Who Wrote John’s Gospel?

Posted by on Mar 10, 2006 in Blog | 6 comments

Who wrote John’s Gospel? James Charlesworth says, “The apostle Thomas.” Ben Witherington believes it was Lazarus. And Esther de Boer contends the author of John’s Gospel was Mary Magdalene! Many others believe the author was in fact a committee of unknown authors, editors, and redactors—the Johannine community. The traditional view of the Church has been that this is the “Gospel according to John,” John the apostle, that is, as in John the son of Zebedee. How can reputable scholars dealing with the same evidence come to such drastically different conclusions? And where does the evidence really point?

In several publications, I have surveyed the external and internal evidence with regard to Johannine authorship. I have documented that the Church, from the second century until around 1790, has universally held that the apostle John wrote the Gospel that bears his name. When the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel was questioned, and the tide turned against Johannine authorship, this occurred not because the evidence supported a different outcome, but because in the wake of the Enlightenment scholars reacted against traditional ecclesiastical dogma, and Johannine authorship became one of the many casualties of critical scholarship.

One important internal datum from the Gospel is that “the disciple Jesus loved” (i.e. the author of the Gospel; compare John 21:24 with 21:20–23) is consistently paired with the apostle Peter (see John 13:23–24; 18:15–16; 20:2–9; 21:1–8, 15–23). This clearly points to the apostle John, as it is this disciple who is consistently paired with Peter elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Luke 5:8–10; 22:8; Acts 1:13; 3–4; 8:14–25; Gal. 2:9). Also, note that John the Baptist, who in the other Gospels is called “John the Baptist” or “the Baptist” or “Baptizer,” is called simply “John” in this Gospel—which is possible because the apostle John remains unnamed.

Now Witherington (BAR 32/2 [2006]: 24) believes the author of John’s Gospel cannot be John the son of Zebedee because the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in John 21:2 (and Bauckham says the same). I would respond that, in fact, this reference considerably narrows the pool of candidates for “beloved disciple,” who is mentioned later in the same narrative (John 21:7) and hence must be one of the 7 disciples referred to in John 21:2 but was obviously not Simon Peter, Thomas, or Nathanael, so that he must have been either one of the sons of Zebedee (but not James who was martyred early) or one of the two other disciples not mentioned by name.

As I have demonstrated in a recent essay, most likely “disciple whom Jesus loved” should be understood as an expression of authorial modesty, similar to the word “I suppose” in the last verse of the Gospel (John 21:25). This, as well as the author’s practice of talking about himself in the third person singular or first person plural, is in keeping with first-century historiographical practice. There is therefore no reason to overturn the long-standing belief, held by the Church through most of its history, that the author of John’s Gospel was the apostle John, the son of Zebedee.

For further study see the following writings by Dr. Köstenberger: “Introduction to John’s Gospel” and “Early Doubts of the Apostolic Authorship of the Fourth Gospel in the History of Modern Biblical Criticism,” Chapters 1 and 2 in Studies in John and Gender; Chapter 1 in Encountering John; John (BECNT), pp. 6–8; and  “ ‘I Suppose’ (oimai): The Conclusion of John’s Gospel in Its Literary and Historical Context,” in The New Testament in Its First Century Setting (ed. P. J. Williams et al.; Eerdmans, 2004), 72–88.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you. It makes total sense to me that John authored the fourth Gospel. Also, it was John’s style to not name the “disciple Jesus loved” and to identify him as such at the end of the gospel. It is obvious that Lazarus could not have been the author as he was named 15 times throughout the gospel. In addition, the “disciple Jesus loved” was at the last supper as one of the 12 (as evidenced in John 13:23) yet Lazarus was not there, as only the twelve were present. So he could not be the one to write the Gospel.

  2. I think that John Mark may have been the author of John.

  3. So Mollie, you don’t think that the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit could allow for such language? Plus, since they had servants to carry on their work, John was obviously not some poor fisherman and would have had access to education. Not to mention, if t wad written late in the first century, he would have had time to learn and develop the theology found in the Prologue of John.

  4. So you find it possible to believe that abstract, poetic pieces about the ‘Word’ existing from the beginning – or long discourses about the mystical oneness of human beings and ‘the Father’- were written by a Galilean fisherman who apparently mended fishing nets.

    Personally I can’t believe this at all. I was about fifteen years old when I realised the language of Jesus in John’s gospel was suspiciously like the language in the letters of John and not at all like the usual language of Jesus we are presented with elsewhere in the gospels. That starts the ball rolling at least…

  5. I believe the Gospel of John was written by Lazarus. No other person in scripture except Lazarus is mentioned specifically as “he whom You love” (11:3). Jesus wept for no other person in scripture (11:35) and the disciples said about no other person in scripture, “See how He loved him” (11:36). This to me is a non-arguable conclusion that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2,4,8; 21:7,20,24) was Lazarus. I conjecture that Lazarus probably was also the “another disciple” who was known to the high priest (18:15-16). This changes nothing in the content, meaning and wonderful truths about Jesus in the Gospel of John, but simply identifies the real author of the book.

  6. Spot on! I wonder though, convinced of Johainne authorship, what do you make of the attempted datings of John? 90, or 70AD?

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