The Gospel according to John
Who is the Author?
Internal evidence: B.F. Wescott
B.F. Wescott in the 19th century makes a case that John the Apostle was actively involved in the writings of his Gospel on the life of Christ. Wescott puts foward a 5 step argument. It is an argument that has been very much forgotten that should not‘ even been, but has never refuted.
1. Jewishness of John
The author of John must have been Jewish as he shows exquisite knowledge of the land, topography and geography of Galilee, Samaria & Judea. He is familiar with the details of the festivals, and the customs and the rituals of the temple. Matthew maybe the most Jewish of the gospels but John is a close second when it comes to knowledge of things Jewish.
2. Israelite Jew
John was a Jew from Israel as opposed to some other part of the country. Tourist trips to this day use Johns gospel as the guide because of the details it possesses. If the author didn’t know the land it would be a pretty terrible map for tour guides!
This Jew from the land of Israel was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. He refers to himself as the disciple Jesus loved. He is there at the last supper as well as being there on intimate occasions when apparently only the twelve are present. He is there learning on Jesus hours before Jesus’ crucifixion and then with him at the cross, entrusted to look after Mary.
4. One of the twelve disciples and the inner circle
This was one of the twelve apostles and one of the inner core of the three apostles closest to Jesus (Peter, James and John). But Peter appears by name as separate from the beloved disciple so it can’t be him. James is martyred in AD44 (Acts 12), so its too early for him to be the author of the Gospel of John. Only the apostle John remains
5. John the Baptist details
All 4 gospels refer to John the Baptist in some detail, only the 4th gospel never calls him the baptist, only John. How would early Christian readers known which John was which? John the apostle? Or John the Baptist? Unless they knew that one of those people named John was the author and that he never referred to himself that way except as the beloved disciple and only to the baptist by the name of John.
These five building facts build a pretty strong case from internal evidence for the authorship of John. Naming him without directly naming him through process of elimination.
Papias appears to have been a disciple of John (one of the inner three disciples John, Peter, James). Eusebius records writings of Papias as a “hearer” of John (AD100-107AD)
Papius also mentions a second man named John the elder who links to Aristion. John the elder may well have been another John of John the apostle or the disciple John himself now being referred to as “the elder”.
The Gnostic Basilides is no friend of the Gospels, nor Christianity being one of the early heretical figures at the turn of the century. Yet he quotes John here “that each man has his own appointed time, he says, the Soviet sufficiently indicates when he says, my hour is not yet come.” (John 2:4) and “…this, He says, is what is mentioned in the Gospels: he was the true light, which lights every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9). Now the Gospel of John says things like the word became flesh which is very problematic for a gnostic. But Basilides wants to be considered a good Christian so he tries to use John in a gnostic way. He uses the Christian Gospels because he can’t get away from them because they seem to be undeniable at this point in history to him. So this is a heretic writing around the same time as Papias affirming John also.
Irenaeus records that the synoptics were written first and that later John the disciple of the Lord, put out a gospel while residing in Ephesus. So he tells us that John wrote later than the other three implying the first three were possibly written around the same time.
Against Heresis 3.1.1-2
Clement of Alexandria 180AD
Clement of Egypt writing around the same time periodas Irenaeus tells us that the gospels with the genealogies came first (Matthew & Luke) and that the Gospel of Mark was done at the request of Peter’s preaching in Rome coming shortly after. He ends by saying John came last at the urging of friends. This is confirmation again of the three early synoptic Gospels with John coming later.
Adumbrationes in Epistolas Canonicas on 1 Peter 5:13
Tertullian 200 AD
Tertullian around 200AD tells us “
…that the documents of the Gospels were written by the Apostles Matthew and John and Apostolic men of Luke and Mark.”Against Marcion 4.2.1-2
Muratorian fragment 170 AD
Now this is our first canonical list with reference to John. The first page of this fragment is now lost but virtually all scholars agree that it referred to Matthew and Mark to begin with. This is earliest official canonical list from a non-heretic (that being Marcion). The second page begins with “…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative]’.” In the article on Mark you will see that this is who it is referring to Mark himself. It continues “The third book of the Gospel Is that according to Luke. Luke, the well known physician…”
Then the bit we’re interested in here… “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]…” The keyword here is “forth”. So John is forth, Luke is listed third and Mark is inferred before Luke, then there is one book before Mark and all the historical records tell us that individual is Matthew.
Audience & location
The most likely audience would be Christian congregations in and around Ephesus which were more and more rejected by the Jewish synagogues. Irenaeus 180AD tells us “John the disciple of the lord published a gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia”. As well as this, they also had to face the beginning of the Christian heresies such as Docetism and the beginnings of Gnostic thinking (thus a clear emphasis Jesus was made flesh: John 1:14) the Muratorian Fragment and Clement of Alexandria make it clear John was urged to write, there was a need for one of the last disciples to write an account (church tradition states Andrew was with John when he wrote). John being of the inner circle, and a witness to probably more than any of the twelve (maybe equal to Peter) was in an adequate place to write. And it is suggested in the text that John would be alive to see Jesus return to him (John 21:23) which we now know was the connection into the Book of Revelation.
