Archive for April, 2012

I have delayed writing another post regarding the authorship of John, because I wished to do further research. Is it appropriate to admit from the beginning that I find no solution that totally satisfies all the questions I have? I hope this does not disturb you; it is simply the way real things are, and in my mind it reinforces the authenticity of the Gospel. If someone wanted to write a gospel in the name of John (although the gospel never does that), we should expect all the elements to fit together and difficulties either ignored or smoothed out. The very fact that there are questions tells me we are dealing with a legitimate work. Rather quickly, I want to suggest some of the possible answers to the question of who wrote the Gospel of John.

One writer wrote a comment on my last post with a link to an e-book in which he defends the position that Lazarus wrote the gospel attributed to John. I can think of a number of reasons why that might be an attractive choice, but rather than trying to defend that view, I would suggest you download his e-book yourself (it is free).

I recently read a book by a fairly conservative scholar who believes that this gospel was written by the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom he identifies with “John the Elder,” a close disciple of Jesus, but one who was not one of the twelve apostles. There is considerable evidence that someone referred to as “John the Elder” was perhaps a disciple of Jesus and that some of the books of the New Testament may have been written by him. I would especially consider 2 and 3 John as likely. Some would also include Revelation; however, I have not studied this enough to comment.

Then we come to the traditional view that  the author of the fourth gospel was John the apostle, one of the sons of Zebedee. If one accepts ancient tradition as having any value, this view has almost universal support. Actually, except for some “heretical” writings referred to by Irenaeus, virtually no one questioned the apostle John’s authorship until the eighteenth century and the rise of modern criticism.

Further support can be traced back even further. Eusebius quotes Irenaeus as saying that Polycarp (AD 69-155)  knew John, and apparently it was from Polycarp that Irenaeus got his understanding that John, the apostle, wrote the fourth gospel. This view is also supported by Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) and the Muratorian Canon (AD 170-200).

It is generally recognized that the Gospel of John has a number of Semitic elements and was written by someone for whom Greek was probably not his native language. I make no pretense at being qualified to address the Semitic elements except to note that the author sometimes transliterates Aramaic words into Greek letters, especially the word “Messiah” (4.25) and proper names (1.42). I only list two examples of several in the gospel. I can attest from my fairly elementary knowledge of Koine Greek that the gospel of John employs relatively simple vocabulary and grammar. It was the only Greek readings course I took beyond the basic grammar course, because it is perhaps the simplest book in the Greek New Testament to read.

Could the apostle John have written the fourth gospel? This is where we get into some difficulties. I regret that I cannot examine all the issues involved because of space limitations. The issues are huge and highly complex. Instead I wish to address a few of the more prominent questions.

John, along with his brother James, is addressed as one of the “Sons of Thunder,” and in one instance they want to call down the wrath of God on a village. The gospel of John does not appear to have been written by someone with that kind of temperament. I can only think of one possible resolution to that question. If tradition is correct, the gospel was written late in the first century. Is it possible that over perhaps 50 years or more the transforming power of the gospel actually changed John’s temperament and personality so that the “Son of Thunder” was transformed into the apostle of love? As a Christian, I certainly believe in the transforming power of the gospel. I would love for this to be one example of that happening.

Finally, I want to repeat something I mentioned in my last post. If John the apostle is not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” then that very prominent apostle does not even appear in the fourth gospel which very ancient tradition ascribed to him. I cannot conceive a gospel written in the late first century that makes no reference at all to such a prominent apostle. If not the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” just where is the apostle John in the fourth gospel?

It has been argued that the description of Jesus as a preexistent deity could not have come from a direct follower of Jesus, because this was a later doctrine of the church; however, I believe this supposition involves a logical fallacy (Remember when people studied logic?). To presuppose what Jesus did or did not claim about Himself and then reject anything that contradicts that presupposition is circular reasoning. I cannot prove that Jesus on earth claimed to be incarnate deity. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone else can prove He did not.

At the same time, I acknowledge that this understanding of Jesus may have developed over time, especially with the influence of Paul’s writings. So, it is very possible that John would not have understood this clearly at the beginning, but came to accept it over the years. And this could explain why the fourth gospel is so different from the Synoptics. John is not writing to give the life of Jesus or to prove His miracles and healings. The Synoptics cover that quite well. Indeed, he may have written late in the first century, especially to present Jesus as God Incarnate, a picture that is not as clearly taught in the Synoptics. I must admit I am puzzled as to why John would not include the Transfiguration which would certainly support that view. Honesty compels me to admit I do not have the answer to that.

So I am back where we started. I tend to accept the traditional authorship of John, but must acknowledge that unanswered questions remain. I must leave the issue with that. It will not be the last time I will admit I don’t know the answer. If you choose to follow my blog, I you will have to get used to the limitations of my knowledge.

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Determining the authorship of the Gospel of John is not an easy matter. There are a number of issues that must be considered. While I do not wish to drag the question out, I feel it cannot be dealt with adequately in one post.

Today I wish to cover only one issue, and that is the question of the person referred to in the Gospel of John as “the beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I believe resolving this question can put us on a more solid footing when we do consider who wrote the Gospel of John. Please understand that identifying the “beloved Disciple,” does not prove that this person wrote the Gospel of John. I do believe, however, that in connection with other evidence, it will help us as we consider that question in another post.

The actual author of the Gospel of John describes this otherwise unknown character in a distinctive way. The phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” occurs only in the book of John. Not one of the other gospels makes any such reference. In John it occurs four times (John 13.23; 20.2, 21.7; 21.20). Obviously, this does not give us a great deal of information, so it would be unwise to be too dogmatic. At the same time, I do believe certain elements in the Gospel of John can help us pin this down.

Tradition has identified the “disciple whom Jesus loved” as the apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee. Is there any evidence that could either refute or support this theory? There are several factors we need to consider which can assist with identifying this person.

First of all, this disciple is described in a way that would indicate that he is a significant figure. He is said to have been present at the Last Supper. Not only was he there, but he is described as one who reclined next to Jesus, normally a position of honor (John 13.23-25). If this was not one of the twelve, it would seem strange that none of the other gospels refer to him.

Another factor we should consider is how the author of John refers to the activities of the apostles. In the three synoptic gospels, Peter, James, and John appear to be described in ways that would indicate that they formed a sort of inner circle within the twelve, and that Jesus gave them special training. These three are described as being the only ones present at some of the most significant events in Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration. These three disciples are listed together nine times in the synoptic gospels (two in Matthew, four in Mark, and three in Luke). So we see the apostle John listed, not just as one of the twelve apostles, but one of the inner circle which were given special training by Jesus. Ancient tradition also emphasizes John’s importance among the apostles.

With this background, we must ask ourselves, if the “disciple whom Jesus loved” was not intended by the author of the Gospel to refer to the apostle John, where is this very prominent apostle in that gospel? The only clear reference we have to John is in John 21.2 which refers to “the sons of Zebedee” along with other disciples. It appears clear to me that when the author of the Gospel of John refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” he must be referring to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. If he is describing someone else, then we must conclude that the very prominent apostle John does not even appear in the very gospel which from earliest times was ascribed to him.

So, I feel fairly confident in asserting that the author of the Gospel of John was describing the apostle John when he refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In my next post, I will assume this as we consider further who actually wrote the Gospel of John.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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