In my last post, I went over a ton of internal clues in the Gospel of John that support the argument that John, the Son of Zebedee, is the author of the Gospel of John. I noted in my intro that just about every bit of evidence we have from the writings of the early church tells us that John wrote it. But just so you know that I’m not pulling a “dude, trust me” type of argument, let’s examine the external evidence for John’s authorship.
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 207 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.
Put this external evidence together with all the internal evidence, and it becomes clear that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John.
Sources and recommended Related resources:
- The Case for Jesus – (book) Brant Pitre
- Who Wrote the Gospels? – (video) Tim McGrew
- Who Chose the Gospels? – (book) CE Hill
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.