Bible puzzler: Did John write the Gospel of John or not?


Who do you think authored the Fourth Gospel?


This follows up on our Dec. 10 item about whether the apostle John wrote the Bible’s Book of Revelation. The Religion Guy will report what some experts say, not what a mere journalist thinks. The full question from seminary graduate Patricia shows she’s familiar with this debate. Bottom line, there’s no simple answer.

The headline sounds like a conundrum. But remember the Gospel text itself names no author; only later did Christians tack on “according to John.” (The other three Gospels, conventionally named for Matthew, Mark and Luke, are likewise anonymous compositions.) However, the tradition that the author was John, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles and thus an eyewitness, was firmly established by A.D. 180.

That’s when Bishop Irenaeus’ work “Against Heresies” said that “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus” (3.1.1). Reinforcing this, it’s quite possible Irenaeus (born circa A.D. 125) learned such things from his hometown mentor Bishop Polycarp (born circa A.D. 70) who in turn had obtained information directly from the apostle John who was his boyhood friend.

Unlike the other three Gospels, the Fourth refers to a writer though without naming him, as “the disciple who had lain close to his breast at the supper . ... 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” (John 21:20 and 24). Also, the crucifixion narrative says “he who saw it has borne witness -- his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth” (19:35).

Donald Guthrie of London Bible College represented conservatives’ current consensus. He admitted “it is difficult to be dogmatic” but it’s “reasonable to suppose” John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel. Many figure the writer was most likely a Palestinian Jew, and Guthrie thought incidental details suggest eyewitness sourcing (e.g. six water jars at the Cana wedding, the catch of 153 fish after Jesus’ resurrection).

Conservatives say the Gospel’s authenticity is secure even if, as many now concede, the Bible’s own wordings indicate the chief author worked with others or incorporated earlier testimonies. Bruce Metzger, for one, thought mentions of “we” (as above) indicate collaborators were “involved in composition and authentication.” Such scholars explain that “written” in 21:24 means “cause to be written” alongside others.

Then there’s vigorous debate over whether John the apostle was the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who the Gospel says was present at the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection. Guthrie figured this beloved disciple “may well be” John the apostle but “it is impossible to be sure.” Possible clue: Although John was a key apostle he is not mentioned by name throughout the Fourth Gospel.

Guthrie admitted another of Jesus’ followers could be the writer. Candidates who’ve been proposed include Lazarus, Nicodemus, a totally unknown person, or (the favored option) a different 1st Century John known as “the elder,” who was mentioned by the apostle John’s student, Bishop Papias (born circa A.D. 70) according to later historians.

Turning to the ideological Left, complains about scholars who dismiss the Fourth Gospel as “more or less unhistorical fantasy.”

Continue reading "Did John write the Gospel of John or not?", by Richard Ostling.

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