Just about every bit of evidence from early church history says that John, the son of Zebedee, wrote the Gospel of John. But if you just read the book by itself, John isn’t explicitly identified by name. He refers to himself as the ‘Beloved Disciple.’ Because of this, there has been some in-house debate among Christian scholars who wrote it. And skeptics like John Shelby Spong say it’s impossible that John or any other eyewitness possibly wrote it. 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.”
But before Spong was a twinkle in his parent’s eyes, 19th-century biblical scholar BF Westcott did some Batman-like detective work. Westcott was able to do some super-sleuthing and narrowed it down to John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee, using only internal clues.
The author was a Jew.
Westcott starts broad. 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 makes unexplained references to ‘The Prophet’ that Moses predicted would come. See John 1:21, 6:14, 7:40 cf. Deuteronomy 18:15.
- He casually mentions the popular low estimate of women. (John 4:27, cf Sotah 3:4, 19a)
- 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.”
- There’s the passing comment about the belief of the Messiah living forever. (John 12:34, cf. Isaiah 9:7, Ezek 37:25, Dan 7:13)
- 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.)
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.
- There’s the mention of the view of Jacob’s well, which would include Mount Gerazim and cornfields. (John 4:20, 35) There’s even the mention of the depth of the well. (Jn 4:11)
- 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.
- Bethany near Jerusalem is described with spot-on precision as being 15 stadia away from the city. (Jn 11:18) This Bethany is distinguished from “Bethany beyond the Jordan.” (Jn 1:28)
- 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 ’20s 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.
- The author records 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 hold 20-30 gallons. (John 2:6) The people told Jesus that the temple took 46 years to construct (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.
- 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.
- 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 writer knows the disciples’ reactions, and even their thoughts and feelings. (Jn 2:11, 17, 22, 4:27, 6:19, 60, 12:16, 13:22, 28, 21:12)
- 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).
- The evangelist even knows where Jesus would go to avoid other people. (Jn11:54, 18:1-2)
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. The Christian can’t be called naive for accepting the traditional authorship. And Spong is wrong, it’s not true that there’s “no way” that John wrote John. Using sound reasoning and evidence, we’ve deduced that we have an eyewitness account.
Sources and recommended resources:
- The Gospel According to St. John, BF Westcott
- The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg
- Can We Trust the Gospels?, Peter J. Williams
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.