John has distinctive purposes like Luke. In John 20:30-31 it says “…Jesus performed many other signs..not written in this book…but these are written so that you may believe”. Why does he have 7 miracles between chapters 2-11? John calls them signs, pointers to belief. He chooses what will most meet his purpose ad described in John 20:30-31. John has a very clear purpose, to make it clear that all can believe in what Jesus did as he presents in a structured, consumable format fit for Jews and Gentiles. He wanted to make clear Jesus was God, that he did miracles, that he could forgive sins, that he was God made flesh, the third person of the triune God. John is theology yet is also a biography of a man close to the Lord Jesus as a disciple who would go on to disciple many himself (such as Polycarp and Ignatius).
The Gospels do not come with particular dates rubber stamped onto them, though some Christian traditions (by tradition we mean church father documentation) do give them specific dates — all (except for some traditions about the Gospel of John) dating the Gospels before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The Table 2.4 shows here the date ranges proposed by some non-Christian scholars: (1) By some Jewish scholars, (2) by a Jewish historian, Shaye Cohen, and (3) by a prominent agnostic scholar, Bart Ehrman.
Table 2.4. Proposed dates of Gospel composition
These dates are rather typical among scholars, but we should note that if the traditional view of authorship of the Gospels is correct, Matthew and John were written by people already active as disciples of Jesus in AD 33, Mark was by someone who was able to be an assist to Barnabas and Paul no later than about 50, and Luke was by someone who accompanied Paul in the 50s and early 60s on journeys to Turkey, Greece, Judaea, and Rome.
Peter J Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels?]
The dates given above show that mainstream scholars who disbelieve that Jesus was the Messiah nevertheless date the Gospels within the time limits of reliable memory. If one is open to the possibility that the portrait of Jesus’s identity in the Gospels is actually true, there are few strong reasons why the Gospels could be considerably earlier. Earlier dates are much more appealing over all those given above.
So rather than just presuming what the dates would be based on presuppositions, what evidence for the dates can be discovered from the witnesses and are there any internal features in the text that would suggest a rough date?
Age of writing
One of the main debates in Johns Gospel is his lifespan. Can we imagine a disciple of the 20’s still being alive at the end of the 90’s when average lifespans were late 40’s? It is key to remember that is an average, not an upper limit (The average height in the UK is around 5ft 10 but we know many who exceed the average). In a document known as the Mishnah in the 200’s AD specifies attributes of people decade by decade all the way to 100 years old. Roman sources documenting the ages of people in different parts of the empire at different times make it very clear that people lived in their 70s, 80s and 90s, just not nearly as much as people do today.
There is the early tradition in the early church that John was the youngest of the disciples, perhaps a teenager. Rabbi’s typically had younger followers, if Jesus was 30, the disciples were likely in their mid 20s. So If jesus was crucified in the early 30’s and If john was 19 when he joined Jesus’ ministry, he could have been a man still in his 80’s in the 90’s AD very much in a position to write the text or dictate to a scribe which was common in the first century.
P52 (P: Papyrus) was found in a trash heap in Egypt and stored unnoticed for years at the John Rylands Library in England. This papyrus fragment has changed the historical understanding about the Gospel of John.
In the middle of the 19th century, the influential scholar F.C. Baur proposed that the Gospel of John was written late in the 2nd century. This hypothesis gained considerable influence and as a result the historical reliability of John’s Gospel fell into serious doubt. But in 1934 a doctoral student studying at Manchester University came across a scrap of papyrus in the John Rylands Library. Colin H. Roberts was intrigued by the papyrus fragment, which had been excavated decades earlier from those rubbish heaps in Egypt. It is only 2 & ½ inches by 3 & ½ inches, but its importance far outweighed its size. This scholar Roberts, fluent in recognising the language, immediately recognized it as a fragment of John’s Gospel—chapter 18, verses 31 to 33 on one side, and chapter 18, verses 37 and 38 on the other, to be precise. He sent the photographs of the fragment to three of the leading papyrologists in Europe. Each one reported independently that this fragment should be dated, on paleographical grounds, between AD 100 and AD 150. A fourth scholar disagreed, arguing that the fragment should be dated in the 90s of the first century!
This small fragment of John’s Gospel rocked the near-scholarly consensus on the date of John, for it is impossible for a copy to be written before the original text is produced. It effectively sent two tons of German scholarship to the flames. As scholar Daniel Wallace put it, “
“This manuscript must have been written when the ink on the original text was barely dry.”Daniel Wallace, New Testament Textual Critic
The discovery and publication of P52, the papyrus discovered by Roberts, led Dan Wallace to summarise that:
“An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.”Daniel Wallace, New Testament Textual Critic
The relevance of P52 is paramount to the date. We have a copy of Johns Gospel around the end of the first century, potentially within, so within John’s possible lifetime. It is a copy found potentially in the trash heap of oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2,500 kilometres from where John wrote his original in Ephesus, western Turkey. It would take time for a copy to make it that far south and that deep into Egypt and so what P52 gives us is a clear window into the first century, but from this, we’re not sure how far in.
