The Martyrdoms of James and John, sons of Zebedee

In the Gospel, Jesus says that both sons of Zebedee, James the greater and John the Evangelist, would be martyred.

{10:35} And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, drew near to him, saying, “Teacher, we wish that whatever we will ask, you would do for us.”
{10:36} But he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
{10:37} And they said, “Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your glory.”
{10:38} But Jesus said to them: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink from the chalice from which I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?”
{10:39} But they said to him, “We can.” Then Jesus said to them: “Indeed, you shall drink from the chalice, from which I drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism, with which I am to be baptized.
{10:40} But to sit at my right, or at my left, is not mine to give to you, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
{10:41} And the ten, upon hearing this, began to be indignant toward James and John.

James was the first of the 12 Apostles (Matthias replacing Judas) to be martyred:

{12:1} Now at the same time, king Herod extended his hand, in order to afflict some from the Church.
{12:2} Then he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.
{12:3} And seeing that it pleased the Jews, he set out next to apprehend Peter also. Now it was the days of Unleavened Bread.

But tradition tells us that John, the author of the Gospel and the Book of Revelation, never died a martyr. He lived a very long life, and passed away of natural causes. All the other Apostles were martyred. Jesus alludes to John as an exception to the martyrdom given to the other Apostles:

{21:21} Therefore, when Peter had seen him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, but what about this one?”
{21:22} Jesus said to him: “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me.”
{21:23} Therefore, the saying went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you?”

John did not die a martyr. Jesus wanted him to remain with the Church on earth for a longer period of time. The expression “remain until I return” has an eschatological meaning. In the second part of the tribulation, not long before Christ returns, one part of the Church will be mostly spared from the intense sufferings of the tribulation. So John did eventually die; he was not going to remain on earth until the Return of Jesus.

But since John did not die a martyr, how is it that Jesus says he drank from the chalice or was baptized with the baptism of His Passion?

Notice that Jesus distinguishes two different ways in which James and John will participate in His suffering: “Indeed, you shall drink from the chalice, from which I drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism, with which I am to be baptized.” One of them “drinks from the chalice” and the other is “baptized with the baptism”. So the martyrdoms of James and John were to be very different. Now the chalice represents blood, and therefore indicates the bloody martyrdom of James. But the use of baptism as a figure represents an event in the life of John, in which he willingly offered his life to martyrdom, but was spared by a miracle of God.

Saint Jerome relates an ancient story about John the Gospel writer, in which the emperor Domitian attempted to kill John during a severe persecution of Christians: “Tertullian, moreover, relates that he was sent to Rome, and that having been plunged into a jar of boiling oil, he came out fresher and more active than when he went in.” [Jerome, Against Jovinianus, 1.26] The Church commemorates this event on May 6, under the title “St. John before the Latin Gate.” [Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. 2, May 6] John’s miraculous preservation from the boiling oil is the reason that Domitian ended up only banishing him to an island (Patmos), where next he wrote the Book of Revelation.

John offered his life to Christ, willingly accepting martyrdom. But when he was plunged into the boiling hot oil, he was miraculously preserved from harm. And this event makes John a type of martyr, due to his willingness to suffer and die for Christ, even though he did not die at that time.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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