Authorship of the Gospel of John
In this paper, I want to discuss the authorship of the Gospel of John. Some will question the validity of such an effort. They will say that it does not matter who wrote the words, but what is written is important. It is true that the Gospel as it stands is anonymous. The caption in some Bibles – The Gospel according to John is not a part of the ancient biblical text. This title was attached to the letter when the four Gospels were gathered together and began to be circulated, in order to distinguish it from the other three. However, there is a big difference in authorship to say that the writer was an eyewitness, like John the apostle, or to say that it was written by a second century person who never set his eyes on Jesus. Therefore, there is some value to pursue this subject. Traditionally, the apostle John is viewed as the author. However, it is interesting that the fourth Gospel never mentions the apostle John by name from beginning to end.
II. INTERNAL EVIDENCE FOR AUTHORSHIP
The person who wrote the letter is described in two ways in the book.
First, he describes himself as personal witness of Jesus, like in John 19:35:
35The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
Moreover, this disciple ends the book like this in John 21:24.
24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
Second, the Gospel speaks of the disciple whom Jesus loved. He is described in this way in several locations. When Jesus had the “Last Supper” with his disciples, he was next to Jesus in John 13:23-25.
23One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
25Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Furthermore, at the cross Jesus committed the care of his mother to this disciple in John 19:25-27.
25Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” 27and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
He is again described this way in John 20:2
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
This disciple is also at the last resurrection appearance recorded in the Gospel in John 21:7 & 20.
7Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”)
In the context of John 21, we learn that the writer was one of a group of seven men who went fishing together. Three are mentioned by name: Simon Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael. The remaining four were the two sons of Zebedee and the two who were unnamed. The one “whom Jesus Loved” must have been one of the last four. Again, verse twenty positively identified him with the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper (13:23). Mark 14:17 reveals that it was only the apostles who joined Jesus for this meal. Therefore, the writer was one of the twelve apostles, and one of the inner circle of friends associated with Jesus. It is clear that the author of the fourth Gospel was a contemporary of Jesus, who associated with him on intimate terms, and was present with him at most of the major crises of his life.
Moreover, Leon Morris points out areas where the writer revealed his knowledge of the apostles.
The writer of this Gospel had a good knowledge of the apostolic band. He recalls words the twelve spoke among themselves (4:33; 16:17; 20:25; 21:3, 7). He shows knowledge of their thoughts on occasion (2:11, 17, 22; 4:27; 6:19, 60f). He knows places they frequented (11:54; 18:2). Sometimes he speaks of mistakes they made which were later corrected (2:21f; 11:13; 12:16). If he were one of their number all this would fall into place.1
There is also some other internal evidence about the author. He was accustomed to thinking in Hebrew although he wrote in Greek. Notice how he inserts Hebrew or Aramaic words and then gives explanations (5:2; 9:7; 19:13,
17). He was familiar with Jewish tradition concerning the expectation of the Messiah (1:19-28). He mentions three Passovers (2:13, 23; 6:4; 13:1; 18:28). And maybe referring to another one in 5:1. He is familiar with Jewish customs and habits of thought like: questions of purifying (3:25; 11:55), burial customs of the Jews (11:38, 44; 19:40), and Jewish views concerning women (4:27), the law against leaving dead bodies on the cross over the Sabbath (19:31), the prejudice between the Samaritans and the Jews (4:9). Apparently he was quite at home in the country he described because of the following: knew that Jacob’s well was deep (4:11), knew there was a descent from Cana to the Galilean Sea (2:12), distinguished between the two Bethany’s (1:28; 11:18), knew of the city of Ephraim (11:54) of Aenon (3:23), or Bathsaida (1:44; 12:21) and about Mount Gerizim (4:20). The topographical references in the Gospel indicate an acquaintance with the land.
Frank Pack in his commentary on the Gospel of John adds this insight on the author’s use of the Old Testament.
While the author quoted the Old Testament (27 times) less than Matthew (124 times), Mark (70 times), or Luke (109 times), he knew Old Testament themes and background. In quoting he often followed the Septuagint Greek text, but in places he used the Hebrew, and in other passages he seemed to quote the Palestinian Targums (Aramaic translations). The prophets were used authoritatively (6:45) “and scripture cannot be broken” (10:35). Abraham (8:56), Moses (5:46), the uplifted serpent in the wilderness (3:14), Jacob’s vision at Bethel (1:51), Jacob’s well (4:5ff.), the manna given in the wilderness (6:31-33), the Passover sacrifice with no bones broken (19:36) were all referred to. He spoke of Palestine as Jesus’ “home” and the people of Israel as “his own people” (1:11). The figures of the good shepherd (10:1-18) and the vine (15:1-6) recall Old Testament figures of God’s relationships to Israel. Passages from the Psalms (22:15, 18; 34:20; 35:19; 41:9; 69:4, 9, 21) and passages from Isaiah (6:10; 40:3; 53:1; 54:13) and Zechariah (9:9; 12:10) were quoted as fulfilled in Jesus and his ministry. Similarities between Genesis 1 and John 1:1-18 can be seen, and relationships between the Prologue and the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament have been found. Many parallels between the exodus experience of Israel and this Gospel can also be seen. The Old Testament forms the background for understanding the significant “I am” sayings in John. The author knew the Old Testament well.2
With all of this being said, the internal evidence is in favor for the writer to be the apostle John. Coy Roper in his Notes on the New Testament states the following on the authorship of the book.
Had to be one of the apostles, because they were the only ones present when Jesus announced that one would betray Him. Mk. 14:17. It seems most likely that it would have been Peter, James, or John. Mk. 14:33. It was not Peter, because Peter is named in the fourth gospel. Jn. 13:24; 20:2; 21:20. It was not likely to have been James, because of his early death. Acts 12:2. It is interesting that John the apostle is not mentioned by name in this gospel. And that “John the Baptist” is just called John. Why? Perhaps because it was not necessary to distinguish him from John the apostle, since John the apostle was the author of the gospel. John the apostle would be a suitable author from the standpoint of the characteristics of the book: It claims to be written by an eyewitness (Jn. 21:24) and the book bears evidence of this. John was an eyewitness. It also appears to have been written by a Palestinian. John was a Palestinian. And by a Jew. John was a Jew.3
Furthermore, Merrill C. Tenney adds this thought.
Jesus’ committal of Mary to the beloved disciple is more easily understandable if he were John. According to Matthew’s narrative, one of the women who witnessed the crucifixion was the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 27:56). A comparison with John 19:25 and Mark 15:40 establishes with a high degree of certainty that she was Salome, the sister of Jesus’ mother. John was therefore, the first cousin of Jesus and nephew of Mary. As the nearest male relative who was a believer, it would be natural for John to undertake the care of his aunt.4
III. EXTERNAL EVIDENCE FOR AUTHORSHIP
The early church history testifies that the apostle John, brother of James and son of Zebedee, was the writer of the fourth Gospel. The external evidence for the fourth Gospel is impressive. The earliest known fragment of any part of the New Testament is a tiny papyrus fragment containing words from John 18, and is dated about AD 130. This ancient portion of the Gospel can be seen in John Rylands University Library in Manchester, England.
One principle witness of the early church who said that the fourth Gospel was written by John was Irenaeus. He wrote around AD 177. He not only spoke of the Gospel as being authoritative but said this about the author.
John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leant upon his breast, himself published the gospel in Ephesus, when he was living in Asia.5
Irenaeus attached importance to reliable Christian tradition. For example, Polycarp who is said to be a disciple of John the apostle is said to have quoted from the fourth Gospel. Irenaeus has this to say about his association with Polycarp.
I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which have taken place recently, for what we learn as boys grows up with our lives and becomes united to them. So I can describe for you the very place where the blessed Polycarp sat and discoursed, how he came in and went out, his manner of life and his bodily appearance, the discourses which he used to deliver to the people, and how he would tell of his converse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what things he had heard from them about the Lord, including his mighty works and his teaching.6
Clement of Alexandria AD 200 also speaks of John as the author. Frank Pack in is commentary on John says this about Clement:
Clement of Alexandria reported that after the death of Domitian the apostle returned from Patmos to Ephesus (Who is the rich man? 42; Eusebius, Church History III. xxiii. 5, 6). In his Hypotyposeis Clement preserved the tradition that this Gospel was written last, John, last of all, conscious that the outward (lit. bodily) facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged by his disciples, and, divinely approved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel (Eusebius, Church History VI. xiv. 7).7
Furthermore, the Muratorian Canon (circa AD 170-180), which contains a list of New Testament books compiled in Latin states:
John, one of the disciples, wrote the Fourth Gospel. When his fellow disciples and the bishops urged him to do so, he said, ‘Join me in fasting for three days, and then let us relate to one another what shall be revealed to each.’ The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles that John write down everything in his own name, and that they all should revise it.8
The Muratorian Canon goes on to state:
And therefore, although varying principles are taught in the several books of the gospel, yet it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since everything is set forth in them all by one directing Spirit, concerning the Lord’s nativity, his passion, his resurrection, his converse with his disciples and his twofold advent – first in lowliness, without honour, which is past; secondly in royal power and glory, which is yet future. No wonder, then, that John so explicitly lays claim in his letters also these experiences one by one, saying of himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have touched this is what we have written.’ Thus he claims not to be a spectator and hearer only but also a writer of all the Lord’s wonders in due order.9
Moreover, another piece of evidence is a man by the name of Polycrates. Tasker in his book on the fourth Gospel records this about him:
Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, in a letter to Victor, bishop of Rome, which is usually dated about AD 190, states that ‘John who reclined on the breast of the Lord’ was a witness (martus) and a teacher’.10
Furthermore, not surprisingly because of its content, the Gospel of John was known and read by Gnostic writers of the second century. According to Leon Morris:
There can be no doubt about the Gnostic use of John. It appears to have been the favorite Gospel among the Gnostics. The first commentary on it was written by the Gnostic Heracleon. The Chenoboskion literature shows that John was widely used and highly esteemed by the Gnostics.11
IV. ARGUMENTS AGAINST JOHN THE APOSTLE BEING THE AUTHOR
Some in the early days of church history did not accept Johannine authorship.
