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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 42. Apostolic Labors of John.


John in the Acts.


In the first stadium of Apostolic Christianity John figures as one of the three pillars of the church of the circumcision, together with Peter and James the brother of the Lord; while Paul and Barnabas represented the Gentile church.582582    Gal. 2:9, Ἰάκωβος, καὶ Κηφᾶς καὶ Ἰωάννης, οἰ δοκοῦντες στῦλοι εἷναι ... αὐτοὶ εἰς τὴν περιτομήν. They are named in the order of their conservatism. This seems to imply that at that time he had not yet risen to the full apprehension of the universalism and freedom of the gospel. But he was the most liberal of the three, standing between James and Peter on the one hand, and Paul on the other, and looking already towards a reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The Judaizers never appealed to him as they did to James, or to Peter.583583    Gal. 2:12, τινὲς ἀπὸ Ἰακώβου. 1 Cor. 1:12, ἐγώ εἰμι Κηφᾶ. There is no trace of a Johannean party, as there is of a Cephas party and a party of James. He stood above strife and division.

In the earlier chapters of the Acts he appears, next to Peter, as the chief apostle of the new religion; he heals with him the cripple at the gate of the temple; he was brought with him before the Sanhedrin to bear witness to Christ; he is sent with him by the apostles from Jerusalem to Samaria to confirm the Christian converts by imparting to them the Holy Spirit; he returned with him to Jerusalem.584584    Acts 3:1 sqq.; 4:1, 13, 19, 20; 5:19, 20, 41, 42; 8:14-17, 25. But Peter is always named first and takes the lead in word and act; John follows in mysterious silence and makes the impression of a reserved force which will manifest itself at some future time. He must have been present at the conference of the apostles in Jerusalem, a.d. 50, but he made no speech and took no active part in the great discussion about circumcision and the terms of church membership.585585    He is included among the "apostles," assembled in Jerusalem on that occasion, Acts 15:6, 22, 23, and is expressly mentioned as one of the three pillar-apostles by Paul in the second chapter of the Galatians, which refers to the same conference. All this is in entire keeping with the character of modest and silent prominence given to him in the Gospels.

After the year 50 he seems to have left Jerusalem. The Acts no more mention him nor Peter. When Paul made his fifth and last visit to the holy City (a.d. 58) he met James, but none of the apostles.586586    Acts 21:18. John may have been, however, still in Palestine, perhaps in Galilee, among the scenes of his youth. According to tradition he remained in Jerusalem till the death of the Holy Virgin, about a.d. 48.


John at Ephesus.


The later and most important labors of John are contained in his writings, which we shall fully consider in another chapter. They exhibit to us a history that is almost exclusively inward and spiritual, but of immeasurable reach and import. They make no allusion to the time and place of residence and composition. But the Apocalypse implies that he stood at the head of the churches of Asia Minor.587587    Rev. 1:4, 9, 11, 20; 2 and 3. It is very evident that only an apostle could occupy such a position, and not an obscure presbyter of that name, whose very existence is doubtful. This is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of antiquity which is above all reasonable doubt, and assigns Ephesus to him as the residence of his latter years.588588    Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp (a personal pupil of John), Adv. Haer. III. 1, 1; 3, 4; II. 22, 5, etc., and in his letter to Florinus (in Eusebius, H. E. V. 20); Clemens Alex., Quis dives salvetur, c.42; Apollonius and Polycrates, at the close of the second century, in Euseb. H. E. III. 31; V. 18, 24; Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome, etc. Leucius, also, the reputed author of the Acts of John about 130, in the fragments recently published by Zahn, bears witness to the residence of John in Ephesus and Patmos, and transfers his martyrdom from Rome to Ephesus. Lützelberger, Keim (Leben Jesu v. Nazara, I. 161 sq.), Holtzmann, Scholten, the author of Supernatural Religion, (II. 410), and other opponents of the Gospel of John, have dared to remove him out of Asia Minor with negative arguments from the silence of the Acts, the Ephesians, Colossians, Papias, Ignatius, and Polycarp, arguments which either prove nothing at all, or only that John was not in Ephesus before 63. But the old tradition has been conclusively defended not only by Ewald, Grimm, Steitz, Riggenbach, Luthardt, Godet, Weiss, but even by Krenkel, Hilgenfeld (Einleitung, pp. 395 sqq.), and Weizsäcker (498 sqq.), of the Tübingen school. He died there in extreme old age during the reign of Trajan, which began in 98. His grave also was shown there in the second century.

