Today we celebrate the Feast of St. John, the Evangelist. There is more than a little confusion about his identity. There are a number of “Johns” who appear in the Gospels. Some of them have been conflated into one character who stands beneath the cross with the Blessed Mother, is the son of Zebedee, and the author of the fourth Gospel, three New Testament letters, and the Book of Revelation. Scripture scholars have advanced the theory that it is highly unlikely that one man fills all of these roles.
The fourth Gospel speaks of “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” in the thirteenth, nineteenth and twentieth chapter. He is seated next to Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23-25), stands beneath the cross with the Blessed Mother (John 19:26-27), accompanies Peter to the tomb (John 20:1-10). He also appears three times in the last chapter of the Gospel. He is named as one of the seven who is fishing when Jesus appears (John 21:1-25), is named as the one disciple who will “remain” after all the others have died (John 21:20-23), and is identified as the author of the fourth Gospel (John 21:24). None of these six instances actually includes the name John. However, tradition has held that the Beloved Disciple is John, the son of Zebedee.
John the son of Zebedee is regarded as one of three intimates who are present at important events in the life of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These three apostles are present when he raises the daughter of Jairus and when he is transfigured after a night of prayer on Mt. Horeb. The synoptic Gospels also state that these three are closer to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Scholars point out that these three events are not recorded in the fourth Gospel and ask why John would not have included them if he had been present at them. In the synoptic Gospels John is recruited as one of the apostles while he and his brother are fishing with their father Zebedee. In the Gospel of John this event is also omitted. Finally, there is the historical timeline that implies that if the son of Zebedee were the author of the fourth Gospel, he would have had to live far longer than the normal lifespan of a man in the first century.
The debate about John the Evangelist has been going on since the third century and will, no doubt, continue for many more years to come. All that we can say with any certitude is that we owe this evangelist a debt of gratitude since it is his Gospel which states unequivocally that Jesus was God in the flesh. While the synoptic Gospels refer to Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, the one about whom the prophets wrote, and as the Son of Man (an apocalyptic figure), it is John the Evangelist who leaves no doubt about who this Jesus is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) From the opening verse until the end of the Gospel, this evangelist writes so that we can come to place our faith in Jesus, God among us.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator