A guest post by Timothy McGrew
Great question! I’m a little curious as to how it arose—did your friends raise it? your pastor? someone else?
I am persuaded that the fourth Gospel was written by John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. There are quite a number of reasons for thinking this, and that means that this is going to be a rather long note.
So here’s the short answer:
1. Every scrap of evidence we have from the writings of the early church indicates that the fourth Gospel had always been known to be written by John. And we have lots.
2. A careful examination of the Gospel itself shows that it must have been written by a Jew who was a native of Palestine and an eyewitness of numerous events, including many where only Jesus and the disciples were present. From internal clues, we can pretty safely narrow it down to John.
Now for the long answer.
First, let’s look at the
The first question we should ask when we are investigating the authorship of any ancient book is what people near to the time said about its authorship. Here, starting about 230 years after it was written and then moving backwards, is a list of some of the evidence:
1. Eusebius (~AD 325) classifies it as a book about which there had never been any doubt. He doesn’t do this for all of the books of the New Testament, so that fact is pretty significant. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.17)
2. Origen (~AD 220) testifies that he had learned by tradition that it was the work of “him who reclined upon the breast of Jesus, John who has left behind a single Gospel, though he confesses that he could make so many as not even the world could contain” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25)—indisputable evidence that he thought it was the work of the son of Zebedee.
3. Tertullian (~AD 200) expressly states that the four Gospels were acknowledged to be the work of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ever since the apostolic period (Against Marcion 4.5).
4. The Muratorian fragment (~AD 180) affirms that “the author of the fourth Gospel is John, one of the disciples.”
5. At about the same time, it is named as John’s work by Irenaeus (~AD 180). Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp (see his Letter to Florinus, quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.20), who had in turn heard John himself when he was a young man and John was very old. That’s a pretty short chain of testimony; just one link between Irenaeus and the Apostle John. Irenaeus even remarks (Against Heresies 3.11, 12) that the Gnostic followers of Valentinus made use of the Gospel of John and could be refuted directly from it.
6. A generation earlier (~AD 160), Tatian composed a harmony of the Gospels called the Diatessaron. It begins, “In the beginning was the Word ...”
7. Tatian was a pupil of Justin Martyr, who wrote (~AD 145) that “the memoirs of the apostles, which are also called Gospels,” were read every Sunday in all of the churches. In another place, Justin is a little more precise, calling the Gospels the work of “the apostles and the companions of the apostles,” a description that corresponds precisely to our four Gospels. Justin also quotes from John 3:4-5, a passage not found in any of the other Gospels (First Apology 61), which proves his familiarity with our Gospel of John. (I have about half a dozen pieces of evidence like this for Justin’s use of John, if you’re interested.)
8. An ancient preface to the Gospel of John (the Anti-Marcionite Prologue) refers to a work of Papias (~AD 125), now lost, saying: “The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John, while he was still in the body, as one named Papias, of Hierapolis, a dear disciple of John, has related in his Exoterica, i.e. at the conclusion of his five books.” Many scholars agree that a comment that Irenaeus attributes to “certain presbyters” is from Papias—it is a comment on John 14:2 (“In my father’s house there are many mansions”).
9. The Apology of Aristides, discovered in 1889, was addressed to the Emperor Hadrian, who became emperor in 117 and died in 138. Aristides writes: “It is acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God, and that by the Holy Ghost He came down from heaven for the salvation of men. And that having been conceived of a holy virgin without seed and incorruptibly, He took upon Him flesh, and was manifested to men.” Only John, of the four Gospel writers, uses the expression “... came down from heaven ...” in connection with the incarnation (John 3:13, 6:33, etc.); and only John speaks of Jesus’ human nature as “flesh,” a distinctive term in Greek.
10. The early second century heretic Basilides quotes from John 1:9 and John 2:4. (See the discussion and quotations in Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, book 7.) If the Gospel were not known to be the work of the Apostle John, its early use by heretics would certainly have raised suspicions about it. But every record we have indicates that it was so widely known as to be beyond all doubt.
11. Ignatius (~AD 107), in letters written to the churchs at Philadelphia in Asia Minor (modern day Alaşehir in Turkey) and at Magnesia (modern day Manisia, also in Turkey) gives clear indications of his knowledge of the Gospel of John. (Details available on request.) This is very significant, because this was probably only a decade after the Gospel was written.
