What Happened to John the Apostle?

The Book of Revelation claims to have been written by “John”. While the “John” of Revelation doesn’t specifically claim to be the Apostle John mentioned in the Gospels, tradition claims that they are one and the same. According to Catholic tradition, which cites such sources as Ireneus and Tertullian, John moved, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, to Ephesus. In his older years, he was banished to the island of Patmos after the Romans were unable to harm him by throwing him into boiling oil. He supposedly died at a great age, but according to some Christians, he is still alive today (this is based on this saying of Jesus to Peter in the gospel of John: “Jesus said to him [Peter] , If I desire that he [John?] stay until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.” (John 21:22 WEB) Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, claimed to have personally encountered John the Apostle.

Critics would no doubt suspect this entire history of John of being legendary. And they would be correct. The early church leaders who particularly endorsed this theory were the ones who were particularly interested in championing the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. But there is considerable historical evidence to the contrary.

A little known fragment of Papias, an early church Father who was familiar with John and Polycarp his disciple, says that “John the divine and James his brother were slain by the Jews”. This would coincide well with what Jesus tells James and John in Matthew 20:23, that they will drink of cup and be baptized with his baptism (in other words, suffer martyrdom as Jesus did).

In another better known fragment of Papias, quoted by Eusebius, Papias mentions receiving instruction from “John the Presbyter” in the PRESENT tense, but mentions John the Apostle in the PAST tense…

“If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders,—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what WAS said (past tense) by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by JOHN, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, SAY (present tense).”

This indicates that John was probably martyred quite early in Jerusalem. We’ll talk more of Presbyter John later.

In the ancient Syriac Christian calendar, December 27 is commemorated as the day of the martyrs “John and James, the apostles in Jerusalem”. The ancient Armenian calendar also lists them as co-martyrs, as does the Ethiopian and several other ancient lists of martyrs.

Heracleon mentiones several apostles (such as Matthew, Philip and Thomas) who were not martyrs. John is not mentioned, and so was presumably martyred.

Ignatius writes a very early Epistle to the Ephesians and greets Polycarp in particular, but makes no mention whatsoever of John the Apostle – a very odd thing to omit if John was living there, or HAD lived there, as Ignatius is careful to mention apostolic connections.

It seems likely, then, that John the Apostle died in Jerusalem, near the time of his brother James.

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