John: fisherman and follower, eyewitness and evangelist, apostle and saint

Today is the feast day of John, remembered in the Catholic tradition as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, and included in the Uniting Church’s list of commemorations as John, Witness to Jesus.

The fourth Gospel in the New Testament has long been accredited to the disciple named in the three Synoptic Gospels as the fisherman who was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19: 3:17; Matt 4:21; 10:2; Luke 5:10; 6:14). Ironically, however, this disciple is not specifically named in the fourth Gospel. (Apart from John the baptiser, the other John noted in this Gospel is the father of Simon Peter; John 1:52; 21:15–17).

In the early fourth century CE, Eusebius wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (6.14.7) that Clement of Alexandria had described this Gospel as the “spiritual” Gospel, written to complement the “physical” depictions of Jesus found in the other three Gospels. (Clement was Bishop of Alexandria at the end of the second century CE.)

This view has exercised a widespread influence throughout Christian history; in the twenty–first century, John’s Gospel is often cited as the easiest way for new converts to understand the “spiritual truths” of the Christian faith. It is frequently said that it contains the most direct expression of the simple Gospel message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).

More recent scholarly study of this Gospel, however, has indicated that it is a complex and intricate piece of literature. The literary style of this Gospel is distinctive amongst the Gospels found in the New Testament. Jesus speaks at far greater length than the succinct sayings and compressed argumentation reported of the Synoptic Jesus. Some of the key images included in these speeches are ripe with symbolic significance.

There are multiple layers of meaning to be explored in the fourth Gospel. A number of key words contain ironic references or wry puns. Some scenes tell of misunderstandings which arise because of the different meanings built into the text. A hint of secrecy runs through the narrative—secrecy regarding the deeper, hidden meaning of Jesus and his story. The work is a complex literary creation.

An anonymous figure among the disciples—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—lays claim to be the author of this work (John 21:20, 24). Who is this figure? Over time, the evangelist came to be equated with the disciple John, son of Zebedee, brother of James. Nothing in the text itself explicitly supports this, however.

Over the past few decades, a different understanding about the origins of this work have developed from scholars who have explored the authorship of this Gospel and the context in which it was written. There is widespread agreement that this work was not written, in the form that we have it, by this John who was one of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Some scholars developed the notion that this figure of “the beloved disciple” was a symbol embedded within the narrative, representing an earlier authority for the evolving traditions about Jesus. The Gospel itself, they consider, came to be written down many decades after this authority figure had first begun to recount the story of Jesus. The shape of the Gospel was heavily influenced by the nature of the community of faith through which these stories were passed, over a number of decades.

This has led to a detailed hypothesis concerning the origins and development of the community of believers which gave birth to this Gospel in written form. (The North American scholars most often associated with this line of interpretation are Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn.) This hypothesis makes two central claims.

The first claim is that, in its earliest stages, the community which produced this Gospel had been essentially Jewish. That community received and retold stories which may well have come from the John who was a follower of Jesus. The second claim is that, by the time the body of the Gospel was written in the form that we know it, this community found itself in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant form of Judaism. This opened the way for Gentile ideas, so that they are found mixed with Jewish ideas in the final form of the Gospel.

So if this Gospel was indeed stimulated by the teachings of one of the first followers of Jesus, a Jewish man in Galilee, known as John, it reflects a remarkable trajectory in the first century of the movement initiated by Jesus, tracing its development from a Jewish renewal movement towards a global religion. The stories from the Apostle have presumably been reworked and reshaped over decades as that trajectory develops.

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” certainly occupies a prominent place in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. He reclines on the breast of Jesus at the final meal in Jerusalem (John 13:23) and stands at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (19:26–27).

After Mary Magdalene announced that the stone at the entrance of the tomb where the crucified Jesus had been laid had been removed (20:1–2), he runs to the tomb, with Simon Peter (20:3), arrives first, and sees that the tomb is empty (20:4–5)—but leaves it to Peter to see the inside first (20:6–7), before himself entering and attesting to the empty tomb with his own eyes (20:8).

Later, when seven of the disciples are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, this same beloved disciple is the first to recognise Jesus standing on the beach next to their fire; this time, he announces the identity of Jesus to Peter (21:7). A little later, Peter draws from Jesus the words about this disciple remaining with him (21:20–23). Finally, the same beloved disciple has the last word in the later-added Appendix to the Gospel, affirming his role as eyewitness and evangelist (21:24).

This is the figure that, in the tradition, is linked with John, the fisherman brother of James, the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, accorded a place as one of The Twelve Apostles.

In the book of Acts, the disciple John visits Samaria with Peter, in order to authorise and sanction what Philip had been teaching and doing in that region (Acts 8:14–17). That episode indicates the respect and authority that John was held to have as the movement developed—although the author of Luke and Acts writes some decades after the events he describes, at the end of the first century, and his material is filtered through various intermediaries (see Luke 1:2).

“Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria,”
by Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, Italian.

However, in one of his early letters from the 50s, Paul himself acknowledges this important position of John, along with James (brother of Jesus) and Peter, the “acknowledged pillars” of the church. Paul relates how he went, with Barnabas and Titus, to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), in order to receive the approval from the mother church for his activity amongst the Gentiles. Accordingly, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).

This corroborates the view we find in Acts, that John had a position of importance in the early church. It doesn’t demonstrate, however, that this John wrote the book of signs, the work we know as the Gospel of John.

The scholar Jerome, born in Dalmatia (now Albania), lived for some time in Palestine in the late 300s. Jerome recounts an anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.”

This, of course, is the central mantra in the first of the three letters that bear the name of John (see 1 John 3:11-17; 3:23; 4:7–12; also 2 John 5; 3 John 6). The legend explains how these anonymous letters were attributed to the apostle John.

Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that the Apostle John lived a long life, which ended peacefully in Ephesus around the year 100 CE. If that was so, then John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. That may then equate him with the John who claims authorship of the book of Revelation, exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). However, the style and language of this last book of the New Testament differs significantly from the style of the Johannine gospel and letters.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that two rival sites at Ephesus initially claimed the honour of being the grave of John. One eventually achieved official church recognition, becoming a shrine in the 4th century. By the 6th century the healing power of dust from John’s tomb was famous, and the church of Ephesus claimed to possess the autograph of the Fourth Gospel. We don’t have that manuscript today, however.

John was said to have written the Acts of John, a domestic work that was known in the second century; but it was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. And so the traditions about John continued to grow.

Indeed, in some Medieval and Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

St. John the Apostle by Jacques Bellange, artist
and printmaker from the Duchy of Lorraine, c.1600

All of which demonstrates the maxim that I hold for early Christian writings: the further away from the first century we get, the more information is known about the writers of the Gospels!!

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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