09 October 2013

Heroes of the Bible, heroes of the faith:
introducing Saint John the Evangelist

An icon of Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos listening to the voice that tells him to write

Patrick Comerford

In our tutorial group this year we have decided to look at “Heroes” – Heroes of the Bible and Heroes of the Faith. We have agreed to introduce a favourite personality in turn, and I agreed last week to begin the series by introducing Saint John the Evangelist, or Saint John the Divine.

Saint John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel, is also known as Saint John the Divine and Saint John of Patmos, and as the Beloved Disciple. Yet, while the Fourth Gospel refers to an unnamed “Beloved Disciple,” the author of the Gospel seems interested in maintaining his internal anonymity.

He is celebrated in the Calendar of the Church two days after Christmas Day, on 27 December, and the Prologue to his Gospel is one of the traditional readings on Christmas Day, so many of our parishioners will be familiar with his writings, but not familiar with his life story.

Saint John the Evangelist (Hebrew, Yoḥanan, ‘God is gracious,’ Greek, Ἰωάννης) is identified with the ‘Beloved Disciple’ who is unnamed in the Fourth Gospel. He is also identified traditionally as the author of the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters (I John, II John and II John) and the Book of Revelation.

Christian tradition says that John the Evangelist was one of the original Twelve apostles and the only one to live into old age and not be killed for his faith. If this identification and tradition is correct, then, as well as being a Biblical author, this Saint John has a prominent place throughout the Gospels, for he is:

● one of the three disciples at the Transfiguration,
● one of the disciples sent to prepare a place for the Last Supper,
● one of the three disciples present in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ is arrested,
● the only disciple present at the Crucifixion,
● the disciple to whom Christ entrusts his mother from the Cross,
● the first disciple to arrive at Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection,
● the disciple who first recognises Christ standing on the lake shore following the Resurrection.

So, Saint John the Evangelist is identified with John who was a Galilean, the son of Zebedee and Salome, and the brother of James the Greater. In the Gospels the two brothers are often called “the sons of Zebedee” after their father, and Christ calls them the “sons of thunder” (ἐπέθηκεν αὐτοῖς ὀνόμα[τα] Βοανηργές, ὅ ἐστιν Υἱοὶ Βροντῆς, “he gave to them the names Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder”, see Mark 3: 17).

Originally they were fishermen who fished with their father in the Lake of Genesareth. However, for a time they became time disciples of Saint John the Baptist, and were called by Christ from the circle of John's followers, together with along with Saint Andrew and Saint Peter (see John 1: 35-42).

In the Gospel lists of the Twelve, John is listed second (Acts 1: 13), third (Mark 3: 17) or fourth (Matthew 10: 3; Luke 6: 14), yet always after James, apart from a few passages (Luke 8: 51; 9: 28; Acts 1: 13).

Peter, James and John are the only witnesses of the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5: 37), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1), and Christ’s Agony in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 37). John and Peter alone are sent into the city to prepare for the Last Supper (Luke 22: 8).

At the Last Supper, John sits beside Christ, reclining next to him (John 13: 23, 25). According to the general interpretation, John is “another disciple” who, with Peter, follows Christ after the arrest into the courtyard of the high priest (John 18: 15).

The Beloved Disciple, alone among the Twelve, remains with Christ at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Christ and the women and he is asked by the dying Christ to take Mary into his care (John 19: 25-27). After Mary Magdalene’s report of the Resurrection, Peter and the “other disciple” are the first to go to the grave, and the “other disciple” is the first to believe that Christ is truly risen (John 20: 2-10).

When the Risen Christ appears at the Lake of Genesareth, “that disciple whom Jesus loved” is the first of the seven disciples present who recognises Christ standing on the shore (John 21: 7).

After the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, John and Peter take prominent roles in guiding the new Church. He is with Peter at the healing of the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3: 1-11), and is thrown into prison with Peter (Acts 4: 3). Again, we find him with Peter visiting the newly converted people of Samaria (Acts 8: 14).

Scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist in the chapel of Saint John’s College, Cambridge: on the left, he survives being thrown into boiling oil outside the Latin gate (ante portam Latinam); on the right, he survives drinking from a poisoned chalice.

After the Ascension, Saint John travels to Samaria and is thrown into prison with Saint Peter (Acts 4: 3).

Saint Paul names John, alongside James and Peter (Cephas), as pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2: 9). When Paul returns to Jerusalem after his second and third journeys (Acts 18: 22; 21:17 ff), he does not seem to meet John there. Perhaps John remained there for 12 years until the persecution of Herod Agrippa I led to the scattering of the Apostles throughout the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 12: 1-17).

A Christian community is already living in Ephesus before Saint Paul’s first labours there (see Acts 18: 24-27, where the leading Christians included Priscilla and Aquila), and tradition associates Saint John the Evangelist with Ephesus, where he is said to have lived and been buried.

According to a tradition mentioned by Saint Jerome, in the second general persecution, in the year 95, Saint John was apprehended by the Proconsul of Asia and sent to Rome, where he was miraculously preserved from death when he was thrown into a vat or cauldron of boiling oil. The Church of Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni a Porta Latina), which is dedicated to him, was built near the Latin Gate (Porta Latina), the traditional scene of this event. Because of this trial, the Early Fathers of the Church give him the title of martyr.

According to ancient tradition, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect.

A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols, so that the image of Saint John with the poisoned chalice is still seen above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (right, photograph: Patrick Comerford).

Domitian banished Saint John into the isle of Patmos. It was during this period that John experienced those heavenly visions which he recorded in the Book of Revelation in the year 96. The Book of Revelation tells us that its author was on the island of Patmos “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus” when he was received this revelation in a cave (see Revelation 1:9).

