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The longstanding view of John bar Zebedee's life was that he authored at least five texts (the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine letters, and the Revelation), mentored the likes of Papias, Ignatius, and Polycarp, opposed heresiarch Cerinthus, was miraculously protected from harm when dipped in oil by the Romans before being (temporarily?) exiled to Patmos, before finally dying peacefully of old age in the 90s or early 100s.

This led to my puzzlement when I read the following dialogue in Mark 10.35-40:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’

And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’

And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’

But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

They replied, ‘We are able.’

Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

Jesus tells James and John they will drink the same 'cup' that Jesus will drink.

The 'cup' Jesus drinks is mentioned again in Mark 14.36, when Jesus prays in Gethsemane:

He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’

By any appearance, the 'cup' Jesus drinks is his death as a martyr.

I've read Mark 10.35-40 many times, but one day the full implication suddenly clicked: If Mark 14 really does present the 'cup' as death by martyrdom, then it follows that Jesus was predicting James and John would also be killed as martyrs.

Acts 12 briefly describes the death of James by the year of AD 44 (Herod Agrippa, who ordered James' death, dies later in the chapter). John is not mentioned in Acts after his brother's death, though Paul in Galatians 2.1-10 seems to indicate John was present at the 'council of Jerusalem', circa AD 50, which is depicted in Acts 15.

Despite this, there seems to be a completely separate tradition that dominated Christian literature from the second century onward, that John bar Zebedee never was killed as a martyr.

Outside of Mark 10.35-40 (and Matthew's parallel), are there any ancient references to John suffering death by persecutors, not just a divinely nullified attempt at killing him, followed by exile? Did any ancient writers seek to harmonize the apparent contradiction?

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This question was researched by George Foxe, in Foxe's Book of Martyr's, who could find no historical authenticity to the many legends surrounding the Apostle John. Foxe states that John died at about the age of 120 (which is quite plausible, there are usually a handful of people of that age upon earth, at any one time) but with no indication of a violent death.

Wikipedia : Foxe's Book of Martyrs

James was executed by Herod and John was exiled in the reign of Domitian, who was Emperor from 81-96 AD, and probably during Nerva's reign also, 96-98 AD, so both brothers drank of the cup of persecution, indeed.

And all who will follow Jesus Christ shall be baptised in a baptism that crucifies them to the world, Galatians 6:14.

  • I don't see any reason why your answer was down voted. +1 – Ruminator Apr 16 '18 at 21:57
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A fine question! I have not bumped into any notion or tradition about John the Evangelist's martyr's death. He was, according to a hagiographical narrative I know about him, tortured, put to a boiling water etc. but not killed.

Yet, Jesus' words are so enigmatic; when saying "bread", he means sometimes bread(Matt. 12:4), sometimes "teaching" (Matt. 16:6), sometimes "Himself" (John 6:51); when saying "water", he means sometimes water (John 4:7), sometimes the "alleviation of pangs of conscience" (Luke 16:24), sometimes the Holy Spirit (John 7:38); when saying "stone", he means sometimes stone (John 8:7), sometimes the "pagan nations" (Matt. 3:9), sometimes the "faith in his divinity" (Matt. 16:18); when saying "oil", he means sometimes oil (Mark 14:8), sometimes the "mercy of God's Son towards humanity" (Luke 10:34), sometimes "divine mercy gathered in human heart as the 'ticket' to eternity" (Matt. 25:4); when He says "life", he means sometimes life (John 15:13), sometimes "eternal salvation" (Matt. 18:8); therefore, it is not at all necessary that in the "cup" He meant exactly the same in both cases; it is not even clear when He said "take away from me this cup", He meant the death on the Cross, or only that - I believe, He meant primarily that, but could not He also mean the pain for being rejected even by His beloved disciples? or the pain for Judas' not believing and not relying in His all-forgiveness and committing suicide in a foolish despair? or the pain of burdening His beloved Israelites with the horrible guilt of murdering the one who loved them more than His own life and showed them in deed innumerable benevolences?

