History of John (Syriac)

Historia Iohannis (syriace)

Other Titles: History of John the Son of Zebedee, Story of John the Son of Zebedee

Standard Abbreviations: Hist. John

Clavis Numbers: CANT 222; BHO 468

Category: Apocryphal Acts

Related Literature: Acts of John, Acts of John by Pseudo-Prochorus, Acts of John in Rome, History of Philip in the City of Carthage, Doctrine of Addai

Compiled by: Jacob A. Lollar, Florida State University (jlollar@fsu.edu)

Citing this resource (using Chicago Manual of Style): Lollar, Jacob A. “History of John (Syriac).” e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha. Accessed DAY MONTH YEAR.  http://www.nasscal.com/e-clavis-christian-apocrypha/history-of-john-syriac/.

Posted July 2017.


The History of John is a Syriac legend that follows the mission of the apostle John the son of Zebedee in the city of Ephesus. It was first published in 1871 by William Wright along with several other Syriac apocryphal acts. The earliest manuscript (St. Petersburg, Syr. 4, 6th cent.) purports that the account was translated from Greek by Eusebius of Caesarea. However, R.H. Connolly has confirmed that it was an original Syriac composition, and he confirmed Wright’s original dating of the composition to the mid to late fourth-century. Wright collated the St. Petersburg manuscript with one from the ninth-century (British Library Add. 17,192). Since then, several other manuscripts have come to light including two in Paris (BnF Syr. 235, 1292; BnF Syr. 236, 1193/4), possibly one from the Seert collection (Seert 64), and possibly one from Urmia college (Urmia 103, 1715). Agnes Smith Lewis published a translation of an Arabic version from Mount Sinai and there may be another Arabic version at St. Mark’s Convent in Jerusalem (ms 38* B). There is also a brief story of John the apostle recorded in a manuscript of Mar Isaiah at St. Catherine’s monastery (Sinai Syr. 26), but this text appears to be unrelated to the longer Hist. John.

The legend begins at Pentecost, where John and the other apostles spread out to evangelize. John is commissioned by the Spirit of Holiness to go to Ephesus, “where the primacy and legacy of idol worship was flourishing.” Consequently, a major plotline of the narrative is John’s battle with sacrificial religion in Ephesus. John goes to work at a local bathhouse run by a man named Secundus. This detail, among others, is shared by the Acts of John by Pseudo-Prochorus. While working there, John encounters a young man, Menelaus, the governor’s son, who enters the bathhouse with a prostitute. After warning him against this behavior, John predicts Menelaus’s demise, which comes at the hands of an angel of the Lord. John quells the anger of the governor and the crowd by raising Menelaus from the dead.

John successfully converts the crowd and the governor and baptizes all of them in a newly-constructed baptistry located in the theatre. John builds a hut on a hill overlooking the temple of Artemis and resides there. When the priests of Artemis find out about the conversions, they call the people to sacrifice. When they listen for the voice of the goddess, they hear the voice of Legion, the sister demon to the one from Mark 5, who animates the image of Artemis. The demon tells the priests that no one can withstand John or his God and that the priests should submit to John’s baptism and be converted. The priests follow the order and convert and are baptized, along with the entire city, so that “the city of Ephesus was the first in your gospel before all cities and became a second sister to Urḥāi of the Parthians.” This statement suggests that Hist. John was composed in Edessa. The central theme expounded throughout the narrative, as explored by Klijn, is baptism, for which Hist. John is a witness of an early Syriac rite.

The story ends with Nero learning about Ephesus’s conversion and placing John under arrest. Subsequently, an angel appears to Nero and threatens him into releasing John and leaving the Christians of Ephesus alone. Peter (Simeon Cephas) and Paul come to visit John in his hut, where John composes his Gospel in one hour. The mention of John’s hut may indicate, as Lipsius suggested, that the legend predates the construction of a little church of St. John near the temple of Artemis, which was replaced by the church of Justinian in the sixth century. The St. Petersburg manuscript also contains the more complete version of the Doctrine of Addai, with which Hist. John shares thematic, linguistic, and theological continuity. Aside from being thoroughly Trinitarian in theology, Hist. John contains early Syrian baptismal rites and appears to predate the christological controversies of the fifth-century.

Named historical figures and characters: Antoninus (of Ephesus), Artemis, Epiphanius (of Ephesus), Fortunatus (of Ephesus), James (the Righteous), Jesus Christ, John (son of Zebedee), Lazarus, Legion, Luke (evangelist), Marcellus (of Ephesus), Mark (evangelist), Mary (Virgin), Matthew (apostle), Menelaus, Moses (patriarch), Nero, Paraclete, Paul (apostle), Peter (apostle), Satan, Secundus (bathkeeper), Tyrannus, Widow of Nain.

