SEARCH FOR THE TWELVE APOSTLES
by McBirnie, Ph.D.
Like all other Biblical biographies, that of John is
fragmentary. We do, however, know considerable about him.
He was one of the sons of Zebedee, a fisherman of Galilee, and of
Salome who was probably a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He
grew up in Galilee and was a partner with his brother and with
Andrew and Peter in the fishing business. He was a disciple of
John the Baptist, and the companion of Andrew in following that
noted prophet. (John 1:34-40) He accompanied Jesus on His first
tour in Galilee and later, with his partners, quit the fishing
industry to become a disciple of Christ. He was with Jesus at the
wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) and was also present in
Jerusalem during Jesus' early Judean ministry.
We are told he owned a home in Jerusalem and probably the
interview with Nicodemus was held at his home. He was sent out as
one of the twelve on a preaching mission.
With Peter and James, he was present at the raising of
Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37), and at the transfiguration (Matt.
17). They were nearest to the Lord at the agony of Gethsemane.
John was, therefore, one of the most intimate of the disciples.
He and his brother were called "Sons of Thunder" when they sought
to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village whose
inhabitants had refused them hospitality. (Mark 3:17) On another
occasion, John exhibited his zeal, intolerance and exclusiveness
when he exclaimed: "Teacher, we saw one casting out demons in Thy
name; and we forbade him, because he followed not us." (Mark
9:38) Their mother expressed the ambition of her sons when she
requested for them the chief places in the kingdom. (Mark 10:35)
At the Last Supper he occupied the privileged place of intimacy
next to Jesus. (John 13:23) At the trial of Jesus he was present
in the court because he was known to the family of the high
priests. He probably had been a business representative in
Jerusalem of his father's fishing industry and thus had become
acquainted with prominent people in the area. He was present at
the Cross and there was given by Christ the responsibility for
Mary. (John 19:26) He was with Peter during the time of Jesus
burial in the tomb and came with him as one of the first visitors
to see the empty tomb. His greatest act of faith was when he saw
the empty grave clothes, for as he testifies, "He saw and
believed" (John 20:8).
John was with Peter at the gate of the Temple when a lame
man was healed (Act 3:10). He was also with Peter on the mission
to Samaria to impart the Holy Spirit to the new converts (Acts
8:12). He, along with Peter and James, the Lord's brother, are
called "pillars" in the Jerusalem church.
Many have identified John as "the disciple whom Jesus loved"
(John 12:23; 19:26: 20:2; 21:7, 20).
We learn from the beginning of his gospel that he lived for
a long time after the beginning of the Christian era. His
epistles reveal that he rose to a position of influence within
world-wide Christianity, and shortly before the destruction of
Jerusalem moved to Ephesus in Asia Minor. At this strategic
location he became the pastor of the church in Ephesus and had a
special relationship to other churches in the area, as we know
from his letters to the Seven Churches in Asia. His brother,
James, was the first of the Apostles to die. John, on the other
hand, was the last to die. Almost all the other Apostles met
violent deaths, but John died peacefully in Ephesus at an
advanced age, around the year 100 A.D.
THE LATER LIFE OF JOHN
While living in Ephesus it is believed that John had with
him Mary, the mother of Jesus, for a few years. Nicephorus in the
"Ecclesiastical History," 2, 2, says John stayed in Jerusalem and
cared for Mary like a son until the day of her death. However,
this is a tradition which has less weight than the one which says
that Mary was taken to Ephesus and died there. The matter would
not be important except that there are two places of her death
shown to this day. There is a tomb in Jerusalem, and in Ephesus
the "House of St.Mary." Though the tomb in Ephesus has not been
found, the weight of archaeology seems to indicate that it was
once there. Several guide books obtainable at the ruins of
ancient Ephesus indicate that this is the case. (See Ephesus by
Naci Keskin and Ephesus by Dr.Cemil Toksoz, p.16).
St.Irenaeus, himself a native of Asia, who knew Polycarp, a
disciple of John, several times recalls the teaching of John in
Ephesus and says he lived there until the time of Trajan. (See
his Adv. Haer., II, 22,59).
