History of the Feast of St. John: Which St. John?

HISTORY OF THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN

December 27, since the 5th century, has marked the day in the church calendar for celebrating the life of St. John the Evangelist and is known as the Feast of St. John. We’ve already mentioned that the day before, December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen. The day after, on December 28 is the Feast of The Holy Innocents, referring to those babies killed by King Herod the Great in Bethlehem.

Which St. John is this? It is not John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, rather it’s the young disciple of Christ, known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition holds that he is the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John (I, II, and III John) as well as the author of the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. He’s also known as John the Apostle, John the Divine, John the Theologian and John of Patmos. Why?

John is unique among the Twelve Disciples in that according to tradition, going back to at least the 2nd century if not earlier, he is the only one who did not die a martyr, like the rest. Instead, in addition to participating in Jesus’ ministry and that of the early church, he lived to an old age in Ephesus. Originally one of the followers of John the Baptist, he and his brother James, both fishermen, were called to be disciples of Jesus and along with Peter were considered to be among the inner circle. John suffered during one of the early empire-wide persecutions of the early church and was exiled to the Island of Patmos. The Book of Revelation says its author was on Patmos “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus” where he received a vision of heaven and the world to come — from the risen and exalted Jesus. Hence, while it is sometimes called the Revelation of St. John, the first verse of the book identifies it as the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

While some believe John was persecuted under the Emperor Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, this is unlikely. Nero’s persecution of Christians — while well known and dramatic — was limited primarily to the environs of Rome. It is more likely instead that the later Emperor Domitian, of the subsequent Flavian dynasty, ordered John exiled during the first Empire-wide persecution. A tradition reports that Domitian initially ordered John placed into a cauldron of boiling oil, from which he miraculously emerged unharmed, before exiling him to Patmos where John wrote Revelation.

What is unique about John’s early gospel writing in Greek — for the New Testament is originally recorded in Greek, thanks to Alexander the Great‘s “hellenization” campaign of the eastern world — is that it is perhaps the most simple Greek in the New Testament, and yet it is most profound theologically. It is the first Greek that I learned when I studied the subject in college and will be the last Greek I shall forget. He starts out his Gospel with the same words that the first book of the Bible, Genesis opens with:

In the beginning
Was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
He was in the beginning With God.

While only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain the well known Nativity story, The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus before he was born. Yet at the end of John’s writings, we have The Book of Revelation, a very different kind of literature, a type of prophetic writing known as “apocalyptic” literature. This was a popular type of literature in Judaism that spanned three centuries before the writing of Revelation.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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