[St. Pachomius Library]

St. John the Theologian, Apostle, and Evangelist

I Century
With Peter and James, St. John belonged to the inner circle of disciples who witnessed such events as the Transfiguration and who fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane. Thought to have been the youngest of the twelve apostles, John was the son of Zebedee and of Salome, one of the women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Salome is sometimes identified as a sister of or daughter of Joseph the Carpenter (the Betrothed).

John was a disciple of John the Baptist before being called, with his brother James, to follow Jesus, who gave them the name Boanerges. Many speculations why the two are called sons of thunder exist: the name may refer to their tempers or to the force of their faith.

The gospel of St. John records that John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) stood at the foot of the cross and that he became the adopted son of the Theotokos. Some ancient scholars have identified the young man in the gospel of Mark who flees the soldiers and loses his garment, as St. John. (Some contemperary scholars identify the young man as St. Mark himself.) After the Pentecost, John and Peter worked together in the community at Jerusalem. John was a participant in the Council of Jerusalem (49), at which the church determined that Gentiles are not subject to Mosaic practices.

John is thought to have left Jerusalem after this event to preach in Asia Minor. He settled in Ephesus, some say after the death of his foster mother. (Traditions also say she died in Jerusalem, which John left after her death.) Polycarp of Smyrna is said to have told Irenæus that John lived in Ephesus until the reign of Trajan. C. 95, during the reign of Domitian, John was taken to Rome to stand trial for his faith.

Legends recount an to martyr the apostle in boiling oil, from which he miraculously escaped. The story is depicted in Western art; the Roman church dropped its commemoration in 1960.

Domitian exiled John to Patmos, where he had the vision described in the book of Revelations. Some believe that John wrote the book while he was on the island; other believe that he wrote it after his return to Ephesus. Still others doubt that St. John wrote the book. Dionysius of Alexandria (III Century) argues that the style of Revelations, whose author is called John the Divine, is too different from that of the fourth gospel to have been composed by the same man.

When Domitian died in 96, John was released and allowed to return to Ephesus, where he became bishop. Some say he wrote his gospel around this time and attribute its more theological and mystical tone to people's familiarity with the events of the life of Jesus, as presented in the other three gospels. Some contend that John wrote his testament to refute and rebuke those who did not believe in the divinity of Christ. John may have written the three letters included in the canon of scripture in his later years.

John celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, a practice much debated since the Roman church, which based its teachings on those of St. Peter, celebrated Easter always on Sunday and claimed universal authority. How to calculate the lunar calendar was also disputed. As late as the VII Century, the Celtic church claimed the authority of St. John in its paschal calculations.

John died c. 99 or 100. He was the last of the apostles to die and the only one to have died a natural death. Some legends say he did not die but ascended like Elijah. St. Augustine notes a tradition that when John was buried, the ground heaved as if the apostle were still breathing.

In the III Century, two sites claimed to be the location of his tomb. Dust from the site that became official in the following century was said to have healing properties. A mosque now stands on this site.

In Western art, John is frequently portrayed as a young man, even when he is portrayed sitting in the cauldron of boiling oil or is depicted ascending into heaven. In Eastern iconography, John is white-haired. His symbol is the eagle.

Karen Rae Keck


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