John the Apostle was the brother of James and the youngest of the disciples. Scholars continue to debate whether this is the same John who wrote several of the books of the New Testament and others have tried to identify him as John of Patmos, John the Evangelist and John the Elder. What we know from the Bible is John was a fisherman and became a disciple at the same time as his brother. According to the Gospel of John (1:35-39), James and John were originally the disciples of John the Baptist, however, the other Gospels do not record this.
“Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” (Matthew 4:21)
John and James were the sons of Zebedee and Salome, although some churches say Joanna. We can presume Zebedee was a fisherman since he was in the boat where John and James were preparing their nets. When they left to follow Jesus, “they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men”. (Mark 1:20) The fact they could afford hired men implied Zebedee had some wealth. Little else is known about their father.
Salome, like her sons, was a follower of Jesus. She is recorded as being one of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion. “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.” (Mark 15:40). According to medieval tradition, Salome’s full name was Mary Salome and was one of the three daughters of Saint Anne. This would make her Jesus’ aunt and John and James his cousin. This is based upon the Gospel of John’s version of the crucifixion, which substitutes the name Salome for Mary the wife of Clopas. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25) Not everyone, however, agrees with this interpretation.
If you have read my article about James the Great, you may recall John and James asked Jesus to let them sit either side of him in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10). The Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, records Salome making this request. “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’” (Matthew 20:20-21)
Throughout the Gospels, John and James are often mentioned together, therefore, I have already written about most of his activities in my previous article. To summarise, John was present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, a witness of the Agony in the Gethsemane, and nicknamed “son of Thunder” after suggesting Jesus call down heavenly fire on an inhospitable town. There were, however, times when John was mentioned without his brother, for example, on the day of Unleavened Bread, “Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’” (Luke 22:8)
In the Gospel of John, the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is used at least five times but does not appear in the other Gospels. As a result, the scholars who believe John the disciple wrote John’s Gospel also believe John was the disciple Jesus loved. “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them…This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:20-24)
The references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are as follows:
John was born in around 6 AD and died around 100 AD, almost a generation after the death of his brother James, the first disciple to die a martyr’s death. A remark made by Jesus about the disciple he loved, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22), led to rumours that he would never die. This turned out to be untrue, however, he did outlive all the other disciples, dying at Ephesus in old age.
John’s activities after his brother’s death are not mentioned in the Bible; however, it is assumed he was forced to leave Judea due to Herod Agrippa’s Persecution of the Christians. Tradition says John went to Ephesus where looked after a church founded by Paul. If scholars are correct in assuming John was the same John who wrote three epistles, then it is likely he wrote them at this time. Allegedly, John was then banished to the Greek island of Patmos after being plunged into a vat of boiling oil and suffering no consequences. Some use this tradition to claim John the Apostle and John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation, is the same person.
According to the theological work Against Heresies by Irenaeus the bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyon in France) written in 180 AD, John taught Polycarp, the future Bishop of Smyrna, about Jesus. In turn, Polycarp taught Irenaeus about Jesus and John. It is said Ignatius of Antioch was also a student of John.
The Feast Day of Saint John the Apostle is traditionally celebrated on 27th December, however, there was once another feast on the 6th May: Saint John Before the Latin Gate. This celebrated the legend that he was miraculously preserved from the vat of boiling oil during the reign of the anti-Christian Emperor Domitian. A legend from the apocryphal Acts of John claims he was challenged to drink a cup of poison to demonstrate the power of his faith, from which he survived unharmed. As a result, he is the patron saint of burn- and poison-victims.
Just for fun, here is a list of all the things that have Saint John the Apostle as their patron:
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon