The Moving Word

Writer, Preacher, Bookworm, Student of the Word

Who is the Author of the Gospel of John?


by Richard Mansel

The Gospel of John is a treasure that has enriched the lives of many readers. For the novice it provides an intimate portrait of our Lord while for the seasoned, the “I Am” statements become wells of undetermined depths.

John has opened the shutters on the Lord in ways that no one else has. From his words, we can learn more about our Savior and by extension, His Father. However, before we examine this majestic work and its themes we must consider the pertinent question of authorship.

Determining the author of the Fourth Gospel is a challenging task for the Bible student because to depend on scholars is to wander in the morass of opinion and theory. Raymond Brown puts it this way. “It is notorious that many Biblical scholars are also passionate readers of detective stories. These two interests come together in the quest to identify the author of the Fourth Gospel.” [1]

The Fourth Gospel has taken form among those who dispute the name traditionally given to this work. The problem, as they see it in its purest form, is that the book is silent as to the author’s name and therefore anything after that is purely speculation. Are they correct? I do not think so.

Maybe the author’s silence has a method. To help us determine the authorship of the Fourth Gospel we need to turn to evidence from antiquity. Here our search begins with Irenaeus and his association with his teacher, Polycarp.

The latter was a student of John the Apostle, and Irenaeus has left us some substantial evidence. “Finally, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also lain on his breast, himself published the Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia.” [2] Irenaeus wrote extensively about the Gnostic heresies of the day and would have known the controversies of the Fourth Gospel.

Valentinus, a Gnostic writer, was one of the early writers to speak extensively from John. One of his disciples, Heracleon, may have been the first to actually write a commentary on John. [3] We do not have it extant but from the citations of Origen in his third-century commentary on the Fourth Gospel. [4]

Around A.D. 140, someone published the “Gospel of Truth” which alludes several times to the Gospel. [5] Because of these Gnostic ties some in the early years saw the Gospel of John as heretical. [6]

Brown disputes the veracity of Irenaeus in respect to his witness. It has been suggested that Irenaeus was wrong about Polycarp’s relation to John, as “he was wrong in other instances.” The “instances” he mentions are in relation to Papias. Of him, Irenaeus writes, “Papias, who was a hearer of John and an associate of Polycarp, a fine old man, bore witness to these things in writing, in the fourth book, for there were five books that he compiled.” [7]

Eusebius, though, renounces this outright in his Ecclesiastical Histories 3:39:2 where he, after quoting the previous citation from Irenaeus, points out that Papias claims that he was never a hearer and eyewitness of the Apostles. [8]

Utilizing this evidence Brown writes,

“If Papias knew John only through intermediaries, and Irenaeus was simplifying the relationship between Papias and John, how do we know he was not simplifying the relationship between Polycarp and John? Of course, Irenaeus says that he knew Polycarp personally, while he does not claim to have known Papias. Nevertheless,the fact that Irenaeus would have been very young at the time he claims to have known Polycarp makes confusion at least a possibility.” [9]

Brown’s reasoning is somewhat spurious, it would seem. Ending with the fact that his theory is “only a possibility” says a lot about its usefulness of evidence. First of all, we do not fully know how Irenaeus meant the phrase “hearer of John.” While by no means purporting to be an expert on the writings of Irenaeus, it is at least possible that Papias being a “hearer of John” may mean he was an ardent student of his life.

If so, Polycarp would have been an excellent source of information. If so, it would not have been requisite for Papias to have met the Apostle. Rather, second hand information would have sufficed. Secondly, it is possible that Irenaeus could have been mistaken about Papias. Yet, does it naturally follow that he was also wrong about Polycarp?

Irenaeus’ words and judgments about his mentor would be far more reliable than that he had gained from another source, such as the information on Papias. Thirdly, to say that Irenaeus’ age opens the door to his lack of authenticity is unfair.

Papias is also at the heart of another source of controversy. There is a fragment of Papias recounted by Eusebius where he writes that there was another John, the Elder.
“And I shall not hesitate to append to the interpretation all that I ever learnt well from the presbyters and remember well, for their truth I am confident. For unlike most I did not rejoice in them who say much, but in them who teach the truth, nor in them who recount the commandments of others, but in them who repeated those given to the faith by the Lord and derived from truth itself; but if ever anyone came who followed the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, 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 presbyter John, the Lord’s disciple, were saying.” [10]

From this quote we find that, according to Papias, that there were two Johns at Ephesus. Here he says he heard John, the Presbyter and yet, according to the information stated above, he never met John.

So, according to his testimony, John the Apostle cannot be the author of this gospel. Dionysius later writes that there was a second John who was a presbyter at Ephesus. [11] Brown cites the fourth century document, “Apostolic Constitutions VII 46” in saying that there was a presbyter at Ephesus who was named John and had actually been appointed by John the Apostle. [12]

Brown, though, states that there is not the “slightest positive evidence” for making John the Presbyter the author, despite the evidence of Papias. [13] It is in fact, he writes, a “modern theory.” Others also doubt the testimony of Papias and that of John the Elder being the author of the Fourth Gospel.

F.F. Bruce is one author who has discredited the evidence of Papias. “Papias,” Bruce writes, ” is not the most lucid of writers, and his work survives only in fragments, so it is difficult to be sure of his meaning.” [14]

It may be that John the Elder was a disciple of John and “there was a considerable migration of Palestinian Christians to the province of Asia in the third quarter of the first century.” [15] Yet, to make the leap from there to him being the literary genius of the Gospel is too much.

Carson gives a series of reasons why the evidence of Papias is dubious. [16] First, Eusebius makes a differentiation between apostles and elders with the latter being disciples of the former and, therefore, second-generation Christians. Yet, Papias makes no such distinction. Secondly, it appears that Papias is making two distinct lists here. One of first-generation Christians (“had said”) and of second-generation Christians (“what they were saying”). Thirdly, Eusebius disliked the apocalyptic language of Revelation so to assign its authorship to someone other than the Apostle would be advantageous.

One thing must be noted before passing on this subject. Eusebius while apparently supporting the veracity of Papias, nevertheless, paints him as unreliable and somewhat eccentric. [17] Papias “tells certain marvels and other details which apparently reached him by tradition.” He actually says of Papias that he was a man of “very little intelligence.” [18] So, why he would hold so resolutely to Papias’ accounts as truth and then describe him as a simpleton?

Hengel is the most famous of the John the Elder adherents but some of his proposals are weak. Bauckham recounts Hengel’s views and then provides an answer to how to shore up his proposals. [19] Hengel proposes John the Elder as the author shrouded in mystery. The Elder finds no problem with people assuming John, son of Zebedee wrote the book.

Bauckham feels Hengel’s theory falls apart here as he tries to make concessions to the most popular view. Bauckham writes, “the simplicity of Hengel’s solution is attractive because it adequately explains both the internal evidences of the Gospel and the external evidences about the Gospel, whereas other solutions tend to set internal and external evidence against each other.” [20]

Another less popular theory is that the author is Lazarus. Eller writes: “If all we had was the Fourth Gospel, “John Z (whose name we couldn’t even know) would be nothing but a wild guess — with either ‘Andrew,’ ‘Philip,’ ‘Thomas,’ or even ‘Nathanael’ having better chances of being right.

However, if we take the approach that the Fourth Gospel has to provide its own answer, then there is only one person who comes close to qualifying as the Beloved Disciple. Either the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus or else we don’t have a ghost of a clue as to who is.” [21]

Eller’s main evidence is that in John 11 where we find the following statements: “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (11:3), “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5), “Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” (11:35-36). Eller takes these to mean that Lazarus is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Eller continues with an even greater “leap of faith” that is meant either to get attention by offering a different view or to place tongue firmly in cheek when he proposes Lazarus as the “Apostle to the Jewish intelligentsia.” [22]

Further, Eller looks at 12:9-11 and surmises that Lazarus was a “type of Jesus himself and thus a type of true discipleship.” Then Eller ties 11:23-26 about those who believed in Him not dying to 21:21ff. 23 The problems with this theory will be expounded below.

Others, Carson writes, have believed that John Mark was an option as well as the rich young man of Mark 10:21 and the owner of the upper room, “arguing that the reason he could lay his head on Jesus’ breast was that, as the host, he was placed in a position of honor next to Jesus.” [24]

The problem with these theories is that only the Apostles were at the last supper and we know that the author was there. Therefore, we know it was one of the Apostles who wrote the Gospel of John.

Two options still exist as to the identity of the author of the Fourth Gospel. They are John, the Son of Zebedee and an unknown “Beloved Disciple.” First, we want to examine the pros and cons of the former.

The external evidence of the authorship of John, Son of Zebedee is strong and, to many, the internal evidence is weak.

Traditionally, there was a significant amount of internal evidence equating John, son of Zebedee as the author. Yet, much of this evidence is now currently being disputed. In discussing Johannine studies as a whole, Cribbs remarks that there has been a “continuing reappraisal” of the Fourth Gospel with many coming to the conclusion that John was, after all, the author. [24] We should not be surprised at this because most all of Biblical scholarship is in a period of reevaluation in our postmodern age.

The author of the Fourth Gospel was apparently a Palestinian Jew. He was well-versed in Jewish law and lifestyles. He knew the connection of Elijah with Jewish Messianic expectations (1:21), the low view held of women (4:27), the importance attached to the religious schools (7:15), the hostility between Jews and Samaritans (4:9), the contempt the Pharisees had for ordinary people (7:49), he knew the importance of the Sabbath and the fact that it is unlawful to carry a bed on that day (5:10), and he knew the need to circumcise a child overrode it (7:22f).

As far as being Palestinian, his knowledge of the terrain was very accurate and he includes mention of places like Cana which are mentioned in no other ancient writings known to us. [25]

The author also appears to be an eyewitness. He knew the time of day certain events occurred (1:39; 4:6). His account of the call of the disciples seems to be from an eyewitness (1:35-51) as well as his accounts of the footwashing (13:1-20), visit of Nicodemus (3:1-21), Malchus’ name (18:10), and not to mention chapter 21.

Frequently he shows knowledge of the conversations that the Apostles had among themselves (4:33; 16:17; 20:25; 21:3,7). He also shows knowledge of their thoughts (2:11,17,22; 4:27; 6:19,60). Further, he also knew places where Jesus and the Apostles frequented (11:54; 18:2). Sometimes, he speaks of mistakes they made which were later corrected (2:21f; 11:13; 12:16). Finally, he is so exquisite in his details that he had to have been an eyewitness (19:38-42).

The “Beloved Disciple” is mentioned at the Last Supper, of course. In addition, there are some curious passages that cause us to ponder the author’s intentions. In 1:35 we find the text saying, “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples.” Later in verse 37 we read,” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.” Later, we find that one of them was Andrew. The other is left unnamed.

Then in 18:15-16 we find a curious passage that mentions a disciple who has enough influence to be known by the high priest and to enter into his gate unobstructed. Then in 19:26 he says to the “disciple whom he loved” that his mother, Mary would now be his mother and would live in his home.

A few verses later we find the author saying that he was there and was privy to the matters of the crucifixion and by association the preparations for burial in 19:38ff. Then in 20:2ff he is at the tomb of the Lord. In 20:30-31 we have more proof that the author was there to witness the things that have occurred. Finally, chapter 21 is full of references about the “disciple.”

Concerning these passages, logic does allow John, Son of Zebedee to be the “disciple.” In 1:35-37 Andrew, a disciple of John sees Jesus and is drawn to him. Later he goes to find his brother, Simon. John would not be an unlikely disciple of John the Immerser, having a strong spiritual urgency. That he would be with Andrew is not unlikely, considering they shared the profession of fisherman.

When Jesus called Simon and Andrew He “went a little further” (Matt. 4:21; Mark 1:19) and called James and John. Therefore, they had to be close, not only in proximity but in association and profession and the teachings of John the Immerser and his search for the Messiah in common.

Besides, in 21:2 they were once again fishing together. Likewise, in 18:15-16 it is not surprising that he would be with Peter for the reasons stated above and that they were “work associates” in the fields of the Lord.

In 18:15-16 we find the “disciple” with Peter at the court of the High Priest. Someone may say that a fisherman would not have had such influence. Carson has the view that those who doubt that this could be John have not thought through the matter. John’s family had money and that often breaks down barriers.

