The Silence of John: The Apostles of Acts

St. John (El Greco)

John is an enigmatic figure in Acts of the Apostles, which is fitting for the author of the most theologically sublime Gospel. In some Catholic mystical literature, Peter and John tend to be viewed as complimentary characters, with John representing the head (thought, meditation, interiority) and Peter representing the heart (action, preaching, exteriority).

John the Beloved is depicted as calm and collected, not fleeing from the crucifixion, worthy to be a surrogate son to the Mother of God, comfortably resting on the bosom of the Lord.

Peter, on the other hand, is the one who draws his sword to cut off the ear of Malchus. He is praised for declaring Jesus the Christ, and in the next breath vilified as Satan for denying the necessity of the crucifixion. He’s impulsive to a fault, only gaining a sense of mission and composure after the Ascension and Pentecost.

The two are paired in most mentions in Acts of the Apostles:

  • John is present with the others after the Ascension.
  • Peter and John are on their way to the temple together at the hour prayer when Peter heals the man lame from birth. (Acts 3) This tells us that they traveled together and continued to observe the Jewish temple worship. The incident, in which Peter is the active figure, emphasizes the secondary role of John as the Beloved.
  • In Chapter 4, John is with Peter when they are questioned by the assembly of the Sanhedrin. We are told that “Peter and John answered them” (Acts 4:19), but it is clear that Peter is the one speaking for both.
  • In Acts 8:14, Peter and John encounter Simon Magus.

And then John is gone from Acts of the Apostles, never having spoken a word. (The “John” referred to in the second half of the book is John-Mark, not The Beloved.)

What are we to make of this silence of John?

Certainly, we can’t assume it speaks to his irrelevance, or he wouldn’t have appeared with Peter at all the crucial moments. To Peter was left the role of speaking, but John was, as Paul tells us Galatians 2:9, a ”pillar” of the Church in Jerusalem. We can assume he attended the Council of Jerusalem and was an integral part of all the decision making. 

Yet John, in Acts, holds back and lets Peter go first. John was a young man, Peter was older. Peter had a successful fishing business in partnership with the family of Zebedee, including John and his brother, James. Given John’s youth and the authority Peter displays when we find him fishing, we can assume Peter was, if not the boss, at least the senior partner.
John reaches the empty tomb first, but waits for Peter to enter. (John 20:7). John sees the risen Christ on the shore first, but it is Peter who leaps in water and swims to shore. (John 21:7) Peter, not John, asks what will be the fate of John. (John 21:20)

In all things, John yielded to the leadership and authority of Peter.

And yet … it is John whose marvelous poetry lays the foundation of the elevated Christology of the Church. The Eastern Churches refer to him simply as The Theologian: “one who can speak in accessible terms of the divine, revealing an arcane access to God through attachment to Jesus.” (Pope Benedict XVI, The Apostles) In his meditation on John, Pope Benedict cites a tradition recorded in the apocryphal Acts of John. It depicts the Beloved not as a leader or founder of churches (as were Peter and Paul) but as “a perpetual wayfairer, a communicator of the faith in the encounter with ‘souls capable of hoping and of being save.’” (See Acts of John 18:10 and 23:8.)

John’s Gospel is the result of long, deep, meditation on the the Jesus he knew and the things he witnessed. In Acts, we see John young, quiet, thoughtful, listening, following, internalizing.

The silence of John is the very silence that allows him to hear the Spirit singing into his soul the words that will reshape our understanding of the origins and composition of everything: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Acts shows us the John who heard this truth, but it doesn’t let us hear him. His presence with Peter indicates his authority. His silence indicates his unique wisdom. As the Psalmist says, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” (Psalm 37:7)

John was patient. He may have waited a full 50 years after the incidents described in Acts before setting down his Gospel. It was a silence that produced wonders. May we all turn to silence and listen to the still small voice calling to us, as John did.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Manny

    Yeah, that’s a great question. My first thought was simialr to where you reached at the end. John wrote is Gospel much later, well after Peter’s death. Also, Paul starts taking a prominant role in Acts and so perhaps crowds out the other apostles. There’s only so much that can fit in a story without it digressing or losing focus. Perhaps also Luke, who wrote Acts, was also unaware of John’s travels as they all dispersed. We seem to have a perception that the works were written from an ominiscient point of view, but obviously they couldn’t have been.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Luke first enters Acts himself in 16:10, the first of the “we” passages that indicate he is eyewitness, not a mere reporter. This lends some credibility to the idea that he simply did not know John, but Luke conducted interviews with eyewitnesses in order to write his books, so he would have asked about John’s role. Also, we can assume that the speeches in Acts are not transcriptions but, in keeping with the tradition of classical writing (eg, Tacitus), recreations and summaries of the main thrust of a person’s preaching. Perhaps it was sufficient for these words to come from the leader of the Church, with John present to establish his authority as well.

  • Simon D

    “What are we to make of this silence of John?” I have a problem with the premise that John was silent. The scripture that you have adduced is silent on John, and it records no words from him, but it doesn’t say that John was silent; there is nothing like Luke 2:19, there is no “And John silently took in all these things and pondered them in his heart.” You’re inferring John’s silence from Luke’s silence about John, and I just don’t see how that’s a tenable position.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Silent in scripture, meaning we don’t have his words, not silent all the time. John is silent to us in history at this point in the New Testament.

