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John the Apostle

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(Ι᾿ωάννης ) the Apostle, and brother of the apostle James "the greater" (Matthew 4:21; Matthew 10:2; Mark 1:19; Mark 3:17; Mark 10:35; Luke 5:10; Luke 8:3; etc.).

I. Personal History.

1. Early Life. It is probable that he was born at Bethsaida, on the Lake of Galilee. The general impression left on us by the Gospel narrative is that he was younger than the brother whose name commonly precedes his (Matthew 4:21; Matthew 10:3; Matthew 17:1, etc.; but compare Luke 9:28, where the order is inverted in most codices), younger than his friend Peter, possibly also than his Master. The life which was protracted to the time of Trajan (Eusebius, H.E. 3, 23, following Irenaeus) can hardly have begun before the year B.C. 4 of the Dionysian era. The Gospels give us the name of his father Zebedaeus (Matthew 4:21) and his mother Salome (comp. Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1). Of the former we know nothing more. (See ZEBEDEE). The traditions of the fourth century (Epiphan. 3, Hoer. 78) make the latter the daughter of Joseph by his first wife, and consequently half sister to our Lord. By some recent critics she has been identified with the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in John 19:25 (Wieseler, in Stud. u. Krit. 1840, p. 648). Ewald (Gesch. Israels, v. 171) adopts Wieseler's conjecture, and connects it with his own hypothesis, that the sons of Zebedee, and our Lord, as well as the Baptist, were of the tribe of Levi. On the other hand, more sober critics, like Neander (Pflanz. u. Leit. p. 609 [4th ed.]) and Lü cke (Johannes, 1, 9), reject both the tradition and the conjecture. (See SALOME).

They lived, it may be inferred from John 1:44, in or near the same town as those who were afterwards the companions and partners of their children. (See BETHSAIDA).

There, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the apostle and his brother grew up. The mention of the "hired servants" (Mark 1:20), of his mother's "substance" (ἀπὸ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, Luke 8:3), of "his own house" (τὰ ἴδια, John 19:27), implies a position removed by at least some steps from absolute poverty. The fact that the apostle was known to the high priest Caiaphas, as that knowledge was hardly likely to have begun after he had avowed himself the disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, suggests the probability of some early intimacy between the two men or their families. The name which the parents gave to their younger child was too common to serve as the ground of any special inference; but it deserves notice (1) that the name appears among the kindred of Caiaphas (Acts 4:6); (2) that it was given to a priestly child, the son of Zacharias (Luke 1:13), as the embodiment and symbol of Messianic hopes. The frequent occurrence of the name at this period, unconnected as it was with any of the great deeds of the old heroic days of Israel, is indeed in itself significant as a sign of that yearning and expectation which then characterized not only the more faithful and devout (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:38), but the whole people. The prominence given to it by the wonders connected with the birth of the future Baptist may have imparted a meaning to it for the parents of the future evangelist which it would not otherwise have had. Of the character of Zebedeus we have hardly the slightest trace. He interposes no refusal when his sons are called on to leave him (Matthew 4:21). After this he disappears from the scene of the Gospel history, and we are led to infer that he had died before his wife followed her children in their work of ministration. Her character meets us as presenting the same marked features as those which were conspicuous in her son. From her, who followed Jesus and ministered to him of her substance (Luke 8:3), who sought for her two sons that they might sit, one on his right hand, the other on his left, in his kingdom (Matthew 20:20), he might well derive his strong affections, his capacity for giving and receiving love, his eagerness for the speedy manifestation of the Messiah's kingdom. The early years of the apostle we may believe to have passed under this influence. He would be trained in all that constituted the ordinary education of Jewish boyhood. Though not taught in the schools of Jerusalem, and therefore, in later life, liable to the reproach of having no recognized position as a teacher, no Rabbinical education (Acts 4:13), he would yet be taught to read the Law and observe its precepts, to feed on the writings of the prophets with the feeling that their accomplishment was not far off.

2. Incidents recorded of him in the New Testament. The ordinary life of the fisherman of the Sea of Galilee was at last broken in upon by the news that a prophet had once more appeared. The voice of John the Baptist was heard in the wilderness of Judaea, and the publicans, peasants, soldiers, and fishermen of Galilee gathered round him. Among these were the two sons of Zebedaeus and their friends. With them perhaps was One whom as yet they knew not. They heard, it may be, of John's protests against the vices of their own ruler against the hypocrisy of Pharisees and Scribes. But they heard also, it is clear, words which spoke to them of their own sins of their own need of a deliverer. The words "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins" imply that those who heard them would enter into the blessedness of which they spoke. Assuming that the unnamed disciple of John 1:37-40 was the evangelist himself, we are led to think of that meeting, of the lengthened interview that followed it as the starting point of the entire devotion of heart and soul which lasted through his whole life. Then Jesus loved him as he loved all earnest seekers after righteousness and truth (comp. Mark 10:21). The words of that evening, though unrecorded, were mighty in their effect. The disciples (John apparently among them) followed their new teacher to Galilee (John 1:44), were with him, as such, at the marriage feast of Cana (John 2:2), journeyed with him to Capernaum, and thence to Jerusalem (John 2:12; John 2:22), came back through Samaria (John 4:8), and then. for some uncertain interval of time, returned to their former occupations. The uncertainty which hangs over the narratives of Matthew 4:18 and Luke 5:1-11 (comp. the arguments for and against their relating to the same events in Lampe, Comment. ad Joann. 1, 20), leaves us in doubt whether they received a special call to become "fishers of men" once only or twice. In either case they gave up the employment of their life and went to do a work like it, and yet unlike, in God's spiritual kingdom. From this time they take their place among the company of disciples. Only here and there are there traces of individual character, of special turning points in their lives. Soon they find themselves in the number of the Twelve who are chosen, not as disciples only, but as their Lord's delegates representatives apostles. In all the lists of the Twelve those four names of the sons of Jonah and Zebedaeus stand foremost. They come within the innermost circle of their Lord's friends, and are as the ἐκλεκτῶν ἐκλεκτότεροι.

The three, Peter, James, and John, are with him when none else are, in the chamber of death (Mark 5:37), in the glory of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1), when he forewarns them of the destruction of the Holy City (Mark 13:3, Andrew, in this instance, with them), in the agony of Gethsemane. Peter is throughout the leader of that band; to John belongs the yet more memorable distinction of being the disciple whom Jesus loved. This love is returned with a more single, undivided heart by him than by any other. If Peter is the φιλόχριστος, John is the φιλιησοῦς (Grotius, Prolegom. in Joann.). Some striking facts indicate why this was so; what the character was which was thus worthy of the love of Jesus of Nazareth.. They hardly sustain the popular notion, fostered by the received types of Christian art, of a nature gentle, yielding, feminine. The name Boanerges (Mark 3:17) implies a vehemence, zeal, intensity, which gave to those who had it the might of Sons of Thunder. That spirit broke out once and again when they joined their mother in asking for the highest places in the kingdom of their Master, and declared that they were ready to face the dark terrors of the cup that he drank, and the baptism that he was baptized with (Matthew 20:20-24; Mark 10:35-41) when they rebuked one who cast out devils in their Lord's name because he was not one of their company (Luke 9:49) when they sought to call down fire from heaven upon a village of the Samaritans (Luke 9:54). About this time Salome, as if her husband had died, takes her place among the women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:3), ministering to him of their substance, and went up with him in his last journey to Jerusalem (Luke 22:55). Through her, we may well believe, John first came to know Mary Magdalene, whose character he depicts with such a life-like touch, and that other Mary, to whom he was afterwards to stand in so close and special a relation. The fullness of his narrative of what the other evangelists omit (John 11) leads to the conclusion that he was united also by some special ties of intimacy to the family of Bethany. It is not necessary to dwell at length on the familiar history of the Last Supper. What is characteristic is that he is there, as ever, the disciple whom Jesus loved; and, as the chosen and a favored friend, reclines at table with his head upon his Master's breast (John 13:23). To him the eager Peter they had been sent together to prepare the supper (Luke 22:8) makes signs of impatient questioning that he should ask what was not likely to be answered if it came from any other (John 13:24). As they go out to the Mount of Olives the chosen three are nearest to their Master. They only are within sight or hearing of the conflict in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37).