In Luke 12:50, He says, that He is so exceedingly constrained (συνέχομαι) until He receives the Baptism that is prepared to Him; what does He mean? Since before this phrase He utters the similar phrase where He says how He wants (θέλω) the fire to be already (ἤδη) kindled (12:49), then it might be that He means that He is constrained for longing exceedingly for, but as yet not having, or not having already, the accomplishment of the deed of the salvation of mankind. Thus, if this interpretation is permitted, then He both longs for that Baptism/Cup, and is dreaded by it. A mysterious, utterly difficult dialectics between His divinity and humanity, as one and the same cup can both be longed for and dreaded.

Thus, cup can be interpreted also from this lighter side - as something desirable, as both bringing in (on the part of the Son of God) salvation and (on the part of His followers, the objects of this bringing in) participation in salvation; thus, "you will drink my cup" can mean, you will become as myself, desiring to love others so much, as to be ready to die for them, as I do (John 15:12) and salvation is nothing else but presence of love of suchlike intensity in your hearts. Thus, saying " you will drink my cup", He could imply them losing their lives in a metaphorical sense, as losing their self-love for others, as dying for this world in order to take their cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:25), as hating their lives and losing them metaphorically in this world, in order to preserve it for the eternal life (John 12:25), dying for their stupid and coarse, self-flattering desire of becoming chief ministers in Jesus', as they thought, earthly kingdom (Matt.20:21). To make the point, which is already made, just a tiny bit clearer: one medieval Sufi mystic poet has a line: "O, cupbearer, give us, Sufis, wine, but wine of Spirit, not of grapes": thus, also here, the drinking the cup, can mean partaking in Spiritual wisdom that the only Kingdom to be desirous of is the Heavenly Kingdom, which is nothing else than the presence of unconditional divine love in one's heart, of the new commandment of loving others not like oneself, as in the older commandment, but as Jesus (John 15:12), that is to say, more than oneself, for Jesus loved disciples more than Himself giving His life for them, and for all mankind.

Thus, it is not necessarily a contradiction given the enigmatic and deeply metaphoric character of Jesus' sayings, for as both "dying" and "getting born" are used not only in a direct sense, but also metaphorically in Gospels, so much so the "cup", which is a metaphor for something that can itself be a metaphor (i.e. death).

But it is interesting, for since the "cup" in both instances so likely invites for giving them the equal semantics of a literal death, were there some apocryphal traditions that made an effort to reconcile this contradiction and make Jesus' prediction, so to say, congruous to the history, since it could be seen as a necessary contradiction, and quite mistakingly so?

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According to the written tradition of the eastern Church (I don't know about the west), John was, in fact, the only Apostle not to suffer martyrdom. According to the Eastern Orthodox Synaxaria1, he was exiled for a time on the island of Patmos, where he is believed to have written the Book of Revelation, but eventually made his way to Ephesus where he lived for several years before dying a natural death at the age of 105. During his lifetime - again, according to the Synaxaria - he experienced a number of severe trials and privations.

Assuming the events chronicled in Church tradition are true, this would suggest that Jesus was not speaking exclusively about martyrdom in Mark 10:35-40 (and Matthew 20:20-23), but rather the general suffering of trials the Apostles would experience.


1. e.g. Simonos Petra Synaxarion (Mt. Athos), Vol. 1, p.198-205

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George the Sinner and Philip of Side, citing Papias, claim a death for both John and James at the hands of their fellow Jews. Lots of folks have lots of reasons why George and Philip are mistaken, usually boiling down to George got that info from Philip and Philip was confused.

I think the tradition of a long life for John developed to permit the assignment of Revelation to the apostle's hand and is as errant as that assignment. In Mark, Jesus predicts his own death and in the next breath says the two brothers will drink from the same cup. And later he asks for the Father to "take this cup from me" when contemplating his passion.

How would a reader who is not aware of John's supposed peaceful death in old age likely take these passages? I submit just as they likely were intended -- as a prediction of martyrdom for the brothers.

I also suspect both brothers had suffered that fate by the time of Mark's writing in the 70's and the author used that story as evidence of Jesus' prescience.

Are there problems with my view? Yes. Did Papias also claim he knew John? Depends on how you interpret a passage Eusebius quotes from him about the apostles. It's a difficult passage to parse. And if he died before the 70's, did he die with James or later? If he died with James, attending the Council of Jerusalem would have been difficult.

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