Bible puzzler: Did John write the Gospel of John?


Who do you think authored the Fourth Gospel?


This follows up on our December 10 item about whether the apostle John wrote the Bible’s Book of Revelation. The Religion Guy will report what some experts say, not what a mere journalist thinks. The full question from seminary graduate Patricia shows she’s familiar with this debate. Bottom line, there’s no simple answer.

The headline sounds like a conundrum. But remember the Gospel text itself names no author; only later did Christians tack on “according to John.” (The other three Gospels, conventionally named for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are likewise anonymous compositions.) However, the tradition that the author was John, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles and thus an eyewitness, was firmly established by A.D. 180.

That’s when Bishop Irenaeus’ work “Against Heresies” said that “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus” (3.1.1). Reinforcing this, it’s quite possible Irenaeus (born circa A.D. 125) learned such things from his hometown mentor Bishop Polycarp (born circa A.D. 70) who in turn had obtained information directly from the apostle John who was his boyhood friend.

Unlike the other three Gospels, the Fourth refers to a writer though without naming him, as “the disciple who had lain close to his breast at the supper . . . This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:20 and 24). Also, the crucifixion narrative says “he who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth” (19:35).

Donald Guthrie of London Bible College represented conservatives’ current consensus. He admitted “it is difficult to be dogmatic” but it’s “reasonable to suppose” John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel. Many figure the writer was most likely a Palestinian Jew, and Guthrie thought incidental details suggest eyewitness sourcing (e.g. six water jars at the Cana wedding, the catch of 153 fish after Jesus’ resurrection).

Conservatives say the Gospel’s authenticity is secure even if, as many now concede, the Bible’s own wordings indicate the chief author worked with others or incorporated earlier testimonies. Bruce Metzger, for one, thought mentions of “we” (as above) indicate collaborators were “involved in composition and authentication.” Such scholars explain that “written” in 21:24 means “cause to be written” alongside others.

Then there’s vigorous debate over whether John the apostle was the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who the Gospel says was present at the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection. Guthrie figured this beloved disciple “may well be” John the apostle but “it is impossible to be sure.” Possible clue: Although John was a key apostle he is not mentioned by name throughout the Fourth Gospel.

Guthrie admitted another of Jesus’ followers could be the writer. Candidates who’ve been proposed include Lazarus, Nicodemus, a totally unknown person, or (the favored option) a different 1st Century John known as “the elder,” who was mentioned by the apostle John’s student, Bishop Papias (born circa A.D. 70) according to later historians.

Turning to the ideological Left, complains about scholars who dismiss the Fourth Gospel as “more or less unhistorical fantasy.” Some suppose Christians simply made up the John attribution to give the book unwarranted apostolic authority. The famously (or infamously) skeptical Jesus Seminar proclaimed that the entire Fourth Gospel contains only one saying that might actually come from Jesus (4:44) and that’s because it shows up in other writings.

A moderate “higher critic,” Catholic Father Raymond E. Brown, saw more authenticity in the Fourth Gospel than prior liberals and thought it provides “early tradition” although the final version is limited as a “scientifically accurate portrait” of Jesus. Like others, Brown thought that “beloved disciple” was an eyewitness and “minor disciple” whose “basic testimony” was used in the Gospel as produced by a hypothetical but plausible “Johannine community.”

More recently, Richard Bauckham of the University of St. Andrews, in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” (2006), offered an intricate case that all four Gospels follow “the testimony of involved participants.” He figured one primary author was “substantially responsible” for the work although others may have been involved. Bauckham said this author was, yes, that “beloved disciple,” but not John or another apostle but Papias’ lesser-known “John the elder.”

Some theorize that the editor(s) took the core of the Gospel and then added the prologue (1:1-28) and epilogue (chapter 21). But Bauckham insisted the author cleverly linked the beginning with the ending as one complete Gospel. Among his arguments: Ancient Jews were fascinated with numbers. In the original Greek, the prologue consists of 496 syllables, the epilogue has 496 words, and 496 is remarkable as both a “triangular number” (the triangle of 31 if you add all numbers from 1 to 31) and a “perfect number” (equals the sum of all whole numbers it can be divided by). Got that?

Liberals have contended the Gospel’s language is too Greek to originate with a Jewish author such as John, but terminology now found in the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls erodes that claim. Some say John’s polemic against “the Jews” means the writer couldn’t have been Jewish, again ruling out John. But conservative F.F. Bruce thought this meant “the other Jews” in the establishment as distinguished from the writer’s own set of Jews.

Whatever the apostle John’s educational level or literary talent, we know he was not lower class, since father Zebedee was wealthy enough to hire fishing crewmen (Mark 1:20). But the question persists whether a mere fisherman like John could have written a Gospel with such poetry, well-developed theology, distinctive style, and flowing discourses from Jesus (that provoke a whole other debate because these sayings are so different from the other three Gospels). Perhaps scholars’ theory of “we” type collaboration helps explain this.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.