When the betrayal is accomplished, Peter and John, after the first moment of confusion, follow afar off, while the others simply seek safety in a hasty flight (John 18:15). The personal acquaintance which existed between John and Caiaphas enabled him to gain access both for himself and Peter, but the latter remains in the porch, with the officers and servants, while John himself apparently is admitted to the council chamber, and follows Jesus thence, even to the praetorium of the Roman procurator. (John 18:16; John 18:19; John 18:28). Thence, as if the desire to see the end, and the love which was stronger than death, sustained him through all the terrors and sorrows of that day, he followed accompanied probably by his own mother, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene to the place of crucifixion. The teacher who had been to him as a brother leaves to him a brother's duty. He is to be as a son to the mother who is left desolate (John 19:26-27). The Sabbath that followed was spent, it would appear, in the same company. He receives Peter, in spite of his denial, on the old terms of friendship. It is to them that Mary Magdalene first runs with the tidings of the emptied sepulchre (John 20:2); they are the first to go together to see what the strange words meant. Not without some bearing on their respective characters is the fact that John is the most impetuous, running on most eagerly to the rock tomb; Peter, the least restrained by awe, the first to enter in and look (John 20:4-6). For at least eight days they continued in Jerusalem (John 20:26).

Then, in the interval between the resurrection and the ascension, we find them still together on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1), as though they would calm the eager suspense of that period of expectation by a return to their old calling and their old familiar haunts. Here, too, there is a characteristic difference. John is the first to recognize in the dim form seen in the morning twilight the presence of his risen Lord; Peter the first to plunge, into the water and swim towards the shore where he stood calling to them (John 21:7). The last words of the Gospel reveal to us the deep affection which united the two friends. It is not enough for Peter to know his own future. That at once suggests the question "And what shall this man do?" (John 21:21). The history of the Acts shows the same union. They, are of course together at the ascension and on the day of Pentecost. Together they enter the Temple as worshippers (Acts 3:1), and protest against the threats of the Sanhedrim (Acts 4:13). They are fellow workers in the first great step of the Church's expansion. The apostle whose wrath had been roused by the unbelief of the Samaritans overcomes his national exclusiveness, and receives them as his brethren (Acts 8:14). The persecution which was pushed on by Saul of Tarsus did not drive him or any of the apostles from their post (Acts 8:1). When the persecutor came back as the convert, he, it is true, did not see him (Galatians 1:19), but this, of course, does not involve the inference that he had left Jerusalem. The sharper though shorter persecution which followed under Herod Agrippa brought a great sorrow to him in the martyrdom of his brother (Acts 12:2). His friend was driven to seek safety in flight. Fifteen years after Paul's first visit he was still at Jerusalem, and helped to take part in the great settlement of the controversy between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:6). His position and reputation there were those of one ranking among the chief "pillars" of the Church (Galatians 2:9). Of the work of the apostle during this period we have hardly the slightest trace. There may have been special calls to mission work like that which drew him to Samaria. There may have been the work of teaching, organizing, exhorting the churches of Judea. His fulfilment of the solemn charge intrusted to him may have led him to a life of loving and reverent thought rather than to one of conspicuous activity. We may, at all events, feel sure that it was a time in which the natural elements of his character, with all their fiery energy, became purified and mellowed, rising step by step to that high serenity which we find perfected in the closing portion of his life. Here, too, we may, without much hesitation, accept the traditions of the Church as recording a historic fact when they ascribe to him a life of celibacy (Tertull. De Monog. c. 13. The absence of his name from 1 Corinthians 9:5 tends to the same conclusion. It harmonizes with all we know of his character to think of his heart as so absorbed in the higher and diviner love that there was no room left for the lower and the human.

3. Sequel of his Career. The traditions of a later age come in, with more or less show of likelihood, to fill up the great gap which separates the apostle of Jerusalem from the bishop of Ephesus. It was a natural conjecture to suppose that he remained in Judaea till the death of the Virgin released him from his trust. When this took place we can only conjecture. The hypothesis of Baronius and Tillemont, that the Virgin accompanied him to Ephesus, has not even the authority of tradition (Lampe, 1, 51). There are no signs of his being at Jerusalem at the time of Paul's last visit (Acts 21). The pastoral epistles set aside the notion that he had come to Ephesus before the work of the apostle of the Gentiles was brought to its conclusion. Out of many contradictory statements fixing his departure under Claudius, or Nero, or as late even as Domitian, we have hardly any data for doing more than rejecting the two extremes. Lampe fixes A.D. 66, when Jerusalem was besieged by the Roman forces under Cestius, as the most probable date. Nor is it certain that his work as an apostle was transferred at once from Jerusalem to Ephesus. A tradition current in the time of Augustine (Quoest. Evang. 2, 19), and embodied in some MSS. of the New Test., represented the 1st Epistle of John as addressed to the Parthians, and so far implied that his apostolic work had brought him into contact with them. In the earlier tradition which made the apostles formally partition out the world known to them, Parthia falls to the lot of Thomas, while John receives Proconsular Asia (Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 3, 1). In one of the legends connected with the Apostles' Creed, Peter contributes the first article, John the second; but the tradition appears with great variations as to time and order (comp. Pseudo-August. Serm. 240, 241). When the form of the aged disciple meets us again in the twilight of the apostolic age, we are still left in great doubt as to the extent of his work and the circumstances of his outward life. Assuming the authorship of the Epistles and the Revelation to be his, the facts which the New Test. writings assert or imply are:

(1) that, having come to Ephesus, some persecution, local or general, drove him to Patmos (Revelation 1:9);

(2) that the seven churches, of which Asia was the center, were special objects of his solicitude (Revelation 1:11); that in his work he had to encounter men who denied the truth on which his faith rested (1 John 4:1; 2 John 1:7), and others who, with a railing and malignant temper, disputed his authority (3 John 1:9-10). If to this we add that he must have outlived all, or nearly all, of those who had been the friends and companions even of his maturer years that this lingering age gave strength to an old imagination that his Lord had promised him immortality (John 21:23) that, as if remembering the actual words which had been thus perverted, the longing of his soul gathered itself up in the cry, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20) that from some who spoke with authority he received a solemn attestation of the confidence they reposed in him (John 21:24) we have stated all that has any claim to the character of historical truth. The picture which tradition fills up for us has the merit of being full and vivid, but it blends together, without much regard to harmony, things probable and improbable. He is shipwrecked off Ephesus (Simeon Metaph. In vita Johann. c. 2; Lampe, 1, 47), and arrives there in time to check the progress of the heresies which sprang up after Paul's departure. Then, or at a later period, he numbers among his disciples men like Polycarp, Papias, Ignatius (Jerome, De vir. Illust. c. 17). In the persecution under Domitian he is taken to Rome, and there, by his boldness, though not by death, gains the crown of martyrdom. The boiling oil into which he is thrown has no power to hurt him (Tertull. De Proescript. c. 36).

The scene of the supposed miracle was outside the Porta Latina, and hence the Western Church commemorates it by the special festival of "St. John Port. Latin." on May 6th. He is then sent to labor in the mines, and Patmos is the place of his exile (Victorinus, In Revelation 9; Lampe, 1, 66). The accession of Nerva frees him from danger, and he returns to Ephesus. There he settles the canon of the Gospel history by formally attesting the truth of the first three Gospels, and writing his own to supply what they left wanting (Euseb. H.E. 3, 24). The elders of the Church are gathered together, and he, as by a sudden inspiration, begins with the wonderful opening, "In the beginning was the word" (Jerome, De vir. Illust. 29). Heresies continue to show themselves, but he meets them with the strongest possible protest. He refuses to pass under the same roof (that of the public baths of Ephesus) with their foremost leader, lest the house should fall down on them and crush them (Iren. 3, 3; Euseb. H.E. 3, 28; 4, 14). Eusebius and Irenaeus make Cerinthus the heretic. In Epiphanius (Hoer. 30, c. 24) Ebion is the hero of the story. To modern feelings the anecdote may seem at variance with the character of the apostle of love, but it is hardly more than the development in act of the principle of 2 John 1:10. To the mind of Epiphanius there was a difficulty of another kind: nothing less than a special inspiration could account for such a departure from an ascetic life as going to a bath at all. Through his agency the great temple of Artemis is at last reft of its magnificence, and even (!) leveled with the ground (Cyril. Alex. Orat. de Mar. Virg.; Nicephor. H.E. 2, 42; Lampe, 1, 90). He introduces and perpetuates the Jewish mode of celebrating the Easter feast (Eusebius, H.E. 3, 3) at Ephesus, if not before, as one who was a true priest of the Lord. bearing on his brow the plate of gold (πέταλον ; compare Suicer. Thes. s.v.) with the sacred name engraved on it, which was the badge of the Jewish pontiff (Polycrates, in Eusebius, H.E. 3, 31; 5, 24).

