Authorship of John's Gospel

An updated version of this essay is available in our resource Trusting the New Testament.

[Ireneaus] [Attribution to Cerinthus] [Alleged Gnosticism] [Lack of Quick Acceptance] [Dependence on Mark/No Mention of James/Lack of Interest in Galilee] [Use of Greek] [Self-Reference as "Beloved"] [John 18:13/Martyrdom of John] [Positive Signs] [Excursus: John in Relation to Mark] [Excursus: Why is John So Different?]

The authorship of John has some interesting permutations. Kümmel pessimistically states that there is "no possibility of breaking through the anonymity" of John's Gospel [Kumm.Int, 234-7]. We do have a church tradition cited by Irenaeus (c. 180 AD), who quotes Polycarp:

John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the Gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia...

Against the identification of this person with the apostle John, Kümmel objects:

It is unclear that Polycarp is referring to the apostle John. Some have suggested that there is a confusion between the apostle John and a later disciple named John in Polycarp's statement [Stree.4G, 434]. However, Robinson [Robin.PJ, 102-3; see also Gund.Mk, 1027ff] makes the following points:

Polycarp makes no appeal in his epistles to a relationship with an apostle. This is an argument from silence, and assumes that we have all of Polycarp's extant material and that there was a need for such an appeal, a most gratuitous assumption especially from a high-context document and society in which such background facts if true would be taken for granted. Blomberg [Blom.Jn, 24] notes that Polycarp's epistle is exhortational in nature and thus has no place for direct appeal to John's Gospel or John himself.

The anti-Montanists attributed John's Gospel to Cerinthus. However, the anti-Montanists disliked John's Gospel. To attribute it to a heretic was certainly the fastest way for them to discredit it.

The Gnostic language of John would not have been used by an eyewitness of Jesus' ministry. This is an incorrect assertion in two ways.

First, it assumes that the language in John is Gnostic, which it is not. Although as recently as 1957, F. C. Grant called John a "Hellenistic" Gospel, and called all such suppositions of connections to Qumranite ideas a "wish fathering the thought" [Gran.GOG, 175], it is now recognized that John is perhaps the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that a better connection than Hellenism is made with similar thought processes found in the documents at Qumran (see Chars.JDSS]).

Furthermore, at every crucial point, the Gospel of John is in tension with, and even repudiates, a Gnostic point of view [Pric.INP, 588n] - though of course, the Gnostics were such syncretists that this would be no barrier to them.

At best, some similarities may be noted with the Jewish-Hellenist Philo of Alexandria, but no one would call Philo a Gnostic.

Second, this puts the cart before the horse: It assumes a late date for John, who uses Gnostic language, where it would be better to see that Gnostics took over the language of John (and, we add, that of the Qumranites). The "Gnostic John" thesis, at any rate, receives no respect among the scholarly community today.

John was not accepted quickly into the Christian community as it would have been had it been by an apostle.[Davi.INP, 371] We may reply that:

  1. The Gospel of John was rather difficult to understand.
  2. It's (mis)use by Gnostics probably discouraged its easy acceptance.

John depends on the Gospel of Mark. This is by no means proven; similar narrative traditions or experiences are just as good an explanation, if not a preferable one [Pric.INP, 580; Robin.PJ, 12]. However, as we have noted with Matthew, this would not pose a problem anyway (plus see below).

James the brother of John is not mentioned. This is a pointless objection. John is writing a Gospel, not a family history.

There is no interest in Galilee as we would expect from John, a native of Galilee. John is writing a Gospel, not a travelogue. In any event, this is quite wrong; Robinson rightly calls this comment by Kümmel "astonishing," for there is ample interest shown in Galilee [ibid., 59n].

John's Gospel is in good Greek with some semitizing; but Acts 4:13 says that John and Peter were illiterate. See here for an answer.

The author of this work would not refer to himself as "the disciple Jesus loved." This is taken to be far too egotistical to have been written by the apostle John; hence, it must have been written by a disciple of John [Stree.4G, 432]. In the context of John's Gospel and his letters, however, this should be seen not as ego, but as a "mark of brokenness" [CarMoo.Int, 148] - much like Paul's statement in Gal. 2:20 -

Gal. 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

On the other hand, it is not objectionable to see John as the ultimate source for the data in his Gospel, with one of his own disciples as an editor/redactor/commentator.

John's knowledge of Judaism is tainted. Critics cite John 18:13 in this regard:

...and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.

