John the Evangelist

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JOHN THE EVANGELIST , according to ancient Christian tradition one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus; the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and author of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine letters, and the Book of Revelation. Called by Jesus from his vocation as a fisherman, John is mentioned frequently in the synoptic Gospels, where with James and Peter he forms the inner circle of disciples. He appears in all four lists of the Twelve in the New Testament (Mt. 10:2, Mk. 3:17, Lk. 6:14, Acts 1:13). Usually he is mentioned after his brother James, which suggests that he is the younger, but in the Acts of the Apostles his name stands second, after Peter's. Moreover, he appears along with Peter in several of the Jerusalem scenes in the early chapters of Acts (e.g., 3:1, 3:4, 3:11, 8:14). Interestingly enough, the episodes in which John figures in the synoptic Gospels (e.g., the raising of Jairus's daughter, the Transfiguration) are missing from John's gospel, and the sons of Zebedee are mentioned only once, in the final chapter (Jn. 21:2).

Although, like the other Gospels, John is anonymous, it is ascribed to an unnamed beloved disciple (Jn. 21:24), who figures prominently in the passion and resurrection narrative of this gospel only. He always appears with Peter, except at the cross. Christian tradition has identified this disciple with John, although the gospel itself does not. In the late second century both Irenaeus and Polycrates ascribe the Fourth Gospel to John, and from that time on it becomes a commonplace that John wrote his gospel in Ephesus after the others had been composed.

Irenaeus traces the Johannine tradition to Papias and Polycarp, bishops during the first half of the second century (Eusebius, Church History 3.39.17, 4.14.38). This testimony is not without problems, however, as Eusebius recognized in reporting Irenaeus's statements about Papias. John's gospel was known in some circles throughout most of the second century; it was popular among Christians who were later condemned as heretics (the Gnostics) and was rejected by others, such as Gaius of Rome and the Alogoi, who objected to its departures from the synoptic Gospels. Such a reception raises questions about the status or recognition of the Fourth Gospel as an apostolic work during this period.

Nevertheless, when after several centuries the gospel, the letters, and Revelation had gained universal acceptance as Christian scripture, they were all regarded as the work of John the son of Zebedee. As early as the third century, however, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria pointed out the stylistic and theological difficulty of regarding Revelation as the work of the author of the Fourth Gospel and the letters. Only Revelation is expressly the work of someone named John (Rv. 1:2), and this John makes no claim to being an apostle (cf. Rv. 18:20, 21:14). Both 2 John and 3 John are from "the elder," while 1 John is anonymous. Modern scholars are inclined to see three or more authors represented in the Johannine corpus.

Evidence against the traditional view that John lived to an old age in Ephesus is provided by the silence of Ignatius, who wrote to the Ephesian church (c. 115) mentioning Paul's role at Ephesus prominently but John not at all. There is a strain of evidence, perhaps supported by Jesus' prediction in Mark 10:39, that John was martyred with James in Jerusalem during the 40s (Acts 12:2). However that may be, manifold difficulties stand in the way of tracing church tradition about John the Evangelist back through the second century.

Despite these difficulties, the Gospel of John and 1 John clearly claim to be based on eyewitness testimony. The validity of that claim does not necessarily stand or fall with the traditional attribution of authorship, which reconciles John's gospel with synoptic and other data about Jesus' disciples. In Christian symbolism dating back to the second century, the fourth evangelist is appropriately represented by the eagle, for the Fourth Gospel goes its own way, apparently independent of the other Gospels and their traditions. John's feast is celebrated on December 27.


Aside from the New Testament the most important primary source is Eusebius's Church History, which brings together earlier testimony of Christian writers on the origin and authorship of the Gospels. The most convenient edition is the two-volume "Loeb Classical Library" text and translation of Kirsopp Lake, J. E. L. Oulton, and Hugh J. Lawlor (Cambridge, Mass., 1926). The relevant early Christian texts have been conveniently collected by C. K. Barnett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 100144.

Werner G. Kümmel's Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed. (Nashville, 1975), pp. 234246, succinctly states the modern, critical case against the tradition of Johannine authorship. In his more recent Introduction to the New Testament (New York, 1997), Raymond E. Brown defends the probability of a significant historical connection between the unnamed beloved disciple (John 21:24) and the composition of the Gospel of John. The most comprehensive treatment of the identity of John and the traditions about him is R. Alan Culpepper, John the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Columbia, S.C., 1994), especially pp. 5688.

D. Moody Smith (1987 and 2005)