Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

One of the earliest disciples of Christ

St. John, Apostle, Evangelist, St. Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
A stained-glass window of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, in Saint Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. Scott P. Richert)

The author of five books of the Bible (the Gospel of John, the First, Second, and Third Letters of John, and Revelation), Saint John the Apostle was one of earliest disciples of Christ. Commonly called Saint John the Evangelist because of his authorship of the fourth and final gospel, he is one of the most frequently mentioned disciples in the New Testament, rivaling Saint Peter for his prominence in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Yet outside of the Book of Revelation, John preferred to refer to himself not by name but as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." He was the only one of the apostles to die not of martyrdom but of old age, around the year 100.

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: December 27
  • Type of Feast: Feast
  • Readings: 1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12; John 20:1a and 2-8 (full text here)
  • Dates: c. 6 (or 15) (Galilee)-c. 100 (Ephesus, Asia Minor)
  • Symbol: Eagle; chalice; book
  • Patron of: art dealers, authors, bookbinders, booksellers, burn victims, editors, painters, poison victims, printers, publishers, scholars, scribes, tanners, theologians, typesetters, writers; Asia Minor; Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio; Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Umbria, Italy; Wroclaw, Poland

The Life of Saint John

Saint John the Evangelist was a Galilean and the son, along with Saint James the Greater, of Zebedee and Salome. Because he is usually placed after Saint James in the lists of the apostles (see Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:17, and Luke 6:14), John is generally considered the younger brother, perhaps as young as 18 at the time of Christ's death. With Saint James, he is always listed among the first four apostles (see Acts 1:13), reflecting not only his early calling (he is the other disciple of Saint John the Baptist, along with Saint Andrew, who follows Christ in John 1:34-40) but his honored place among the disciples. (In Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20, James and John are called immediately after the fellow fishermen Peter and Andrew.)

Close to Christ

Like Peter and James the Greater, John was a witness to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1 ) and the Agony in the Garden (Matthew 26:37). His closeness to Christ is apparent in the accounts of the Last Supper (John 13:23), at which he leaned on Christ's breast while eating, and the Crucifixion (John 19:25-27), where he was the only one of Christ's disciples present. Christ, seeing Saint John at the foot of the Cross with His mother, entrusted Mary to his care. He was the first of the disciples to arrive at the tomb of Christ on Easter, having outraced Saint Peter (John 20:4), and while he waited for Peter to enter the tomb first, Saint John was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead (John 20:8).

Role in the Early Church

As one of the two initial witnesses to the Resurrection, Saint John naturally took a place of prominence in the early Church, as the Acts of the Apostles attest (see Acts 3:1, Acts 4:3, and Acts 8:14, in which he appears alongside Saint Peter himself.) When the apostles dispersed following the persecution of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12), during which John's brother James became the first of the apostles to win the crown of martyrdom (Acts 12:2), tradition holds that John went to Asia Minor, where he likely played a role in founding the Church at Ephesus. Exiled to Patmos during the persecution of Domitian, he returned to Ephesus during Trajan's reign and died there.

While on Patmos, John received the great revelation that forms the Book of Revelation and likely completed his gospel (which may, however, have existed in an earlier form a few decades before).

The Symbols of Saint John

As with Saint Matthew, Saint John's feast day is different in East and West. In the Roman rite, his feast is celebrated on December 27, which was originally the feast of both Saint John and Saint James the Greater; Eastern Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Saint John's passage into eternal life on September 26. Traditional iconography has represented Saint John as an eagle, "symbolizing" (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia) "the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel." Like the other evangelists, he is sometimes symbolized by a book; and a later tradition used the chalice as a symbol of Saint John, recalling Christ's words to John and James the Greater in Matthew 20:23, "My chalice indeed you shall drink."

A Martyr Who Died a Natural Death

Christ's reference to the chalice inevitably calls to mind His own Agony in the Garden, where He prays, "My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26;42). It thus seems a symbol of martyrdom, and yet John, alone among the apostles, died a natural death. Still, he has been honored as a martyr from the earliest days after his death, because of an incident related by Tertullian, in which John, while in Rome, was placed in a pot of boiling oil but emerged unharmed.