On the surface, two of the most famous disciples of Jesus sound wild and crazy. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, appear to have had serious impulse-control issues (although they weren’t the only disciples to leap before they looked). There’s a story in the gospels about that time James and John got ridiculously ambitious, infuriating the other disciples. But the craziest story about James and John tells how they once volunteered to commit mass murder.
We’ll look at these stories in detail, and then ask what Jesus saw in James and John. People aren’t always what they seem on the surface. So why did Jesus ask them to follow him?
Dropping Everything to Follow Jesus
James and John show up already in Chapter 1 of the gospel of Mark. Jesus is launching his career as a prophet. He goes to the large village of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He calls four fishermen to follow him—Peter and his brother Andrew, along with James and John. And all four walk away from their nice jobs working with their fathers in the family business.
Knowing what we know now in the 21st century about Jesus, it’s easy to forget how weird that was. With the benefit of twenty centuries of hindsight, we know that Jesus would become the most famous human ever to walk the planet. We know he would come to be revered as king of the universe, the God-man. We know a lot of things James and John didn’t.
All they saw was a normal-looking middle-aged Jewish guy (thirty years old in those days was an achievement not everybody could count on). Generally, the Biblical writers agree that there was nothing special about the appearance of Jesus.
And yet he walked into their life, asked them to follow him, and they did. Why?
The way the gospel of Mark tells the story, it looks like he was a complete stranger. But the gospel of John tells a somewhat different story. According to the gospel of John, Peter and Andrew had already met Jesus with John the baptist at the Jordan River. This gospel also mentions an unnamed friend with Peter and Andrew who met Jesus at the same time.
It’s a good bet that friend was either James or John. We don’t know for sure. The gospel of John simply doesn’t say. But most historians would say it’s likely. And it’s very plausible that both James and John were there.
So that provides some explanation for the story Mark tells—when Jesus later came to Capernaum, Peter, Andrew, James, and John all dumped their day jobs and followed after him. He wasn’t a complete stranger. They already knew Jesus a bit.
But even so, it still seems incredibly impulsive. If Jesus walked into your town today and asked you to follow him, would you instantly drop your day job and follow him? Really? Right this minute? Leave your family and friends and go walking around the countryside? Right now?
James and John (and their friends Peter and Andrew) did exactly that. It was a wild and crazy thing to do.
James and John in the Inner Circle of Jesus
It’s very clear in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, that James and John were in the inner circle of Jesus. It seems like every time there’s a major healing to be done, Jesus takes along Peter, James, and John. In the famous transfiguration story on a mountain somewhere, Peter, James, and John are right there with front-row seats.
Curiously, the gospel of John barely mentions James and John at all. You see one mention of “the sons of Zebedee” in chapter 21. And absolutely no mention of their actual names, James and John.
If you believe that John was “the disciple Jesus loved,” then he is mentioned in four stories in the gospel of John. But this gospel never identifies this disciple as John the son of Zebedee, and many scholars don’t think John was this Beloved Disciple. (For more on this issue, see my recent blog post, The Mysterious Disciple Jesus Loved.)
Not Shy and Retiring
James and John don’t seem to be the shy, retiring type in any of the stories we have.
Mark 3 says Jesus called James and John “the sons of thunder.” Mark gives no explanation for this nickname, and it would be very cool to know what prompted that. But it’s clear these two were not church librarians.
Mark 10 tells about that time James and John tried to cut the other disciples out of the running. They asked a favor of Jesus—that when he became king, they would get the seats of power on his right hand and his left. Of course, all the disciples were ambitious. But only James and John had the audacity to ask for such a thing.
Think what they were asking. Jews in the first century expected a messiah to do a military takeover of the planet. Drive out the Romans, crush the Gentiles, set up the kingdom of God. That was the plan among Jewish nationalists in the first century. And James and John wanted to be the one-two punch in the fist of Jesus.
That tells us two things. First, they were crazy ambitious. Second, they didn’t quite get what Jesus was all about. Because as we know, Jesus never did drive out the Romans or crush the Gentiles. Jesus went on to a very different career, but even at this late date in the story of Jesus, James and John were clueless.
The Wannabe Mass Murderers
Luke 9 tells the most whackball story of all about James and John. Jesus and his disciples were on the road to Jerusalem, going by way of Samaria. This was not a safe road. Jews sometimes got killed by Samaritans on the way to Jerusalem.
Jesus and his disciples came to a Samaritan village that dissed Jesus pretty bad. So James and John asked Jesus to let them call down fire from heaven to destroy the village.
That’s mass murder. Jesus was not pleased with this idea. The gospel of Luke says he rebuked them, but it doesn’t give any details. I like to think that Jesus punished James and John by letting them try. I like to imagine they called for fire from heaven—but nothing happened. Over and over again. Think how dumb they would have looked when their curse didn’t work. Of course, we don’t know how the scene really played out, but that’s how I wrote it (with a little literary license) in my novel Son of David.
What Did Jesus See in James and John?
So let’s recap. On their worst days, James and John appear to have been wild and crazy and even awful people. They were not just impulsive. They were ambitious enough to drive the proverbial bus over their friends. And callous enough to try to burn down a village.
Why would Jesus want them following him?
That’s a question we can’t really answer. We don’t have enough information. In mulling it, I’ve decided that yes, James and John could be quite awful people. But I’ve done a few awful things in my life. I can’t honestly say that James and John were any worse than me on my worst days.
And I’m not all that different from anyone else. I can’t see that James and John were any worse than most people I know on their worst days.
But it’s just a fact that nobody is at their worst all the time. My best days are a whole lot better than my worst. Most people’s best days are way better than their worst.
I think we should be charitable and assume that the awful stories in the gospels present some of the worst days of James and John, and not their typical days. If that’s true, then it seems fair to think they had some best days that were much, much better.
And that’s my best guess as to why Jesus wanted James and John as his friends. For those who believe that John the son of Zebedee was the creative genius behind the gospel of John, it will be plausible that he had some much better days.
This blog post is an expansion of a recent video I did on TikTok.