Clement of Alexandria (180AD)
“But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel”.Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 340AD
What this tells us is that the “external facts” were made plain to them, likely the first three Gospels.
Monarchian Prologue (200AD)
In the Monarchian Prologue it says that John was written after his exile and after he compiled Revelation.
Muratorian Fragment 170AD
The Muratorian fragment says amongst other things “In 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.” [p13-16, Muratorian Fragment] It is unlikely Andrew would’ve also lived as long as John, So John could be anywhere between 66-96AD if we’re agreeing John is written later than the synoptics that for reasons given in their articles, are all likely pre-67AD written accounts.
Internal evidence for dating
Scholars generally agree John is written later, even sceptics agree on this. Christians don’t have much issue with these conclusions. Is there any evidence for earlier dating of John? Well the church fathers unanimously always list John last or coming later. Some internal evidence suggests John may have been written before 70AD. In John 5:2 John speaks in present tense of a sheep gate in Jerusalem by a pool in Bethesda which would not have been there after 70AD. Josephus gives us a firm account
“[Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited”.Josephus, Jewish Historian
But there are many occasions where John is writing reflectively so prior to the siege is an unknown.
So the conclusion to John’s dating is one of mixed messages, what we are told I’ve compiled below
- Andrew was possibly with John when he wrote his Gospel
- John could be written after Revelation
- John was written after his exile
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History contains bold assertions such as that John was written after Domitianus reign (96AD) Which would put his Gospel toward the end of the first century, Revelation could still be written while in exile, but this would put John quite late if Eusebius’ correct. But it is likely earlier due to the age of Andrew in which the information comes from a source 170 years earlier than Eusebius in this case and prior to the Monachian Prologue. So the conclusion to John’s dating is not quite as accurate as Matthew, Mark or Luke, John really could be anywhere within the latter half of the first century. It is worth noting, while the church fathers are not perfect, they are useful for observations and the historical information they pass on. It is clear that John was written late first century, the tough part is pinning down precisely when.
What was the acceptance rate of John’s Gospel as canonical? Valentinus, another heretic is actually one of the first to mention John as well as Basilides, a fellow heretic despite how condemning his Gospel is of their two movements. But from Justin Martyr onwards, there is no question of John’s authorship.
See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)
It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml
Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrectionActs 1:21-22
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)John 19:34-35
“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.Acts 2:32
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!Acts 3:15
We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”Acts 5:32
“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”Acts 10:39-43
[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.Romans 9:1
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.1 Corinthians 15:3-9
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:1 Peter 5:1
Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name.
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.Caius, Church leader
How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected.
So these summarised standards are these:
- Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
- Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
- Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
- Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
- Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?
Attestation from the church fathers and the Muratorian Fragment hold the authorship to John the disciple as the author and eyewitness to the life and works of Jesus. John is also one of the inner core of the closest three disciples to Jesus (along with Peter and James, son of Zebedee). His testimony would be worth more than most and we have multiple attestation to his authorship.
Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? John aligns well with the synoptics, see my article on John and similarities to the synoptics. So prior Gospels align with him and what John does is further affirm, clear up, reveal names once protected, protect the orthodoxy of the Christian message and teachings.
John was widely agreed upon that we know of from mid-second century with manuscripts found in central Egypt. For them to get there, there would be acceptance beyond the borders of Ephesus in west Turkey. There is no question of John by any church father. Marcion, the heretic however does reject John’s Gospel and since Marcions intent was to remove references to the “Old Testament God” this rejection is actually attestation in some form as he rejected Matthew and many of Pauls letters also. Something can only be rejected if it existed!
Johns gospel is relative for a number of reasons. Firstly it is organised biography. John is written in a way for all to read and clearly understand who Jesus came to be and what he would achieve. It is written in hindsight so plugs a lot of foreknowing as statements are made. Secondly, John writes in a way that would convict heresies in the bud like Doceitism which was of that time. One of the marvels in the synoptics is they don’t address the sort of persecutions from Nero with any visual parallels, however in the Book of Revelation, also by John, you can almost see Roman symbolism interpreted In it. John, written at the urging of friends likely to confirm a lot of what was said in the synoptics and clear up what misinterpretations have come about, have in all his works an aura of relevance.
John, supervised by God writes the testimony of the life of Jesus as the disciples are promised in Acts 1 that they will know all things required. John records many events and situations that have transformative value unlike other Christian works like Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas or any of the church father works. John’s Gospel certainly has the power by the Holy Spirit to lead people into right relationship with God the way many casual poems or stories do not.