Monthly Archives: May 2015

Who wrote it? The Gospel of John


The gospel accounts in the New Testament are each attributed to a specific writer. However, many claim the gospel writers are unknown, or anonymous. Yet, “there is no good reason to suspect that John and the Synoptics are not independently authentic.”[1] The purpose of this paper is to provide evidence that the authorship of the gospel of John is indeed John, “the disciple that Jesus loved”, the son of Zebedee.

“The best comes last. The fourth Gospel is the Gospel of Gospels, the Holy of Holies in the New Testament. The favorite disciple and bosom friend of Christ, the protector of His mother, the survivor of the apostolic age was pre-eminently qualified by nature and grace to give to the church the inside view of that most wonderful person that ever walked the earth…His gospel is the golden sunset of the age of inspiration.”[2]

The Debate

Sadly, many professing followers of Christ do not realize there are any objections to the Bible. In fact many, if not most, do not understand why one would need, or desire, answers concerning the Bible or Christianity outside of faith. If asked why one should believe in God, the Bible, or resurrection, the common answer seems to be either to go to heaven, or to just have faith. It appears to almost offend many to ask why they believe. In fact, the “the Bible says it, so I believe it” follower considers having answers a lack of faith. Most seem to think having an answer outside of faith is, well, a lack of faith. Yet, the Bible tells us to “…have an answer for the hope we have…” (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus stated in Matthew 22 the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. Paul “reasoned” daily in the temple. 2 Corinthians 10:5 instructs us to “…to destroy arguments…” And still, the majority, or so it appears, do not see a reason to have an answer for belief outside of having faith. This paper, concerning the authorship of the fourth gospel, to some, would seem to be a waste of time. They would argue John wrote it, his name is on it, and that would be the end of the conversation. Here in lies the importance of such writing. To make disciples, as instructed, and to follow the commands of scripture as stated previously.

“The authorship of the Fourth Gospel is notoriously difficult to decipher.”[3] The Bible itself is possibly one of the most scrutinized books written in history. The objections vary depending on the group or person. Many would state it, the Bible, is simply a book of myths and fables. Others assert it to be a book based on the popular game of “telephone.”; meaning that the Bible has been copied or translated so many times the chance of knowing what it actually stated originally would be all but impossible. While still others proclaim the writers of the Bible are unknown or anonymous, or that one cannot use the Bible to prove the Bible citing circular reasoning. However, based on fact, reason, and evidence, each of these and other objections to the Bible have been shown to be inaccurate or false. The Gospel of John, like other books of the Bible, has not escaped such objections. To address an objection, one must first clarify the objection. Here is where the objection, or debate, to the authorship of the Gospel of John will be defined.

“From the beginning of the second century, the fourth gospel was strongly attached to the apostle John.”[4] The debate of authorship concerning the Bible is not unique to the Gospel of John. It is a common objection from the atheist community. But many scholars also keep the debate popular including Dr. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and converted atheist. Ehrman bases his claims primarily on not having the original writings of the Bible. Even so, the debate has raged much longer than Ehrman, the atheist community, and scholars. “Ultimately, above the human authors, the Bible was written by God. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that the Bible was “breathed out” by God.”[5] The debate began prior to the gospel being credited to John. “As far as we can prove the title “According to John” was attached to it as soon as the four canonical gospels began to circulate together as “the fourfold gospel.” In part, no doubt, this was to distinguish it from the rest of the collection; but may have served as the title from the beginning.”[6] The objection is based on the lack of “proof.” It is not an objection concerning a salvation issue. Neither is it a debate based on lack of evidence. The objection is an excuse. An opinion given in which the evidence is circumstantial. And though “proof” seems to be demanded, the evidence provides a reasonable answer. Anything may be possible, but not all things are reasonable. Thus the point of this writing; to provide reasonable evidence that John “the disciple that Jesus loved” the son of Zebedee, is not only credited with, but is the author of, the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John.

Prior to providing the evidence, it would seem appropriate to provide some common objections as to why there exists any question to the debate of the authorship to John’s gospel.

“Arguments against Historicity:

  1. John was written in the second century, so an eyewitness could not have composed it.
  2. John Does Not Use Parables.
  3. This is an argument from silence.
  4. Jesus uses parabolic speech in John.
  5. The book covers different times and places.
  6. Jesus’ sayings are a different style.
  7. “Johannine” type passages are in the Synoptics
  8. The “I Am” Sayings of Jesus Are Unlike What Jesus Said in the Synoptics.”[7]
  9. “If John had penned this Gospel, would he have referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved?”[8]

The above are a sample of the many objections, and or opinions, concerning the

authorship of the Gospel of John. With the debate defined, and a sample of the objections given, it is appropriate to present the evidence; and though circumstantial, reasonable enough to accept as convincing.

Internal Evidence

Depending on to whom one is defending the authorship of the fourth gospel, internal evidence may not appear to be as strong as the external evidence to be provided later. Typically, many that may doubt the authorship may also doubt the Bible as a whole. However, it is imperative to provide all the evidence available, when building a circumstantial case such as historical authorship.