Supposedly this reflects the notion that there was a new high priest every year. But I cannot see where saying, "Ah, 1977...Jimmy Carter was President that year" means that I think that Presidents are elected every year. Certainly John's Jewish readers would know better. Though indeed, with 28 persons holding the office between 37 BC and 70 AD, most lasting an average of only 2.75 years, that itself may not have been an inappropriate reference.

NT critic David F. Strauss counters this explanation by claiming that "This mode of expression must imply, that either the incident the date of which is to be determined, or the fact by which the fate is to be determined, is connected with the term of a year." [Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 601]

It "must" imply no such thing. The Johnanine emphasis on times strongly suggests that when John refers to "that year" he means it in the sense of "that fateful year" or "that year of decision". He is highlighting the specialty of the year itself as chronological host of the earth-shattering events of the crucifixion and resurrection, not terms of office of the high priest. It is, again, like someone highlight 1963 as a turning point in history and saying that Kennedy was President "that year".

Note that this is supported by the fact that the word John uses here is ekeinos...a word which John uses elsewhere to refer to Jesus also as "that one". In a discussion with Earl Doherty on the subject, we showed that this word carries for John the sense of an honorific or respectful reference -- which fits right in with the thesis that in saying "that year" John means "that fateful year".

John was martyred too early to compose a gospel. A few critics use this argument citing a church tradition that says that John and his brother James were killed by the Jews.

I find it amazing that critics find church tradition so reliable when it suits their purposes, but ignore it for things like Papias' testimony about the authorship of Matthew and Mark. However, this tradition only says that John and James died at the hands of the Jews - NOT that they died at the same time.

In favor of the Johnnanine authorship of John, we may note the following:

John's Gospel shows a detailed familiarity with the geography of Palestine and of Judaism. Skeptics counter that knowledge of Palestine could have been gathered by any pilgrim, which we may allow. However, John's knowledge is so extensive and correct that this becomes a contrivance: the author of John "accurately understands Jewish customs, is steeped in the Old Testament, is aware of finer points of distinction among pre-70 Jewish sects...His knowledge of the geography and topography of Israel is excellent...John's Gospel regularly demonstrates Jesus and his Jewish opponents discussing 'halakhic' (legal) regulations relatively unique to Israel, and portions of the Gospel demonstrate affinity with distinctive Samaritan forms of thought." [Blom.Jn, 27]

The method of referring to John the Baptist. In John's Gospel, John the Baptist is simply called "John" (1:6) - whereas other people are identified by double names (Simon Peter, Thomas Didymus). To identify John the Baptist only as "John" points to someone named "John" being author of the Gospel (and not a later person who would want or need to distinguish the two). [Robin.PJ, 105-6; Blom.Jn, 30]

Ommission of stories where John is prominent. Blomberg [Blom.Jn, 30] points to a number of Synoptic episodes missing from John in which John plays a role (Mark 1:16-20, 29-32; 3:13-19; 5:35-43, etc.) Though he does not reach this conclusion, we would observe thatleaving out such stories fits in with the ancient dialectic of honor and shame, in which John would be hesitant to report stories in which he was prominent.

The use of professional fisherman's terms. As with Matthew's finance records and Luke's medical language, this is more persuasion than proof to many critics, and there is less here than for the previous two, though it does fit in with the standard criterion for determining authorship: John's Gospel uses the distinct technical name for cooked fish that was part of the fishing trade. [ibid., 117]

[Late Theology] ["The Jews"/Saducees/Synagogue Expulsion Reference] [Jerusalem in Present Tense/John 11:48 Prediction]

It is not considered objectionable to date John as late as 90-100 even in conservative circles [CarMoo.Int, 166]. But let us consider some of the arguments for a late date anyway:

The theology of John is very developed, and therefore late. Such presuppositions are entirely arbitrary. Although favoring a 90-95 date for the Gospel, Streeter [Stree.4G, 456] recognized that: "The logos doctrine is consistent with almost any date for the Gospel." In support of this, he recognizes similar concepts in the work of Philo, and recognizes the author of John's Gospel as a man of genius.

Further, a pre-existence Christology like John's is found in the letters of Philippians and Colossians, both of which may be put in the 50s, and has roots in the earlier Jewish Wisdom tradition.

