When arguing for the traditional authorship of John, you’re going to encounter a significant amount of pushback. Skeptics will often say that there’s a vast scholarly consensus against Johannine authorship, but when you look at their arguments, many of them are quite weak. In this post, I’ll address some of the more common ones.
1. Wouldn’t someone close to John sound more like the Synoptic writers?
No, not if John had different purposes for writing his Gospel. The early evidence from the church fathers says that his Gospel was intentionally supplemental. Clement of Alexandria wrote:
“Of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John left us their recollections (hypomnēmata), and tradition says that they took to writing perforce…. John, it is said, used all the time a message which was not written down, and at last took to writing for the following cause. The three gospels which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself; it is said he welcomed them and testified to their truth but said that there was only lacking to the narrative the account of what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of the preaching…They say accordingly that John was asked to relate in his own gospel the period passed over in silence by the former evangelists.”Cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3.24.1-13
2. Why doesn’t John’s name appear in the text?
You might as well ask why Mark or Luke’s name doesn’t appear in their Gospels, either. While many scholars say that the Gospels are anonymous, the ‘unidentified Gospel’ theory does strain credulity. As New Testament scholar Brant Pitre writes:
“Even if one anonymous gospel could have been written and circulated and then somehow miraculously attributed by the same person by Christians living in Rome, Africa, Italy, and Syria, am I really supposed to believe that the same thing happened not once, not twice, but with four different books, over and over again, throughout the known world? How did unknown scribes who added the titles know whom to ascribe the books to? How did they communicate so that all the copies ended up with the same titles?”The Case For Jesus
Mark and Luke are probably not inventions of the early church. They weren’t apostles or eyewitnesses. But John chose a different way to refer to himself — as the disciple whom Jesus loved. He still appears in his narrative, but it’s under another description. And as we looked at in another blog post, one can discover who the author is through the process of elimination. John deftly embedded himself in his Gospel.
Not being precise about one’s identification is common in ancient writings. Josephus regularly refers to himself in the third person in The Jewish War. Caesar famously refers to himself in the third person in his Commentaries and never identifies himself. And Xenophon exclusively refers to himself in the third person in Anabasis.
3. How could a simple fisherman compose a Gospel in Greek?
By far, this is the most common objection to Johannine authorship. Acts 4:13 tells us that John is an uneducated fisherman. But no one is saying the author of John is simply a fisherman. We’re saying that he is an ex-fisherman, likely called in his late teens and is writing several decades later.
One can learn a lot of new skills over several decades, including how to speak and write in Greek, assuming he didn’t use a scribe. (And it is quite possible that he did.)
Saying John couldn’t write his Gospel is like saying a person with a grammar school education couldn’t write Macbeth. There are conspiracy crackpots on the internet that cast doubt on the writings of Shakespeare. But we aren’t obligated to take their arguments that seriously in light of the other evidence, so likewise with John.
Furthermore, John’s father had enough money to have ‘hired servants’ according to Mark 1:19-20, suggesting John was more well-to-do than most have realized. John 18:15-16 says that John had access to Caiaphas’ courtyard. It’s safe to assume the high priestly family wasn’t eating the cheap fish. It’s not unreasonable to think a well-off fisher would have a chance to sell to the Jerusalem elite. John was no simple fisherman.
4. Isn’t the author knowledgeable about Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and nowhere else?
No. Re-read John. John mentions Cana (Jn 2:1-11), Samaria (Jn 4:1-45, and Capernaum (Jn 4:47). He knows how long the Sea of Galilee was. I go into more of John’s local knowledge here. John has isolated material from all over the map.
5. Doesn’t John’s use of the word ‘logos’ indicate that he’s a Hellenistic Jew steeped in Greek philosophy?
For this objection, I’m going to refer you to the comments of three New Testament scholars:
“…though [John] would not have been unmindful of the associations aroused by the term, his essential thought does not derive from the Greek background. His Gospel shows little trace of acquaintance with Greek philosophy and less dependence upon it. And the really important thing is that John in his use of Logos is cutting clean across one of the fundamental Greek ideas. The Greeks thought of the gods as detached from the world, as regarding its struggles and heartaches and joys and tears with serene divine lack of feeling. John’s Logos does not show us a God who is serenely detached, but a God who is passionately involved. The Logos speaks of God’s coming where we are, taking our nature upon Himself, entering the world’s struggle, and out of this agony winning men’s salvation…“The “Word” irresistibly turns our attention to the repeated “and God said” of the opening chapter of the Bible. The Word is God’s creative Word (v. 3). The atmosphere is unmistakably Hebraic”Leon Morris, The Gospel of John, pp. 116-18
“Philo and St John, in short, found the same term current and used it according to their respective apprehensions of the truth. Philo, following the track of Greek philosophy, saw in the Logos the divine Intelligence in relation to the universe: the Evangelist, trusting firmly in the ethical basis of Judaism, sets forth the Logos mainly as the revealer of God to man, through creation, through theophanies, through prophets, through the Incarnation. . . In short, the teaching of St John is characteristically Hebraic and not Alexandrine”.BF Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, pp. xvi-xvii
“We must not overlook the fact that the Gospel of John begins with the same words as the first book of the Old Testament. If we, like the first Christians of the Diaspora, were accustomed to reading the Old Testament in Greek, this would immediately catch our attention”Oscar Cullmann, The Johannine Circle, p. 250
So the author of John wasn’t writing from a Hellenistic perspective but a Hebrew one.
6. Aren’t there important scenes involving Zebedee’s sons from the Synoptics that are missing from John?
In John’s Gospel, there’s nothing discussed about John’s calling (Mk 1:19-20). There’s no mention of the request of John and his brother James to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. (Mk 10:35-38) And there’s also nothing about Jesus praying in Gethsemane with Peter, James, and John. (Mt 26:37) If the author was John, wouldn’t we expect a mention of these events?
Remember that we said earlier that John was aware of other Gospels and was mostly avoiding repetition. He’s also not writing a Gospel about himself; his focus is Jesus.
Some have also suggested the “son of Thunder” (Mk 3:17) who called for fire to rain on the Samaritans (Lk 9:54) couldn’t write a Gospel with such an emphasis on love. But Paul went from church persecutor to apostle, and Peter denied Christ three times and became the leader of the Jerusalem church. People who follow Jesus change.
7. Doesn’t early Christian testimony indicate that John’s Gospel was a community product?
John 21:24 says: “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.”
So what is this ‘we’ business? Some say this suggests John’s Gospel has multiple authors. But this isn’t inconsistent with the way John writes elsewhere. See 1 Jn 1:1-5:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you…
That’s a whole lot of ‘we’ happening. 1 John contains the word we 44 times, by far the most occurrences of any epistle in the NT. If there are multiple authors of the Gospel of John, the same logic goes for 1st John. That’s possible, but that doesn’t seem to be the simplest explanation.
And perhaps John could have written his Gospel, and there was a stage or two of redaction. A companion of John could have added their conviction to what the author said was true. The ‘we’ isn’t a major blow to Johannine authorship.
As you can see, the arguments against the traditional authorship aren’t very strong. In the words of NT scholar Raymond Brown: “When all is said and done, the combination of external and internal evidence associating the Fourth Gospel with John the son of Zebedee makes this the strongest hypothesis, if one is prepared to give credence to the Gospel’s claim of an eyewitness source.”
And there’s where the rubber meets the road. An eyewitness account reporting that Jesus performed miracles and is risen from the dead will not work for a skeptic. But weak arguments like these aren’t going to debunk the evidence.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.