Frank Pack says:
Irenaeus mentioned certain persons rejecting it because in the Gospel the Lord promised the Comforter and they denied the giving of the Holy Spirit (Against Heresies III. xi.9). Epiphanus wrote of a group whom he called the Alogoi because they rejected the writings of John in their opposition to the concept of the Word (Logos), and attributed the Gospel and the Book of Revelation to the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus (Panarion 51).12
However, concerning the Gnostic Cerinthus, William Barclay says:
Eusebius (3:28) tells another story of John which he got from the works of Irenaeus. We have seen that one of the leaders of the Gnostic heresy was a man named Cerinthus. ‘The apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, when he learned that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from his place and rushed out the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. He advised those who were with him to do the same. ‘Let us flee,’ he said, ‘lest the bath fall, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.’ 13
Moreover, radical criticism has tried to apply a late date (second century or later) to John because they feel the content of the book deals with the development of Gnosticism. But Burton Coffman has this to say concerning this:
Twentieth century archaeological discoveries have proved completely the unsoundness of ascribing Gnostic influences as sources of the lofty thought of the gospel. In fact, it is the other way around, as Unger said, ‘Gnosticism is much later than the gospel of John… the Gnostics based much of their teaching on the gospel!’ Abraham Malherbe stated flatly that ‘The literary evidence does not therefore support the Gnostic theory.’14
Nonetheless, there is some question about the apostle John and a reference by Papias, about another John called the presbyter or elder John. Papias was a bishop of Hierapolis, who was born AD 70 and died about AD 146. He was a contemporary of Polycarp and may have been a student of John.
Eusebius quoted Papias as saying, ‘If anyone came who had followed the elders, I inquired into the words of the elders, what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples had said and what Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord, are saying. For I did not consider that the accounts from books could have the same value for me as the words of a living and abiding voice’ (Church History III. xxxix. 4). Eusebius understood from Papias that there were two John’s in Asia, one the apostle, and the other ‘the elder John.’ He also cited a story of two tombs in Ephesus from comments of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (247-264), whom he quoted, ‘But I think there is a certain other John of those who were in Asia, since it is said that there are two tombs in Ephesus and that each one is said to be John’s’ (Church History VII. xxv. 16). Eusebius regarded the apostle as the author of the Gospel, but ascribed the book of Revelation to the elder John. 15
However, others have thought that this “elder John,” rather than the apostle John is the author of the fourth Gospel.
Conversely, Carson, Moo & Morris state that this appeal to Papias is precarious for the following reasons:
1. It is now widely recognized that whereas Eusebius makes a distinction between apostles and elders, understanding that the later are disciples of the former and therefore second generation Christians, Papias himself makes no such distinction. In the terms of Papias, ‘the discourses of the elders’ means the teaching of Andrew, Peter, and the other apostles. It is Eusebius who elsewhere writes, ‘Papias, of whom we are now speaking, acknowledges that he received the discourses of the apostles from those who had been followers’ Transparently, that is not what Papias said.
2. In the Papias quotation John is designated ‘the elder’ precisely because he is being grouped with the elders mentioned, that is, with the apostles. It is worth noting that ‘apostle’ and ‘elder’ come together with a common reference in I Peter 5:1. Indeed, the Greek syntax Papias employs favors the view that ‘Aristion and John the elder’ means something like ‘Aristion and the aforementioned elder John.’… In choosing to refer to apostles as elders, Papias may well be echoing the language of 3 John (on the assumption that Papias thought that the epistle was written by the apostle John).
3. It appears that the distinction Papias is making in his two lists is not between apostles and elders of the next generation but between first generation witnesses who have died (what they said) and first generation witnesses who are still alive (what they say). Aristion, then, can be linked with John, not because neither is an apostle, but because both are first generation disciples of the Lord. And this supports witness of Irenaeus, who says that Papias, not less than Polycarp, was a ‘hearer of John.’