In strange contrast with this ideal exaltation, a later tradition tells how the old man used to find pleasure in the playfulness and fondness of a favorite bird, and defended himself against the charge of unworthy trifling by the familiar apologue of the bow that must sometimes be unbent (Cassian. Collat. 24, c. 2). More true to the N.T. character of the apostle is the story, told with so much power and beauty by Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives, c. 42), of his special and loving interest in the younger members of his flock of his eagerness and courage in the attempt to rescue one of them who had fallen into evil courses. The scene of the old and loving man, standing face to face with the outlaw chief whom, in days gone by, he had baptized, and winning him to repentance is one which we could gladly look on as belonging to his actual life part of a story which is, in Clement's wordsοὐ μῦθος ἀλλὰ λόγος . Not less beautiful is that other scene which comes before us as the last act of his life. When all capacity to work and teach is gone when there is no strength even to stand the spirit still retains its power to love, and the lips are still opened to repeat, without change and variation, the command which summed up all his Master's will, "Little children, love one another" (Jerome, in Galatians 6). Other stories, more apocryphal and less interesting, we may pass over rapidly. That he put forth his power to raise the dead to life (Euseb. H.E. 5, 18); that he drank the cup of hemlock which was intended to cause his death, and suffered no harm from it (Pseudo-August. Soliloq.; Isidor. Hispal. De Morte Sanct. c. 73); that when he felt his death approaching he gave orders for the construction of his own sepulchre, and when it was finished calmly laid himself down in it and died (Augustin. Tract. in Joann. 124); that after his interment there were strange movements in the earth that covered him (ib.); that when the tomb was subsequently opened it was found empty (Niceph. H.E. 2, 42); that he was reserved to reappear again in conflict with the personal antichrist in the last days (Suicer, Thes. s.v. Ι᾿ωάννης ) these traditions, for the most part, indicate little else than the uncritical spirit of the age in which they passed current. The very time of his death lies within the region of conjecture rather than of history, and the dates that have been assigned for it range from A.D. 89 to A.D. 120 (Lampe, 1, 92).

See Perionii Vitoe Apostol. p. 95 sq.; Edzard De Joanne Cerinthi proesentiam futgiente. (Viteb. 1732); Schwollmann, Comment. de Jo. in Pathimo exilio (Halle, 1757); Hering, Von d. Schule d. Apost. Joh. zu Ephesus (Bresl. 1774); Bishop, Life, etc., of St. John (London, 1827); Webb, The Beloved Disciple (Lond. 1848); Krummacher (in Life of Cornelius, etc.); Lee, Life of St. John (N.Y. 1854); Macfarlane, The Disciple whom Jesus loved (Lond. 1855); Kienkel, Der Apostel Johannes (Berlin, 1871).

II. The most prominent traits of John's character appear to have been an ardent temperament and a delicacy of sentiment. These combined to produce that devoted attachment to his Master which leads him to detail all his discourses and vindicate his character on all occasions. Yet, with all his mildness and amiability of temper doubtless, in part, the fruit of divine grace, for we trace also a degree of selfishness in Mark 9:38; Mark 10:35 he was not altogether feminine in disposition, but possessed an energy and force of mind which gave him the title of one of the "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17), bursting forth in vehement language in his writings and on one occasion calling even for rebuke (Luke 9:54-55). (See BOANERGES). It was these traits of mind that enabled him to take so profound and comprehensive a view of the nature and office of the incarnate Son of God, evident in all his writings, and especially developed in the introduction to his Gospel.

See Von Melle, Entwurf einer Lebensbeschreibung und Charakteristik d. Apost. Joh. (Heidelb. 1808); Niemeyer, Charakteristik der Bibel, 1, 303 sq.; Wernsdorf, Meletema de Elogio filior. tonitrui (Helmst. 1755); Obbar, De Temperamento Joa. cholerlico (Gö tt. 1738); F. Trench, Life and Character of John the Evangelist (London, 1850); Stanley, Sermons and Essays on the Apost. Age, serm. 4; W. Grimm, in Ersch and Gruber's Encycl. sect. 2, pt. 22, p. 1 sq.; Ad. Monod, Sermons (La Parole vivante) (Par. 1858); Pressense, Apostolic AEra, p. 415.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'John the Apostle'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/j/john-the-apostle.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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