Skeptical Biblical critics like John Shelby Spong say that it’s impossible that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John. Spong writes:
“There is no way that the Fourth Gospel was written by John Zebedee or by any of the disciples of Jesus. The author of this book is not a single individual, but is at least three different writers/editors, who did their layered work over 25 to 30 years.”
Spong isn’t alone in this criticism, even some conservative evangelical Christians have cast doubt on the traditional authorship of John for various reasons. But there are quite a number of reasons to think that John the Son of Zebedee really wrote John. First, let’s consider the external evidence from the early church.
Before we dive in, it’s important to point out that there’s no recorded challenge to the traditional authorship of the Gospels until around the early 5th-century by Faustus the Manichean. Augustine clapped back at Faustus for his double standards. He wrote:
“Why does no one doubt the genuineness of the books attributed to Hippocrates? Because there is a succession of testimonies to the books from the time of Hippocrates to the present day, which makes it unreasonable either now or hereafter to have any doubt on the subject. How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence?”Against Faustus 33.6
So let’s look at this unbroken chain of evidence. What does it say about the authorship of the Gospel of John?
1. AN EARLY ROMAN WITNESS
We’ll start with Justin Martyr, who was writing from Rome in around 150 AD.
“In the memoirs [=Gospels], which I say have been composed by the apostles and those who followed them”… Dialogue with Trypho, 103.8.
Some skeptical scholars have suggested that Justin doesn’t know the Gospel of John. This strikes me as a silly notion. For starters, Justin implies that there were multiple Gospels. He says that apostles (plural) wrote them, so that would indicate at least two. Also, in Justin’s writings, he quotes John 3:3. See 1 Apology 61:4: “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
Justin also had a student by the name of Tatian. Just a generation later, Tatian wrote a harmony of the Gospels titled The Diatessaron. In Latin, Diatessaron quite literally means ‘made of four ingredients’. His harmony begins with: “In the beginning was the Word“, quoting John 1:1.
2. EVIDENCE FROM WESTERN EUROPE
Next up, we have Irenaeus of Lyon, which is in modern-day France. In around 180 AD, Irenaeus wrote:
“Then [after the publication of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke] John, the disciple of the Lord, who had even rested on his breast, himself also gave forth the Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.” (Cited in Eusebius, Church History 5:8, compare Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1.)
Irenaeus was a pupil of Polycarp, and Polycarp learned from John himself when he was a youth and John was an elderly man. Irenaeus writes: “I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse — his going out, too, and his coming in — his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance.” (Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, Chapter 2)
Wow. That’s just one link in the chain of testimony between Irenaeus and the Apostle John.
3. EVIDENCE FROM AN ANCIENT CHRISTIAN FRAGMENT
Next, we have the Muratorian Canon. The Muratorian Fragment is the oldest list of New Testament books we have discovered. The original document is dated to the late 2nd century and lists 22 of the 27 books that were later included in the New Testament. It’s dated to around 180 AD. Here’s what it says about John’s Gospel:
“The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, “Fast with me today for three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.” On the same night, it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it.” (Muratorian Canon of Rome, nos. 9–16)
4. EVIDENCE FROM EGYPT
Near the same time, here’s Clement of Alexandria, who was also writing around 180 AD. Regarding John’s Gospel, Clement says:
“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)
So Clement tells us that John specifically went out of his way to give us information that was not already adequately told Synoptics.
5. EVIDENCE FROM NORTH AFRICA
The last early church father we’ll look at is Tertullian of Carthage, which is in modern-day Tunisia, who was writing around 200 AD. Tertullian wrote:
“We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors…. Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.” (Against Marcion 4.2)
6. EVIDENCE FROM A GNOSTIC HERETIC
Basilides was an early Christian Gnostic religious teacher in Alexandria, Egypt who taught from 117 to 138 AD. He directly quotes John 1:9 and John 2:4. (You can see the discussion and quotations in Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 7) John’s Gospel, as you know, makes a big deal about Jesus being God-in-the-flesh. This would normally be a big problem for a Gnostic heretic, but Basilides wants to be considered a Christian much like some modern-day heretics do today, so he can’t help himself. The book was undeniable to the church and so he quotes it.
WHAT DO THESE SOURCES TELL US?
