Theology & Spirituality

The Apostle John in Extrabiblical Tradition

The apostle John, known to many as St. John the Evangelist, is among the most celebrated figures in Christianity. His Gospel (the Gospel of John) is likely one of the most read (if not the most read) books in the Bible, largely because it presents the message of salvation in an accessible way while at the same time reaching dizzying theological and philosophical heights. And of course, the book of Revelation, traditionally attributed to the pen of this John, has long occupied a prominent place in the conversations of the Christian community. Aside from these two books and the three short letters commonly ascribed to him (1–3 John), John is often noted and celebrated for being the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (e.g., John 13:23, though there is some dispute over whether this person is John), for being the one to whom Jesus entrusted his own mother (John 19:26–27), and for being, according to some ancient traditions, the last surviving apostle.

But not many realize that the early Church preserved some other fascinating information about this apostle and what he did. In this post I will introduce a few ancient stories about John that I find particularly exciting. I should note that some would have doubts about the complete accuracy of these stories (scholars doubt almost everything); I have, however, drawn these stories from ancient Christian sources that were concerned with truth and have credibility.

The Writing of the Fourth Gospel

For more than a hundred years, biblical scholars have discussed and argued about whether the apostle John is the true author of the Gospel of John, often called the Fourth Gospel. This was not so with the early Church; orthodox Christians and Gnostics alike believed that John wrote it, the only disagreement coming from a small group of people called the Alogoi, who thought that it was written by the Gnostic Cerinthus.[1]

Interestingly, the Church’s belief wasn’t based on vague tradition; early Christians passed on a specific story about how John came to write this beloved book. The Muratorian Fragment says that when John called some bishops and fellow disciples to a time of fasting, Andrew received a revelation that John should write down the things (presumably things about Jesus) that they remembered. Eusebius of Caesarea, the great “father of Church history,” tells a very similar story that was passed down by the prominent Christian teacher Clement of Alexandria.[2]

I find this fascinating for a number of reasons, one of them being that it presents the Gospel of John as the work of a group, namely bishops and apostles, while ultimately being under the direction of one figure, John. This speaks to the twentieth-century academic theories about both a “community” and a “beloved disciple” being behind the Fourth Gospel. I also find it exciting to think that in the Gospel of John we might hear not only the memories and thoughts of John but also Andrew and possibly other apostles.

John in a Bathhouse

One of the most interesting stories about John is preserved by the early bishop Irenaeus, who claimed that the story was told by Polycarp, a hugely important early Church leader who knew several apostles.[3] According to this anecdote, one day John went to a bathhouse in Ephesus, but before he got in the water, he saw that his nemesis, the Gnostic leader Cerinthus, was there too. The apostle dashed out of the bathhouse, worried that it was going to fall down because the heretic was inside.[4]

What strikes me most about this story is that it portrays the humanity of John. We are used to thinking of him as the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the cross or as the poetic Evangelist penning the Fourth Gospel, and while those images are certainly accurate, this story reminds us that John was a human who bathed and, like a normal person in that time and place, went to bathhouses. It is also interesting that in this story John runs away, seemingly afraid that he will be killed. This might seem unusual, as we are accustomed to hearing about saints wanting death, longing to experience the pain and glory of martyrdom. Of course, we can expect that John would have bravely faced martyrdom for his faith (and some traditions say that he actually did so), but in this story he, like everyone else, doesn’t want to die prematurely or unnecessarily. He cherishes earthly life and wants to see the dawn of another day.

John and a Notorious Criminal

Another fascinating story was written down by Clement of Alexandria and preserved by Eusebius. According to Clement, when John returned from the Island of Patmos, where he is said to have written Revelation (see Rev 1:9), he lived in Ephesus and sometimes travelled to neighbouring areas, appointing bishops and establishing order in Christian communities. In one city, a male youth caught John’s attention, and John committed the youth to the care of the local bishop. The bishop raised him like his own son and baptized him. However, in spite of this godly influence, the youth got in with a bad crowd and became a criminal. Eventually, he became the notorious leader of a band of robbers.[5]

Some time later, John visited the city and asked about the young man. The bishop, breaking down and crying, told the apostle about how he had left the Church and become a robber. John was extremely upset and immediately demanded that someone show him the way to the robbers’ outpost. Despite being elderly and vulnerable, he fearlessly approached the robbers and demanded to see their leader. The leader tried to run away from John, but John chased him and cried out,

Why do you run away from me, child—from your own father, unarmed and very old? Be sorry for me, child, not afraid of me. You still have hopes of life. I will account to Christ for you. If need be, I will gladly suffer your death, as the Lord suffered death for us; to save you I will give my own life. Stop! believe! Christ sent me.[6]

Upon hearing this, the hardened criminal burst into tears, dropped his weapon, and hugged John. He repented of his sin, and John went through an intense time of prayer and fasting on his behalf. Eventually he was fully restored to the fellowship of the Church.[7]

Little commentary is needed on this moving story. My only note is that the caring, grandfatherly spirit John displays here is consistent with what we find in his writings, especially 1 John: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18 NRSV); “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God” (1 John 4:7).

Final Thoughts

These passages have deepened my interest in John, and I trust that they will do the same for some of my readers. There is something profoundly exciting about being reminded that the Christian religion is one of history—a religion about real events, about real people being transformed by the grace of God. John is not merely a two-dimensional stained-glass saint or a used-up and thrown-away vessel of the sacred words of God; John is a real being (remember that he continues to live and love within the unbreakable communion of saints), and in his time on earth he left behind real traces of himself, not only writings but also memories and stories.

I hope that realization affects you the way it affects me.


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This article is a slightly edited version of Echoes in the Catacombs, “Meeting the Apostle John Outside the Bible,” by David Doherty, originally posted August 9, 2018, https://echoesinthecatacombs.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/meeting-the-apostle-john-outside-the-bible.

[1] Joel C. Elowsky, ed. John 1–10. Ancient Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 4a (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varisty, 2006), pp. xxvii–xviii.

[2] Eusebius, Church History 6.14.7.

[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4.

[5] Eusebius, Church History 3.23.6–11.

[6] Eusebius, Church History 3.23.17, translation from Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1965), 130. The rest of the paragraph is adapted from Eusebius, Church History 3.23.12–17.

[7] Eusebius, Church History 3.23.18–19.

Bibliography

Elowsky, Joel C., ed. John 1–10. Ancient Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 4a. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varisty, 2006.

Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1965.

Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

 

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David Doherty serves in ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada and also works as a copyeditor and proofreader. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research. They live in Ontario.

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