from issue no. 12 - 2008

The tombs of the apostles

Saint John

The Lamb who appears weak, it is he who triumphs!

by Lorenzo Bianchi

Saint John

Saint John

According to what the ancient sources tell us, John, the beloved of Jesus and the brother of James the Greater, was the only one of the apostles who did not die as a martyr, but by natural causes, at a venerable age. After the Resurrection of Jesus he was the first, along with Peter, to receive from Mary Magdalene the announcement of the empty tomb, and was the first to arrive there, then entering after Peter. After Jesus’ ascent to heaven, the Acts of the Apostles show him beside Peter at the healing of the lame man in the Temple in Jerusalem and then at the speech to the Sanhedrin, after which he was arrested and imprisoned with Peter. Also with Peter he went to Samaria. In 53 John was still in Jerusalem: Paul in fact called him (Gal 2, 9), along with Peter and James, one of the “pillars” of the Church. But toward 57 Paul named only James the Lesser in Jerusalem: so John was no longer there, having already moved to Ephesus, as unanimously stated by the ancient sources, of which Irenaeus (Against heresies, III, 3, 4) will stand for all: “The Church of Ephesus, which Paul founded and where John remained until the time of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the Apostles”.
John’s sojourn in Ephesus, where he wrote the Gospel (according again to Irenaeus), was interrupted, as the same ancient sources tell us, by the persecution suffered under Domitian (emperor from 81 to 96), probably around the year 95. From this arises the tradition, also reported by many ancient writers, of his trip to Rome and his being sentenced to die in a clay jar filled with boiling oil, from which he emerged miraculously unscathed. Tertullian, around the year 200, is our oldest source on this: “If you then go to Italy, you find Rome, where we also can draw on the authority of the Apostles. How happy that Church is, on which the apostles poured forth the whole doctrine with their blood, where Peter shaped himself after the Lord in his suffering, where Paul was crowned with the same death as John the Baptist, where the apostle John, immersed in hot oil without suffering harm, was condemned to exile on an island” (The prescription against the heretics, 36). Further testimony comes from Jerome, who at the end of the fourth century, writes: “John’s own life ended in a natural death. But if we read the ecclesiastical stories we learn that he too because of his witness, was placed, in a cauldron of boiling oil, from which he emerged, like an athlete, to receive the crown of Christ, and immediately afterwards was exiled to the island of Patmos. We thus see that he didn’t lack the courage of martyrdom and that he drank the chalice of witness, the same as the one that the three children drank in the fiery furnace, even if the persecutor did not shed his blood” (Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew, 20, 22). The ancient sources on John’s Christian martyrdom in Rome, can now be filled out with fair reliability (thanks to a study by Ilaria Ramelli), with the allusion of the pagan Juvenal (early second century), who, in Satire IV, criticizes Domitian in recounting the episode of the convening of the Senate to decide what to do with a huge fish come from afar and brought to the emperor, which is destined to be cooked in a deep pot. In Rome, at the place where tradition places the martyrdom, at Porta Latina, within the enclosure of the Aurelian Walls, stands the octagonal temple of San Giovanni in Oleo, whose current structures date back to 1509 but which must have been present (we do not know whether in this form, or whether it was originally dedicated to the pagan cult of Diana) certainly from an era earlier than that of the construction of the nearby church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, which dates back to Pope Gelasius I (492-496).
Ruins of the Basilica of Saint John, Ephesus

Ruins of the Basilica of Saint John, Ephesus

Eusebius tells us that John “was sentenced by Domitian to exile on the island of Patmos because of witness to the Word of God” (Storia Ecclesiastica, III, 18, 1), and takes this information from the words of John himself in Revelation, where the apostle says that he was deported “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1, 9). There, on that island of the Sporades about seventy kilometers from Ephesus, John wrote the Book of Revelation. After the death of Domitian in 96, he returned to Ephesus, as Eusebius again tells us: “At that time John, the beloved of Jesus, both apostle and evangelist, was still alive in Asia, where, after returning from exile on the island because of the death of Domitian, directed the Churches of that region” (Storia Ecclesiastica, III, 23, 1). John died in Ephesus perhaps in 104, and was buried there. Around 190 Policrates, bishop of Ephesus, in a letter written to Pope Victor says: “Even John, who reclined on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest and bore the insignia, martyr [here perhaps in the sense of witness] and teacher, rests in Ephesus” (the excerpt is quoted in Eusebius, Storia Ecclesiastica, V, 24, 2). His tomb, still visible today, lies in an underground burial chamber on the hill of Ayasuluk, a kilometer and a half from Ephesus. At the beginning of the fourth century a quadrangular martyrion of about 20 x 19 meters was built above it, named in the Itinerary of Egeria. About a century later a cruciform church was built around it, demolished in the sixth century by Justinian who erected in its place a grandiose basilica for the great many pilgrims. Dedicated to the apostle, it had three aisles, was 110 meters long and about half as wide. John’s tomb was in the crypt under the altar. A wall to protect the shrine and annexes enclosed the whole hill. The impressive ruins of the Basilica, destroyed by earthquakes and looting, have undergone much archaeological research and restoration, and have recently been partially rebuilt.

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