We’ve looked at six ancient sources. Let’s summarize what they have to say. When we put all their statements together, the testimony of the early church fathers presented here is unanimous: the apostle John, an eyewitness, and disciple of Jesus wrote a Gospel. The most significant early eyewitness is Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, himself a follower of John.
Irenaeus not only names the author of the Gospel as the “disciple” who lay on Jesus’s breast at the Last Supper; he elsewhere explicitly states that the author is “John…the apostle.” (See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.9.2) On related lines, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all acknowledge that the Gospel was written by one of Jesus’ apostles.
There’s no existing rival tradition of authorship for the fourth gospel that we know of. While there was some uncertainty about the authorship of other Johannine works like 2nd and 3rd John and Revelation that even the early church historian Eusebius acknowledges, there was no debate about who wrote John in the early church. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.17) And this evidence is early and geographically varied, coming from multiple parts of the Roman empire. These include modern-day France, Egypt, Tunisia, and Rome.
I could have also included quotes from Origen of Alexandria (220 AD) and Papias of Asia Minor (125 AD), but we’ll touch on Papias later when we get to objections against Johannine authorship.
19th-century biblical scholar BF Westcott did some Batman-like detective work in his commentary on John. Looking only at internal clues he determined that the author must be John the son of Zebedee. He starts broad and slowly narrows things down. Let’s take a look.
The author was Jewish
First of all, the author was a Jew and not some Greek guy writing on the fly. We know this because the author was familiar with Jewish opinions and customs of his time.
He mentions in passing the Judean disparagement of the dispersion in John 7:35.
He speaks of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans in John 4:9.
The author notes the Jewish belief that eternal life was found in the Scriptures. From the NET Bible: “Note the following examples from the rabbinic tractate Pirqe Avot (“The Sayings of the Fathers”): Pirqe Avot 2:8, “He who has acquired the words of the law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come”; Pirqe Avot 6:7, “Great is the law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and in the world to come.”
There’s the mention of the Sabbath’s requirement being annulled by the law of circumcision. (John 7:22)
In John 9:2, the disciples assumed that sin (regardless of who committed it) was the cause of the man’s blindness. The NET Bible commentary says: “This was a common belief in Judaism; the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin, and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (the Babylonian Talmud, b. Shabbat 55a, although later than the NT, illustrates this). Thus in this case the sin must have been on the part of the man’s parents, or during his own prenatal existence. Song Rabbah 1:41 (another later rabbinic work) stated that when a pregnant woman worshiped in a heathen temple the unborn child also committed idolatry.”
The author directly uses or alludes to the Jewish scriptures over 20 times, including Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Zechariah.
His Old Testament quotes are closer to the Hebrew than the Greek Septuagint. (For example, check out John 12:14-15 when he’s quoting Zechariah 9:9, or John 12:40, which quotes Isaiah 6:10, or John 19:37, where he quotes Zechariah 12:10.) John was undoubtedly Jewish.
The author was from Palestine
The writer of John knows his stuff when it comes to Palestinian geography and topography.
In John 2:12, we read the trip from Cana to Capernaum is going down. Similarly, in John 4:46-47, it says that Jesus came again to Cana and a royal official who had a sick son in Capernaum came to him. He implores Jesus to “come down” and heal his son. The elevation of Cana is 709 feet above sea level. Capernaum is minus 682 feet. Jn 5:1 says afterward, Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem, presumably from Cana. Jerusalem has an elevation of 2575 feet.
John 5:1-3 mentions the Pool of Bethesda, which was surrounded by five covered colonnades. In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered the remains of the pool. This pool was located by the sheep gate and enclosed by five roofed colonnades.
The author also mentions that Jesus walked in the Colonnade of Solomon during winter. The roofed walkway would’ve protected Jesus from the cold winds. (John 10:23)
The writer also mentions that Ephraim is near the wilderness (John 11:54), the location of the Pool of Siloam (John 9:11), the dimensions of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:19), and the brook Kidron. (Jn 18:1)
In John, we find a number of small villages mentioned: Aenon, Cana, Ephraim, Salim, and Sychar.
It’s interesting to note that John was a fisherman by trade. He mentions 5 bodies of water. (Bethesda, Kidron, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Pool of Siloam.) The Synoptic writers only mention two bodies of water in comparison. (They all mention the river Jordan. Mark and Matthew mention the Sea of Galilee. Luke mentions Siloam.)