  • Simon D

    Yes, that’s what I’m saying—but your argument is premised on the idea that John was silent (i.e. a quiet, absorbing type), not that scripture is silent about what he might have said. Your premise is that “[i]n Acts, we see John young, quiet, thoughtful, listening, following, internalizing,” and based on that premise, you argue that “[t]he silence of John is the very silence that allows him to hear the Spirit singing into his soul the words that will reshape our understanding of the origins and composition of everything….” That argument about the utility of “[t]he silence of John” is contingent on the fact of “[t]he silence of John,” which is premised on the claim that “[i]n Acts, we see [the silence of] John” (emphasis added). But that isn’t what we see in Acts. Acts doesn’t say anything like that—the fact on which your argument rests is an inference that you’re taking from Acts’ relative silence about John.

  • Thomas L. McDonald
  • dougpruner

    John silent? What are twenty-one chapters- chopped liver?

    John 1:1 is a favorite quote of the mainstream churches, of course, but what are we to make of his chapter 20?
    “But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of
    God: and that believing, you may have life in his name.” Summing up, he writes after Jesus is glorified, after the other writers are dead, and still calls Our Lord “the son of God”, not “God” or any similar term.
    At about the same time, on Patmos, he hears this from Our Lord: “He that shall overcome, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; and he
    shall go out no more; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name
    of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from
    my God, and my new name.” Rev 3:12, ibid.
    Which should we believe- God’s word, or the traditions of men? (Mt 15:7-9)

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Maybe you should read the piece first.

  • dougpruner

    Looking for??

    A man’s opinion is that John is “silent”; I pointed to 21 chapters of his words.
    B16 “cites a tradition recorded in the apocryphal Acts of John. It depicts the Beloved not as a leader or founder of churches (as were Peter and Paul) but as “a perpetual wayfairer” Tradition of men, not the word of God. (The God whom Mr McDonald says John is to tell us about.)
    “wayfairer” s/b “wayfarer”. Is that B16′s error or the transcriber’s?
    I take your reply to mean that you prefer the traditions of men.

  • RoamingChile

    Thank you for reminding me the be still and know and hear the LORD.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    The piece was specific to the depiction of John in Acts of the Apostles. Reading what I wrote would have made that clear.

    I don’t understand anything else you’re trying to say.

  • dougpruner

    Indeed. “Acts shows us the John who heard this truth, but it doesn’t let us hear him”

    Reading it is how I saw your quote of B16 (what he was called on Catholic sites BTW).

    I’ve been spending some time with newadvent’s Catholic Encyclopedia (I’m interested in history as well as the Bible and God), and they have some interesting and revealing articles on the various apocryphal “Gospels”. A common thread is that people wanted more about their God than they found in scripture, so they wrote various “Acts” to fill in the gaps, as they saw them. John himself wrote. “But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name”, so that means we have enough.

    Now: the Encyclopedia says that at first only the relatively ignorant [does NOT equal stupid] would get involved in these ‘false stories’, as Paul called them. Later–as the Encyclopedia says–their origins became so obscure that the clergy and the Popes took them as gospel (so to speak). I see that hasn’t changed. (A strong claim, I know; I can find the exact article for you if you need it. In the meantime, you can see for yourself what ardent Catholics of a century ago said about the “Protoevangelium of James” in the article on so-called Saint Anne.

    Finally, my point in writing is to encourage people to read the Bible itself–the “Word of God”–and be satisfied with it.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Only the Eastern church ever used the Protoevangelium of James: the Western (Roman) fathers did not accept it. It has never been canon.

    Non-heretical, extra-canonical works illuminate the thoughts of the early community, expressed in pietistic fictions and meditations. They have historical use, despite their noncanonicity. Compared to the flood of heresy unleashed by the Reformation, the writings of early Christian communities are far more useful and less dangerous than the ravings of Luther, Calvin, etc.

  • dougpruner

    From the CathEn article on Anne: “All our information concerning the names and lives of Sts. Joachim and Anne the parents of Mary, is derived from apocryphal literature… and the Protoevangelium of James… In the Orient the Protoevangelium had great authority… In the Occident, however, it was rejected by the Fathers of the Church until its contents were incorporated by Jacobus de Voragine in his “Golden Legend” in the thirteenth century. From that time on the story of St. Anne spread over the
    West and was amply developed, until St. Anne became one of the most popular saints also of the Latin Church.
    “Her feast, under the influence of the “Golden Legend”, is first found [in Europe] (26 July) in the thirteenth century… It was introduced in England by Urban VI, 21 November, 1378, from which time it spread all over the Western Church. It was extended to the universal Latin Church in 1584.” Where it remains. Even further west, if I may say so, is the Canadian province of Quebec, whose patron saint is this same Anne.

    I first came across this during the period of your last Feast of St. Anne. Per EWTN, “Saint Anne, Mother of the Blessed Virgin. Scriptural Saint. Celebration of Feast Day is July 26. Taken from “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.”
    “Scriptural Saint”? All other information from Catholic sites says ‘Protoevangelium NOT part of RCC scripture.’

    So: West? East? Catholic? [in the dictionary sense] Word of God? Traditions of men? Mark 7:6 ff.