While in Ephesus John was exiled to Patmos, a penal colony
off the coast of Turkey. This is confirmed by Eusebius, Chapter
"According to early tradition, the sacred text of the book of
Revelation was given to St.John and set down while he was in the
cave that is now known as the cave of the Apocalypse, which cave
is now hidden within, and below, the buildings of the Monastery
of the Apocalypse. This monastery was built in the 17th century
to house the Patmias - a theological school that was established
at that date, and its structures have been very little altered
since then. The buildings constitute an ensemble of cells,
class-rooms, flowered courtyards and stairways, with chapels
dedicated to St.Nicholas, St. Artemios and St.Anne - this last
one being built in front of the open side of the cave. The
holy cave, or grotto, itself has long since been transformed into
a small church dedicated to St.John the Theologian. In the
grotto, signs remain that long tradition holds bear witness to
St.Johns presence - in one corner there is the place where he
laid his head to rest; near it the place where he rested his hand
to raise himself from the rocky floor on which he slept; not far
away the place where he spread his parchment; and, in the roof of
the cave, the triple fissure in the rock through which he heard
'the great voice as of a trumpet.' The cave is small, and the
light is dim; it is a place that draws one to meditation, prayer,
worship, contemplation ... a place of which a man might say, 'How
fearful is this place! This is none other than the house of God,
and this is the gate of Heaven'
An apocryphal writing of considerably later date than the book of
Revelation, attributed to the hand of Prochoros, a 'disciple of
St.John,' offers us some details on St.John's sojourn on Patmos.
This document bears the title 'Travels and Miracles of St.John
the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist, set down by his disciple
Prochoros.' It probably dates from the 5th century. Some scholars
place it in the 4th, however, while others place it as late as
the 13th century. All the local island traditions are derived
from this text, which provides a lengthy account of how St.John
wrote his Gospel on Patmos. This tradition was disseminated
widely from the 11th century onwards, but today we can only treat
it with the greatest scepticism. The same text also recounts the
miracles of St.John performed before coming to Patmos, the
difficulties he encountered on the island, and the final success
of his apostolate; and there is in particular an account of how
he came into conflict with a pagan magician called Kynops, whom
in due course he overcame. And still today there are Patmians
willing to point out the various places mentioned in the account.
Fishermen - will point out Kynops petrified in rock from beneath
the calm waters of the bay of Scala, and monks will show you the
frescoes illustrating this same scene in the outer narthex of the
big monastery of St.John the Theologian at Chora.
From the 4th Century A.D. onwards, Patmos came to be one of the
chief centres of pilgrimage in the Christian world. There are
many columns and capitals now built into the main church and
other parts of the big Monastery, and into other churches on the
island as well, that originally came from churches built in the
5th and 6th centuries. But from the 7th century onwards Patmos
came to be abandoned like the majority of the Aegean islands, for
this was the period of the upsurge of Islam and of great naval
battles between Arabs and Byzantines." (The Monastery of St.John
the Theologian, S.Papadopoulos, p.3,4).
Eusebius records that John was released from Patmos and
returned to Ephesus:
"But after Domitian had reigned fifteen years, and Nerva
succeeded to the government, the Roman senate decreed that the
honours of Domitian should be revoked, and that those who had
been unjustly expelled should return to their homes, and have
their goods restored. This is the statement of the historians of
the day. It was then also, that the Apostle John returned from
his banishment in Patmos, and took up his abode at Ephesus,
according to an ancient tradition of the church." (Ecclesiastical
History, Eusebius, Chapter 20, p.103).
One of the most interesting stories of John is also recorded
"About this time also, the beloved disciple of Jesus, John the
Apostle and evangelist, still surviving, governed the churches in
Asia, after his return from exile on the island, and the death of
Domitian. But that he was still living until this time, it may
suffice to prove, by the testimony of two witnesses. These, as
maintaining sound doctrine in the church, may surely be re-
garded as worthy of all credit: and such were Irenaeus and
Clement of Alexandria. Of these, the former, in the second book
against heresies, writes in the following manner: 'And all the
presbyters of Asia, that had conferred with John the disciple of
our Lord, testify that John had delivered it to them; for he
continued with them until the times of Trajan.' And in the third
book of the same work, he shows the same thing in the following
words: 'But the church in Ephesus also, which had been founded by
Paul, and where John continued to abide until the times of
Trajan, is a faithful witness of the Apostolic tradition.'
