Monday, March 26, 2007

Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

Who wrote the Fourth Gospel?

I've been working on my lecture on John for my Intro to New Testament class. I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the weight of the earliest testimony regarding the question of authorship.

Clearly the unanimous testimony of the early Church was that John the Apostle wrote the book. Two of the clearest references are found in Irenaeus and the Muratorian fragment.

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3. 3. 4: “Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

Muratorian Canon: The fourth of the Gospels, that of John, (one) of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops urged him, he said: Fast with me from today for three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us relate to one another. In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that, whilst all were to go over (it), John in his own nameshould write everything down.

Other writers who support this view include Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.

In addition, we should note that there is absolutely no manuscript of the Gospel which attributes authorship to anyone else. I think this is too often overlooked.

But does the testimony of the early Church fit the internal evidence? I think so.

1) Eye-witness status of the author. It seems to have been written by someone claiming to be an eye-witness. In some cases this is explicitly stated.
John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… we have beheld his glory…
John 19:35: He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe.

Other passage seem to be most intelligibly read as eye-witness testimony.

John 13:23-30: One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; 24 so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” 25 So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.

In my view, the recounting of the "beckoning" gesture of Peter is highly suggestive of eye-witnesse testimony. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that the description of the apostles' assumptions regarding Judas' activity at the Last Supper was meant to be read in a way that did not involve recognition of the author's presence in the Upper Room.

2) Added details. There are stories in the Fourth Gospel which appear in the Synoptics--but there is also the appearance of added details, which simply cannot be explained away as theological symbolism. Jesus multiplied five barley loaves (6:9); in the account of Jesus walking on the water John includes a mention of the distance rowed by the disciples across the Sea of Galilee ("twenty five or thirty stadia," 6:19); in the account of the anointing at Bethany, the odor of the woman’s anointing filled the house (12:3); the reaction of the soldiers in the garden to his statement, “I AM” (18:6); the weight of spices brought to Jesus' tomb as about a hundred pounds (19:39). There were also the six stone jars at the wedding in Cana (2:9) and the number of fish caught (153) and the distance the boat was from the land (about a hundred yards), on the occasion of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples (21:8, 11). In addition, we find some inside information about the reactions of the disciples (e.g. 2:11 f.; 4:27; 6:19; 12:16; 13:22 f.) and of the Lord himself (cf. 2:11, 24; 6:15, 61; 13:1). Again, I think all of this is highly suggestive of eye-witness testimony.

3) Familiarity with Jewish Beliefs and Palestinian Geography. The author has a remarkable knowledge of Jewish cultic concerns (purification rites, 2:6; the likely allusion to the libation and illumination ritual at the Feast of Tabernacles 7:37; 8:12; pollution concerns prior to eating the Passover, 18:28; 19:31–42), common Jewish beliefs (the laws concerning the sabbath, 5:10; 7:2 1–23; 9:14 ff.; ideas of hereditary sin, 9:2), and intimate knowledge of Palestinian geography (the knowledge of two Bethanys, 1:28; 12:1; of Aenon near Salim, 3:23; of Cana in Galilee, 2:1; 4:46; 21:2; of Tiberias as an alternative name for the Sea of Galilee, 6:1; 21:1; of Sychar near Shechem, 4:5; Mt. Gerizim's location near a well, 4:21; of Ephraim near the wilderness, 11:54; mention of the pool of Siloam, 9:7). It seems clear that the Gospel is written by a Palestinian with Israelite stock.

4) The "Beloved Disciple" and the Inner Circle. An an important passage in determining authorship comes at the end of the Gospel:

John 21:20-24: Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”… 24 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.

Of course, different scholars have put forth different theories. One line of thought has pointed to the rich young ruler in Mark's Gospel, of whom it is said that Jesus “loved him” (Mark 10:21). Another has suggested that the author is Lazarus (=John 11:3: “he whom you love”). Yet, it is clear that the author is most likely one of the seven mentioned in chapter 21. One of the 7 mentioned in John 21:
John 21:1-2: "After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberi-as; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathana-el of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together."

