‘other disciple’ mentioned in John 18:15-16 as known to the high priest and having a right of entrance into the court, which was denied to Peter. Again, the disciple whom Jesus loved is described in John 19:26 as standing by the cross of Jesus with His mother, as receiving the sacred charge implied by the words,’ Woman, behold thy son!’ and ‘Behold thy mother!’ and as thenceforth providing a home for one who was of his near kindred. In John 20:3 he accompanies Peter to the tomb of Jesus; and while he reached the sepulchre first, Peter was the first to enter in, but John was apparently the first to ‘believe.’ In ch. 21 the two sons of Zebedee are among the group of seven disciples to whom our Lord appeared at the Sea of Tiberias, and again the disciple whom Jesus loved and Peter are distinguished: the one as the first to discern the risen Lord upon the shore, the other as the first to plunge into the water to go to Him. The Gospel closes with an account of Peter’s inquiry concerning the future of his friend and companion on so many occasions; and in John 19:35 as well as in John 21:24 it is noted that the disciple ‘who wrote these things’ bore witness of that which he himself had seen, and that his witness is true.

It is only necessary to add that the John mentioned in Revelation 1:4 ; Revelation 1:9 as writing to the Seven Churches in Asia from the island of Patmos was identified by early tradition with the son of Zebedee. If this be correct, much additional light is cast upon the later life of the Apostle John (see Revelation [Book of]).

2. Early tradition . Outside the NT only vague tradition enables us to fill up the gap left by Christ’s answer to Peter’s question, ‘Lord, and what shall this man do?’ We may gather that he spent several years in Jerusalem. After an indefinite interval he is understood to have settled in Ephesus. Eusebius states ( HE iii. 18, 20) that during the persecution of Domitian ‘the apostle and evangelist John’ was banished to Patmos, and that on the accession of Nerva (a.d. 96) he returned from the island and took up his abode in Ephesus, according to ‘an ancient Christian tradition’ (lit. ‘the word of the ancients among us’). Tertullian mentions a miraculous deliverance from a cauldron of boiling oil to which John had been condemned during a persecution in Rome, presumably under Domitian. Eusebius further states that John was living in Asia and governing the churches there as late as the reign of Trajan. He bases this assertion upon the evidence of Irenæus and Clement of Alexandria. The former says that ‘all the elders associated with John the disciple of the Lord in Asia bear witness,’ and that he remained in Ephesus until the time of Trajan. Clement recites at length the well-known touching incident concerning St. John and the young disciple who fell into evil ways and became the chief of a band of robbers, as having occurred when ‘after the tyrant’s death he returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus.’ Tertullian confirms the tradition of a residence in Ephesus by quoting the evidence of the Church of Smyrna that their bishop Polycarp was appointed by John ( de Pr. Hær . 32). Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus towards the end of the 2nd cent., in a letter to Victor, bishop of Rome, speaks of one among the ‘great lights’ in Asia ‘John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate,’ as having fallen asleep at Ephesus. The Muratorian Fragment, which dates about a.d. 180, records an account of the origin of the Fourth Gospel, to the effect that John wrote it in obedience to a special revelation made to himself and Andrew. This story is somewhat mythical in character and is not elsewhere confirmed, but it proves the early prevalence of the belief in the Apostolic origin of the Gospel. Irenæus states that the Gospel was written specially to confute unbelievers like Cerinthus, and tells, on the authority of those who had heard it from Polycarp, the familiar story that St. John refused to remain under the same roof with the arch-heretic, lest the building should fall down upon him. Ephesus is said to have been the scene of this incident. All traditions agree that he lived to a great age, and it is Jerome ( in Galatians 6:10 ) who tells of his being carried into the church when unable to walk or preach, and simply repeating the words, ‘Little children, love one another.’ Christ’s enigmatical answer to Peter, ‘If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?’ led, as John 21:23 indicates, to the belief that John would not die, but would be translated.

Still, in spite of the record, the legend lingered long in the Church, and is mentioned by Augustine, that though apparently dead, the beloved Apostle was only asleep, and that the dust upon his tomb rose and fell with his breathing. The poet Browning, in his Death in the Desert , adopts the ancient tradition concerning the Apostle’s great age and lingering death, and imagines him recalled from a deep trance and the very borderland of the grave to deliver a last inspired message.