Clement also, indicating the time, subjoins a narrative most
acceptable to those who delight to hear what is excellent and
profitable, in that discourse to which he gave the title, 'What
Rich Man is Saved?' Taking therefore the book, read it where it
contains a narrative like the following: "Listen to a story that
is no fiction, but a real history, handed down and carefully
preserved, respecting the Apostle John. For after the tyrant was
dead, coming from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went also,
when called, to the neighbouring regions of the Gentiles; in some
to appoint bishops, in some to institute entire new churches, in
others to appoint to the ministry some one of those that were
pointed out by the Holy Ghost. When he came, therefore, to one of
those cities, at no great distance, of which some also give the
name, and had in other respects consoled his brethren, he at
least turned towards the bishop ordained, (appointed), and seeing
a youth of fine stature, graceful countenance, and ardent mind,
he said, Him I commend to you with all earnestness, in the
presence of the church and of Christ. The bishop having taken him
and promised all, he repeated and testified the same thing, and
then returned to Ephesus. The presbyter taking the youth home
that was committed to him, educated, restrained, and cherished
him, and at length baptized him. After this he relaxed exercising
his former care and vigilance, as if he had now committed him to
a perfect safeguard in the seal of the Lord. But certain idle,
dissolute fellows, familiar with every kind of wickedness,
unhappily attach themselves to him, thus prematurely freed from
restraint. At first they lead him on by expensive entertainments.
Then going out at night to plunder, they take him with them.
Next, they encourage him to something greater, and gradually
becoming accustomed to their ways in his enterprising spirit,
like an unbridled and powerful steed that has struck out of the
right way, biting the curb, he rushed with so much the greater
impetuosity towards the precipice. At length, renouncing the
salvation of God, he contemplated no trifling offence, but having
committed some great crime, since he was now once ruined, he
expected to suffer equally with the rest. Taking, therefore,
these same associates, and forming them into a band of robbers,
be became their captain, surpassing them all in violence, blood,
and cruelty. Time elapsed, and on a certain occasion they sent
for John. The Apostle, after appointing those other matters for
which he came, said, 'Come, bishop, return me my deposit, which I
and Christ committed to thee, in the presence of the church over
which thou dost preside.' The bishop at first, indeed, was
confounded, thinking that he was insidiously charged for money
which be had not received; and yet he could neither give credit
respecting that which he had not, nor yet disbelieve John. But
when be said, 'I demand the young man, and the soul of a
brother,' the old man, groaning heavily and also weeping, said,
'He is dead.' 'How, and what death?' 'He is dead to God,' said
he. 'He has turned out wicked and abandoned, and at last a
robber; and now, instead of the church, he has beset the mountain
with a band like himself.' The Apostle, on hearing this, tore his
garment, and beating his head with great lamentation, said, 'I
left a fine keeper of a brother's soul! But let a horse now be
got ready, and some one to guide me on my way.' He rode as he
was, away from the church, and coming to the country, was taken
prisoner by the outguard of the banditti. He neither attempted,
however, to flee, nor refused to be taken; but cried out, 'For
this very purpose am I come; conduct me to your captain.' He, in
the meantime stood waiting, armed as he was. But as he recognised
John advancing towards him, overcome with shame he turned about
to flee. The Apostle, however, pursued him with all his might,
forgetful of his age, and crying out, 'Why dost thou fly, my son,
from me, thy father; thy defenceless, aged father? Have
compassion on me, my son; fear not. Thou still hast hope of life.
I will intercede with Christ for thee. Should it be necessary, I
will cheerfully suffer death for thee, as Christ for us. I will
give my life for thine. Stay; believe Christ had sent me.'
