Who wrote the Gospel of John?
The Gospel of John provides no explicit internal evidence concerning its author. John, the disciple, is nowhere identified by name.
But the Fourth Gospel might provide us with clues concealed in the enigmatic figure of the “Beloved Disciple.”
This title occurs in five passages:
- John 13:23: “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.”
- John 19:26: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son.’”
- John 20:2: “So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’”
- John 21:7: “Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’”
- John 20:20: “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them.”
In addition to this, John 21:24 describes the Beloved Disciple as the “disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.”
Therefore the origin of the Gospel must in some way be connected to this person—the Gospel of John may be a record of his eyewitness account of Jesus’ life.
Who was the Beloved Disciple?
1. An ideal Christian disciple
Initially, some have suggested that he is an idealized literary figure: the ideal Christian disciple. To a degree this is true, because of his faithful and intimate knowledge of Jesus.
But this hardly excludes the possibility of a genuine historical person.
Lazarus has sometimes been nominated. Lazarus is the only figure of whom it is said that Jesus loved him (John 11:3, 36). Further, the Beloved Disciple texts occur only after Lazarus is introduced in chapter 11.
But this solution is unlikely. Why would Lazarus’s name be mentioned in chapters 11–12 but then left shrouded in subsequent accounts?
3. John Mark
A man named John Mark was a part of the early church (Acts 12:12), and he was associated with Peter. This may explain the rivalry between Peter and our disciple in John (cf. 20:2–8; 21:7–14). Furthermore, if Mark was related to the Levite Barnabas (Col. 4:10), this may also explain how the Beloved Disciple knows the high priest in 18:15.
Nevertheless, there is a strong patristic tradition that Mark authored the Second Gospel, not the Fourth Gospel.
Besides, the Beloved Disciple was certainly one of the twelve apostles (13:23), and John Mark was not.
The most recent suggestion points to Thomas as the Beloved Disciple.
Throughout the Gospel Thomas is presented as a person of leadership (11:16). His story with Jesus even concludes the Gospel (assuming that chapter 20 originally ended the book) and parallels the resurrection story of the apostles. Above all, Thomas asks to see the wound in Jesus’ side, and the Beloved Disciple was the only one who would have known about this (19:35).
Added to this is evidence for a “school or community of Thomas” with its own literature (Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Thomas, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, etc.) and its interest in the Fourth Gospel.
5. John son of Zebedee
The best solution is the traditional one: John son of Zebedee (Mark 3:17; Acts 1:13).
This man was one of the Twelve and along with James and Peter formed an inner circle around Jesus. This is the origin of his eyewitness testimony and penetrating insight.
In the synoptic Gospels John appears with Peter more than with any other, and in Acts they are companions in Jerusalem (Acts 3–4) as well as in Samaria (8:14). This dovetails with the Peter/John connection in the Fourth Gospel.
Raymond Brown has offered a novel theory to buttress this. He suggests evidence that John and Jesus may have been cousins (through their mothers). This would explain why Jesus entrusts Mary to John (19:25)—a natural family relation (she may have been John’s aunt)—and John was known by the high priest through Mary’s priestly relatives (18:15–16; cf. Luke 1:5, 36).
Evidence for John’s authorship from the Early Church
Patristic evidence seems to confirm that John wrote the Gospel. Here are a few examples:
- Irenaeus, writing at about AD 200, says that the Beloved Disciple was John, the disciple of Jesus, and that John originated the Gospel at Ephesus.
- Irenaeus even writes that when he himself was young, he knew another teacher, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (c. AD 69–155), who claimed to have been tutored by John.
- The church historian Eusebius (c. AD 300) records this John/Polycarp/Irenaeus connection in the same way.
- Further, Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus (AD 189–198), refers to John’s association with the Gospel in his letter to Victor the Bishop of Rome.
- It is also confirmed by Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200) and the Latin Muratorian Canon (AD 180–200).
Objections to John’s authorship
Criticisms of this conclusion are commonplace, and we would do well to consider the most important ones.
Earlier in the 1900s critics regularly pointed to John’s inaccuracies on geographical details. This, it was affirmed, could hardly come from an eyewitness writer. But subsequent historical and archaeological study have, if anything, shown John’s reliability.
Could a fisherman-turned-apostle have penned a work of such subtlety and insight? Could a Galilean such as this be acquainted with Greek thought? Of course.
Recent study of Palestinian Judaism has shown a remarkable degree of Greek cultural penetration at all levels of society. While the New Testament does affirm that John the apostle was a “commoner” (Acts 4:13), we still are unwise to predict what John could or could not accomplish. Furthermore, this criticism fails to consider that the final edition of the Gospel may have been edited by John’s disciples, an amanuensis (professional scribe), or John’s community.
Finally, some lodge the complaint that this Gospel was not readily accepted in the early church. This is true.
But we have to reckon with two facts:
- Our evidence for John’s neglect is not as weighty as it seems. Important early writers may not quote John or allude to him, but to note what a patristic writer fails to say is an argument from silence.
- John found wide acceptance in heretical, gnostic circles. This has been confirmed recently by the gnostic documents found at Nag Hammadi, where in The Gospel of Truth Johannine themes abound. The unorthodox on the fringes of the Greek church embraced John and provided the earliest widely known commentaries (Valentinus, Heracleon). Therefore the church was cautious in its use of the gospel because of its dangerous abuse elsewhere.
In the end, the most likely scenario is that the Gospel of John was written by John son of Zebedee.
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This post is adapted from material found in Gary Burge’s online course on the Gospel of John.