The universal belief of the early Church that St. John maintained a prolonged ministry in Ephesus has never been challenged till recent years. The arguments adduced against it, though quite inadequate to set aside positive evidence, have been accepted by critics of weight, and at least deserve mention. The chief fact of importance urged is the silence of writers who might well be expected to make some reference to it. Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians, and Ignatius in writing to the Ephesians, refer to Paul and his writings, but not to John or his ministry. Clement of Rome, writing about 93 95 concerning the Apostles and their successors, makes no reference to John as an eminent survivor, but speaks of the Apostolic age as if completely past. If John did labour in Asia for a generation, and was living in the reign of Trajan, it is not unnatural to expect that fuller reference to the fact would be found in the writings of the sub-Apostolic Fathers. But the reply is twofold. First, the argument from silence is always precarious. The literature of the early years of the 2nd cent. is very scanty, and little is known of the circumstances under which the fragmentary documents were written or of the precise objects of the writers. The silence of the Acts of the Apostles in the 1st cent., and of Eusebius in the 4th, is in many respects quite as remarkable as their speech and much more inexplicable. It is quite impossible for the most acute critic in the 20th cent. to reproduce the conditions of an obscure period, and to understand precisely why some subjects of little importance to us are discussed in its literature and others of apparently greater significance ignored.

It is the weight of positive evidence, however, on which the tradition really rests. Irenæus, in a letter to Florinus preserved for us by Eusebius, describes how as a boy he had listened to ‘the blessed Polycarp,’ and had heard ‘the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.’ And lest his memory should he discredited, he tells his correspondent that he remembers the events of that early time more clearly than those of recent years; ‘for what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it.’ It is incredible that a writer brought so near to the very person of John, and having heard his words through only one intermediary, should have been entirely in error concerning his ministry in Asia. Polycrates, again, a bishop of the city in which St. John had long resided and laboured, wrote of his ministry there after an interval not longer than that which separates our own time from (say) the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 or the battle of Waterloo. His testimony obviously is not that of himself alone, it must represent that of the whole Ephesian Church; and what Irenæus remembered as a boy others of the same generation must have remembered according to their opportunities of knowledge. The explicit testimony of three writers like Polycrates, Irenæus, and Clement of Alexandria carries with it the implicit testimony of a whole generation of Christians extending over a very wide geographic area. The silence of others notwithstanding, it is hardly credible that these should have been mistaken on a matter of so much importance. The theory that confusion had arisen between John the Apostle and a certain ‘John the Elder’ is discussed in a subsequent article (see p. 483), but it would seem impossible that a mistake on such a subject could be made in the minds of those who were divided from the events themselves by so narrow an interval as that of two, or at most three, generations.

3. Later traditions . It is only, however, as regards the main facts of history that the testimony of the 2nd cent. may be thus confidently relied on. Stories of doubtful authenticity would gather round an honoured name in a far shorter period than seventy or eighty years. Some of these legends may well be true, others probably contain an element of truth, whilst others are the result of mistake or the product of pious imagination. They are valuable chiefly as showing the directions in which tradition travelled, and we need not draw on any of the interesting myths of later days in order to form a judgment on the person and character of John the Apostle, especially if he was in addition, as the Church has so long believed, St. John the Evangelist.

A near kinsman of Jesus, a youth in his early disciple ship, eager and vehement in his affection and at first full of ill-instructed ambitions and still undisciplined zeal, John the son of Zebedee was regarded by his Master with a peculiar personal tenderness, and was fashioned by that transforming affection into an Apostle of exceptional insight and spiritual power. Only the disciple whom Jesus loved could become the Apostle of love. Only a minute and delicate personal knowledge of Him who was Son of Man and Son of God, combined with a sensitive and ardent natural temperament and the spiritual maturity attained by long experience and patient brooding meditation on what he had seen and heard long before, could have produced such a picture of the Saviour of the world as is presented in the Fourth Gospel. The very silence of John the Apostle in the narratives of the Gospels and the Acts is significant. He moved in the innermost circle of the disciples, yet seldom opened his lips. His recorded utterances could all he compressed into a few lines. Yet he ardently loved and was beloved by his Master, and after He was gone it was given to the beloved disciple to ‘tarry’ rather than to speak, or toil, or suffer, so that at the last he might write that which should move a world and live in the hearts of untold generations. The most Christ-like of the Apostles has left this legacy to the Church that without him it could not have adequately known its Lord.

W. T. Davison.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'John the Apostle'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/j/john-the-apostle.html. 1909.

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