The Twelve Apostles, Part 3: The Thunder Brothers, Sons of Zebedee

We continue with our series of historical investigations into the twelve specially-chosen followers of Jesus with this combined look at James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

James, son of Zebedee

            The New Testament features a number of men named James (Greek Iakōbos from the Hebrew Ya’akov or Jacob).  Most of what we know about this James comes from the same sources by which we learn about his brother John.

Their father was Zebedee (Greek Zebedaios from the Hebrew Zavdai), a fisherman apparently of some means since we are told that he could afford servants (Mark 1:20).  Discovering the name of Zebedee’s wife may be possible based on gospel passages about the presence of three women at the crucifixion of Jesus:

Comparing these lists, some have suggested that Salome, third in the Markan list, was the same woman as the “mother of the sons of Zebedee” who appears third in Matthew’s list.  If she is at the same time Jesus’s “mother’s sister,” the second woman in the list appearing in the Gospel of John (she can’t be any of the others), then James and John would have been cousins of Jesus. Many have drawn this conclusion but it is by no means certain. Others have speculated that Salome was the sister of Jesus, for example, and scholars cannot agree if the Gospel of John is describing three or four women (e.g., his mother’s sister, the wife of Clopas may be one woman).

            James was probably the older of the two brothers since he is always listed first when they are mentioned together.  Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, nicknamed them boanerges, apparently an Aramaic name which Mark translates for the (Greek-speaking) reader as “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).  Boanerges appears to be a Greek transliteration (a letter-for-letter substitution) of a Semitic expression that perhaps should be divided as boaneregesBoane may indeed come from the Hebrew (and Aramaic) bene, meaning “sons of,” but its form here is strange.  R. Alan Culpepper suggests the name may be a pun on the Greek word boan meaning “shout” or “cry.”  Coupled with the Greek erges, meaning “workers,” boanerges may mean “loud workers,” or “loud mouths.”  Other possible translations of boanerges include “sons of commotion,” “sons of anger,” “sons of an earthquake,” or possibly “sons of thunder” as Mark says.  The phrase could even be related to a Jewish town Bĕnĕ Bĕraq which means “sons of lightning.”   If “sons of thunder” is what Jesus meant, he could have chosen the name based on their witnessing the voice like thunder (“heavens torn apart”) that spoke at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10).  Or perhaps it was on account of their thunderous preaching, as if they spoke from heaven.

            Certain characteristics of James and John may be based on Greco-Roman myth, however.  In the gospels, the two brothers ask Jesus if they might “sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37).  The heavenly twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, sons of the Sky-God Zeus, sat on either side of their father. They were “children of the sky” controlling the thunder and lightning. 

            James is only one of two members of the Twelve whose death is reported in the New Testament (the other being Judas).  According to the Acts of the Apostles, James was killed by the Jewish king Agrippa I as part of his effort to persecute Christ-believing Jews around 44 CE (Acts 12:1-2).  This account of his early death did not prevent the creation of further legends to fill the void of information about James’s activities after Jesus’s resurrection.  Various medieval accounts, arising no earlier than the 6th-7th centuries, report that James conducted a mission to Spain.  One legend tells of his bones being brought back to Spain following his death in Jerusalem.  They are now said to rest in the city of Santiago de Compostela.

John, son of Zebedee

            John (Greek Iōannēs from the Hebrew Yochanan) apparently remained in Jerusalem for some time after the crucifixion of Jesus – Paul said he met John there around 36 CE (Gal 2:9-10).  Paul referred to John as one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem assembly of Christ-believers along with James (the brother of Jesus) and Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18-19).  By pillars Paul may have intended to characterize them metaphorically as supporting structures of the renewed temple in the Kingdom of God. The term pillars may also recall the three pillars of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, identified as such in later rabbinic literature (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1.2).

            John is linked with Peter, somewhat awkwardly, three times in the Acts of the Apostles.  This has led some to suggest that John’s presence was a later addition to these stores of Peter’s activities.  But the episode in which Peter and John travel to Samaria in order to confirm, or lay hands on, those who had been baptized by Philip, is interesting for other reasons (Acts 3:1-11; 4:1-22; 8:14-25).  The connection of John with Samaria may complement a gospel episode which occurs only in Luke. There, John and his brother, infuriated over the Samaritans’ unwillingness to show Jesus the proper respect, offer to call fire down upon them (Luke 9:51-56).  The Gospel of John, alone among the four, shows a unique interest in Samaria and the Samaritan reaction to Jesus (John 4).  Could this be evidence of an historical reality preserved by the church that the apostle held a special appeal in Samaria?

