Summarized from Chapter 2 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong, PhD.
There were two separate narratives in early Christian sources: the natural death of John the Evangelist and the martyrdom of John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee. This is explained on the basis that these were originally separate figures, corresponding to the two Johns spoken of by Papias.
The Natural Death of John the Evangelist
Irenaeus (2nd century)
Irenaeus does not specifically state that John the Evangelist died a natural death, but he is thought to imply it when he states that John remained among the Asian elders until the reign of Trajan.
The Acts of John (2nd/3rd century)
Records the tradition of John’s laying himself in a grave near Ephesus. This tradition is also found in the Monarchian Prologue to John (late 4th/early 5th century).
The Harris Fragments (3rd century?)
In a vision to Polycarp, John the Evangelist is said to have contrasted his peaceful death with Polycarp’s future martyrdom.
The Martyrdom of John the Son of Zebedee
The metaphor of the cup is used elsewhere in the Gospels and other early Jewish/Christian literature (Martyrdom of Isaiah, Targum Neofiti, Martyrdom of Polycarp) to denote death.
The earliest interpreters (Origen, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Aphrahat, and probably Gregory of Nyssa and the Latin Incomplete Commentary on Matthew) understood this as a prophecy of literal martyrdom.
Two fragments, both discovered in the nineteenth century, cite Papias as speaking of John’s literal martyrdom. In the first, George the Sinner (or Georgios Hamartolos) (c. 840) notes that Papias, in his second book, related that John the son of Zebedee was killed by Jews.
The second is from an epitome of Philip of Sidé’s lost History, published between 434 and 439, which again cites Papias’s claim that John was killed by Jews.
Objections to these fragments are often based only on their divergence from the tradition of the Evangelist’s natural death.
Heracleon (c. 170) omits the name of John when he lists members of the twelve apostles who escaped martyrdom, suggesting that John was not counted among those that escaped.
The Acts of Andrew (c. 200)
Peter and John appear to Andrew in a vision, and Peter tells Andrew that he would drink Peter’s cup, meaning that he would be crucified. The appearance of John alongside the glorified Peter in this vision may suggest that John was also conceived of as being in glory with Peter at that time.
The ancient church calendars spoke of John the Apostle’s martyrdom. These include the Syriac martyrology of Edessa (based on a 4th-century Greek calendar), an Armenian martyrology (3rd century or later), the Spanish Martyrology of Carmona (5th or 6th sixth century), and the Gothic Missal. Some associated it with Jerusalem and/or the Mount of Olives (the Syriac Martyrology, the 8th-century calendar of Reichenau, a 9th-century Sacramentary of Senlis, and a 10th-century Georgian calendar).
Attempts at arguing that these do not necessarily remember John’s martyrdom are flawed, as many speak of his day as that of his “birth” (to heavenly life) or the day on which he received his crown.
Scholarly attempts at denying the tradition of John the Apostle’s literal martyrdom are usually motivated by the need to reconcile the tradition with that of John the Evangelist’s peaceful death.
The Martyrdom of John and James in Papias
In one fragment, Papias relates that John and James were killed by Jews. The reference to James as the brother of John is likely a later gloss (as, he argues, the reference to John as the “Theologian”—an epithet belonging to the Evangelist—is). Instead, the James Papias referred to was (he suggests) James the son of Alphaeus, whose martyrdom is placed in Jerusalem, in the reign of Claudius, in some sources. John and James may have been remembered together because they died at around the same time, in the same city.
Papias’s mentioning John first and then James does not agree with the order in which the Zebedee brothers were killed, since James was martyred first. It also differs from the order in which the Zebedee brothers are spoken of in the Synoptics and Acts (James and John).
But Papias’s order is found in the martyrologies, possibly (he suggests) because they were dependent on Papias for the tradition.
The martyrologies are confused as to which James is remembered on the same day as John. Some make it the Zebedean James and others James the Just, but one martyrology (of Reichenau) identifies the James in question with James the son of Alphaeus. This less significant James may have been replaced in the other versions with the more significant ones.
Two sources (the Incomplete Commentary on Matthew and Ps.-Hippolytus’s On the Twelve Apostles) separately claim that James the son of Alphaeus was stoned to death in Jerusalem by the Jews.
By comparing Hegesippus (2nd century) with other accounts, it seems that Hegesippus conflated the martyrdoms of James the Just and James the son of Alphaeus. After comparing Hegesippus’s account with those in Clement of Alexandria (3rd century), Epiphanius (c. 400), an Egyptian work entitled the Contendings of the Apostles (6th century), and a Coptic work entitled the Lamp of Darkness (13th century), the chapter concludes that the martyrdom of James the son of Alphaeus was held to have happened by stoning in Jerusalem at the end of Claudius’s reign.
Clement and Chrysostom
Two points discuss in Chapter 3 (see summary) are also relevant.
First, Clement of Alexandria seems to have known both traditions of John’s death. While Clement claims that John returned to Ephesus after the death “of the tyrant” (usually identified with Domitian but the book argues that it was Nero) (Quis div. 42), he also claims that the teaching of the apostles, encompassing Paul, ended in the reign of Nero (Strom. 7.17). The most straightforward reading of this is that Clement claimed that the twelve and Paul were dead by the end of Nero’s reign.
Some scholars have accused Clement of being inconsistent on this point, but here it is held out as evidence he knew of two Johns.
Chrysostom too knows a tradition that the Jewish war (66–70 CE) occurred “after the death of the apostles” (Hom. Act. 11:19), though he also identified John the Apostle with John the Evangelist. It is suggested that he was either unaware or confused by these inconsistencies; it is noted that he also seems to have both affirmed and denied John’s literal martyrdom.
Previous Chapter: Papias’s John the Elder
Discusses evidence that Papias of Hierapolis did speak of a second, separate John from among the disciples of Jesus, named John the Elder, contrary to those who argue that Papias spoke of the same John twice.
Challenges the common assertion that the earliest Christian sources identified John the Evangelist with the Zebedean John, arguing instead that the descriptions of the Evangelist in these sources often better correlate with Papias’s John the Elder.