Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Martyrdom of the Zebedee Brothers

Just before the final passion prediction of Jesus in Mk. 10.45, and after the Mount of Transfiguration episode we find the story of the Zebedee boys' request for the box seats in the Kingdom, on either side of Jesus when he comes into his glory (Mk. 10.35-40). Jesus tells them that it is not for him to grant them such seats, but he predicts the following: "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." Jesus is of course referring to his death, indeed a death as punishment for his beliefs and witness. In other words, a martyrological death. Did this prediction of Jesus come true?

Well this question is at least half way easy to answer. While Stephen may have been the first Christian martyr, he was not the only one. Notice that already in Acts 4. 3 we hear about the seizing of Peter and John and the putting of them in jail, awaiting trial before the Sanhedrin. These two men witnessed boldly and were released. But this was only a foreshadowing of the trouble that was to come. According to Acts 5.18 the Jewish authorities later arrested "the apostles" plural. They escape by miraculous means, but Peter and these apostles are brought before the authorities again at 5.29 to stop them from preaching in the Temple precincts. On this occasion the apostles, including Peter were flogged, warned and released (5.40). The pattern of increasing violence against Christian leaders was clear. This story is followed shortly thereafter by the story in Acts 6-7 of Stephen's martyrdom. But again this is hardly the end of the story.

Acts 8.1-3 says that Stephen's martyrdom led the young Saul, the over-zealous Pharisee to begin a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem "and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria". It is added that Saul went from house to house beginning to destroy what was left of the church and dragging Christians off to prison, both men and women. Well now if all were scattered but the apostles, then these men and women were apostles. No doubt some of them lost their lives in the venture. And of course Saul thereafter, not content with destroying the church in Jerusalem headed off to Damascus, and was to return to Jerusalem only much later as a changed man.

This brings us to Acts 12. In 12.1-3 we hear about the seizing of "James the brother of John" who is executed by King Herod (Agrippa presumably). This event transpires sometime in the 40s. James Zebedee is put to death by the sword, thus fulfilling the prediction of Jesus, and it is noteworthy that John Zebedee who is mentioned briefly in the company of Peter in Acts 8.14 as going down to Samaria to check out Philip's work, but after that we hear nothing of the man, except his return to Jerusalem (vs. 25). It is like he fell off the planet after that.

At least in the case of Peter, we are told in Acts 12 that he went to another place, and he returns in Acts 15 for the Council meeting of A.D. 50. Notable for their absence is any reference to John at that meeting. Equally notable is the absence of any reference to John when Paul talks about "the apostles, the brothers of Jesus,and Cephas" in 1 Cor. 9.5. Yet John had been one of the inner circle of three within the Twelve. Where was he, if neither Acts nor Paul mentions him at all after Acts 8.14,25 which surely refers to an event in the late 30s? In my view it is likely that he was already martyred before the 50s, just as Jesus had predicted, and as had happened to his brother James. But when?

It is a mistake to build too much of an argument on silence, namely the absence of John from Acts 9-28, and his total absence from Paul's letters the first of which was written about A.D. 49. So we must look for clues. In Gal. 1.13 Paul admits that he had violently persecuted the church of God in Jerusalem and Judea and tried to destroy it. The report in Gal. 1.23 finds the churches in Judea hearing the report, but being leery of the man who formerly persecuted them.

Scholars have sometimes wondered at the emotional language of 1 Tim. 1.13. Paul has been saying that he is grateful for appointing him an apostle. Then he says "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man." He then adds in vs. 15 that Jesus came into the world to save sinner "of whom I am the worst." What could he possibly be talking about? After all, if 1 Timothy is by Paul, which I have argued it is (though I think Luke wrote down these letters for him), can this be the same Paul who says in Phil. 3.6 that he was faultless under the Law when it came to righteousness?

I think we do know what he is referring to. The one thing that Paul constantly, early and late says he most regrets in life is his persecution, indeed violence against the Jerusalem and Judeaen Church. If Acts 8.1-3 is accurate, this means against the apostles. The man who stood as witness for Stephen's stoning, thereafter took matters into his own hands. Notice that what Jesus accuses Saul of in the Damascus road encounter is "persecuting me" (Acts 9, 22,26).

At Acts 22.4 we find the smoking gun. Paul admits "I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison." Acts 26.10 says that Paul voted for execution of the apostles, both men and women (see Acts 8.1-3 again) when he was a Pharisaic member of the Sanhedrin. The words 'to death' occurs in both Acts 22 and 26, not just persecution.

If we put all these pieces together it appears likely that Paul was the instigator of the demise of several apostles in the 30s before his conversion. One of them may well have been John. Acts 8.25 tells us, in the same chapter as Acts 8.1-3, that Peter and John returned to Jerusalem from Samaria. John would never be heard from again.