Hearing this, he at first stopped with downcast looks. Then threw
away his arms; then trembling, lamented bitterly, and embracing
the old man as he came up, attempted to plead for himself with
his lamentations, as much as he was able; as if baptized a second
time with his own tears, and only concealing his right hand. But
the Apostle pledging himself, and solemnly assuring him; that he
had found pardon for him in his prayers at the hands of Christ,
praying, on his bended knees, and kissing his right hand as
cleansed from all iniquity, conducted him back again to the
church. Then supplicating with frequent prayers, contending with
constant fastings, and softening down his mind with various
consolatory declarations, he did not leave him as it is said,
until he had restored him to the church. Affording a powerful
example of true repentance, and a great evidence of a
regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection."
(Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, Chapter 23, p.104-107 ).
The Scripture record of John ends with the "Seven Letters to
the Seven Churches" mentioned in the first two chapters of the
book of the Revelation. St.Augustine states that John preached to
the Parthians. These were the people who lived on the borders of
what is now Russia and Iran, and is near the eastern regions of
Tertullian (De Praescriptione, 36) says that John was with
Peter in Rome and for a time was in danger of his life. The
legend is that he was submitted to the torture of being boiled in
oil but was delivered miraculously. This story does not seem to
have much foundation in historical fact but the Church of San
Giovanni in Olio seems to have been built on the spot in Rome to
honor the Apostles escape.
Also there is a tradition that in Rome an attempt was made
to poison John, but that when he took the cup the poison
disappeared in the form of a serpent. Thus the Roman Catholic
symbol for this Apostle is a cup with a serpent issuing from it.
(See "The Twelve Christ Chose," Asbury Smith, p.58-60).
While in Ephesus John wrote his gospel. Eusebius tells the
"The fourth of the Gospels was written by John, one of the
disciples. When exhorted by his fellow-disciples and bishops, he
said, 'Fast with me this day for three days; and what may be
revealed to any of us, let us relate it to one another:' The same
night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that John
was to write all things in his own name, and they were all to
certify." (A New Eusebius, J.Stevenson, p.145).
Church history records few moments of humor but surely one
must be the picture that Eusebius gives in Chapter 28. This is a
passage concerning one Cerinthus, a noted heretic in the days of
John. Eusebius quotes as his authority, Irenaeus, and relates
that he said that "John, the Apostle, once entered a bath to
wash: but ascertaining Cerinthus was within, he leapt out of the
place and fled from the door, not enduring to remain under the
same roof with him. John exhorted those within to do the same,
'Let us flee lest the bath fall in, as long as Cerinthus, that
enemy of the truth, is within.'" (Eusebius' Ecclesiastical
In dealing with that same Cerinthus, St.Jerome wrote several
paragraphs about John, indicating that John wrote the Gospel
against the heresy of Cerinthus. The entire selection from St.
Jerome is worth reading:
"John, the Apostle whom Jesus most loved, the son of Zebedee and
brother of James, the Apostle whom Herod, after our Lord's
passion, beheaded, most certainly of all the Evangelists wrote a
'Gospel,' at the request of the bishops of Asia, against
Cerinthus and other heretics and especially against the then
growing dogma of the Ebionites, who assert that Christ did not
exist before Mary.
(Oh, this idea has sprung up again in these end times, the idea
being that Jesus did not exist before being born of Mary. A
fellow by the name of Anthony Buzzard, a former WCGer proclaims
this false heretic teaching - Keith Hunt)
On this account he was compelled to maintain His divine nativity.
But there is said to be yet another reason for this work, in that
when he had read Matthew, Mark and Luke, he approved indeed the
substance of the history and declared that the things they said
were true, but that they had given the history of only one year,
the one, that is, which follows the imprisonment of John and in
which he was put to death. So passing by this year, the events of
which had been set forth by these, he related the events of the
earlier period before John was shut up in prison, so that it
might be manifest to those who should diligently read the volumes
of the four Evangelists. This also takes away the discrepancy
which there seems to be between John and the others. He wrote
also one Epistle which begins as follows 'That which was from the
beginning, that we declare unto you.'
