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.