These are the primary pieces of early external testimony to the authorship of John, though I could easily double the size of the list by pulling out more obscure quotations from the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, Hermas, Hegisippus, Athenagoras, Polycrates, etc. But they make the point sufficiently clear. There is no other tradition of authorship for the fourth gospel. There is no record of any uncertainty about it at any time; we have one brief mention of some gnostics (not even named) who claimed it was written by Cerinthus, the founder of their heretical sect—but they are mentioned only to be dismissed. It does not appear that any Christian group ever had the slightest doubt about this work.
Next, let’s look briefly at the
Here, we can close in on the question with a series of concentric arguments, starting further out (with facts that limit the authorship somewhat, but not too specifically) and then tightening the description until only John is left. This method of solving the problem was made famous by B. F. Westcott, and I will make use both of his outline and of many of his examples as we zero in on John the son of Zebedee.
1. The author was a Jew.
He is intimately familiar with Jewish opinions and customs:
* The unexplained references to “the prophet” (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15) in John 1:21, 6:14 ff, 7:40 ff
* Jesus’ disclosure of himself as the Messiah and the saviour of the world to the Samaritans, who will not confuse this revelation with Jewish national aspirations, in 4:22-25, 42
* The low popular estimate of women in 4:27
* The Judean disparagement of the dispersion in 7:35
* The popular expectation that the Messiah will remain forever in 12:34
The foundation of his religious thought is Judaism, the chosen people to whom the Messiah came (John 1:11; 2:16; 6:45; 10:35; 14:32; 19:27, etc.).
His Greek is full of characteristics of someone whose native language was Aramaic—the limited vocabulary, the simple syntax, the use of conjunctions (for example, his frequent use of καί for adversative as well as coordinative conjunction, just like the Aramaic ו (vav), as in John 1:5, 10; 3:10, 11, 19, 32; 4:20; 5:40; 6:70; 7:4, 19, 26, 30; 8:49, 55, etc.), all point to this conclusion.
Several times, when he quotes the Old Testament, his quotations are closer to the Hebrew text than to the Septuagint, the Greek translation that the Jews often used in Jesus’ day. See, for example, John 12:14, 15 (quoting Zechariah 9:9), 12:40 (quoting Isaiah 6:10), 13:18 (quoting Psalm 41:9), and especially 19:37 (quoting Zechariah 12:10), where John’s rendering does not have a single word in common with the Septuagint.
2. He was a native of Palestine.
He give us an unerring portrait of distinct role that the hierarchical class (the Sadducees, whom he never calls by their name) played in the religious life and legal deliberations of Judaism. He also shows effortless precision in his knowledge of places and topography:
* Cana of Galilee (John 2:1, 11), from which he went down (2:12), literally downhill, to reach Capernaum
* Bethany beyond Jordan (John 1:28), which is distinguished from the better-known Bethany “near Jerusalem” (John 11:18), itself described with precision as “about fifteen furlongs [two miles] from the city”
* Ephraim “near the wilderness” (John 11:54); the dimensions of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:19; contrast Mark 6:47)
* the view from Jacob’s well, which would include Mt. Gerazim (John 4:20) and the fields of corn (John 4:35)
* the location of the Pool of Siloam (John 9:11) and the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) in Jerusalem
* the fact that Jesus was walking in the Colonnade of Solomon (10:23) at a time of year when this roofed walkway, protected by a wall, would have afforded protection from the winter winds
By these and numerous other details, the author shows himself to be a native who is writing of places he knows personally.
3. He was an eyewitness of many episodes that he records.
The details about persons (John 6:5, 7 (contrast Matthew 14:14 ff), 12:21; 14:5, 8, 22), numbers (two disciples in 1:35; six waterpots, each holding twenty to thirty gallons in 2:6; forty-six years in 2:20; five husbands in 4:18; thirty-eight years of sickness in 5:5; twenty-five furlongs [or three and a half miles] in 6:19; four soldiers in 19:23; two hundred cubits [or a hundred yards] in 21:8; a hundred fifty three fish in 21:11), and times (Passover in John 2:13, 23; the New Year in 5:1; a second Passover in 6:4; the feast of Tabernacles in 7:2; the Feast of Dedication in 10:22; and beyond these, more specific and details marks of date in 1:29, 35, 43, 2:1, 11:1, 12, 13:1, 19:31, 20:1 and time of day in 1:40, 3:2, 4:6, 52, 6:16, 13:30, 18:28, 19:14, 20:19, 21:4) are too numerous and too specific to be the work of someone who is inventing details or passing on oral traditions.
