27 December 2021

St. John’s Day.

The third day of Christmas, 27 December, is the feast day of the apostle John.

Yokhanan bar Zavdi (English, “John, son of Zebedee”) was a first cousin of Christ Jesus; their moms were sisters, and I suspect Jesus stayed with John’s family while he headquartered himself in Capharnaum. Jesus chose him and his elder brother James to be part of his Twelve, Mk 3.17 the apostles he sent to evangelize Israel, who were later expected to run his church. Paul of Tarsus considered him a pillar of this church. Ga 2.9

He’s widely considered the student whom Jesus loved, Jn 21.20 and therefore the author of the gospel we call John, plus three letters and Revelation. There are various scholars who aren’t so sure John wrote those scriptures, ’cause John didn’t put his name on anything but Revelation (and they speculate the John of Revelation was a whole different guy named John). And maybe that’s so. But there’s no reason the author wasn’t this John.

Tradition has it John later took charge of the Ephesian church—either after Timothy held the job, or as Timothy’s bishop. Most Christians assume John died during his exile on Patmos, but traditions say he returned to Ephesus, where he either died of natural causes, or was murdered by antichrists.

Briefly, John’s biography.

John’s father Zebedee was a fisherman, who caught freshwater fish on Lake Tiberias, which the bible calls “the sea of the Galilee.” Contrary to popular belief, fishermen were not poor; freshwater fish were in high demand in the Roman Empire as the chief ingredient of garum, a fish sauce Romans put on everything, same as we Americans do ketchup or ranch dressing. (The fishermen who followed Jesus became poor as a result of quitting their jobs to follow him.) Zebedee had enough wherewithal to hire employees, Mk 1.20 and for his wife to contribute to the upkeep of Jesus and his students. Mt 27.55-56 John and his family may have even purchased Roman citizenship—as implied by the fact the other apostles were crucified, but James was beheaded and John was exiled. It was illegal to crucify Romans, y’see.

Like most devout Jewish men in their teens, John was expected to follow a rabbi for a few years and learn the Law. And that’s the first we see of him: Following John the Baptist. But once the prophet singled out Jesus as the “lamb of God,” John followed Jesus instead. Jn 1.35-37 In John’s gospel, he appeared to follow Jesus ever since, but in the synoptic gospels John appeared to follow Jesus only after he and his brother were called out of their boat. Mk 1.19-20

Jesus made him one of the Twelve, and John appears to have been a special confidant: He was present when Jair’s daughter was raised from the dead, Mk 5.37 when Jesus was transfigured, Mk 9.2 and at Jesus’s Olivet Discourse. Mk 13.3-5 He was closest to Jesus when Simon Peter wanted to know who’d betrayed him, Jn 13.23-26 present when Jesus prayed at Gethsemane Mk 14.32-34 when Jesus stood before Annas, Jn 18.15 and when Jesus was crucified—when Jesus put his mother in John’s care. Jn 19.26-27

Because Jesus said, of John’s future, “What’s it to you if I let him live till I return?” the rumor went round John wouldn’t die till the second coming—although John himself didn’t believe that’s what Jesus meant. Jn 21.20-23

But like most teenagers, John appears to have been emotional, impulsive, even reckless. Jesus called him and his brother James Βοανηργές/voaniryés, which Mark translates as “the sons of thunder.” Mk 3.17 But voaniryés isn’t a Greek word, and more likely it’s a mangled transliteration of the Aramaic בְנֵי רְגַז/binéy regéts, “sons of rage,” or it’s a mishmash of Aramaic and Greek—binéy ἐνεργής “sons of activity.” Might’ve been a compliment, but maybe not.

Hence John was the one who told a miracle-worker outside their group to stop it. Mk 9.38 John was the one who wanted to call down fire upon unwelcoming Samaritan villages. Lk 9.54 John was the one who wanted to sit at Jesus’s side when the kingdom came. Mk 10.35-37 Jesus rebuked him for each of these things; they meant there was still fruit of the Spirit to be cultivated in John’s life.

After Jesus ascended, we tend to see John in Peter’s company—curing the man at the temple gate, Ac 3.1-8 going to Samaria, Ac 8.14-17 and meeting with Paul. Ga 2.6-10 Because John disappears from Acts after chapter 8, certain Christians actually claim he was killed along with his brother James, Ac 12.1-2 but the scriptures dispute that: His meeting with Paul in Galatians took place at the Council of Jerusalem, more than a decade after James’s death.

And then there’s Patmos. During one of the persecutions, John was exiled to that Agean island. Traditions say this was during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81–96), but Revelation refers to the temple as though it’s still standing, Rv 3.12 which implies it was written before the year 70 when the Romans destroyed it. So John was likely exiled during another persecution; either under the reigns of Claudius Caesar (41–54) or Nero Caesar (54–68).

John in Ephesus.

Here’s where we pass from what bible tells us about John, to what Christian tradition claims. And thanks to all the fanfiction written by ancient Christians, tradition’s historical accuracy is really iffy. I’ll stick to the most plausible data.