From this list, it would make most sense to suppose that the "beloved disciple"--the author of the Gospel--is one of the sons of Zebedee or one of the two other disciples.

It is interesting to note that, with one exception (John 19:26-27), this disciple is always associated with Peter (in addition to below, see John 13:23-30 above). An example of this is found in John 20:1-10.
John 20:1-10:  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

In the Synoptic Gospels it seems clear that Peter along with James and John make up a kind of "inner circle". In addition to the Transfiguration, where Jesus takes these three up the mountain (cf. Matt 17:1//Mark 9:2//Luke 9:28), we could mention other passages.
Mark 5:35-43: While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” 36 But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James… 
Mark 13:32-33: And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.

Indeed, if the Synoptic Gospels are to be believed, Jesus gave Peter, James and John special attention. It would be natural to expect that the Fourth Gospel's "Beloved Disciple," who has a special relationship with Jesus, is likely one of these three.

Now, it has been noted that the "Beloved Disciple" is virtually always associated with Peter. In connection with this should also be noticed that Luke seems to frequently associate Peter and John.
Luke 22:7-13: When came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.”
Acts 3:1: Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
Acts 4:13, 19: Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 8:14: Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John

If the "Beloved Disciple" is one of the three in the inner circle, I think it makes most sense to see him as John the Apostle, which beautifully dovetails with the overwhelming testimony of the Church fathers. Having carefully considering the internal evidence in the past few days, I can't find a good reason for denying their testimony.

In conclusion, I want to say that, at first blush, it would seem that the "academically responsible" approach would be to remain noncommittal about Johannine authorship. However, I'm coming to the conclusion that the opposite is true. Hedging on Johannine authorship seems to betray an unwillingness to acknowledge the coherence of the early testimony with the internal evidence. One wonders if such reluctance is motivated by other concerns. Clearly, asserting that someone like the rich young ruler is the author of the Fourth Gospel seems to stretch the limits of credulity. Rather, it would seem the unanimous patristic witness was reliable when it held that the Gospel the manuscripts all call "The Gospel According to John" was written by, well... er, John.


Danny Zacharias said...

I'm quite intrigued by Jim Charlesworth's suggestion that the beloved disciple is Thomas.

Here is a question though - ought we to use ch.21 of John when looking at the inner evidence for who the beloved disciple is? If John 21 is a later addition, should it be excluded from this discussion? It is clear, at least to me, that the discussion changes IF we decide that ch.21 should not be part of the 'internal' evidence of the original author.


David said...

Ben Witherington has suggested that the author of the Gospel of John was Lazarus. It would be interesting to see your reaction to his arguments found at .

Anonymous said...

Dr. Barber,

I appreciate your post on the authorship of the Gospel of John. I was wondering what could be some of the (suggested) dissertation topics one could research on the fourth Gospel. I will appreciate it.

A passionate Johannine student.

Michael Barber said...

Dear Anonymous,

It's not "Dr. Barber" just yet--I'm working on my dissertation right now.

If I were to write a dissertation on John I might focus on a number of issues that interest me:
1) New Creation Imagery in John's Gospel (especially chapters 1-2)
2) The Fourth Gospel and the early Christian Cultic Context
3) Eschatology in John's Gospel
4) The Fourth Gospel and the Pan-Israelite Hope
5) New Moses, New Exodus, & New Passover Themes in John's Gospel
6) Temple Themes and Ordination Language in John 13
7) The Temple Cleansing Episode
8) Restoration Hopes and Eschatological Temple Themes in John's Gospel
9) Jesus as the True Temple in John's Gospel
10) John's Gospel and the Date of the Last Supper
11) The Resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 and the Parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31
12) Eschatological Banquet imagery in John's Gospel
13) The Priestly Identity of Christ in Gospel of John
14) The Identity of the Beloved Disciple
15) John 21: Later Addition or Authentic Epilogue

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head...

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your help. I kind of like # 5 and 2.