Beyond this, however, in light of the "Qumran connection" and Wisdom template, John is actually the most PRIMITIVE of the Gospels. [Robin.PJ, 6n] This spells trouble for late dates for John - not to mention a whole host of other suppositions. In light of this (and the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned), Robinson has suggested a date of 50-55 for John, with a second edition (including epilogue and prologue) at around 65. [ibid., 67n]

On the other hand, Blomberg [Blom.Jn, 43] points out that "the late 90s would be far enough removed from the events of AD 70 that no mention of the temple's destruction or of Sadducees need have occurred," and to appeal to the primitiveness of the Gospel is in essence a reverse of the same fallacy used by those who date it late on the grounds of it being more developed.

The use of the phrase "the Jews." I do not find this a very compelling reason to date John late. However, this phrase is also found, in a similar sense, in 1 Thess. 2:14, Galatians 2:8, and 2 Cor. 11:24, which are all dated to the 50s.

There is no mention of the Saducees, which reflects post-70 Judaism. There is also no mention of the scribes, who came into their own after 70, so this objection misses the mark. [Robin.RNT, 275; CarMoo.Int, 167]

The synagogue expulsion reflects a late development. This is found in John 9:22: "His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue." Supposedly this reflects a time after 85 AD, when synagogue members would read a benediction cursing Christians [Perr.NTI, 230].

However, aside from the fact that John's Jewish readers would realize that there was an anachronism, the benediction is a CURSE, not an expulsion - there was no ban on attendance of synagogue by Christians. [Robin.PJ, 177; CarMoo.Int, 167]

Reflecting an earlier date for John are the following considerations [Robin.PJ, 70]:

Jerusalem is referred to in the present tense. Several verses, including 5:2, indicate Jerusalem is still around, although not much should be made of this [CarMoo.Int, 151], since John is not always consistent in this application (see John 11:18).

The "wrong prediction" of 11:48. This verse has the priests saying: "If we let him (Jesus) go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." If this were written after 70, then it would probably have been modified to say something about the destruction.

John as a Complement to Mark

The programmatic work for this brief excursus is Richard Bauckham's essay in The Gospels for All Christians entitled "John for Readers of Mark." [147ff] It is Bauckham's contention that while John is a work readable on its own, it has certain aspects which indicate that it was also intended to complement Mark's Gospel and further inform those who had read or heard Mark's Gospel.

The relation of John to the Synoptics (not Mark alone) has been through opposing permutations. Early on scholars argued that John was dependent on the Synoptics. Later they came to regard it as wholly independent in line with the thesis of competing and hateful "communities," some even saying it was meant to displace the Synoptics. Somehow a mediating position escaped notice -- that John was a complement to only one of the Synoptics, not all of them. And there are a couple of interesting "coincidences" which support this thesis.

The major keys lie in two of John's parenthetical insertions. (For a defense of the authenticity of these to John's Gospel, see Bauckham's full essay.) We'll also intersperse other points along the way.

John 3:24 For John was not yet cast into prison.
John 11:2 (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.)

These comments seem like throwaways if we read them too fast, but given careful consideration, they are weighted with significance. 3:24 raises a question:

As an explanation purely of what the text of the Gospel has said, this explanation seems ludicrously redundant. If John was still baptizing, of course he could not yet have been imprisoned...It refers to John's imprisonment as though it were something already known to the readers/hearers and as though a chronological point were at issue.

That point, Bauckham argues, is to "place the events of John 1:19-4:43 between Mark 1:13 and Mark 1:14," the Temptation of Jesus and the start of Jesus' ministry after John was put in the pokey.

Next issue. Remember when Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Kingdom? Ever wonder what Jesus was doing? He wasn't home counting the hairs on his head. More likely, he was doing the business of healing the paralytic in Jerusalem (John 5) -- where the disciples are conspicuous by their absence.

The next point concerns John 7:1:

After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

Another throwaway? No -- this is John's summary of Mark 6:54-9:50, the Galileean ministry. This fits with the most clear link among the four Gospels -- the feeding of the 5000.

The trial narrative of John also has some hints. We have noted in our trial piece that John relates the time before Annas, but only mentions Caiaphas by name without relating the hearing before him. And yet where does John get this info?

John 19:7 The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.

The answer? From here:

Mark 14:61 But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?

There are parallels in Matthew as well, and elsewhere John notes such a claim by Jesus (i.e., 5:17-18), but there is none made in a judicial setting that would be needed when they went before Pilate -- unless John assumes knowledge of the Synoptic account.

