Boiled in Oil

By Genelle Austin-Lett and Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


Please tell me where I can find in the Bible that John was boiled in oil. (Some research suggests John was boiled in oil twice and didn't die. He was later exiled to the island of Patmos.)
Jo Ann Hawthorne


Histories of the Christian movement record it. The second persecution of Christians under Domitian, AD 81 lists, "Among the numerous martyrs that suffered during this persecution was Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, who was crucified; and St. John, who was boiled in oil and afterward banished to Patmos. Flavia, the daughter of a Roman senator, was likewise banished to Pontus; and a law was made, 'That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment with renouncing his religion.'"

The first persecution under Nero took place about AD 67. St. Paul and St. Peter were in this group.

The information above is from The Book of Martyrs - Chapter two - The ten Primitive Persecutions.
Genelle Austin-Lett

Mary Jane Chaignot further adds:

Diligent research reveals several authors who refer to "early Church writers" as the source for this story. Supposedly, it was to be found in the Acts of John, an apocryphal book that is roughly 2500 lines long (about the same length as Matthew's gospel). The Acts of John purports to give an eyewitness account of the missionary work of the apostle John in and around Ephesus. It probably dates to the 2nd half of the 2nd century. Although no complete text exists, there are considerable portions in Greek and in Latin. Unfortunately, the actual story of the boiling in oil is not included in any existing text or fragment. But parts of the book are clearly missing, including the beginning of the story. The Acts of John tells how Domitian, upon ascending the throne in 81AD, immediately began persecuting the Jews. They, in turn, accused the Christians, and Domitian turned his attention toward them, committing horrible atrocities against the Christians. He heard of John who was teaching in Ephesus at that time. He sent for him and made him drink poison, which did not hurt him. (But when they tried it on a common criminal, that man died - only to be revived by John.) Domitian was impressed, but he banished him to Patmos. It is thought that Nerva recalled John.

On the way home, John was involved in a shipwreck and landed at Miletus, eventually finding his way back to Ephesus. Tertullian and other Latin writers have made the claim that either Domitian or the Proconsul at Ephesus cast him into a cauldron of boiling oil, which also did him no harm. No Greek text confirms this event. Some early writers claim this happened prior to his banishment to Patmos.

Perhaps one of the more interesting witnesses for this event dates back to the middle of the tenth century. Aelfric, an Abbot of the Benedictine monastery near Oxford (955-1017), included this story in one of his sermons. He did not identify his source, but he was renowned for being a stickler about orthodoxy. He did much to discredit apocryphal materials, yet he told this story. Elsewhere he referred to Jerome, a Church Father, who had written about John in his Ecclesiastical History, and perhaps on that basis used him as an authority for the incident.1

We may never know whether it actually happened, or if it's just an urban legend. We do know, however, that it is not in any of the canonical books.

1 Bremmer, Jan. The Apocryphal Acts of John. Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House. 1995. See pps 185-89.

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