John the Evangelist

Today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the name traditionally given to the author of the Gospel of John. John was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the youngest apostle, son of Zebedee and Salome. His brother was James, who was another of the original Twelve. According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Lk 5:1-11), Zebedee and his sons fished in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus then called Peter, Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee to follow him.

Peter, James and John were the only witnesses of the raising of the Daughter of Jairus. All three also witnessed the Transfiguration, and these same three witnessed the Agony in Gethsemane more closely than the other Apostles. Jesus sent only John and Peter into the city to make the preparation for the final Passover meal (the Last Supper). These are some references about John from the Synoptic Gospels.

What about from the Gospel of John? Interestingly the name “John” only appears in the Gospel of John in reference to John the Baptist and the father of Simon Peter. Many traditions identify the “beloved disciple” in the Gospel of John as the Apostle John. It was the “beloved disciple” who sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper. After the arrest of Jesus, Peter and the “other disciple” (according to tradition, also John) followed him into the palace of the high-priest. The “beloved disciple” alone, among the Apostles, remained near Jesus at the foot of the cross on Calvary alongside myrrh bearers and numerous other women. Following the instruction of Jesus from the Cross, the beloved disciple took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his care as the last legacy of Jesus. But the beloved disciple is never named.

The “beloved disciple” is indicated six times in the Gospel of John and at the end, the gospel states that the very book itself is based on the written testimony of the disciple whom Jesus loved. (John 21:24) Whether the “beloved disciple” is John the son of Zebedee, brother of James, has been debated for about 1,800 years.

In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius says that the First Epistle of John and the Gospel of John are widely agreed upon as authored by the son of Zebedee. However, Eusebius mentions that the consensus is that the second and third epistles of John are not his but were written by some other John. Eusebius also goes to some length to establish with the reader that there is no general consensus regarding the revelation of John. The revelation of John referred to by Eusebius is assumed to be what we call the Book of Revelation.

Biblical scholarship beginning in the 19th century began to question the authorship for a variety of reasons based on their estimates of dates, styles of writing, and other technical factors. Nonetheless, the vast majority of scholars note that Church Fathers are consistent about naming John, son of Zebedee as the author of the fourth gospel. They also note that the fourth gospel contains more direct claims to eyewitness origins than any of the other Gospels. The scholar F. F. Bruce points out that John 19:35 contains an “emphatic and explicit claim to eyewitness authority” – “An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may [come to] believe.

This all refers to ancient and traditional agreement about the Gospel of John and the epistle 1st John. What about the other two epistles and Revelation? This is where one sees assignment of authorship to John the Presbyter or Elder (epistles) and John of Patmos (Revelation).

According to a later tradition, after the Assumption of Mary, John went to Ephesus. Irenaeus writes of “the church of Ephesus, founded by Paul, with John continuing with them until the times of Trajan.” In this tradition, while at Ephesus he wrote the three epistles. John was then banished by the Roman authorities to the Greek island of Patmos, where, according to tradition, he wrote the Book of Revelation. Part of this tradition holds that the latter two epistles and Revelation originated from within a community of which John, son Zebedee was the spiritual leader and storyteller, and members of that community went on to write in the tradition of John, son of Zebedee.

But today we are celebrating John the Evangelist, sacred author of the fourth Gospel. Patristic evidence seems to confirm that the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel. Here are a few examples:

  • Irenaeus, writing at about AD 200, says that the Beloved Disciple was John, the disciple of Jesus, and that John originated the Gospel at Ephesus.
  • Irenaeus even writes that when he himself was young, he knew another teacher, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (c. AD 69–155), who claimed to have been tutored by John.
  • The church historian Eusebius (c. AD 300) records this John/Polycarp/Irenaeus connection in the same way.
  • Further, Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus (AD 189–198), refers to John’s association with the Gospel in his letter to Victor the Bishop of Rome.
  • It is also confirmed by Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200) and the Latin Muratorian Canon (AD 180–200).

The best solution regarding the authorship of the fourth gospel is the traditional one: John, son of Zebedee.

Is he also the “beloved disciple,” John the Presbyter or John of Patmos? We’ll ask him when we meet in Heaven.

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