There are two sets of internal evidence typically used, or accepted. The first being what is known as Westcott’s “Concentric Proofs” and the other is simply incidental “proofs” from within the Gospel itself.

Though there are many other types of internal evidences, and objections of course, for the purpose of this writing Westcott and proof texts are sufficient.

“The classic approach of Westcott, updated by Morris and Blomberg, was to establish five points: the author of the fourth gospel was (1) a Jew, (2) of Palestine, (3) an eyewitness, (4) an apostle (i.e., one of the Twelve), and (5) the apostle John.”[9] Of scholars today, the first two points are rarely disputed. In fact, some accept four of the five points with number five being the only one disputed. As with most writings of the Bible, it comes down to which thought one decides to grasp as their own. It is not a case of contradictions within the written Word of God, but simply the differing interpretations of evidence. Though we, as Christians, profess an absolute Truth, many will argue it to be subjective, if true at all, based on such objections and differing thoughts concerning authorship among many other type discussions.

As mentioned previously, one of the objections concerning authorship, has been why would John refer to himself as “the disciple whom Christ loved?” The answer is more logical than what the difficulty of the objection may actually seem. If John actually wrote, as has been argued that he did, the possibility of the disciples keeping his writing and possibly editing the final pieces of scripture concerning the disciple whom Christ love could very easily be explained. By doing so this “became a title of veneration employed by John’s disciples to revere their deceased leader.”[10] Answering objections is obviously not the point attempting to be made. Here, is only an example of the difficulty addressing the debate of the authorship of the gospel of John.

Though the “beloved disciple” and the “disciple whom Christ loved” give ammunition to the objectors, the “beloved disciple” also provides compelling internal evidence for the Apostle John authorship. “The beloved disciple first appears in the upper room before Jesus’ arrest (13:21-30). The Synoptics make it clear that this meal was reserved for the Twelve (Mark 14:17), and so we may be able to deduce that the beloved disciple must have been an apostle.”[11] “The beloved disciple shows up with Peter on several occasions; belongs to a group of seven in 21:2 (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two others)—and here, he must be one of the last four unnamed disciples; and nowhere in this gospel does John the disciple appear by name (even though he is named twenty times in the synoptics). This strongly infers either that the author of this work was absolutely unaware of John the disciple—a possibility which seems quite remote—or he was John the disciple.”[12] Here one is presented with two examples of the beloved disciple being used as strong evidence in the affirmative of John the apostle’s authorship.

Other incidental evidences abound when one begins to research the history of the writings in the New Testament. Yet at the same time, the lists of objections also grow with each piece of evidence presented. The importance of presenting such a circumstantial case stands or falls on the amount of supporting evidence one can provide.

In using the historical present, one hundred sixty one times according to Dr. Dan Wallace, suggests the writing of an eyewitness; that eyewitness being the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. Typically, an eyewitness account is one of, if not the strongest, pieces of evidence one can present in a circumstantial case such as this. To summarize the internal evidence J. Warner

Wallace quotes these facts from Max Andrews in his blog: The Circumstantial Case for John’s Authorship,

“1. The author identified himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:20, 24), a prominent figure in the Johannine narrative (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).

  1. The author used the first person in 1:14, “we have seen his glory,” revealing that he was an eyewitness to the accounts contained in his Gospel.
  2. The “we” of 1:14 refers to the same people as does 2:11, Jesus’ disciples. Thus the writer was an apostle, an eyewitness, and a disciple of Jesus.
  3. Since the author never referred to himself by name, he cannot be any of the named disciples at the Last Supper: Judas Iscariot (13:2, 26–27), Peter (13:6–9), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8–9), or Judas the son of James (14:22).
  4. The  disciple that Jesus loved is also one of the seven mentioned in the last chapter: “Simon Peter, Thomas (called ‘Twin’), Nathanael from Cana of Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other of his disciples” (21:2; see 21:7).
  5. Peter and Thomas have already been eliminated. Nathanael is also ruled out as a possible author since the author remains unnamed in John’s Gospel.
  6. The author must be either one of “Zebedee’s [two] sons” or one of the “two other of [Jesus’] disciples.”
  7. Of the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, James can safely be ruled out since he was martyred in the year 42 (see Acts 12:2).”[13]

External Evidence

As with the internal evidence, the external evidence is overwhelming. However, it is still circumstantial and does not provide the “proof” that many demand. Yet, again, the point of building a case, especially a circumstantial case, is the amount of evidence presented to convince one of the argument being defended. The obvious opening statement concerning external evidence would be where one left off with the presentation of the internal evidence. Here again is a summary of circumstantial evidence as presented by the ministry of Max Andrews from the blog of J. Warner Wallace:

“Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) attributed the authorship of the fourth gospel to someone named John: “John, last of all … composed a spiritual Gospel” (quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.7). But who is this “John” described by Clement? As Max writes, “Those who doubt apostolic authorship take their point of departure from a quote of Papias (c. 60–130) by Eusebius (c. 260–340). Papias appeared to refer to a John other than the apostle: ‘And if anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would enquire as to the discourses of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples; and the things which Aristion and John the Elder, disciples of the Lord, say’ (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.4–5, emphasis added).”[14]

As stated above, Wallace quotes a brief summary of the external evidence in

one paragraph tracing the authorship of John from outside sources. There are a number of writers quoting John as early as the second century. However, Theophilus of Antioch was the first writer to quote from the fourth gospel. After Theophilus,

“Attestation of Johannine authorship is found as early as Irenaeus. Eusebius reports that Irenaeus received his information from Polycarp, who in turn received it from the apostles directly. Although Irenaeus’ testimony has been assailed on critical grounds (since he received the information as a child, and may have been mistaken as to which John wrote the gospel), since all patristic writers after Irenaeus do not question apostolic authorship, criticism must give way to historical probability. The list of fathers includes Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc. Further, the Muratorian Canon suggests that John was given the commission to write this gospel after Andrew received a vision indicating that he would do so. If one were to sift out the possible accretions in this statement, the bare fact of Johannine authorship is not disturbed. Finally, the anti-Marcionite Prologue also affirms Johannine authorship.”[15]

As one can see, though many external sources are mentioned, many come with

just as many objections. This does not however circumvent the vast amount of evidence, or its validity. If anything, it solidifies the case for John as the author of the fourth gospel. Just as with any investigation, if every account of the facts were identical, the appearance of collaboration among the witnesses would be strengthened.

In the study of historical documents time is crucial in determining authenticity of the writing. Meaning, the closer to an event a written record is found, and the number of copies attesting to said event, provides credit to the authority of the writing. As with the Old and New Testaments, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, provided the Old Testament credibility more trustworthy based on time and number of copies. The New Testament is similar in that there are currently almost six thousand manuscript copies, some dated with the first century of the events taking place. The same is true with the gospel of John. “The John Rylands papyrus fragment 52 of John’s gospel dated in the year 125-135 contains portions of John 18, verses 31-33,37-38.  This fragment was found in Egypt.  It is the last of the gospels and appears to have been written in the 80’s to 90’s.  Most scholars say it was written in the early 90’s.  This means that the time span between the original writing of John and its earliest copy (fragment) is approximately 35-45 years.”[16] One must be familiar with the dating and the methods used to possibly understand what Dr. Wallace quotes concerning John’s authorship and the external evidence being cited. It must also be conceded the following from Dr. Wallace may well be considered internal evidence, as that it is basically labeled for reference, concerning findings of fragments attributed to John.

“John’s Gospel is unique among the evangelists for two early papyri (P66 and P75, dated c. 200) attest to Johannine authorship. Since these two MSS were not closely related to each other, this common tradition must precede them by at least three or four generations of copying. Further, although B and P75 are closely related, textual studies have demonstrated that P75 is not the ancestor of B—in fact, B’s ancestor was, in many respects, more primitive than P75. Hence, the combined testimony of B and P75 on Johannine authorship points to a textualtradition which must be at least two generations earlier than P75.”[17]

In an attempt to solidify the case of Johannine authorship, a chain of “custody”, or the list of writers, will now be presented as the closing argument prior to the conclusion of this discussion, or before the defense rests.

As mentioned previously, Theophilus of Antioch was the first writer to quote from the gospel of John. But one can follow the “chain” starting with Tatian, Claudius Apollinaris and Athenagoras; these three lead to Polycarp and Papias in which flows to Irenaeus and Eusebius; all writing in confirmation of John the Apostle as the author of the fourth gospel.


The purpose of this paper has been to provide evidence that the authorship of the gospel of John is indeed John, “the disciple that Jesus loved”, the son of Zebedee. The debate concerning the authorship has been identified and defined. Internal evidence has been provided as well as external. “When all the evidence is taken together, it is not hard to believe that when we listen to the voice of the Evangelist in his description of what Jesus said, we are listening to the voice of Jesus Himself.” (Carson, 48)”[18]

[1] Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics Baker Books Grand Rapids MI. 2000

[2] Schaff, Philip; History of the Christian Church, Vol. I, page 675

[3] Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI. 1992

[4] last accessed May 2 2015

[5] last accessed 2 May 2015

[6] Carson, D.A., Moo, D. An Introduction to the New Testament Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 2005

[7] Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics Baker Books Grand Rapids MI. 2000

[8] Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI. 1992

[9] Carson, D.A., Moo, D. An Introduction to the New Testament Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 2005

[10] Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI. 1992

[11] Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI. 1992

[12] last accessed May 3, 2015

[13] last accessed May 3, 2015

[14] last accessed May 3, 2015

[15] last accessed May 3, 2015

[16] last accessed May 4, 2015

[17] last accessed May 3, 2015

[18] Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics Baker Books Grand Rapids MI. 2000