The memory of John sank deep into the heart of the church, and not a few incidents more or less characteristic and probable have been preserved by the early fathers.
Clement of Alexandria, towards the close of the second century, represents John as a faithful and devoted pastor when, in his old age, on a tour of visitation, he lovingly pursued one of his former converts who had become a robber, and reclaimed him to the church.
Irenaeus bears testimony to his character as |the Son of Thunder| when he relates, as from the lips of Polycarp, that, on meeting in a public bath at Ephesus the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus, who denied the incarnation of our Lord, John refused to remain under the same roof, lest it might fall down. This reminds one of the incident recorded in Luke 9:49, and the apostle's severe warning in 2 John 10 and 11. The story exemplifies the possibility of uniting the deepest love of truth with the sternest denunciation of error and moral evil.
Jerome pictures him as the disciple of love, who in his extreme old age was carried to the meeting-place on the arms of his disciples, and repeated again and again the exhortation, |Little children, love one another,| adding: |This is the Lord's command, and if this alone be done, it is enough.| This, of all the traditions of John, is the most credible and the most useful.
In the Greek church John bears the epithet |the theologian (theologos), for teaching most clearly the divinity of Christ (ten theoteta tou logou). He is also called |the virgin| (parthenos), for his chastity and supposed celibacy. Augustin says that the singular chastity of John from his early youth was supposed by some to be the ground of his intimacy with Jesus.
The story of John and the huntsman, related by Cassian, a monk of the fifth century, represents him as gently playing with a partridge in his hand, and saying to a huntsman, who was surprised at it: |Let not this brief and slight relaxation of my mind offend thee, without which the spirit would flag from over-exertion and not be able to respond to the call of duty when need required.| Childlike simplicity and playfulness are often combined with true greatness of mind.
Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, at the close of the second century, relates (according to Eusebius) that John introduced in Asia Minor the Jewish practice of observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan, irrespective of Sunday. This fact entered largely into the paschal controversies of the second century, and into the modern controversy about the genuineness of the Gospel of John.
The same Polycrates of Ephesus describes John as wearing the plate, or diadem of the Jewish high-priest (Ex.28:36, 37; 39:30, 31). It is probably a figurative expression of priestly holiness which John attaches to all true believers (Comp. Rev.2:17), but in which he excelled as the patriarch.
From a misunderstanding of the enigmatical word of Jesus, John 21:22, arose the legend that John was only asleep in his grave, gently moving the mound as he breathed, and awaiting the final advent of the Lord. According to another form of the legend he died, but was immediately raised and translated to heaven, like Elijah, to return with him as the herald of the second advent of Christ.