Galilee supplied the fish for all of the country except for the coast, and it was brought up to Jerusalem through the Fish Gate (Nehemiah 3:3; Zephaniah 1:10). He notes that it is not “entirely fanciful” that John’s acquaintance with the girl at the gate and with the high priest’s household stemmed from his familiarity with the tradesman’s gate. [26]

What would be the purpose of continually mentioning this unnamed person? Does he simply want a puzzle for people to try to figure out? Or, is it not more feasible that he had honorable intentions for doing so?

An examination of these passages leads me to believe that he wants us to know the identity of this “disciple.” Why else would he mention him so often? If we cannot know his identity, then is he not simply tweaking his audience? If so, would there not have been a danger of this mystery overshadowing the true message of the book, Christ?

One alternative is that he knew his audience would know of whom he spoke. Maybe, the term, “disciple whom Jesus loved” was what he was known as; a nickname, if you will. While this seems odd and trivial, would we not want to be distinguished by the same name?

When a person thinks of himself as being someone that Jesus loved he is not saying that Jesus fails to love anyone else. It is not exclusivity that John maintains. He is simply ecstatic that he is loved by Him. For example, in Galatians 2:20 when Paul says that Christ died for him he is not presuming that Christ did not die for anyone else.

John has a close friendship with Christ and if he is the author and the “disciple” then Jesus thought enough of him to entrust him with his aged mother. Would that not characterize a very close bond? Besides, whatever we make of the phrase, “Son of Thunder,” it may, at the least, characterize a rugged individual who made his living at back-breaking work.

Maybe he had been in some tussles in his earlier years and people knew that of him. If so, then Christ’s changing of His nature and showering love and forgiveness down on him had made him especially appreciative of Christ. So, regardless of the views of others he could not help but express it whenever possible.

“The suggestion betrays a profound ignorance of the psychological dynamics of Christian experience: those who are most profoundly aware of their own sin and need, and who in consequence most deeply feel the wonders of the grace of God that has reached out and saved them, even them, are those who are most likely to talk about themselves as the object of God’s love in Christ Jesus. Those who do not think of themselves in such terms ought to (Eph. 3:14-21).” [27]

Many scholars have said that it seems wholly unnatural for someone to refer to themselves as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” but is it not even more awkward for him to refer to someone else in this fashion?

Brown has an interesting take on this matter concerning his view of a redactor. Maybe the author called himself “the other disciple” and his followers changed it to “Beloved Disciple” when they edited the work. [28] This still does not balance with the internal and external evidence.

We know that the author was at the Last Supper and from the Synoptic account (cf. Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14) only the Apostles were there with Jesus. In the book, the author mentions Peter (1:40-42,44), Andrew (1:40,44), Philip (1:43-46), Nathanael (1:45-49; 21:2), Thomas (11:16), Judas the Greater (14:22), and Judas Iscariot (6:71; 12:4).

Matthew can be eliminated because he is associated with another Gospel. Obscure Apostles such as James the Less and Simon the Zealot can be easily be dismissed and James was executed in Acts 12. Therefore, John is the only one left and by the process of elimination he would be the author of the Fourth Gospel.

Despite this evidence some disagree. Kysar states:

“Many are willing to plead ignorance on this question and confess that there is too little data upon which to build a viable thesis. And that conclusion proves to be the most prudent. Tradition has given us the handy name “John,” but the document itself is silent about its author’s identity. Tradition has further linked the fourth evangelist with John, son of Zebedee, but again the internal evidence for such an association is slim.” [29]

Concerning the internal evidence, which I feel is sufficiently strong, we consider what Tenney says about the matter. “We are not saying that this external and internal evidence constitutes absolute proof [that John, son of Zebedee is the author, RDM].

In the final analysis we accept it by faith, but a faith which is not foolish but takes account of the facts.” [30] There is a lot of wisdom in his statement. Yet, there is one more matter to consider and it is the thematic evidence of the authorship of John, Son of Zebedee.

If John was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and the one who had a close relationship with our Lord, and was entrusted with his mother’s care and was mentioned so lovingly in 21:21ff, we find a motive for his authorship of the Fourth Gospel. While not getting into the controversies of the dating of this gospel we consider that it was published last among the gospels, as it appears to have been.

