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Saint John the Evangelist

The collect for today, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, from The Book of Common Prayer [1] (Canadian, 1962):

MERCIFUL Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Epistle: 1 St. John 1:1-5 [2]
The Gospel: St. John 21:19-25 [3]

Paolo Veronese, St. John [4]John and his brother James (St. James the Greater [5]) were Galilean fishermen and sons of Zebedee. Jesus called the two brothers Boanerges (“sons of thunder”), apparently because of their zealous character; for example, they wanted to call down [6] fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritans. John and James, together with Peter, belonged to the inner group of the apostles who witnessed [7] the Transfiguration and the agony in Gethsemane [8]. It was John and Peter whom Jesus sent to prepare [9] the final Passover meal.

In the lists of disciples, John always appears among the first four, but usually after his brother, which may indicate that John was the younger of the two.

According to ancient church tradition, St. John the Evangelist was the author of the New Testament documents that bear his name: the fourth gospel, the three epistles of John, and Revelation. John’s name is not mentioned in the fourth gospel (but 21:2 [10] refers to “the sons of Zebedee”), but he is usually if not always identified as the beloved disciple. It is also generally believed that John was the “other disciple [11]” who, with Peter, followed Jesus after his arrest. John was the only disciple at the foot of the cross and was entrusted [12] by Christ with the care of his mother Mary.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, John, together with Peter, took a leading role in the formation and guidance of the early church. John was present when Peter healed [13] the lame beggar, following which both apostles were arrested [14]. After reports reached Jerusalem that Samaria was receiving the word of God, the apostles sent [15] Peter and John to visit the new Samaritan converts. Presumably, John was at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). He is not mentioned later in the Acts of the Apostles, so he appears to have left Palestine.

Christian writers of the second and third centuries say that St. John lived in Asia Minor in the last decades of the first century, acting as a kind of patriarch to the churches there. Both Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) and Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200) say that John lived in Ephesus and wrote his gospel there. It is believed that he died a natural death at a very old age around the end of the first century. That would make St. John the only apostle who did not die a martyr.

With the discovery in Egypt of the papyrus fragment [16] known as P52 [17], it is highly probable that the fourth gospel was in writing by the early part of the second century. P52 is generally considered the earliest known copy of New Testament writing and, given that John’s Gospel is believed to be one of the last New Testament writings completed, is enormously significant in supporting the authenticity of the New Testament.

Controversy arose early, and still persists, as to whether St. John the Evangelist also wrote the Book of Revelation–and, if he was the author, when he wrote it. The style of writing used in Revelation is very different from that of the Gospel and Epistles of St. John. However, given the vastly different contents and circumstances of the writings, many maintain that stylistic differences are to be expected. There is also the question of when Revelation was written; here, too, opinion is divided, although all agree that Revelation predates the Gospel and Epistles of St. John. The earliest evidence comes from St. Irenaeus who said that John’s vision occurred in the closing years of the reign of Domitian (emperor AD 81-96). That is still the majority view, although some authorities date Revelation near the end of the reign of Nero (emperor AD 54-68) or the time of other emperors between Nero and Domitian.

If Revelation dates from the time of Domitian, it was written when the Roman authorities had exiled St. John to the island of Patmos. After Domitian’s death, John returned to Ephesus where he subsequently wrote his three Epistles and his Gospel. John’s Gospel, written after decades of prayer and meditation on what he had seen and heard from our Lord, takes a more contemplative and theological view of Christ’s life and teachings than do the other three gospels.

The Eastern church, which often calls him St. John the Theologian, celebrates his feast day on 26 September.

St. John is the patron saint of theologians, writers, and all who work in the production and sale of books.

Artwork: Paolo Veronese, St. John, 1555. Oil on canvas, Chiesa di San Sebastiano [18], Venice.