John in the Bible
Like his brother James, John was given the nickname “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Whether it was for their explosive temperaments, speech, ambition, or something else, James and John clearly had some defining qualities in common.
In the Bible, John is most known for:
- Asked Jesus if he and James should call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which failed to show them hospitality (Luke 9:54)
- Asked Jesus if he and James can sit on either side of Jesus’ throne in heaven, and unwittingly promised to follow Jesus into martyrdom (Mark 10:35–40)
- Taking care of Jesus’ mother, Mary (John 19:26–27)
- Beating Peter in a race to Jesus’ empty tomb (John 20:2–9)
- Being a “pillar” of the church (Galatians 2:9)
Did John write any books of the Bible?
Five books of the New Testament are attributed to someone named “John.” According to tradition, the Apostle John wrote all of them (more than any other member of the Twelve):
- The Gospel of John claims to have been written by the “Beloved Disciple.” Many early Christians assumed this was John, the son of Zebedee—so much so that the book was named after him.
- 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John simply claim “the elder” (or “the presbyter”) as their author. Early Christians believed this elder’s name was John, and many assumed it was the same John who was part of the Twelve.
- Revelation claims to be written by a man named John on the isle of Patmos. Again, through the ages, Christians have commonly assumed John of Patmos and John the son of Zebedee were the same guy.
But which (if any) of these books he actually wrote largely depends on if we can identify John the Apostle with the Johns mentioned above, and scholars have come to mixed conclusions about that. Like “James,” “John” is another common first-century name, so it’s unclear which (if any) of these names are referring to this John, and there’s often disagreement and confusion about it.
Tradition says that John is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John. John is never mentioned by name in this gospel, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” appears to be one of the most prominent disciples (he sits next to Jesus at the Passover meal, and Peter often defers to him). At the end of the gospel, the author makes it clear that he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved”:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” —John 21:24
How did John die?
According to tradition, John died of old age: a rare (and possibly unique) feat among the apostles, most of whom were martyred. Interestingly, John records that Peter asked Jesus what would happen to John, and Jesus basically said “It’s none of your business” in a way that implied there might be something different planned for him:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” —John 21:20–23
Tradition holds that he preached in Ephesus, was exiled to the island of Patmos (where he wrote Revelation), returned to Ephesus, and died of old age after 98 AD.
Some important early Christian writers claimed to learn directly from John himself, including Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.