John the Apostle Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Christian theologian{$I[g]Asia Minor;John the Apostle}{$I[g]Israel;John the Apostle} John the Apostle was one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples during his lifetime. After Jesus’ death, John was a leader in the early Church and by his writings made important contributions to Christian theology.

Early Life

Assuming John to have been a young man when he was called as a disciple of Jesus, he must have been born about 10 c.e., probably in Capernaum. His father was Zebedee and his mother Salome; he had a brother, James, also a disciple and presumably the elder of the two, because he is generally mentioned first, and John is often identified as the “brother of James.” The family occupation was fishing. They were presumably prosperous, as they owned their own boat and employed servants; they may have been a priestly family as well. Salome figures occasionally in the Gospels; she requested that her sons be given seats of honor beside Jesus in Heaven (Matt. 20), and she was one of the women who helped to support Jesus financially (Matt. 15).

James and John may have been cousins of Jesus, a fact that would explain their early call and the episode at the Cross in which Mary, Jesus’ mother, was committed to the care of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” a term generally taken to refer to John, the son of Zebedee. The nickname “Boanerges” (sons of thunder or perhaps anger) bestowed on James and John by Jesus suggests a certain impetuousness and aggressiveness; James’s early martyrdom suggests that he had the greater share of the quality. As for John, his occupation and his besting of Peter in the race to Jesus’ tomb suggest a strong, athletic man.

Life’s Work

It is with the call by the Sea of Galilee that John’s recorded life begins. Having called Peter and Andrew to leave their nets and become “fishers of men,” Jesus immediately proceeded to James and John, who left “the boat and their father” and followed him. In general, the position of John in Jesus’ ministry is clear. He appears on lists of the Twelve and always among the first: “Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee and John his brother.” When a smaller group is named, John is always among them; it is James and John who would have called down fire on a village of the Samaritans (Luke 9). Generally, however, John is linked to Peter in a subordinate role. Thus, he was present at the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1) and of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5); he was present with Peter and James at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17) and again at Gethsemane (Mark 14).

Toward the end of the Gospel of John, there are numerous references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” almost certainly John. He was the disciple whom Peter prompted to solicit Jesus’ identification of the betrayer at the Last Supper (John 18). He was possibly the disciple who introduced Peter to the high priest’s courtyard. He is the one to whose care Christ commended his mother. He is the one, along with Peter, to whom Mary Magdalene brought news of the Resurrection. Finally, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” clearly was present when the risen Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee, and the Gospel records a statement of Jesus that some interpreted as a prophecy that the disciple would not die before the Second Coming (John 21). John appears here, incidentally, in the same role in which Luke casts him at his first appearance: as a fishing partner with Peter.

After the Crucifixion and Resurrection, John seems to have filled much the same role as before: as a leader and spokesman for the infant Church, constantly in a subordinate role to Peter and sometimes also to his brother James, until the latter’s martyrdom. John was with Peter when the lame man was healed (the first miracle performed after the death of Jesus); twice he was imprisoned, once with Peter, once with all the Apostles; he went with Peter to support the missionary effort of Philip of Samaria. Finally, he played a leading role when the Church had to decide whether Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Jewish ceremonial law, as some converted Pharisees had argued. Paul had gone to...

(The entire section is 1743 words.)