The gospel overflows with details of objects and scenes not found in the other Gospels that are evidently stamped on the memory of the writer. The loaves at the feeding of the five thousand were barley loaves (6:9); when the ointment was poured out for Jesus’ anointing, the house was filled with its fragrance (12:3); the branches strewn at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem were palm branches (12:13); when Judas went out to betray Jesus, it was night (13:30); Jesus’ tunic was without seam, woven from the top throughout (19:23); the head cloth found in the empty tomb was wrapped together in a place by itself (20:7). These are just illustrations; you can find many more instances of the same thing simply by reading the Gospel attentively.
There can be no question of this as a novelistic invention. The modern, historical, realistic novel would not be invented for another sixteen centuries. This superabundance of specific details is utterly unlike the novels of the first and second centuries like Chariton’s Chaeras and Callirhoe or Petronius’s Satyricon. It is clearly the work of an eyewitness.
4. He was one of the “inner circle” among Jesus’ disciples.
Not only is he familiar with scenes where only the disciples are present (their calling in John 1:19 ff; the journey through Samaria in 4:1 ff; the feeding of the five thousand in 6:1ff; the visits to Jerusalem in chapters 7, 9, and 11, etc.), he frequently describes their thoughts, feelings and reactions (2:11, 17, 22; 4:27; 6:19, 60 ff; 12:16; 13:22, 28; 21:12). He knows both what they said to Jesus (4:31; 9:2; 11:8, 12; 16:29) and what they said among themselves (4:33; 16:17; 20:25; 21:3, 5). He knows the places where they would go as a group without the company of strangers (11:54; 18:2; 20:19). He knows the misimpressions they had that were later corrected (2:21 ff; 11:13; 12:16; 13:28; 20:9; 21:4).
And he knows Jesus’ motives and meaning as only one intimately acquainted with him could (2:24 ff; 4:1-3; 5:6; 6:15; 7:1; 16:19).
5. He was John, the son of Zebedee
Throughout the Gospel, we read of one disciple who goes unnamed (e.g. 1:35, 37, 40) but is later described simply as “the beloved disciple.” At the very end (21:24), we are told outright that he was the author. And going back over the places where he is recorded as being present, we find that they are the particular places where the scenes are recorded with particular vividness and detail—the conversation at the last supper, for example, or the scene by the fire at night in the hall at Caiaphas’s house. There is no reason to doubt that this identification of the beloved disciple with the author of the fourth Gospel is correct. But who was the beloved disciple?
From the lists of those present in some of the scenes (1:35 ff; 21:2), including cross references with the Synoptic Gospels, he must have been either Andrew, Peter, James, or John. He cannot be Andrew, since Andrew appears with him in the opening chapter. He cannot be Peter, since he appears with Peter in the closing chapter. James was martyred too early to have written the Gospel (Acts 12:1). By process of elimination, we arrive at the conclusion that he was John.
And once we have come to that conclusion, we can see that there are other indications of it in the text. If it was not John, then why is John—a prominent disciple, according to the synoptics—almost never named in any scene in the fourth Gospel? But if John is the beloved disciple, then this problem does not arise. Again, when he describes John the Baptist in the opening chapter, why does the author say simply “There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John”—not including the descriptive phrase “the baptist” that we find so frequently in the other Gospels, to distinguish him from John the son of Zebedee? Because John the son of Zebedee was the author of the fourth Gospel and, unlike the other evangelists, he had no need to distinguish among various “Johns” in his use of names. When he said “John,” everyone knew who he meant!
I realize that this is a longer note than you were probably looking for. But I hope that you save it and that you will look up some of the passages later and think about them. The evidence, internal and external, is really quite overwhelming. To use a phrase of Paul’s from the book of Acts, “God has not left Himself without witness”—he has provided plenty of evidence!
If you would like to investigate the question in more detail, I recommend the following resources, which you can find free online:
B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1908), especially pp. xi-lii of the Introduction.
J. B. Lightfoot, Biblical Essays (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904), especially the first three essays.