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.
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.
In particular, 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.
Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) may have been originated this narrative.
Sources of 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.
Argument: 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.
The MC probably placed Revelation before Paul began composing his letters in the early fifties, or in Claudius’s reign (41–54), as Epiphanius did.
Furthermore, by referring to John as Paul’s predecessor, the MC likely presupposes John’s death at the time of Paul’s writing, which would again associate a Claudian exile with John’s death.
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.
While there is no consensus as to who wrote the Canon, Hippolytus has been suggested more often than any other writer (though there are reasons for preferring Hippolytan dependence rather than authorship).
The Homily of Severus
This narrative found in a Coptic homily given by Severus, bishop of Nastrawa (mid-ninth century), 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.
This seems to complement what is found in the Muratorian Canon (and provides confirmatory evidence that John was considered to have been dead at the time of Paul’s writing) and probably represents interaction with the same tradition.
Furthermore, 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)
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). There is, however, is no evidence for the existence of mines on Patmos.
Ad metalla was effectively a postponed death sentence. While Victorinus claims that John was released from Patmos, his John has his thoughts on death, and it may be that Victorinus’s source placed John’s death on Patmos and contrived the sentence of ad metalla to account for it.
Victorinus’s John grew old on Patmos, and Epiphanius likewise spoke of John’s old age at the time of his release. The reference to John being old may have been in Victorinus’s source (by conflation of the martyrdom of the Apostle and the death in old age of the Evangelist), which could have 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.
Victorinus’s source may have been Hippolytus. There are, at least, 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, providing some confirmatory evidence that Victorinus’s source did so also.
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).
Origen too may have been interacting with a tradition of John being sent to the mines in Patmos and dying on the island.
There is a question as to 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 to Patmos.
The latter sense is more likely grammatically, and support for this understanding is found in the Latin version of Origen’s text, which specifically speaks of John’s “perfection” (i.e. death by martyrdom). In the time of Origen, moreover, 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 independently corrected Origen’s text in different ways to exclude this sense.
Dionysius of Alexandria
Dionysius too may have known the tradition of John’s Claudian exile.
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). Dionysius thus only seems to be 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, spoken of in Col 4:10 and 2 Tim 4:11–13.
Conclusion: Sources generally believed to have been dependent on or to have interacted with Hippolytus’s work all seem to presuppose a tradition of John’s Claudian exile. The tradition of John’s death on Patmos at this time could have originated as a conflation of the Patmos exile tradition with the tradition of John the son of Zebedee’s martyrdom in the reign of Claudius.