Also, John is the lone NT writer who refers to the Sea of Galilee by the name Sea of Tiberias (Jn 6:1, see also Jn 21:1). This is actually the right local usage. In the 20’s BC, King Herod finished the building of the town of Tiberias on the southwestern shore of the lake. After this, the name Sea of Tiberias started to be used for the lake itself.
Over and over, the author shows he’s a local. This isn’t an easy thing to pull off. Reading Josephus, Philo, or Strabo wouldn’t give the author of John’s Gospel the knowledge needed to make his stories sound more authentic. Remember that John was written last, after 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed. Most scholars believe that this gospel was penned in Asia Minor.
Compare this to some of the non-canonical Gospels. For example, the Gospel of Philip mentions Nazareth, Jerusalem, and the Jordan River. In the Gospel of Thomas, Judea is named one time. That’s it. If I was writing a story set in Iowa and wasn’t from there, I might be able to get Des Moines, Waterloo, or Cedar Rapids but I couldn’t name off small towns and bodies of water without the help of Google.
THE WRITER WAS AN EYEWITNESS TO WHAT HE REPORTS
Details about persons: The author records minute details about specific persons for no apparent symbolic purpose. (See John 6:5, 7, 12:21, 14:5, 8, 22) He’s also the only writer to mention Nicodemus (Jn 3:1, 7:50, 19:39, Lazarus (Jn 11:1), Simon the father of Judas Iscariot, (Jn 7:71) and Malchus (Jn 18:10). The writer of this Gospel alone mentions the specific relationship of Annas to Caiaphas (Jn 18:13) and identifies one of those who pointed to Peter as the relative of him whose ear Peter cut off. (Jn 18:26)
Numbers: Two disciples are mentioned in Jn 1:35. There were six waterpots Jesus used at the wedding in Cana that could each hold about 20 gallons. (John 2:6) The people told Jesus that the temple took 46 years to be constructed (John 2:20). The Samaritan woman had five husbands (Jn 4:18). The paralytic was sick for 38 years. (Jn 5:5) The apostles rowed for 25-30 stadia. (Jn 6:19) Lazarus was dead for four days. Mary’s costly perfume was worth 300 denarii. (Jn 12:5) The disciples caught 153 fish in Jn 21:11, and examples like this can be multiplied.
Detailed observations about the settings: There are little details that are brought out, like the fact that the bread used to feed the five thousand were barley loaves. (Jn 6:9) When Mary anointed Jesus with the costly ointment, the house was filled with its fragrance. (Jn 12:3) The branches used during the triumphal entry were palm branches (Jn 12:13). The fire that Peter warmed himself with was a charcoal fire. (Jn 18:18) Jesus’ tunic was “seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” (Jn 19:23). There’s also one of my favorite examples: “the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” (Jn 20:7) John takes an entire verse to tell us that the napkin was folded neatly and was placed at the head of Jesus’ coffin.
Specific times: There are times mentioned, like Passover in Jn 2:13, a second Passover a year later in Jn 6:4, the feast of Booths in Jn 7:2, the feast of Dedication in Jn 10:22. There’s the number of the days before raising Lazarus, (Jn 11:6, 17, 39), the note of the duration of Christ’s stay in Samaria (Jn 4:40, 43), and the week after the resurrection. (Jn 20:26). Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover. (Jn 12:1) Even more impressive is the mention of the hour or the time of day which happens under circumstances that stuck out in the writer’s mind. There’s the mention of the tenth hour (Jn 1:39), the sixth hour (Jn 4:6), the seventh hour (Jn 4:52), about the sixth hour (Jn 19:14), it was night (Jn 13:30, in the early morning (Jn 18:28, 21:4), the evening (Jn 6:19, and by night. (Jn 3:2). These mentions are so oddly specific. They are unlikely to be the work of someone making up details or relaying oral tradition.
THE WRITER WAS IN JESUS’ INNER CIRCLE
He was familiar with scenes where only the disciples were present. I.e. their calling in John 1:19, the trip to Samaria in Jn 4:1, that there was much grass where Jesus fed the 5,000 in Jn 6:10, or Jesus’ visits Jerusalem in chapters 7, 8 and 11.
