What Happened to the Two Johns?

The intrigue historically surrounding the identity of the Johannine author helps to explain the trail of tradition and legend that has built up around the two John beings who survived the Baptist. And while, in light of what has been said above, we perhaps need not worry about their later destiny, some additional light may be shed and our curiosity to some extent assuaged by looking at it.

Steiner often and unequivocally tells us that Lazarus/John, the beloved disciple, took the mother of Jesus to Ephesus, where they lived until her death. Thereafter, in Ephesus the beloved disciple survived until well past one hundred years of age, until age 106 according to Steiner. On the other hand, Steiner does not tell us, to my knowledge (and apparently also that of Koenig), what happened to Zebedee John.

Much has been made, one way or the other, about the implications of Mk 10,39 in this regard, namely, that both Zebedee brothers, and not just James, were martyred. There Jesus responded to the Zebedee brothers' request for special status in the Kingdom and their assertion that they were "able" to drink the "cup" by saying, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized."1 If it could be determined that Zebedee John was martyred, then he was probably not the John, or one of the putative two Johns, who lived in Ephesus. Such a conclusion would seem to greatly reduce the possibility that he was the Evangelist, for the tradition is very strong that the Gospel was written in Ephesus, certainly stronger than that for any other location.

The extensive commentary on Mk 10,39, although equivocal on this point, nevertheless is fully compatible with the martyrdom of both brothers. The early martyrdom (about A.D. 44) of Zebedee James is clear from Acts 12,2. Some have considered that the failure to include in this passage the fact of his brother John's martyrdom suggests that he never died in such manner. But the earliness of Zebedee James' martyrdom and its connection with the contemporaneous arrest of Peter belies that argument. Acts also does not mention the martyrdom of countless other disciples, and especially of James the brother of Jesus, whom tradition clearly has being martyred shortly before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The picture I see is that Zebedee John was martyred as a part of the same persecution. Clearly, such James and Zebedee John were those, along with Peter, referred to by Paul in Gal 2,9 as being at the Council of Jerusalem around A.D. 49-50, though Peter and probably Zebedee John, as we shall see, must surely thereafter have gone to Rome.

Koenig, citing a number of the early church writers, seems to establish that both Johns were banished to an island, possibly both to Patmos (a certainty for Lazarus/John which adds to the confusion), but that the banishments were at different times. While Lazarus/John was banished under the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96), he suggests that Zebedee John was banished under the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68), possibly in 64. There are reports that a John apparently returned from Patmos to Jerusalem and not to Ephesus, but these probably indicate that Zebedee John returned at Nero's death to Jerusalem and there suffered martyrdom. Koenig reasonably concludes that Zebedee John went with Peter to Rome and was banished from there by Nero to Patmos, returning again to Jerusalem in A.D. 68, after which all traces are lost. But he properly remarks that the similarities in destiny are most striking, and that this fact helps to explain the confusion. It is almost as if providence assisted the beloved disciple in masking his identity for two millennia. But when one understands the significance of the "name" John, as above set out, the similarity of destiny as well as close personal affinity is probably no mere coincidence.

Koenig quotes from Emil Bock (see the recent English translation, Bock, Caesars and Apostles, Edinburgh, Floris Books, 1998, p. 301), who in turn purports to quote Eusebius' Church History, where Papias said:

At Ephesus there lived under Trajan [A.D. 98-117] a very ancient man, so old that not only his contemporaries, but also their children and grandchildren had died long ago and the great-grandchildren no longer knew who he was. They simply called him 'John' or 'Presbyter.' They also did not know how to honor him, clothed him in precious chasubles, hung the mysterious emblem of the King and High Priest Melchizedek, a star of gold foil, the Petalon, with the unspeakable name of God on his forehead.

I have been unable to find this passage in the Church History. I did find in it that John "was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and being a priest wore the sacerdotal plate. He also sleeps at Ephesus."2 (And Eusebius later cites references in the writings of Papias to a “presbyter John” in Ephesus.3) The "emblem" or "sacerdotal plate" almost certainly refers to that of the high priest in Ex 28,36 and 39,30, which seems to identify Lazarus/John, for he seems to have been a member of the priestly caste, as indicated earlier. He was "known to the high priest" (Jn 18,15,16), and apparently for this reason was admitted to the "court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door." And he then "went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in." The maid quizzed only Peter, but not Lazarus/John (vs 17). And we know that Luke's Gospel referred to the one Jesus was said (in Mark's Gospel) to have "loved" as being a "ruler" (Lk 18,18), implying a position of prominence consistent with that of the priests.

Aside from that plate, the passage quoted from Bock would fit well with Steiner's statement about the Evangelist's old age. But then that statement is widely corroborated by tradition anyhow, and by the very moniker "presbytr" which means "old."

Salient Points
Who was the Mother of Jesus?