After the death of Domitian, it is said, Saint John returned to Ephesus in the year 97, and there tradition says he wrote his gospel about the year 98. He is also identified with the author of the three Johannine Epistles in the New Testament. By the late second century, the tradition of the Church was saying that Saint John lived to old age in Ephesus.

Saint John the Divine on his deathbed ... from a window in Chartres Cathedral

Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that Saint John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.

He was so enfeebled with old age that the people carried him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. When he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on each occasion and to say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Aysoluk to the hill above the town of Selçuk, beside Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to Eusebius, Saint John died in peace at Ephesus, in the third year of Trajan, that is, the year 100, when he was about 94 years old. According to Saint Epiphanius, he was buried on a mountain outside the town.

The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Aysoluk to the hill above the town of Selçuk, beside Ephesus.

The site of Saint John’s tomb is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Looking at the Johannine Literature

The Epistles and the Book of Revelation presuppose that their one author John belonged to the multitude of personal eyewitnesses of the life and work of Christ (see especially I John 1: 1-5; 4: 14), that he lived for a long time in Asia Minor, that he was thoroughly acquainted with the conditions in a variety Christian communities there, and that he was recognised by all Christian communities as leader of this part of the Church.

Collectively, the Gospel, the three Epistles, and Revelation are known as Johannine literature. Christian tradition identified Saint John the Apostle as the author of the Gospel, the three Epistles and the Book of Revelation that bear his name. However, within Johannine literature, Revelation bears the least grammatical similarity to the Gospel, and modern scholarship is divided about the Johannine authorship of these texts.

The most widely accepted view is that – whether or not the same man wrote all the Johannine works – it all came out of the same community in Asia Minor, which had some connections with Saint John the Evangelist, Saint John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter.

The author of Saint John’s Gospel of John never identifies himself by name, but the text identifies him as the “Beloved Disciple” repeatedly referred to in the Gospel.

Why am I so drawn to the Johannine literature, and why has this influenced my choice of Saint John to introduce this series of studies?

First, I find the Prologue to the Gospel (John 1: 1-14) one of the greatest pieces of literature and poetry in the New Testament.

For Saint John, there is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to muse. He is sharp, direct and gets to the point: “In the beginning …” But traditionally, the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel is one of the traditional Gospel readings for Christmas Day.

1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν,
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
2 οὗτος ἦνἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.
3 πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο,
καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.
ὃ γέγονεν 4 ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν,
καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων:
5 καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇσκοτίᾳ φαίνει,
καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

6 Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωποςἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης: 7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν, ἵναμαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι' αὐτοῦ. 8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸφῶς, ἀλλ' ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός. 9 ην τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, ὃ φωτίζειπάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον.

10 ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν,
καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι'αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο,
καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω.
11 εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν,
καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸνοὐ παρέλαβον.

12 ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦγενέσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, 13 οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκθελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν.

14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο
καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν,
καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ,
δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός,
πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being 4 in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

William Mitchell’s geometric relief sculpture of Saint John ... one of a series at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool with the symbols of the four evangelists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In art, Saint John the Evangelist is frequently represented as an Eagle, symbolising the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel.

Secondly, I am constantly overwhelmed and in awe of the emphasis on love and light throughout the Johannine letters, whether or not you argue that the author of the Fourth Gospel is also the author of I John, or even of II John and II John.

That emphasis on love, which informs the story of Saint John’s last days I told earlier, was brought through in our New Testament reading in the chapel at Evening Prayer last night (I John 5: 1-5, 13-21):

1 Πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν γεννήσαντα ἀγαπᾷ [καὶ] τὸν γεγεννημένον ἐξ αὐτοῦ. 2 ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἀγαπῶμεν τὰ τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅταν τὸν θεὸν ἀγαπῶμεν καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ ποιῶμεν. 3 αὕτη γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν: καὶ αἱ ἐντολαὶ αὐτοῦ βαρεῖαι οὐκ εἰσίν, 4 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ νικᾷ τὸν κόσμον: καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ νίκη ἡ νικήσασα τὸν κόσμον, ἡ πίστις ἡμῶν. 5 τίς [δέ] ἐστιν ὁ νικῶν τὸν κόσμον εἰ μὴ ὁ πιστεύων ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ;

13 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἵνα εἰδῆτε ὅτι ζωὴν ἔχετε αἰώνιον, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.

14 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ παρρησία ἣν ἔχομεν πρὸς αὐτόν, ὅτι ἐάν τι αἰτώμεθα κατὰ τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ ἀκούει ἡμῶν. 15 καὶ ἐὰν οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀκούει ἡμῶν ὃ ἐὰν αἰτώμεθα, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἔχομεν τὰ αἰτήματα ἃ ᾐτήκαμεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ. 16 Ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, αἰτήσει, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν, τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσιν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον. ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον: οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ. 17 πᾶσα ἀδικία ἁμαρτία ἐστίν, καὶ ἔστιν ἁμαρτία οὐ πρὸς θάνατον.

18 Οἴδαμεν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐχ ἁμαρτάνει, ἀλλ' ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς οὐχ ἅπτεται αὐτοῦ. 19 οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν, καὶ ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται. 20 οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει, καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν: καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος.

21 Τεκνία, φυλάξατε ἑαυτὰ ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων.

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.

18 We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. 19 We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

A street sign in Gowran, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church;
that, being enlightened by the teaching
of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life
through Jesus Christ your incarnate Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we pray,
that the Word made flesh proclaimed by your apostle John
may ever abide and live within us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a discussion in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 9 October 2013.

No comments: