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The Apostle John

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist. Manuscript illumination from an Ethiopian Gospel Book

Who was John the Apostle, according to the Gospels?

The Synoptic Gospels report that among his earliest disciples Jesus called two Galilean fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, James and John (Matt 4:21, Mark 1:19, Luke 5:10), who, with Peter, formed an inner circle of close followers. According to Mark, James and John accompanied Jesus to the house of Peter and his brother Andrew after Jesus preached in the synagogue of Capernaum (Mark 1:29). The three chief disciples followed Jesus into the house of an official of the synagogue, named Jairus in Mark (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51), whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead. They also were present at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28) and slept through his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Mark also records that the three disciples, along with Andrew, sought clarification of Jesus’ prophecy of the temple’s destruction (Mark 13:3). Luke reports that Jesus entrusted Peter and John with preparations for his last supper (Luke 22:8).

James and John regularly appear among the “Twelve” (Matt 10:2, Mark 3:17, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13). Mark’s roster also notes that Jesus named them “Boenerges, which is ‘Sons of Thunder’” (Mark 3:17), hinting at their passionate commitment. Their zeal is highlighted in several stories portraying the brothers as foils for Jesus. John’s attempt to preserve the status of Jesus’ disciples by silencing a rival exorcist elicits a rebuke (Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:49-50). According to Mark, James and John request that Jesus grant them thrones beside him when he comes in his glory (Mark 10:37), irking their fellow disciples (Mark 10:41). Jesus responds with a promise not of glory, but of suffering (Mark 10:38-40). In Luke, James and John propose calling down fire on Samaritans who rejected Jesus’ band (Luke 9:54), prompting Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 9:55).

What was John’s distinctive role among Jesus’ followers?

The Acts of the Apostles hints at John’s role among Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. Peter and John, paired as agents before Jesus’ death (Luke 22:8), emerge as leaders who perform miracles (Acts 3:1-4, Acts 3:11), go to jail (Acts 4:1-3), defend the faithful before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:7-12, Acts 4:19), and serve as emissaries to confirm the Samaritans’ reception of the gospel proclaimed by the deacon Philip (Acts 8:14). Paul, describing his interactions with the Jerusalem community in the mid-30s, names John, James, and Cephas (Peter) as its “pillars” (Gal 2:9).

During the second century, when %%writings by early Christians were more likely to be deemed authoritative (or even canonical) if they could be connected with one of the apostles, traditions linking John to certain writings developed. Most influential was his association with the Fourth Gospel and its “beloved disciple” (John 13:23, John 19:26, John 20:2, John 21:7, John 21:20-23). That anonymous character, perhaps based on an eyewitness of Jesus’ death (John 19:35) whose written testimony undergirds the Gospel (John 21:25), is an ideal disciple, present with Jesus in his last hours, adopted as his brother at the foot of the cross, and witnessing his resurrection.

The New Testament mentions other Johns, including the visionary who authored the Book of Revelation (Rev 1:4, Rev 1:9). While most patristic authors identified the apostle with the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation, some made distinctions. Papias, a collector of early traditions, mentioned an “elder” John, different from the apostle. Quoting Papias, the fourth-century historian Eusebius (Church History 3.39) suggested that the Elder wrote Revelation. Some modern scholars have similarly attributed some Johannine literature to the Elder. But many modern scholars doubt that the apostle should be identified with the Beloved Disciple, and very few believe that the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel in its current form.

Irenaeus (Against Heresies 2.22.5, 3.1.1, 3.3.4) reported that John lived in Ephesus until the time of Trajan and interacted with the heretic Cerinthus. Clement of Alexandria (What Rich Man Can be Saved 13) recounts John’s efforts to save a youthful robber. Tertullian (On the Prescription of Heresies 36) tells of the Roman attempt to boil John alive in oil. The Acts of John, from the late second century, describes miracles in Ephesus and offers a testimony to the “spiritual” character of Jesus’ passion.

However much his legend developed, the apostle John played an important role in the early Jesus movement.

  • Harold W. Attridge

    Harold W. Attridge is the Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. A graduate of Boston College, Cambridge University, and Harvard University, he served on the faculties of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale Divinity School, where he was dean from 2002 to 2012. Among his publications are Essays on John and Hebrews (Mohr-Siebeck, 2010; repr., Baker, 2012).