            Some equate the so-called “beloved disciple,” mentioned several times in the Gospel of John (John 13:23, 25; 19:26; 20:2; 21:17, 20), with John, the son of Zebedee. There is no internal evidence to support this other than the lack of reference to John throughout the text and the supposition that this anonymous disciple must be one of Jesus’s closest named followers who appear in the other gospels.

If John is also to be understood as the unnamed “other disciple” appearing in John 18:15, then he seems to have had some acquaintance with those in the household of the high priest (a later legend says that John was a seller of Galilean fish to the high priest).

The beloved disciple was present at the crucifixion of Jesus where he seems to have been given custody of Mary by her son from the cross (John 19:26).  This is strange given that we know Jesus’s brother James was alive and perhaps his other brothers as well. They would have naturally taken care of their own mother. Nevertheless, it seems that whoever saw to the final version of the Gospel of John credited this beloved disciple with the stories it contains (John 21:20, 24). Unfortunately, there is insufficient grounds for concluding with any certainty that this beloved disciple was John, the son of Zebedee. He certainly could not be the final compiler of the gospel. In an episode occurring in the Acts of the Apostles, the Sanhedrin, after examining Peter and John following their arrest, concluded that they were idiōtai, that is, uneducated laymen unable to write (Acts 4:13). The author of Acts could be expected to know if one of these two men had authored a written gospel.

            Extra-biblical accounts often confused a number of early Christian figures named John. Whether any of these are meant to be the same person as the son of Zebedee remains uncertain.  Of the five New Testament writings attributed by tradition to John, only one author actually self-identifies as John: the author of the Revelation, or Apocalypse, of John.  The so-called First Letter of John gives no identifying information about the author within the text. The author of the Second and Third Letters of John self-identifies as “the elder.”  And none of the five “Johannine” texts explicitly refers to either of the others, making it difficult to determine if their authors were even aware of the other documents.  Experts doubt that the five texts are from the same hand anyway.  Modern convention often distinguishes the authors as John the Evangelist (gospel writer), John the Elder (letter writer), and John the Seer (apocalypse author).  It remains unlikely that any of these men were the son of Zebedee.       

This uncertainty did not stop later Christians from merging all the early disciples named John into one man however. Second-century Christian writer Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 81) and fourth-century church historian Eusebius (Church History 4.18.8) both identify the author of Revelation as the son of Zebedee.  Second/third century Christian scholar Tertullian of Carthage identified the Evangelist of the gospel (Against Marcion 4.2) and the Elder of the letters (Against Marcion 5.16) with John the son of Zebedee.  Tertullian added that it was the son of Zebedee who penned Revelation (Prescription Against Heretics 36; he also added that, prior to being exiled to the island of Patmos, he was “first plunged, unburnt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile”). Tertullian’s literary opinions were echoed by second/third century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria. Thus, the identification of the son of Zebedee as the author of all five New Testament texts was universally held until modern times. 

            From at least the time of Eusebius, a prophecy by Jesus (Gospel of Mark 10:39) was interpreted to indicate that both James and John would die martyr’s deaths.  Some scholars suggest that John was executed along with James in the early 40s in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-3; see above).  Competing with this prophecy was another made by Jesus about the so-called beloved disciple “that he remain until I come” (John 21:23a).  The validity of this prophecy was nullified when the beloved disciple did in fact die.  Later editors of the fourth gospel provided an explanation for this: “Jesus did not say…that he would not die” but that “if it is my will” he would not (John 21:23b).  The passage does not seem to imply that the beloved disciple died a martyr’s death.  A peaceful death might account for one of the two tombs allotted to John in Ephesus according to Eusebius (Church History 3.39.6).  We simply can no longer disentangle the evidence. But that John did not die a martyr agrees with the second-century apocryphal Acts of John in which the apostle orders his grave dug by his followers and then calmly climbs in to die (Acts of John 111, 115).

Works consulted for this blog post:

Collins, Raymond F., “John,” Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Culpepper, R. Alan, John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).

Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols., (New York: Doubleday, 1970/1985).

Hagner, Donald A., “James,” Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Marcus, Joel, Mark, 2 vols. (New York/New Haven: Doubleday/Yale University Press, 2000/2009).

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