The Apostle John by Harold W. Attridge

Who was John the Apostle, according to the Gospels?

The Synoptic Gospels report that among his earliest disciples Jesus called two Galilean fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, James and John (Matt 4:21, Mark 1:19, Luke 5:10), who, with Peter, formed an inner circle of close followers. According to Mark, James and John accompanied Jesus to the house of Peter and his brother Andrew after Jesus preached in the synagogue of Capernaum (Mark 1:29). The three chief disciples followed Jesus into the house of an official of the synagogue, named Jairus in Mark (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51), whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead. They also were present at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28) and slept through his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Mark also records that the three disciples, along with Andrew, sought clarification of Jesus’ prophecy of the temple’s destruction (Mark 13:3). Luke reports that Jesus entrusted Peter and John with preparations for his last supper (Luke 22:8).

James and John regularly appear among the “Twelve” (Matt 10:2, Mark 3:17, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13). Mark’s roster also notes that Jesus named them “Boenerges, which is ‘Sons of Thunder’” (Mark 3:17), hinting at their passionate commitment. Their zeal is highlighted in several stories portraying the brothers as foils for Jesus. John’s attempt to preserve the status of Jesus’ disciples by silencing a rival exorcist elicits a rebuke (Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:49-50). According to Mark, James and John request that Jesus grant them thrones beside him when he comes in his glory (Mark 10:37), irking their fellow disciples (Mark 10:41). Jesus responds with a promise not of glory, but of suffering (Mark 10:38-40). In Luke, James and John propose calling down fire on Samaritans who rejected Jesus’ band (Luke 9:54), prompting Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 9:55).

What was John’s distinctive role among Jesus’ followers?

The Acts of the Apostles hints at John’s role among Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. Peter and John, paired as agents before Jesus’ death (Luke 22:8), emerge as leaders who perform miracles (Acts 3:1-4, Acts 3:11), go to jail (Acts 4:1-3), defend the faithful before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:7-12, Acts 4:19), and serve as emissaries to confirm the Samaritans’ reception of the gospel proclaimed by the deacon Philip (Acts 8:14). Paul, describing his interactions with the Jerusalem community in the mid-30s, names John, James, and Cephas (Peter) as its “pillars” (Gal 2:9).

During the second century, when writings by early Christians were more likely to be deemed authoritative (or even canonical) if they could be connected with one of the apostles, traditions linking John to certain writings developed. Most influential was his association with the Fourth Gospel and its “beloved disciple” (John 13:23, John 19:26, John 20:2, John 21:7, John 21:20-23). That anonymous character, perhaps based on an eyewitness of Jesus’ death (John 19:35) whose written testimony undergirds the Gospel (John 21:25), is an ideal disciple, present with Jesus in his last hours, adopted as his brother at the foot of the cross, and witnessing his resurrection.

The New Testament mentions other Johns, including the visionary who authored the Book of Revelation (Rev 1:4, Rev 1:9). While most patristic authors identified the apostle with the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation, some made distinctions. Papias, a collector of early traditions, mentioned an “elder” John, different from the apostle. Quoting Papias, the fourth-century historian Eusebius (Church History 3.39) suggested that the Elder wrote Revelation. Some modern scholars have similarly attributed some Johannine literature to the Elder. But many modern scholars doubt that the apostle should be identified with the Beloved Disciple, and very few believe that the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel in its current form.

Irenaeus (Against Heresies 2.22.5, 3.1.1, 3.3.4) reported that John lived in Ephesus until the time of Trajan and interacted with the heretic Cerinthus. Clement of Alexandria (What Rich Man Can be Saved 13) recounts John’s efforts to save a youthful robber. Tertullian (On the Prescription of Heresies 36) tells of the Roman attempt to boil John alive in oil. The Acts of John, from the late second century, describes miracles in Ephesus and offers a testimony to the “spiritual” character of Jesus’ passion.

However much his legend developed, the apostle John played an important role in the early Jesus movement.

Harold W. Attridge, "Apostle John", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online:


Harold W. Attridge

Harold W. Attridge
Professor, Yale Divinity School

Harold W. Attridge is the Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. A graduate of Boston College, Cambridge University, and Harvard University, he served on the faculties of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale Divinity School, where he was dean from 2002 to 2012. Among his publications are Essays on John and Hebrews (Mohr-Siebeck, 2010; repr., Baker, 2012).

The Gospels tell of John as a zealous early disciple of Jesus; later traditions attribute to him major parts of the New Testament and tell of his continuing witness into the second century.

Did you know…?

  • John was among the first of Jesus’ disciples.
  • Jesus rebuked the apostle John on several occasions.
  • John played a leading role with Peter in the life of the earliest community of believers.
  • According to tradition, John was the only apostle not to die a martyr’s death.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Religious practitioner(s) trained to cast out demons.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Matt 4:21

21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he ... View more

Mark 1:19

19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

Luke 5:10

10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching ... View more

Mark 1:29

Jesus Heals Many at Simon's House
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.

Mark 5:37

37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.

Luke 8:51

51When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child's father and mother.

Matt 17:1

The Transfiguration
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

Mark 9:2

The Transfiguration
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured ... View more

Luke 9:28

The Transfiguration
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Mark 14:33

33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.

Mark 13:3

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,

Luke 22:8

8So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”

Matt 10:2

2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

Mark 3:17

17James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder);

Luke 6:14

14Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew,

Acts 1:13

13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew ... View more

Mark 3:17

17James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder);

Mark 9:38-41

Another Exorcist
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But ... View more

Luke 9:49-50

Another Exorcist
49John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.”50But J ... View more

Mark 10:37

37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Mark 10:41

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

Mark 10:38-40

38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized w ... View more

Luke 9:54

54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Luke 9:55

55But he turned and rebuked them.

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

A converted Christian theologian born in the second century C.E. whose beliefs were influential but sometimes considered heretical.

An administrative position in Christian churches. In the New Testament, deacons were subordinate to elders and bishops.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

An early (second century) Christian leader and theologian whose writings attacked heresies like gnosticism.

Of or related to the church fathers, an unfixed group of ancient theologians who influenced the development of Christianity. Generally, the church fathers fall into three categories related to function and chronology: apostolic, the ante-Nicene, and post-Nicene.

An early church father (160-220 C.E.) from Carthage (now Tunisia) who wrote in defense of practices such as martyrdom and radical forgiveness.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Luke 22:8

8So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”

Acts 3:1-4

Peter Heals a Crippled Beggar
1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon.2And a man lame from ... View more

Acts 3:11

Peter Speaks in Solomon's Portico
11While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's Portico, utterly aston ... View more

Acts 4:1-3

Peter and John before the Council
1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them,2muc ... View more

Acts 4:7-12

7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, ... View more

Acts 4:19

19But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge;

Acts 8:14

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.

Gal 2:9

9and when 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 ... View more

John 13:23

23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him;

John 19:26

26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”

John 20:2

2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not ... View more

John 21:7

7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jump ... View more

John 21:20-23

Jesus and the Beloved Disciple
20Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper ... View more

John 19:35

35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)

John 21:25

25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that ... View more

Rev 1:4

4John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before h ... View more

Rev 1:9

A Vision of Christ
9I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos ... View more

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