Surprising Stories about the Apostle John
Some very irregular legends and theories surround the apostles after the New Testament.
Stories that center on the apostle John provide some of the more peculiar of these theories.
The Apostle Paul Killed the Apostle John
Early church writers sometimes distinguish between the original John the Apostle and one John the Elder. While the Apostle wrote the epistle, some thought the Elder wrote the letters and Revelation. Both bear the name John, both are associated with Ephesus, and both are highly respected elders. However, scholars debate if this is one person bearing two eponyms—apostle and elder—making some of the church fathers wrong (e.g., Philip of Side). On the other hand, some consider them separate figures with separate eponyms, making other church fathers wrong (e.g., Origen).
This theory of two Johns leads to the question of why the apostle John waned early in the first century. In this hypothesis, his disappearance invites an early death, leading to one theory that Paul (then Saul) killed John during his Christian hunting days. Just as Paul witnessed the killing of Stephen and was commissioned by Jewish leadership to track down Christians, some disappearing apostles like John were victim to his endeavor. The words of Paul are employed as justification: “Which thing [persecution] I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:10).
John banished bedbugs
Hotel guests can often be found inspecting a room upon first arrival at their quarter of their lodging. The ancient world guest rooms were not immune to bedbugs and grime, and one such episode by an Apostle is contained in its manuscripts, the Acts of John. When John and his disciples arrived at a deserted inn, he lay down to rest but bugs kept troubling him. In the middle of the night, John commands the bugs to leave their abode, remain quiet elsewhere, and leave alone the servants of God. The next day, the disciples saw a great sight of bugs at the door of the room. John commanded the pests to return to the bed, teaching his disciples a lesson in obedience to the commandments of God.
John survived submersion in hot oil
It is well known that the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos (unless it was John the Elder in the theory above). What is not known is the legend of the motive behind the exile.
Jews in Ephesus reported John as radically meddlesome in the Roman Empire. He is shipped to the Emperor Domitian, who places the apostle on trial and punishes him by submersion in hot oil, which he survives unharmed.
In this story, John also drinks prepared poison before the Emperor but survives unharmed. These miracles either wearied or caused fear to Domitian, who declared his exile to Patmos, which in turn led to the vision of the Revelation.
In Rome, San Giovanni in Oleo, or St. John in Oil, commemorates the spot with a baptistery, offering some veracity to the legend.
The apostles did journey beyond the New Testament. While we cannot be sure of many theories about their lives, their legacies can be intriguing, sometimes offering inspiration for our faith or sometimes offering good humor to our day.
Learn more about the apostles after the New Testament in Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacies (Baker, 2018)