Summarized from Chapter 4 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong, PhD.
Furlong argues that John the son of Zebedee and John the Evangelist came to be identified around 200 CE, as a result of which the traditions of these two figures became conflated.
This chapter argues that the conflation of the Apostle’s early martyrdom with the traditions of the Evangelist’s exile to Patmos gave rise to the story of John’s martyrdom on Patmos in the reign of Claudius.
Furlong identifies Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) as the common source of the works exhibiting the Claudian tradition.
Epiphanius claimed that the Apostle John (whom he identified with John the Evangelist) was banished to Patmos during the reign of Claudius, that he prophesied before his “falling asleep,” and that after his release he composed his Gospel in old age after several years of residence in Asia.
It is generally accepted that Epiphanius was drawing from Hippolytus of Rome for his account.
Furlong argues that Epiphanius conflated the Hippolytan source which placed John’s death in Patmos with a source (i.e. Irenaeus) that placed the Evangelist’s old age in Ephesus.
The Muratorian Canon
The Muratorian Canon (c. 200) speaks of Paul’s writing to seven churches according to the example left by his predecessor John, which therefore places John’s ministry, and his writing of Revelation, before Paul’s ministry. Furlong argues that it probably placed Revelation before Paul began composing his letters in the early fifties, and that it probably therefore placed Revelation in Claudius’s reign (41–54), as Epiphanius did. He also notes that by referring to John as Paul’s predecessor, the Canon likely presupposes John’s death at the time of Paul’s writing, which again associates a Claudian exile with John’s death.
He notes that scholarly engagement with the Canon’s statements has either elicited bewilderment or has attempted unconvincingly to deny that it places Revelation before Paul’s letters.
Furlong further notes that while there is no consensus as to who wrote the Canon, Hippolytus has been more often suggested than any other writer, and Furlong reviews the evidence for this (though he himself favors Hippolytan dependence rather than authorship).
The Homily of Severus
Furlong draws attention to a narrative found in a Coptic homily given by Severus, bishop of Nastrawa (mid-ninth century), which relates that Paul was forbidden by the Spirit from entering Asia (Acts 16:6) because it was John’s inheritance, and that John was still alive, though in exile on Patmos. It was only after John’s death that Paul could labor there. He notes that this complements what is found in the Canon and probably represents interaction with the same tradition.
Furlong also notes that an Arabic introduction to a work entitled the Death of St. John places John’s death in Patmos. The same tradition is found in the Arabic translation of the otherwise lost Coptic work, the Lamp of Darkness.
Victorinus (d. 303 or 304)
Furlong notes that Victorinus’s Commentary on Revelation is the first extant source to claim that when John was exiled, he was sentenced to the mines (ad metalla). He notes that there is no evidence for the existence of mines on Patmos, and that this sentence was effectively a postponed death sentence. While Victorinus claims that John was released from Patmos, his John has his thoughts on death, and Furlong suggests that Victorinus’s source placed John’s death on Patmos and contrived the sentence of ad metalla to explain how he died there.
He observes that Victorinus’s John grew old on Patmos, and he notes that Epiphanius likewise spoke of John’s old age at the time of his release. He thinks that the reference to John being old was in Victorinus’s source (by conflation of the martyrdom of the Apostle and the death in old age of the Evangelist), and that this prompted Victorinus to move the exile from Claudius’s reign to Domitian’s, in order to bring it into conformity with Irenaeus’s tradition of John dying in Trajan’s reign.
Furlong, who suggests that Victorinus’s source was Hippolytus, draws attention to similarities of wording between the Muratorian Canon (another proposed Hippolytan source which also seems to presuppose the Claudian exile tradition) and Victorinus.
The Latin Commentary on the Revelation of the Apostle John
This work, written between the sixth and eighth century, also knows the ad metalla tradition but places John’s exile 23 years after the ascension, which could correspond to the end of Claudius’s reign, as Furlong suggested Victorinus’s source did.
Apringius’s Tractate on the Apocalypse
This sixth-century work places John’s exile at the time of the famine under Claudius that was said in Acts to have taken place at that time (Acts 11:28).
Furlong argues that Origen too was interacting with a tradition of John being sent to the mines in Patmos and dying on the island. He begins by discussing Origen’s claim concerning John’s exile to Patmos, and in particular he weighs up whether Origen claimed that John was witnessing on account of the word of truth or suffering as a martyr on account of it when he was exiled. He argues that the latter sense is more likely grammatically, and he finds additional support for this in the Latin version of Origen’s text, which specifically speaks of John’s “perfection” (i.e. death by martyrdom). He shows that in the time of Origen, Christians who were sent to the mines were considered martyrs as it was usually a capital sentence.
Lastly, Ps.-Dorotheus (sixth century) and Theophylact (d. c. 1107), appear to have understood Origen to have spoken of martyrdom since they both variously corrected Origen’s text to exclude this sense.
Dionysius of Alexandria
Furlong suggests that Dionysius too knew the tradition of John’s Claudian exile. He observes that when Dionysius was discussing whether John Mark wrote Revelation, he dismissed the possibility on the basis that the Acts of the Apostles shows him returning to Jerusalem rather than following Paul and Barnabas into Asia (Acts 13:13). Furlong suggests that Dionysius was only interested in John Mark’s itinerary at this particular time because he placed the writing of Revelation then. Thus, Dionysius was not interested in John Mark’s later journeys to Asia Minor, spoken of in Col 4:10 and 2 Tim 4:11–13.