We do not know when he removed to Asia Minor, but he cannot have done so before the year 63. For in his valedictory address to the Ephesian elders, and in his Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians and the second to Timothy, Paul makes no allusion to John, and speaks with the authority of a superintendent of the churches of Asia Minor. It was probably the martyrdom of Peter and Paul that induced John to take charge of the orphan churches, exposed to serious dangers and trials.589589    "The maintenance of evangelical truth," says Godet (I. 42), "demanded at that moment powerful aid. It is not surprising then that John, one of the last survivors amongst the apostles, should feel himself called upon to supply in those countries the place of the apostle of the Gentiles, and to water, as Apollos had formerly done in Greece, that which Paul had planted." Pressensé (Apost. Era, p. 424): "No city could have been better chosen as a centre from which to watch over the churches, and follow closely the progress of heresy. At Ephesus John was in the centre of Paul’s mission field, and not far from Greece."

Ephesus, the capital of proconsular Asia, was a centre of Grecian culture, commerce, and religion; famous of old for the songs of Homer, Anacreon, and Mimnermus, the philosophy of Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander, the worship and wonderful temple of Diana. There Paul had labored three years (54–57) and established an influential church, a beacon-light in the surrounding darkness of heathenism. From there he could best commune with the numerous churches he had planted in the provinces. There he experienced peculiar joys and trials, and foresaw great dangers of heresies that should spring up from within.590590    See his farewell address at Miletus, Acts 20:29, 30, and the Epistles to Timothy. All the forces of orthodox and heretical Christianity were collected there. Jerusalem was approaching its downfall; Rome was not yet a second Jerusalem. Ephesus, by the labors of Paul and of John, became the chief theatre of church history in the second half of the first and during the greater part of the second century. Polycarp, the patriarchal martyr, and Irenaeus, the leading theologian in the conflict with Gnosticism, best represent the spirit of John and bear testimony to his influence. He alone could complete the work of Paul and Peter, and give the church that compact unity which she needed for her self-preservation against persecution from without and heresy and corruption from within.

If it were not for the writings of John the last thirty years of the first century would be almost an entire blank. They resemble that mysterious period of forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, when the Lord hovered, as it were, between heaven and earth, barely touching the earth beneath, and appearing to the disciples like a spirit from the other world. But the theology of the second and third centuries evidently presupposes the writings of John, and starts from his Christology rather than from Paul’s anthropology and soteriology, which were almost buried out of sight until Augustin, in Africa, revived them.


John at Patmos.


John was banished to the solitary, rocky, and barren island of Patmos (now Patmo or Palmosa), in the Aegean sea, southwest of Ephesus. This rests on the testimony of the Apocalypse, 1:9, as usually understood: "I, John, your brother and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for (on account of) the word of God and the testimony of Jesus."591591    Bleek understands διά of the object: John was carried (in a vision) to Patmos for the purpose of receiving there the revelation of Christ He derives the whole tradition of John’s banishment to Patmos from a misunderstanding of this passage. So also Lücke, De Wette, Reuss, and Düsterdieck. But the traditional exegesis is confirmed by the mention of the θλίψις, βασιλεία and ὑπομονή in the same verse, by the natural meaning of μαρτυρία, and by the parallel passages Rev. 6:9 and 20:4, where διά likewise indicates the occasion or reason of suffering. There he received, while "in the spirit, on the Lord’s day," those wonderful revelations concerning the struggles and victories of Christianity.

The fact of his banishment to Patmos is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of antiquity.592592    Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome, etc. It is perpetuated in the traditions of the island, which has no other significance. "John—that is the thought of Patmos; the island belongs to him; it is his sanctuary. Its stones preach of him, and in every heart, he lives."593593    Tischendorf, Reise in’s Morgenland, II.257 sq. A grotto on a hill in the southern part of the island is still pointed out as the place of the apocalyptic vision, and on the summit of the mountain is the monastery of St. John, with a library of about 250 manuscripts.

The time of the exile is uncertain, and depends upon the disputed question of the date of the Apocalypse. External evidence points to the reign of Domitian, a.d. 95; internal evidence to the reign of Nero, or soon after his death, a.d. 68.

The prevailing—we may say the only distinct tradition, beginning with so respectable a witness as Irenaeus about 170, assigns the exile to the end of the reign of Domitian, who ruled from 81 to 96.594594    Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., V. 30, says that the Apocalypse was seen πρὸς τῷ τέλει τῆς Δομετιανοῦ ἀρχῆς. So also Eusebius, H. E. III. 18, 20, 33; Chron. ad ann. 14 Domitiani; and Jerome, De vir. illustr., c. 9. This view has prevailed among commentators and historians till quite recently, and is advocated by Hengstenberg, Lange, Ebrard (and by myself in the Hist. of the Ap. Ch., § 101, pp. 400 sqq.). It is indeed difficult to set aside the clear testimony of Irenaeus, who, through Polycarp, was connected with the very age of John. But we must remember that he was mistaken even on more important points of history, as the age of Jesus, which he asserts, with an appeal to tradition, to have been above fifty years. He was the second Roman emperor who persecuted Christianity, and banishment was one of his favorite modes of punishment.595595    Tacitus congratulates Agricola (Vita Agr., c. 44) that he did not live to see under this emperor "tot consularium caedes, tot nobilissimarum feminarum exilia et fugas." Agricola, whose daughter Tacitus married, died in 93, two years before Domitian. Both facts give support to this tradition. After a promising beginning he became as cruel and bloodthirsty as Nero, and surpassed him in hypocrisy and blasphemous self-deification. He began his letters: "Our Lord and God commands," and required his subjects to address him so.596596    Suetonius, Domit., c. 13: "Dominus et Deus noster hoc fieri jubet. Unde institutum posthac, ut ne scripto quidem ac sermone cujusquam appellaretur aliter." He ordered gold and silver statues of himself to be placed in the holiest place of the temples. When he seemed most friendly, he was most dangerous. He spared neither senators nor consuls when they fell under his dark suspicion, or stood in the way of his ambition. He searched for the descendants of David and the kinsmen of Jesus, fearing their aspirations, but found that they were poor and innocent persons.597597    Hegesippus in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., III., 19, 20. Hegesippus, however, is silent about the banishment of John, and this silence has been used by Bleek as an argument against the fact. Many Christians suffered martyrdom under his reign, on the charge of atheism—among them his own cousin, Flavius Clemens, of consular dignity, who was put to death, and his wife Domitilla, who was banished to the island of Pandateria, near Naples.598598    Dion Cassius in the abridgment of Xiphilinus, 67, 14. In favor of the traditional date may also be urged an intrinsic propriety that the book which closes the canon, and treats of the last things till the final consummation, should have been written last.

Nevertheless, the internal evidence of the Apocalypse itself, and a comparison with the fourth Gospel, favor an earlier date, before the destruction of Jerusalem, and during the interregnum which followed the death of Nero (68), when the beast, that is the Roman empire, was wounded, but was soon to be revived (by the accession of Vespasian). If there is some foundation for the early tradition of the intended oil-martyrdom of John at Rome, or at Ephesus, it would naturally point to the Neronian persecution, in which Christians were covered with inflammable material and burned as torches. The unmistakable allusions to imperial persecutions apply much better to Nero than to Domitian. The difference between the Hebrew coloring and fiery vigor of the Apocalypse and the pure Greek and calm repose of the fourth Gospel, to which we have already alluded, are more easily explained if the former was written some twenty years earlier. This view has some slight support in ancient tradition,599599    So the title of the Syriac translation of the Apocalypse (which, however, is of much later date than the Peshitto, which omits the Apocalypse): "Revelatio quam Deus Joanni Evangelistae in Patmo insula dedit, in quam a Nerone Caesare relegatus fuerat."Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives salv., c. 42, and quoted by Eusebius, III., 23) says indefinitely that John returned from Patmos to Ephesus after the death of "the tyrant" (τοῦ τυράννου τελευτήσαντος), which may apply to Nero as well as to Domitian. Origen mentions simply a Roman βασιλεύς. Tertullian’s legend of the Roman oil-martyrdom of John seems to point to Nero rather than to any other emperor, and was so understood by Jerome (Adv. Jovin. I. 26), although Tertullian does not say so, and Jerome himself assigns the exile and the composition of the Apocalypse to the reign of Domitian (De vir. ill., c. 9). Epiphanius (Haer. LI. 33) puts the banishment back to the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41-53), which is evidently much too early. and has been adopted by the majority of modern critical historians and commentators.600600    Neander, Gieseler, Baur, Ewald, Lücke, Bleek, De Wette, Reuss, Düsterdieck, Weiss, Renan, Stanley, Lightfoot, Westcott.

We hold, then, as the most probable view, that John was exiled to Patmos under Nero, wrote the Apocalypse soon after Nero’s death, a.d. 68 or 69, returned to Ephesus, completed his Gospel and Epistles several (perhaps twenty) years later, and fell asleep in peace during the year of Trajan, after a.d. 98.

The faithful record of the historical Christ in the whole fulness of his divine-human person, as the embodiment and source of life eternal to all believers, with the accompanying epistle of practical application, was the last message of the Beloved Disciple at the threshold of the second century, at the golden sunset of the apostolic age. The recollections of his youth, ripened by long experience, transfigured by the Holy Spirit, and radiant with heavenly light of truth and holiness, are the most precious legacy of the last of the apostles to all future generations of the church.



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