4. In any case, Eusebius had his own agenda. He so disliked the apocalyptic language of Revelation that he was only too glad to find it possible to assign its authorship to a John other than the apostle, and he seizes on ‘John the elder’ as he has retrieved him from Papias.16
It certainly is possible for the apostles also to be called elders. Peter does refer to himself as an elder. We know from I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that elders in the New Testament sense were married men. And in I Corinthians 9, where Paul is making a case for Christian liberty, and how that he and Barnabus have the right to have believing spouses; he makes it clear that the majority of the apostles were married men. I guess we could also assume that they would have children as well.
Nonetheless, it is not clear that when Papias mentions a “John the elder” that he is talking about two different people.
Another objection raised against the John’s authorship is based upon stylistic unity of the book, and choice of words used in the book. It has been argued in the past that a Palestian could not write such fluent Greek. However, it has been determined that the populace was at least bilingual, and in some cases trilingual. Furthermore, it is argued that the apostle John would not describe himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Some believe that this implies exclusivism, or at least that this would be a statement made by some one else about another disciple. Conversely, the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20 says that Jesus loves him and gave himself for him. When an early Christian said that Jesus loved them it did not suggest that Jesus did not love others as well. It could also be argued, that John describes himself this way in order not to draw attention to himself but rather to focus on the one he serves. John meant to bring praise to the lover and not to the loved. Others have said that John made reference to himself in this indirect manner, on the ground that the use of this title is an expression not of pride but of gratitude for special privileges. Jesus did have an inner circle of friends (Peter, James and John); what would be wrong if John was the closest friend that Jesus had on earth?
Some believe that the book is a product of a “Johannine community”. The expulsion theory for the Johannine community basically says that the synagogue gradually began to view the Christian movement as a clearly distinguishable rival. The tension ultimately resulted in the exclusion from the synagogue of those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. This belief leans heavily on three verses in the Gospel record: 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2. Therefore, some believe that the Gospel was produced over a period of time in reaction to problems faced by the community. Therefore, there was not one author but several authors, such theories maintain pseudonymity of the authorship of the book.
For example, Sandra M. Schneiders explains her thoughts of the Johannine community in this way.
The Beloved disciple is neither a pure literary symbol nor a single historical individual nor an undifferentiated collective such as ‘the Gentile Church.’ The Beloved Disciple is a textual paradigm who concretely embodies in the text the corporate authority of the Johannine School which rests on the eyewitness testimony of one or some of its members.17
Furthermore, H. M. Jackson says:
The consensus of critical opinion that the ‘we’ in John 21:24 is represented…in the form of a Johannine speaking as theological successors of the deceased Beloved Disciple.18
However, one major criterion used by the early church to determine canonicity was authorship. The books were usually written by an apostle, or someone who was a close associate with an apostle, like Mark or Luke. It would be difficult to prove how a book could be accepted as canonical without the early Christians recognizing the author’s authority.
From the second century onwards the overwhelming evidence of early Christian writers is that the apostle John was the author of the fourth Gospel. The assumption that scholars in the twenty-first century are better able to determine the authorship of the fourth Gospel, than men in the second century is very arrogant. Those who were closer to the time of original text of the book gave it a place in the sacred canon. They no doubt believed that the author had the authority to write a book that would be circulated among Christians for centuries to follow. Bible believers, on the basis of reasonable and credible evidence can accept that the fourth Gospel was written by the one whose name it bears and that “his witness is true!” (John 21:24.) Thus there is no likely alternative to the view that the fourth Gospel was written by John the apostle.
1 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 16.
2 Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John Part 1 (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1975), 15.
3Coy Roper, Notes On The New Testament (Florence: Heritage Christian University, 1995), 36.
4Merrill C. Tenney, John The Gospel Of Belief (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 302.
5William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 1 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 20.
6F.F. Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1983), 11.
7 Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John Part 1 (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1975), 8.
8 F.F. Bruce, The Gospel Of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1983), 10.
10R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Company, 1976), 17.
11Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1971), 22.
12Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John Part 1 (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1975), 8.
13 William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 1 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 18.
14James Burton Coffman, Commentary On John (Abilene: A.C.U Press, 1974), 8.
15Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John Part 1 (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1975), 9,10.
16D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction To the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 142,143
17 Sandra M. Schneiders, New Testament Studies an International Journal (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, Oct. 1998 Vol 44n), 527
18H. M. Jackson, The Journal of Theological Studies (Huddersfield, Oxford University Press, April, 1999 Vol 50 Part 1), 12