When Paul discovered a church in Ephesus, he trained the Christians there for two years, until an antichristian riot forced him to leave town. Ac 18 It appears he left Timothy behind to run the church, 1Ti 1.3 but since the ancient Ephesians wrote so very little about Timothy’s time in the job, he must not have lasted long. In contrast the Ephesians wrote tons about John. Seems John moved there… and brought Jesus’s mother Mary with him.

The Ephesians called him Ἰωάννης Πρεσβύτερος/Yoánnis Presvýteros, “Old John,” as a term of endearment. Translators tend to turn that into an official-sounding title: “John the Presbyter” or “John the Elder.” John himself didn’t claim any title—and in his second and third letters, he even addressed himself as Ὁ πρεσβύτερος/o presbýteros, “the old man,” which bibles tend to render “the Elder.” We assume more formality than he did.

Calling himself “the old man” is most of the reason some scholars wonder whether there weren’t multiple Johns in ancient Christian history: Was it truly just one man who followed Jesus, co-started the church, cured the sick with Peter, got exiled and wrote Revelation, took Jesus’s mom to live with him, led the Ephesian church, wrote a gospel and three letters, trained the church fathers Polycarp, Ignatius, Papias, and Ariston, and did all the other things attributed to him? Sounds like the work of a dozen guys! But most of the time they presume it might be two:

  1. John the apostle, who lived in the Galilee and Judea.
  2. John the elder, who lived in Asia Minor.

The most common reason people claim there were two Johns, is that John was active in Ephesus till his death in the year 98. Exactly how old was this guy?—they have to be confusing the apostle with his much younger same-named contemporary.

But bear in mind (’cause most Christians forget, thank to the art and movies) John was a teenager when he first followed Jesus. He was about 20 years younger than his Master. In the year 98 he’d have been about 80. And as any pastor will tell you, all the stories about John could’ve happened to any hard-working pastor within a five-year period; John lived in Ephesus much longer.

The next-most-popular argument is John was so well-known as “John the old man” when he really shoulda been better known as “the apostle John.” Isn’t “apostle” a greater, better title than “elder”? But again, this is the sort of worldly thinking we see among title-grubbing opportunists. John didn’t even put his name on his writings! (Someone later added his name to Revelation.) Paul had to fight for recognition as an apostle, ’cause he wan’t one of the Twelve; Peter introduced himself as an apostle ’cause his travels made him unfamiliar with the folks he wrote to. But John was well-known, well-loved, and had no such problems. The name “Old John” was fine with him; it meant people loved and respected him.

John’s writings.

As I said, John didn’t put his name on his writings. We can easily deduce the gospel is his. Tradition tells us the letters are his (and if you know any Greek, you can immediately recognize they have the same writing style and vocabulary as the gospel); and someone tacked an introduction onto Revelation naming him as the author. Altogether, John’s writings make up a quarter of the New Testament.

As a result, John’s theology makes up a significant portion of Christian belief. It’s mostly from John’s gospel we get the idea of Jesus as the incarnate word of God. It’s also from John’s gospel where we read most of Jesus’s teachings about his special relationship to the Father who sent him, and to the Holy Spirit whom he was gonna send us. It’s from John’s letters we get instruction about light and darkness, and living in the light; that God is love, so we gotta live in his love. And it’s from John’s prophetic visions we hear about New Jerusalem—that God is finally gonna have the kingdom he’s always wanted.

There are those people who claim John is way too gnostic for their tastes. What they mean by this is John uses a lot of metaphors—“God is light, and in him there’s no darkness whatsoever” or “I’m the way, the truth, and the life; I’m the vine and you’re the branches” or all the apocalypses in Revelation. They assume only gnostics would make things so very difficult to understand—skipping the fact Jesus himself said he used parables because he meant to be hard to interpret. Those who bellyache John must be gnostic, for they struggle so hard to understand him, are the sort of people who don’t wanna do the hard work of trying to follow God’s thinking.

John hung out with Jesus on a daily basis, and paid attention. So he understood God better than most. He didn’t use hard words. (Heck, Greek professors regularly have their students translate John’s letters first because his Greek is so basic. Plus he wasn’t given to run-on sentences like Paul.) The words are easy, but the concepts are deep. For that, we gotta turn to the Holy Spirit and ask for clarity and insight. Which he grants. John’s really not hard to understand, with the Spirit’s help. We overcomplicate him… and really that’s ’cause few of us like what he had to say. He wrote a lot of uncomfortable truths, and we want to squirm away from them.

But a lot of us really do want to understand God, and for us, the best way to do it is to read what John wrote. It’s why we introduce Jesus to unbelievers by having them read John’s gospel. It’s why we share John’s letters with Christian newbies. It’s why we struggle through Revelation—and struggle with fellow Christians who wanna misrepresent Revelation to preach their own End Times revenge fantasies instead. John’s a good and profitable read.