The author knows both what they said to Jesus (Jn 4:31, 9:2, 11:8, 12, 16:29) and what they said among themselves. (Jn 4:33, 16:17, 20:25, 21:3, 5) and even their misunderstandings. (Jn 2:21, 11:13, 12:16, 13:28, 20:9, 21:4).
Is John a historical novel?
All these vivid details bear the marks of someone who was really there. Either the writer or writers of John’ Gospel were literary geniuses far ahead of their time or we have an eyewitness report. But the historical novel wasn’t invented until the Renaissance at the very earliest and wasn’t popularized until the 1800s.
In his famous essay Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, CS Lewis put this objection to bed: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be a narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”
THE WRITER IS JOHN.
Whew! We’ve looked at a lot of details. The writer says he is an eyewitness (Jn 19:35) and he certainly comes across as one with all these little particulars. With help from New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, let’s now line up our suspects and see if we can narrow it down. Here’s Blomberg:
“In John 21:24, this disciple is linked directly to the witness of this Gospel, perhaps by his followers who were putting their imprimatur or stamp of approval of it. He obviously is one of those present at the Last Supper, though a few more than the Twelve might have been there. But he also joins Mary, the mother of Jesus, at Jesus’s crucifixion (19:26-27, 34-35), runs with Peter to see the empty tomb (20:2-5, 8, and is among the seven who return to Galilee and encounter the risen Lord there (21:1-7).
Why would Jesus entrust his aging mother to a disciple and not a family member? Joseph may have well been dead by this time, and Jesus half-brothers may not yet have believed in him. (cf. 7:5) But it would have had to be someone extremely close to him. Someone outside the Twelve would appear to be an unlikely candidate. In the Synoptic Gospels, Peter, James, and John seem to form an inner core of leadership among the Twelve (Luke 8:51, Mark 9:2, cf. Gal 2:9), while in Acts, John accompanies Peter as his close companion. (Acts 1:13, 3:1-11, 4:1-13; 8:14-25). We know the sons of Zebedee are present in John 21:2, though they are never mentioned by name in this Gospel. The author cannot be Peter since the beloved disciple is distinguished from him. He cannot be James because he was martyred by Herod Agrippa I in AD 44, long before this Gospel was penned. That leaves John as the only plausible person.”The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs – Craig L. Blomberg
TELLING JOHN APART FROM JOHN.
There’s one more fascinating clue that is worth mentioning here. Craig Blomberg also points out there’s something about how John doesn’t describe John the Baptist:
One more puzzling feature in the Fourth Gospel falls into place if we equate the beloved disciple with John. Like the Synoptics, the Fourth Gospel refers to a variety of the activities and teachings of John the Baptist. Unlike the Synoptics, it never calls him “the Baptist,” merely “John.” If anyone other than John the apostle was the author of this Gospel, it would be extremely confusing for him not to have ever specified which John he was speaking of. But if the original addressees knew that John the apostle was the author and that he never referred to himself by name, then they would know that all the references to John would have to refer to the Baptist.The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs – Craig L. Blomberg
Ah, so unlike the other gospel writers, he had no need to set himself apart from the other “Johns”. When he said “John,” everyone would pick up what he was laying down.
Through all this detective work we can see that the internal evidence is right in line with the witness of the early church. By the process of elimination, we zeroed in and found that John, the son of Zebedee, wrote the Gospel of John.
9 common objections to Johannine authorship
Despite all this evidence for traditional authorship, there’s a tremendous amount of pushback from critics. 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. See the above quote of Clement of Alexandria.
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: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Brant Pitre
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. One can discover who the author is through the process of elimination as discussed above. 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 as we discussed above. John has isolated material from all over the map.
Some say that John made a geographical goof when in John 1:28, which reads, “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” The problem here is that Bethany is located only 2 miles from Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. It isn’t across the Jordan!
But John didn’t make a mistake here. John’s description is perfectly clear: he is referring to a Bethany beyond Jordan. But as we already mentioned, John 11:18 shows us that knows of a Bethany 2 miles from Jerusalem. John adds the phrase beyond Jordan in order to indicate which Bethany he means in Jn 1:28. He distinguishes between two cities called Bethany.
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 tend to 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.
