« PreviousContinue »
THE LIFE OF S. JOHN.
THE life of S. John falls naturally into two divisions, the limits of which correspond to the two main sources of information respecting him. (1) From his birth to the departure from Jerusalem after the Ascension; the sources for which are contained in N.T. (2) From the departure from Jerusalem to his death ; the sources for which are the traditions of the primitive Church. In both cases the notices of S. John are fragmentary, and cannot be woven together into anything like a complete whole without a good deal of conjecture. But the fragments are in the main very harmonious, and contain definite traits and characteristics, enabling us to form a portrait, which though imperfect is unique.
(i) Before the Departure from Jerusalem. The date of S. John's birth cannot be determined. He was probably younger than his Master and than the other Apostles. He was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of James, who was probably the older of the two. Zebedee was a fisherman of the lake of Galilee, who seems to have lived in or near Bethsaida (i. 44), and was well enough off to have hired servants (Mark i. 20). He appears only once in the Gospel-narrative (Matt. iv. 21, 22; Mark i. 19, 20), but is mentioned frequently as the father of S. James and S. John. Salome (see on xix. 25) was probably the sister of the Virgin, and in that case S. John was our Lord's first cousin. This relationship harmonizes well
with the special intimacy granted to the beloved disciple by his Lord, with the fact of S. James also being among the chosen three, and with the final committal of the Virgin to S. John's
Salome was one of those women who followed Christ and ministered to Him of their substance' (Mark xv. 40; comp. Matt. xxvii. 55 ; Luke viii. 3). This was probably after Zebedee's death. S. John's parents, therefore, would seem to have been people of means; and it is likely from xix. 27 that the Apostle himself was fairly well off, a conclusion to which his acquaintance with the high-priest (xviii. 15) also points.
S. John, therefore, like all the Apostles, excepting the traitor, was a Galilean; and this fact may be taken as in some degree accounting for that fieriness of temper which earned for him and his brother the name of sons of thunder' (Mark üï. 17). The inhabitants of Galilee, while they had remained to a large extent untouched by the culture of the rest of the nation, remained also untouched by the enervation both in belief and habits which culture commonly brings. Ignorant of the glosses of tradition, they kept the old simple faith in the letter of the Law. Uninterested alike in politics and philosophy, they preferred the sword to intrigue, and industry to speculation. Thus, while the hierarchy jealously scrutinise all the circumstances of Jesus' position, the Galileans on the strength of a single miracle would take Him by force' (vi. 14, 15) and make Him king. Population was dense and mixed, and between the Syrians and Jews there were often fierce disputes. To this industrious, hardy, and warlike race S. John belonged by birth and residence, sharing its characteristic energy and its impatience of indecision and intrigue. Hence, when the Baptist proclaimed the kingdom of the Messiah, the young fisherman at once became a follower, and pressed steadily onwards until the goal was reached.
Christian art has so familiarised us with a form of almost feminine sweetness as representing the beloved disciple, that the strong energy and even vehemence of his character is almost lost sight of. In his writings as well as in what is recorded of him both in N.T. and elsewhere we find both sides of his character appearing. And indeed though apparently opposed they are not really so; the one may beget the other, and did so in him. The calmness of suppressed emotion leads naturally to passionate utterance, when the fire kindles and at last the tongue speaks.
In yet another way his Galilean origin might influence S. John. The population of the country, as has been said, was mixed. From a boy he would have the opportunity of coming in contact with Greek life and language. Hence that union of Jewish and Greek characteristics which are found in him, and which have led some to the conclusion that the author of the Fourth Gospel was a Greek. We shall find as we go along that the enormous preponderance of Jewish modes of thought and expression, and of Jewish points of view, renders this conclusion absolutely untenable.
The young son of Zebedee was perhaps never at one of the rabbinical schools, which after the fall of Jerusalem made Tiberias a great centre of education, and probably existed in some shape before that. Hence he can be contemptuously spoken of by the hierarchy as an 'illiterate and common person (Acts iv. 13). No doubt he paid the usual visits to Jerusalem at the proper seasons, and became acquainted with the grand liturgy of the Temple; a worship which while it kindled his deep spiritual emotions and gave him material for reverent meditation, would insensibly prepare the way for that intense hatred of the hierarchy, who had made the worship there worse than a mockery, which breathes through all the pages of his Gospel.
While he was still a lad, and perhaps already learning to admire and love the impetuosity of his older friend S. Peter, the rising of Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing' (see on Acts v. 37) took place. Judas, like our own Wat Tyler, raised a revolt against a tax which he held to be tyrannical, and proclaimed that the people had ‘no lord or master but God.' Whether the boy and his future friend sympathized with the movement we have no means of knowing. But the honest though ill-advised
of the leaders of this revolt may easily have been remembered by S. John when he heard the false and renegade priests declare to Pilate, 'We have no king but Caesar' (xix. 15).