If so, consider John who felt so strongly for Christ, his Savior and friend. Christ has died and returned to heaven. The other three gospels had been published and were being circulated and heresies were erupting about the nature of Jesus and His deity. Enraged, John sets out to produce a work that would plainly show the deity of Christ and solve the misunderstandings that existed in the day. Once again, motivated out of love and “clearing the name” of Christ, he picks up his quill and begins his labor of love.

He begins with an astounding introduction. Calling Christ the Logos was no small matter. The logos means to “speak or express an opinion” [31] In other words, in the person of Christ we have the “thoughts of God uttered so that men could understand it.” [32] He is the personal word of God. In Him “all the purposes, plans and promises of God are brought to a final focus and an absolute realization (John 14:6).” [33]

From this amazing introduction he sets out the remainder of the book to prove this premise. Jesus is deity. John is building a case not giving a biography which explains his choice of stories and terms. With three other stories of Jesus’ life he did not have to retread that road. Rather, he wanted to give a fresh approach.

It is more a legal brief than a biography. Each of the selections John makes from the life of Christ make his case. The “I Am” statements maybe more than anything else set Christ above the pack of false Messiahs who existed in the day. Finally, the case is culminated in Thomas exaltation, “my Lord and my God!” in 20:28. This is the same reaction that he hopes all of his readers will have as they read his “labor of love.” Read in this manner and with this premise in mind, the book takes on a new perspective. I am the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and you can be too if you will give Him your heart and life, he seems to be saying.

In 20:28-29 we have the “conclusion of the whole matter” which is why 20:30-31 exist. His case has been built, and he is the evidence of its authenticity. “[B]ut these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (“anointed”) the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

Chapter 21 shows that they had a mission that went on past their realization of the deity of Christ. The lost sheep needed to be fed. The knowledge gained in this book needed to be dispersed to the masses.

The controversial passage of 21:20ff also takes on a new light if the point of the chapter is to take the Gospel to the lost of the world. He ends verse 19 with “Follow me.” Then Peter asks a question about something trivial and Jesus says following him should be his main concern.

John then disputes the rumors and legend that had built up that he would not die. We do not know but this controversy may have been hindering his ministry and taking on a life of its own. He may have been gaining followers because they thought 21:22 made him “special.” His focus was Christ and the sooner he ended the controversy, the better. With that said he could, once again, give his final remarks to a great and noble work. As Tenney stated, “never was there a book written that made a higher claim for its ‘hero.'” [34] Truly, it was a labor of love to the “Lord that John loved.”

1 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 1, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman Anchor Bible Series, vol. 29, (New York: Doubleday, 1966), LXXXVII.
2 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1943), 51.
3 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 25.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John, , ed. Ronald E. Clements and Matthew Black New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 28.
7 Ireneaus, “Selections from the Work Against Heresies,” trans.and ed. by Cyril C. Richardson in Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier, 1970), 395.
8 Eusebius, The Ecclestical History, vol. 1, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge: Harvard,1926), 291.
9 Brown, LXXXIX-XC.
10 Eusebius, 291.
11 Dionysius, “Dionysius of Alexandria on the Book of Revelation,” in A New Eusebius trans. J. Stevenson (Cambridge: SPCK, 1957), 255.
12 Brown, XCI.
13 Ibid.
14 Bruce, 53.
15 Ibid.
16 D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 142.
17 Eusebius, 295.
18 Ibid., 297.
19 Richard Bauckham, “The Beloved Disciple as Ideal Author” Journal for the Study of the NT 19 (1993): 22-24.
20 Ibid.
21 Eller, “The Name of the Beloved Disciple,” Part 4,, 3/12/98.
22 Ibid., 2.
23 Ibid., 5.
24 F. Lamar Cribbs, “A Reassment of the Date of Origin and the Destination of the Gospel of John” Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (March 1970): 38.
25 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, ed. F.F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 13.
26 Carson, 74.
27 Carson, Moo and Morris, 148.
28 Brown, XCIV.
29 Robert Kysar, “The Gospel of John,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. G.W. Bromiley(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982): 3:919.
30 Merrill Tenney,ed., The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1967), 441.
31 Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 5 (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishing, 1932), 3.
32 Morris, 75
33 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), 30.
34 Tenney, 441.


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