Geographical locations: Antioch, Asia, Edessa, Ephesus, Galilee, Jerusalem, Mount Nebo, Phrygia, Rome.


2.1 Web Sites

“New Testament Apocrypha,” Syri.ac: An annotated bibliography of Syriac resources online. Administrators: Jack Tannous and Scott Johnson (contains several resources on Hist. John, but does not have a full bibliography or textual history).


3.1 Manuscripts and Editions

3.1.1 Arabic

Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Arab. 539, fols. 96v–106v (1579)

Jerusalem, St. Mark’s Convent, 38* (B)

Lewis, Agnes Smith. Acta Mythologica Apostolorum. Horae Semiticae 3. London: C.J. Clay and Sons, 1904 (Arabic text based on Sinai Arab. 529, pp. 134–44).

3.1.1 Syriac

St. Petersburg, Imperial Library, Syr. Ms 4, fol. 38v–74v (6th cent.)

London, British Library, Add. 17192, fol. 282v–310v (9th cent.)

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Syr. 236 (1193/1194)

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Syr. 235 (1292)

Urmia, Oroomia Mission Library, 103 (1715) ~ now lost

Siirt, Chaldean Episcopal Library, 64 (16th cent.) ~ now lost

Wright, William. Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles in Syriac. Vol. 1: The Syriac Texts. London: Williams and Norgate, 1871 (edition based on St. Petersburg, Syr. 4 and British Library, Add. 17192, pp. 4–65).

3.2 Modern Translations

3.2.1 English

Wright, William. Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles in Syriac. Vol. 2: The English Translation. London: Williams and Norgate, 1871 (English translation based on St. Petersburg, Syr. 4 and British Library, Add. 17192, pp. 3–60)

Lollar, Jacob. Ph.D. Dissertation, Florida State University. Forthcoming.

Lewis, Agnes Smith. The Mythological Acts of the Apostles. Horae Semiticae 4. London: C.J. Clay and Sons, 1904 (English translation based on Sinai Arab. 529, 157–67; introduction pp. xxxii–xxxiii).

3.3 General Works

Buchinger, Harald. “Liturgy and Early Christian Apocrypha.” Pages 361–77 in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha. Edited by Edited by A. Gregory, T. Nicklas, C. M. Tuckett, and J. Verheyden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Connolly, R.H. “The Diatessaron in the Syriac Acts of John.” JTS 8 [32] (1907): 571–81.

____________. “The Original Language of the Syriac Acts of John.” JTS 8 [30] (1907): 249–61.

Culpepper, R. Alan. John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

Desreumaux, Alain. “Les Apocryphes Apostolique.” Pages 78–82 in Études Syriaques 2: Les Apocryphes Syriaque. Edited by M. Debié, A. Desreumaux, C. Jullien, and F. Jullien. Paris: Guethner, 2005.

Baumstark, Anton. Geschichte der syrischen Literatur: mit Ausschluß der christlich-palästinensichen Texte. Bonn: Verlag, 1922 (list of manuscripts, p. 68 n. 6).

Horn, Cornelia B. “Lines of Transmission Between Apocryphal Traditions in the Syriac-Speaking World, Manichaeism, and the Rise of Islam: The Case of the Acts of John.” ParOr 35 (2010): 337–55.

Junod, Eric, and Jean-Daniel Kaestli. Acta Iohannis. 2 Vols. CCSA 1–2. Turnhout: Brepols, 1983 (vol. 2, pp. 705–17).

Klijn, A. F. J. “An Ancient Baptismal Liturgy in the Syriac Acts of John.” NovT 6 (1963): 216–28

Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction. Waco: Baylor, 2008 (pp. 42–43).

Leloir, Louis. “Rapports Entre Les Versions Arménienne et Syriaque Des Actes Apocryphes Des Apôtres.” Pages 137–48 in Symposium Syriacum 1976. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1978.

Lipsius, Richard A. Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden. 2 vols. in 3 parts. Braunschweig, 1883–1890 (see vol. 1, pp. 433–41).

Macmunn, V. C. “The Menelaus Episode in the Syriac Acts of John.” JTS 12 (1911): 463–65.

Murray, Robert. Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition. Piscataway: Gorgias, 2006 (p. 37).

Whitaker, E. C. Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy. London: SPCK, 1970 (pp. 21–23).