If then, finally we turn to John 21, we may have some new light to shed on the ending of that Gospel. As you know by now, I do not think that the Beloved Disciple was John son of Zebedee. The Beloved Disciple lived to a ripe old age, so old he calls himself 'the old man' in 2 John and 3 John. So old, that his followers thought he would not die until Jesus came back.

Now notice the dramatic difference in John 21.18-25 in the way the demise of Peter is referred to as opposed to the demise of the Beloved Disciple. In regard to Peter, Jesus predicts he will be taken captive (vs. 18) and the Evangelist tells us that this was the precursor to martyrdom (vs. 19). But about the Beloved Disciple Jesus predicted no such martyrdom. In fact Jesus is recorded as saying to Peter "If I want him to remain alive until I come, what is that to you?" And this saying is precisely what led to the rumor, a rumor still alive during the last 2 decades of the first century, that the Beloved Disciple would not die until Jesus came back. The reason for the casuistry and painful exegesis in vs. 23 is of course because the BD had finally died, but Jesus had not yet come back.

Now I put it to you this way. Jesus predicted the martyrdom of James and John, the Zebedee boys. He not only didn't predict the martyrdom of the Beloved Disciple, he even offered a saying that suggested to some Johannine Christians that he might live until the Second Coming! These two predictions are not commensurate and surely cannot refer to the same person, unless you are prepared to say Jesus was a false prophet on one or the other of these occasions. I am not prepared to go there.

This side of glory, we will never know for sure what happened to John Zebedee. My best guess is that Paul is the one who took him captive, and he was executed on Paul's vote and that of others in Jerusalem, suffering the same fate his brother did later under Herod Agrippa in the 40s. This really caused Paul to get emotional later in life, and to appreciate all the more the grace Jesus had shown him. This explains John's absence from Acts 15 and so many other texts written from A,D.49 on until the end of the NT period. Here we have more evidence to support my theory that the BD was certainly not John son of Zebedee.


Steve Bedard said...

Interesting, but how do you explain the appearance of John in Gal 2:9 as one of the three pillars of the church in Paul's post-conversion period? He is paired with Peter as he is in Acts and is presumably John Zebedee.

Ben Witherington said...

Not necessarily. Could be John Mark, and as you may know the earliest Christians met in the home of the mother of John Mark. Peter of course later collaborated with Mark on that Gospel, in addition to which he calls Mark his son in the Gospel (see 1 Peter). Notice that the James who is reputed to be a pillar is James the brother of Jesus, not James Zebedee.


Steve Bedard said...

I have some trouble seeing John Mark as the John from Gal 2:9. What the NT says of John Mark does not give the impression that he was an important enough leader to be called a "pillar." Even as a Gospel writer, his authority relied upon his dependence on Peter rather than his own position in the church. You may be right about this but at this point I remain unconvinced. On another note, since you have been talking about the authorship of John and Mark, I was curious: do you accept the apostle Matthew as the author of that Gospel?

Matthew Miller said...

Good insight. While I have reservations, I beleive its a good overall assessment of the available data.

Jesus clearly predicted the martyrdom of James and John. Its interesting that the right and left places which James and John request (Mk. 10.35-40) are given to the two theives who are crucified on to the right and left of Jesus.

Colin Kee said...

Dr Witherington,
Assuming that John Zebedee was matyred, who was the "John" of the book of Revelation? I'd appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.


Ben Witherington said...

John of Patmos is the author of Revelation. He was a prophet in the communities he writes to in Revelation. Matthew is responsible for the special material in the Gospel of Matthew, including the first two chapters. However since 95% of Mark is reused in Matthew and with over 50% verbal correspondence it is unlikely that Matthew is the final assembler of this Gospel. He would not need to be so dependent on Mark.

I understand your reservations about John Mark, however the same reservations could be said to apply to James the brother of Jesus since John 7.5 is perfectly clear that he did not believe in Jesus before Easter.



Ben Witherington said...

P.S. Even if the John mentioned in Gal. 2.9 is John Zebedee, we need to bear in mind that Paul is talking about a visit he paid to the pillars before A.D. 50.

On the assumption that Zebedee is meant, notice that he is still in Jerusalem, not in Ephesus or the places we might expect if indeed he was the founder of the Johannine community there.

On this reading of the data, Paul is not responsible for his demise, but something may well have happened to him in Jerusalem between that meeting and the one recorded in Acts 15 where he is not present.


Steve Bedard said...

That makes sense to me. I can accept that John was a fairly early martyr and that he is not the origin of the so-called Joahannine community. However, I have one other question. What do we do with the relationship of Polycarp to John? How specific are Irenaeus and (less importantly) Eusebius regarding which John Polycarp was a disciple of?

Matthew Miller said...

Dr. Witherington

Do you beleive it's possible that Matthew was the author of Q? Papias says that Matthew wrote down the "sayings of the Lord" in Hebrew. If Q existed and it was Matthew who wrote it then this may explain how a blending of Mark and Q came to be associated with the Apostle Matthew. I think this makes better sense in light of Papias' statement then Matthew being the author of the M material. But I don't know. What do you think?


Matthew Miller said...

Dr. Witherington

While your on the topic of authorship, I would like to ask your opinion on the authorship of Hebrews. I believe that Hebrews was possibly written by the author of 1 Clement. I know this would either push the writing of Hebrews to a later date or 1 Clement to an earlier one. But I know that even in Origens time some were some making this claim.

Here are someo of my reasons. (1) While Clement clearly quotes from 1 Corinthians, his use of Hebrews is different. It appears to me that it could be considered the stock phraseology of a common author. (2) Both 1 Clement and Hebrews use lists. The author of Hebrews lists out the great heros who operated "by faith." 1 Clement lists out the great heros who acted in faith and hospitality and also those who perished through "envy." (3) The way that Clement quotes scripture ("it is written somewhere" "and" "and again." "He says in another place") has the style of Hebrews without being a direct quotation or even an allusion. Both Authors are also quick at the draw, quoting many passages of the Old Testament within only a few verses. (4) Both 1 Clement and the book of Hebrews use what I call double designators. For instance the author of Hebrews calls Jesus the "Author and Finisher of our Faith" and "Apostle and High Priest of our confession" 1 Clement calls God the "creator and master of the universe" as well as the "creator and overseer of our souls". (5) Both Hebrews and Clement are anonymous works written from Italy (or probably Rome) somtime in the later half of the first century.

I cannot read greek, nor do I have your vast experience in realms ancient rhetoric and style. Could let me know if this is dead end or something that that needs further exploration and debate.


B-W said...

He not only didn't predict the martyrdom of the Beloved Disciple, he even offered a saying that suggested to some Johannine Christians that he might live until the Second Coming!

But this saying isn't necessarily a prophecy, as the book of John itself says:

"But Jesus did not say that [the beloved disciple] would not die: he only said, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?'" (John 21:23b)

None of which invalidates your basic thesis: That Jesus explicitly predicts John Zebedee's death in one instance, and implies that the "Beloved Disciple" would not be martyred in the same way. But I think it's too strong to call the statement about the "Beloved Disciple" in the gospel of John a prophecy, and then say that it is in direct conflict with the Synoptics if it refers to John Zebedee.

It's still possible (if not necessarily likely) that the "Beloved Disciple" is John Zebedee, and Jesus is simply saying "none of your business" to Peter.

Ben Witherington said...

I think Richard Bauckham's splendid new book Jesus and the Eeywitnesses probably answers most of these questions you raise Steve. To brother Miller I say, if you will abide your soul in patience my commentary on Hebrews will be out (along with James and Jude) in August. I think Apollos wrote Hebrews not Clement who is later and not a co-worker of Paul. As for Q, I do think it is likely there was an Aramaic collection of Jesus' sayings, and it may be the case that Matthew compiled them. More to the point, I think Matthew is responsible for the uniquely Matthean stuff in the First Gospel (e.g. Mt. 1-2).


José Solano said...

Well, Dr. Witherington, these are enormously fascinating thoughts and speculations in the most positive sense. You brilliantly weave together evidence from one New Testament reference to another presenting a most plausible hypothesis for all to ponder. I haven't had the opportunity to fully follow and examine all the references in context but find this far more exciting than reading the Da Vinci Code.

I do like the idea of early schools of thought headed by an apostle or eye-witnesses with members of the schools writing in the name of their head. The Q - Matthew connection is fascinating and helps resolve a lot of questions as it makes both Mark and Matthew dependent on Matthew for much.

As for the Hebrews - Apollos connection I look forward to reading your new book.

Please permit me a perhaps distantly related question you might address if you find a moment. What is your take on the astounding passage of Matthew 27:51-53 that is mentioned nowhere else?

Thank you.

Ben Witherington said...

Mt. 27.51-53 is the Matthean way of linking the res. of Jesus to the general resurrection of the righteous. One could see this as symbolic, indicating what would one day happen, or if you take it more literally then we are dealing with a lot of Lazarus' running around in Jerusalem. Take your pick. In any case, they went on to die again like Lazarus.

graham old said...

Interesting post!

Whilst I would also argue that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus, I don't find your argument here completely compelling. Isn't Acts 8:1-3 just a summary, meaning that 'all' doesn't strictly mean every last individual except the apostles?

Incidentally, I've long thought that John 21 partly supports Lazarus as the BD. Not only is there Jesus' cryptic saying, but there would be the legend of Lazarus' previous resurrection.

Anyway, it's all good food for thought. Cheers.

Helena Lehman said...

I have an interesting fact to point out in this discussion, and that is the fact that many saints rose up, and were seen in Jerusalem immediately after Christ rose from the dead. Could it be that James and John, though martyred, also rose up to await Christ's return? There's more to this idea than I can report here, but it's such an interesting possibility that I entertain it carefully in my book: The Language of God in Humanity, available at