In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised a
second persecution, he was banished to the island of Patmos, and
wrote the Apocalapse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus
afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to
death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having
been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Nerva
Pertinax and continuing there until the time of the emperor
Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn
out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's
passion and was buried near the same city." (The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers, Jerome, p.364-5).
Another tradition concerning John is also handed down by
Jerome. It says that when John was evidently an old man in
Ephesus he had to be carried to the church in the arms of his
disciples. At these meetings he was accustomed to say no more
than, "Little children, love one anotherl" After a time the
disciples wearied at always hearing the same words and they
asked, "Master, why do you always say this?" "It is the Lord's
command," was his reply. "And if this alone be done, it is
We are aided to catch the spirit of the aged Apostle in a
poem by the poet Eastwood in which he describes the last hours of
"... What say you, friends?
That this is Ephesus and Christ has gone Back to His kingdom?
Ay, 'tis so, 'tis so; I know it all: and yet, just now I seemed
To stand once more upon my native hills
And touch my Master ...
Up! Bear me to my church once more
There let me tell them of a Saviour's love:
For by the sweetness of my Master's voice I think he must be very
... So, raise up, my head:
How dark it isl I cannot seem to see.
The faces of my flock
Is that the sea
That murmurs so, or is it weeping? Hush!
'My little children! God so loved the world
He gave His son: so love ye one another,
Love God and men. Amen"' (What Became of The Twelve Apostles,
There is a firm tradition that John lived until the reign of
Nerva, 68 years after the resurrection of Jesus. (See "The
Contendings of the Apostles," Budge, p.213; also see "The Twelve
Christ Chose," Asbury Smith, p.58).
"During his last days John appointed bishops in the new Christian
community." (Quisdives, Clement of Alexandria, 42).
"Polycarp and Papias were his disciples." (Against Heresies V,
Irenaeus, 33,4) (The Christian Centuries, J.Danielou, p.41).
VISITING THE TOMB OF ST.JOHN
The local guide books available to the visitor to Ephesus
have been written with scholarship. They tell of the history of
the tomb of St.John.
"The disciples of St.John built a chapel over the tomb of the
Evangelist which became a centre of Christian worship. So many
pilgrims visited the chapel that by the sixth century the Emperor
Justinian and his wife Theodora agreed to build a monument worthy
of St.John in place of the previous construction which was of
little artistic value. Justinian's church, 130 metres long, with
three naves, was built in the shape of a cross. The wide central
nave was covered with six large domes: the narthex was covered
with five smaller ones. The main dome and central section of the
church was supported by four square pillars. The tomb of the
Apostle was in a room under the part of the floor immediately
beneath the large dome. According to tradition the dust from this
room had healing powers, which brought many sick people to the
tomb during the Middle Ages.
The floor of the church was covered with mosaics. The monograms
of Justinian and Theodora can be clearly distinguished on the
capitals of some of the columns. On the 28th of September, the
probable date of the Evangelist's death, commemorative ceremonies
were held. Illuminations and processions attracted large crowds
from the surrounding districts. Second century coins found at the
Saint's tomb prove that already, in the earliest times, it was a
place of pilgrimage." (Ephesus, Dr.Cemil Toksoz, p.16).
"North of the ruins of the Basilica of St.John we see opposite
us, like a crown on the highest point of the Seljuk Hill, the
Citadel with its fifteen towers. This castle is a Byzantine
building but a large part was repaired during the time of the
Aydinogullari. A tower and the walls in the southern part of the
building are characteristic of that period. The Citadel may be
entered on the western side. It contains a church, a mosque and
cisterns. According to tradition, the Gospel of St.John, he who
saw so well the world about him, was written on this hillside."
(Ibid., p.18 ).
More or less the same story is told in another book by the
"From the very beginning of Christianity the communities of
Christians accepted this place [Ephesus] as a spot of pilgrimage
and performed their homage. Later on this church was destroyed by
the acts of God and was built again enlarging the old one by
Emperor Justinian. This doomed church had a fine yard surrounded
with pillars. It was 100 m.in length, had two storeys and
consisted of six big and five small domes. The domes were covered
with mosaics. In excavations some coins were found belonging to
the second half of the 1st century B.C. This proves that the tomb
of St.John used to he visited by many a man at that time. Holy
wells, the places of which hymns used to be sung, and ashes which
cured every kind of illness, were under the roof of these domes.
The curing water flourishing near the tomb of St.John had a
special value for the pilgrims of that period. For about four or
five years St.John lived together with his rival Artems! Though
the temple of Artemis was plundered more often than not, nobody
touched St.John, because St.John was the great messenger of human
and of holy loves and a follower of Christ and of His Holy
Mother. His tomb, just like the Temple of St.Mary on the hill,
was erected to fit a disciple. His memory will never be neglected
by the western believers of the faith." ( Ephesus, Naci Keskin,
pages not numbered).
Describing the inside of the Church of St.John, Keskin
explains, "Its reconstructions show us that this church was just
in the middle of the walls of Ayasuluk Hill and used to control
around it. The grave of St.John is the place barred. Since the
Middle Ages it was believed that, just like the holy water of St.
Mary's Fountain, a kind of cure-all, ashy-like dust issued hare.
For this reason this place was a focus of pilgrimage for the
Christian world in that period. Over the grave of St.John, at
first, a small church, and then a large one, were constructed by
Justinian in the 4th Century A.D. - (Ibid.).
Eusebius confirms the location of the tomb of St.John by
this quotation from Polycrates:
"The place of his burial is shown from the Epistle of Polycrates
who is Bishop of the Church of Ephesus, which Epistle he wrote to
Victor, Bishop of Rome ... thus ... 'John, that rested on the
bosom of our Lord ... he also rests at Ephesus.'" (Ecclesiastical
History, Eusebius, p.31).
In 1953 when the author first visited the ruins of Ephesus
he found them in great disrepair. The floor of the Basilica of
St.John was then missing but the entrance to the tomb could be
entered. In 1971, the occasion of the author's last visit, the
floor of the church had been restored and wrought iron railings
had been placed around the entrance to the tomb. Apparently the
bones of the Apostle have disappeared. An English speaking
Turkish guide said that they had been removed to the British
Certainly a large number of marble carvings from the nearby
Temple of Diana had indeed been removed to the British Museum by
the English archaeologist, Wood, when he made the notable
discovery of that famous building. Evidently the Turks are not
very happy about its removal and they tend to blame the
disappearance of anything they cannot find on the British. But a
personal visit to the British Museum and a conference with the
authorities there indicate that they have no record of any such
find by Mr.Wood, nor do they have the relics of St.John.
This is a strange denouement. Some relics of all other
Apostles still exist, but the grave of John, which is perhaps the
best attested of any Apostolic tomb by history and archaeology,
contains no relics, nor are there any historical traces or
traditions of what may have become of them!
Entered on this Website December 2007
Reading between the lines of Roman Catholic added fancies, it is
probably quite true, in an overall way, some of the things
written about John. We certainly do know he lived to be a ripe
old age. We know also that Polycarp of the middle second century
was a disciple of John, and Polycrates was a disciple of
Both contended with the bishop of Rome over the contention of the
Passover or Easter observance. Rome was adopting the Easter,
while the churches in Asia Minor, under Polycarp and Polycrates,
were still observing the Passover, as they claimed that was the
teaching of the apostle John.
John it is clear from his letters was contending with a departing
from the truths of God, held by all the apostles, and had to
fight an insiduous and clandestine movement from within the
Church of God towards a perversion of the Gospel, and a departing
from some of the basic teachings and practices of the true Church
of God as founded by Christ and His apostles. We read that Jude
had to tell his reading to contend for the "faith once delivered
to the saints."
How much MORE TODAY has the Christianity of the world departed
from the original faith once delivered. It is indeed so very true
that God's people are the "little flock" as Jesus said they would
be. And in the Greek it is a double diminutive - so Jesus
actaully said His disciples would be the "little little flock" or
"very little flock" we may say it in English.
But the positive is that Jesus said He would build His church and
the gates of hell - death - would never kill it. God does have
His true people on this earth today, though they be the salt of
the earth, they are still there. I pray YOU will be counted as
one of them.