8. Doesn’t Papias (125 AD) seem to think that John the Elder wrote the Fourth Gospel, not the Apostle John?
Papias is our earliest church witness to the gospels, so if he thinks a different John wrote the fourth Gospel, then that would be a problem. Here’s the famous quote from Papias:
I shall not hesitate also to put into ordered form for you, along with the interpretations, everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down carefully, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I took no pleasure in those who told many different stories, but only in those who taught the truth. Nor did I take pleasure in those who reported their memory of someone else’s commandments, but only in those who reported their memory of the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the Truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voiceEusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39
Scholars like Richard Bauckham have concluded from this that Papias is referring to two Johns here. But Papias says clearly that Papias “learned from the elders” (History 3.39.3). A few sentences later, Papias describes who the elders are in the above quote, and he lists several apostles. As NT scholar Michael Kruger notes, “Eusebius admits that Papias learned directly from “the elder John” mentioned in the above quote. Although Eusebius thinks this is a John other than the apostle, it seems likely that he has misunderstood the words of Papias here. When Papias mentions the name John a second time in the statement above, it is best understood as a reference back to the apostle John due to the fact that both are called “elder” and the anaphoric use of the article which points back to the prior John.”
Also, although Eusebius said that Papias didn’t know John the apostle (History 3.39), in his earlier work the Chronicle he actually affirms that Papias knew John. He seemed to have changed his mind but he also thought Papias had some heretical views on eschatology, and thus tried to paint Papias out to be a bit of a goof.
This argument is strengthened by the fact that Papias knew Polycarp. Since Polycarp knew John, it is quite likely that Papias would have as well. This is a big deal because if Papias knows John, he has reliable information regarding the authorship of the Gospels.
There’s an ancient preface to the Gospels called The Anti-Marcionite Prologue. It refers to a lost work of Papias that reads: “The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John, while he was still in the body, as one named Papias, of Hierapolis, a dear disciple of John, has related in his Exoterica, i.e. at the conclusion of his five books.” So now we have a very early historical witness of the authorship of John.
For a thorough drubbing of the “different Johns” theory, read John the Presbyter and the Fourth Gospel by Dom John Chapman.
9. Isn’t the blind man’s expulsion from the synagogue in john 9:22 anachronistic?
According to Jewish tradition, sometime around AD 90, Jewish leaders modified a
congregational prayer to include a curse on “Nazarenes and heretics.” Skeptics have pounced on this passage, saying that it’s a glaring anachronism. Here’s NT scholar and critic Bart Ehrman:
“This verse [i.e. John 9:22] is significant from a socio-historical perspective because we know that there was no official policy against accepting Jesus (or anyone else) as messiah during his lifetime. On the other hand, some Jewish synagogues evidently did begin to exclude members who believed in Jesus’ messiahship toward the end of the first century. So the story of Jesus healing the blind man reflects the experience of the later community that stood behind the Fourth Gospel. These believers in Jesus had been expelled from the Jewish community, the community, presumably, of their families and friends and neighbors, in which they had worshiped God and had fellowship with one another.”Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2016, 187-188.
But is this “curse on the heretics” what John is really referring to?
Note that John 9:22 doesn’t say anything about the ex-communication of Christians. John doesn’t use the term Christian – it says if they confessed he was the Messiah. This is far from a full-blown creedal statement, like what we’d find in Romans 10:9-10 or even John 3:16.
Moreover, we see already that Jesus and his followers already faced hostility. These hostile critics were constantly following Jesus around, hoping to he’d get himself in hot water. (See Matthew 15.1, Mark 3.22, Mark 7:1, Luke 5:17.) Plus, let’s not forget that these are the people who had him killed.
We also read in John that his messianic movement will get them in trouble with Rome. (John 11:47-48) They even plot to kill Lazarus. (John 12:9-11) Would John have added those passages to confirm the reference of being cast out of the synagogue? That seems unlikely, to say the least.
Given Jerusalem was the center of the most conservative Judaism of Jesus’ day, it’s not at all implausible that small-scale policies of disfellowshipping should have begun there. And this charge of anachronism is circular reasoning. You can’t start with the assumption that John’s Gospel is referring to the “curse of the heretics” and then use that to prove it’s an anachronism. The critics here are reasoning in a circle. We simply have no reason to think some official expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogue is what John is even referring to.
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 strong internal and external evidence that we have. The Christian has an eyewitness account from one of Jesus’ closest students.
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.