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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1743

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.

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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 Jerusalem with Barnabas to confer on the matter and was cordially received by James (the Lord’s brother) and Peter and John, “who were reputed to be pillars.” At the prompting of Peter, the Gentiles were released from the law, except with respect to unchastity and meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15; Gal. 2). It was a crucial episode in the history of the early Church, for it meant that Christianity could no longer be regarded as a Jewish sect.

This episode took place some seventeen years after Paul’s conversion and is the last biblical record of John, but church tradition suggests the shape of his later life. According to this tradition (which is not beyond dispute), John spent the latter part of his life in missionary activity at Ephesus. During the reign of Domitian (81-96), he was banished to the Isle of Patmos (an association that is still advertised in tourist literature). He is thought to have returned to Ephesus and to have lived on into the reign of Trajan (98-117). It was during this period that he is thought to have written the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, and (possibly) the Book of Revelation.

Some scholars would make John not so much the author of these works as the authority behind them; it is evident that another hand edited the manuscript of the Gospel, with John’s certification “that this testimony is true” (John 21). Perhaps John should be envisioned as the respected leader of the community, whose disciples aided him in putting together his recollections of Christ; the Gospel apparently went through several editions as material was added, perhaps in accord with specific needs of the Church. The Epistles give evidence of dissension in the churches in the Ephesus area; if the heretics mentioned indeed denied that Christ came in the flesh, in “water and blood,” they may have represented an early stage of Gnosticism (which is not to say, as some authorities have, that John at one stage was Gnostic). Revelation could well reflect this same troubled atmosphere; the church at Pergamos is accused of the same offenses that were discussed at the Council of Jerusalem: fornication and meat sacrificed to idols. The latter parts of Revelation, if indeed they are John’s, would reflect his exile to Patmos. The manner and even the date of John’s death are unknown.


From the time of his calling (or even before), John’s name was constantly associated with that of Peter—sometimes when together they were called aside by Jesus for moments that were confidential and intimate. His personality came to be defined in terms of Peter: Though he and his brother James were “sons of thunder,” they almost always deferred to Peter as their spokesman. The relationship continued after the Crucifixion and through the history of the early Church. Eventually, there had to be a parting: Peter went to Rome and John to Ephesus, where he became the leader of the churches in the area. Here too he developed his theology, which differed in emphasis from that of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which at least in part were based on the preaching of Peter. Specifically, John favored a higher Christology that affirmed not only that Christ was the Son of God and the Messiah but also that he was the creator who had coexisted with God for all eternity. Apparently, some of his followers went beyond this to deny “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John), like the later Gnostics. After John’s death, these individuals presumably became Gnostics indeed, while John’s church, which had pursued its own way apart from the “great church” of Peter and Paul, was absorbed into the greater church, taking with it the Gospel of John, which thus became canonical.

The whole issue may be summed up in the last chapters of the Gospel of John, which were apparently added in the last edition. Here John once more recalls his intimacy with Peter; there is an account of a final fishing expedition, and he records how the risen Christ charged Peter to “feed My sheep” and foretold Peter’s death. Finally, as he asserted the divinity and coeternity of Christ at the opening of the Gospel, so here John asserts Christ’s humanity in the striking image of his preparing a picnic breakfast for his disciples on the shore.

Further Reading:

Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Contains an essay on John by Frank Kermode and another on Revelation by Bernard McGinn. Both are very fine essays, though by no means simple; they do not convey simply the author’s own impressions but also contain historical surveys of past criticism.

Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press, 1979. Though it carries an imprimatur, this volume contains all sorts of improbable hypotheses concerning John and the church at Ephesus. It does offer a useful summary of the scholarship.

Culpepper, R. Alan. John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000. This study examines many sources on John, from the New Testament through medieval sources and more recent scholars of early Christianity.

Dodd, Charles H. Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1963. Dodd argues that though the “quest for the historical Jesus” came to nothing and led many to despair of the historical approach, modern critical methods can lead to conclusions that have a high degree of probability.

Jacobus, Melancthon W., Elbert C. Lane, and Andrew C. Zenos, eds. Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Bible Dictionary. 3d rev. ed. Philadelphia: Blakiston, 1936. Offers a rather conservative view of the controversy surrounding John. John’s authorship of the Gospel is elaborately defended, although his authorship of Revelation is questioned. There is a good summary of what is known of John’s life.

Pollard, T. E. Johannine Christology and the Early Church. London, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Analyzes early theological controversies that grew out of the Gospel of John. Includes index and bibliography.

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