The Author of the Gospel of John

The Author of the Gospel of John September 1, 2021

I recently wrote a piece on whether or not the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses of Jesus and his ministry. The short answer is that they were not. Out of that came the ubiquitous question, in these contexts, of who the author was for the Gospel of John, and to whom he was referring when he mentions “the beloved disciple” (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”, “the disciple beloved of Jesus”).

Matthew Ferguson states, presenting some background for my piece:

The traditional authors of the canonical Gospels – Matthew the tax collector, Mark the attendant of Peter, Luke the attendant of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee – are doubted among the majority of mainstream New Testament scholars. The public is often not familiar, however, with the complex reasons and methodology that scholars use to reach well-supported conclusions about critical issues, such as assessing the authorial traditions for ancient texts. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk. 1.4Jn. 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Unfortunately, much of the general public is not familiar with scholarly resources like the one quoted above; instead, Christian apologists often put out a lot of material, such as The Case For Christ, targeted toward lay audiences, who are not familiar with scholarly methods, in order to argue that the Gospels are the eyewitness testimonies of either Jesus’ disciples or their attendants. The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure – Jesus Christ – to confirm the faith of their communities.

As scholarly sources like the Oxford Annotated Bible note, the Gospels are not historical works (even if they contain some historical kernels). I have discussed elsewhere some of the reasons why scholars recognize that the Gospels are not historical in their genre, purpose, or character in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament.” However, I will now also lay out a resource here explaining why many scholars likewise doubt the traditional authorial attributions of the Gospels.

My piece will be a quick romp through my thoughts on the authorship and the reference in gJohn.

Let me bullet point this list again:

  1. Almost all of the points that I made in my previous piece are of course relevant here in the context of John’s Gospel.
  2. The date generally agreed upon for the Gospel is in the early 100s CE, too late for the author to be a genuine eyewitness.
  3. The Gospel has dependency on the previous Gospels.
  4. John admits that his account is hearsay – non-eyewitness – by saying in verse 21: 20-24 that it represents a compilation of the testimony of the oft-debated and unnamed “Beloved Disciple” of Jesus. Thus, the key for Christians is to attempt to show that this so-called “Beloved Disciple” is John himself.
  5. The author never declares himself as the Beloved Disciple.
  6. The author speaks in the third person, including in John 21: 24 where he says “we know that his testimony is true”.
  7. Further to the above, the author is included in the “we” who knows that “his” (ie, the Beloved Disciple’s) testimony is true. Thus, grammatically speaking, the claim that John is the Beloved Disciple, as per tradition, is problematic. When the Gospel does use “I”, oddly, it is in opposition to the “Beloved Disciple” references in the third person (such confusion leads many to believe it was written as a group effort, or with many revisions).
  8. New Testament scholar Robert Kysar states concerning the authorship of the Gospel of John (my emphasis): “The supposition that the author was one and the same with the beloved disciple is often advanced as a means of insuring that the evangelist did witness Jesus’ ministry. Two other passages are advanced as evidence of the same – 19:35 and 21:24. But both falter under close scrutiny. 19:35 does not claim that the author was the one who witnessed the scene but only that the scene is related on the sound basis of eyewitness. 21:24 is part of the appendix of the gospel and should not be assumed to have come from the same hand as that responsible for the body of the gospel. Neither of these passages, therefore, persuades many Johannine scholars that the author claims eyewitness status.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, p. 919-920)
  9. Conservative Christian NT scholar Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, is famous for pronouncing the authors of the Gospels as eyewitnesses, though that none of the Gospels were written by a member of the original Twelve. He believes that the gJohn was written by John the Elder, not John son of Zebedee (an Apostle). Bauckham believes that John the Elder was an actual disciple or a companion of Jesus. However, this is based on a statement by Papias. As mentioned in the previous piece, Papias is a source not to be trusted, though an awful lot of Christian tradition is based on his claims.
  10. Interestingly, whilst Bauckham is something of a divine figure himself in conservative Christian circles precisely because he wrote a book that claims that the Gospel authors were eyewitnesses, his actual conclusions are at odds with much conservative Christian academia and claims. For a paper criticising Bauckham’s findings for John the Elder as author, see here (though they argue for John the Son of Zebedee, which has as many issues).
  11. The Gospel and other Johannine works appear to have emerged from a distinct Johannine community (Wikipedia): “For much of the 20th century, scholars interpreted the Gospel of John within the paradigm of a hypothetical “Johannine community“,[24] meaning that the gospel sprang from a late-1st-century Christian community excommunicated from the Jewish synagogue (probably meaning the Jewish community)[25] on account of its belief in Jesus as the promised Jewish messiah.[26] This interpretation, which saw the community as essentially sectarian and standing outside the mainstream of early Christianity, has been increasingly challenged in the first decades of the 21st century,[27] and there is currently considerable debate over the social, religious and historical context of the gospel.[28] Nevertheless, the Johannine literature as a whole (made up of the gospel, the three Johannine epistles, and Revelation), points to a community holding itself distinct from the Jewish culture from which it arose while cultivating an intense devotion to Jesus as the definitive revelation of a God with whom they were in close contact through the Paraclete.[29]
  12. The Gospel is a work of sophisticated Greek and well-developed theology – almost impossible to have come from an uneducated fisherman, for example. Confusing matters, John 21:24 states “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” This makes John the son of Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman, unlikely to be the author. The literacy level of the original Twelve seems to preclude any of them realistically being authors of the Gospels.
  13. At the most charitable to conservative Christians, the Gospel could be a narrative pulled together by later redactors using oral tradition from a source of the Beloved Disciple. This, of course, would accept in all sorts of criticisms of the original veracity of those traditions, and the issues with the accuracy of oral traditions passed down 50-80 years after the events.
  14. Indeed, there is much internal evidence for editing, e.g. (source):The gospel itself shows signs of having been edited. For example, chapters 5 and 6 look like they have swapped places from the original chronology.In chapter 5 Jesus goes to Jerusalem for a festival. He heals a man who was born paralyzed, and gets into an argument with the religious leaders, culminating in his accusing them of not believing Moses.

    As chapter 6 opens, however, Jesus is crossing the Sea of Galilee. He performs “signs”, healing the sick. This is a natural followup to the end of chapter 4, where he has performed his “second sign in Galilee”, but not to the preceding religious dispute in Judea.

    Chapter 7, however, begins with Jesus wanting to stay away from Judea because of threats on his life. This does follow naturally from the conflict of chapter 5.

  15. The original seems to end at Chapter 20, with 21 being commonly recognised as an added epilogue:
    Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.John 20:30-31
  16. This anachronism shows that the writer of John cannot have been a contemporary eyewitness of Jesus (source):

    Everett Ferguson says, in Backgrounds of Early Christianity, pages 461-2, that Rabban Gamaliel II, who was active 80-120 CE, introduced into the Eighteen Benedictions, the curse, “Let the Nazarenes and the heretics perish as in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living and let them not be written with the righteous,” which effectively excommunicated the Christians from the synagogues. That was long after the time of Jesus, so a person who had lived during the mission of Christ would have known that Christians were not at that stage banned from the synagogues. However John contains frequent references to Christians being banned from the synagogues, for example:

    John 9:22: These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.
    John 12:42: Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: says this anachronism is inconceivable as the product of an eyewitness. John must have been written quite some time after Christians became banned from the synagogues, by an author who assumed this always to have been the case.

That should probably do for now. Enough to get on with at any rate.

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