Another place where John offers a complement is in his ending story, 21:1-14. To fully appreciate the symbolism of the catch of fish, the reader needs to know about the "fishers of men" motif present in the Synoptics -- but never stated in John.

Finally we have 11:2. John does not narrate this description of Mary's deeds until John 12, so why this awkward intro beforehand? And why no similar intro for Martha and Lazarus? The likely answer: John is making a point for readers who know Mark -- where Mary stars, but is not named.

In conclusion, we have some rather poignant evidence that John wrote bits of his Gospel with readers of Mark in mind, or at the very least, the same core of traditions used by Mark [Blom.Jn, 49] -- and this goes a long way towards explaining his divergence from the Synoptics. John was writing as a complement to a known account and didn't need to be out repeating what the other had already said.

Excursus: Jonn's Chronology vs. Synoptic Chronology

Some claim that John's chronology of the ministry of Jesus contradicted, and was inferior to, that of the Synoptics. They say that John's portrait of an extended ministry would not fit with the Synoptic view of a ministry of about one year, whereas John offers perhaps three years, but at least two.

We note briefly that the Synoptics offered no clear time markers that demanded such a view. In line with the typical practice of ancient biography, in which words and deeds were the foremost feature, the Synoptics gathered material topically and were not concerned to provide a chronology in the same sense as a modern biography, in which every chapter or paragraph stresses that things happened on such and such a date at 4 in the afternoon (which among the Gospels, only John does to any extent; cf. 1:19, 1:35, 1:39, 1:43, 2;1, 2:13).

Robinson [Robin.PJ, 123ff] points out, however, that the Synoptics offer several clues that Jesus' ministry was much more extensive than they let on. Consider, in addition to the above matters concerning John as a supplement to Mark:

Robinson offers other points of discussion, including a suggestion (not necessarily problematic for inerrancy, in terms of the principle of topical arrangement) that the Temple cleansing took place only when John says it did, at the beginning of the ministry, and that the Synoptics put it at the end because of their topical chronology. Nevertheless, it is clear even from clues within the Synoptics that they do not intend to present a chronology of merely a year or less.

Why is John so Different?

One common critical argument makes much of the differences between John and the Synoptics -- both in terms of content and in terms of style. We will now take a detailed look at some of the complaints often issued in this respect, by those professing to offer "critical history" but in actuality failing to look at the texts with more than one-dimensional eyes.

The first and most obvious issue is that John offers a great deal not in the Synoptics. We have already provided an answer to this above, noting that John is written in a way that supplements Mark.

A second issue has to do with John's chronology, which we also address above. Some specific events are worth a closer look.

  1. The Cleansing of the Temple. This event presents something of an oddity, as one may find scholars who actually think John represents a more accurate tradition, while the Synoptics have mistakenly put the cleansing at the end of of Jesus' ministry. A standard answer (which has nothing to do with "piety" but with common sense historical detective work) is that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry, and once at the end. Another idea is that there was no personal witness to these events, but that they were handed down through an intermediate source and later arranged according to community needs.

    Of course one is constrained to ask why speculative and unknown "communities" with speculated and otherwise unknown "needs" is any better an explanation than that each evangelist chose to report a different cleansing to meet certain "needs". In both cases a theory dictates the facts rather than the other way around.

    The latter idea, however, has a certain advantage, aside from the simple fact that it doesn't miss the data and context. Jesus as an observant Jew certainly visited the Jerusalem Temple many times in his life. Cleansing the Temple as an act of "prophetic demonstration" (as most agree it is) is not something that was likely to have been done once. Indeed, it is arguably something Jesus would have done, to some extent, on numerous visits to Jerusalem, during any one of the major Jewish festivals. One may ask the question of whether a pious Jesus would be any less incensed at the Temple abuses at any given time than another.

    Notably John's Gospel has a chronological marker that is quite incidental and therefore rings of authenticity: the note that the Temple has been under construction for 46 years (2:20), which places this incident in 27-28, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Witherington, John commentary, 87). Note as well that in John, Jesus merely orders the sellers of doves (whose wares are more likely to be able to escape) to leave, whereas in Mark and Matthew he overturns their seats, indicating a progression in reaction that suits a later cleansing.

    It does remain possible that either John or the others have purposely dischronologized a single event in Jesus' ministry. But there remains no logical or historical barrier to a "dual cleansing action".

  2. Baptism by John. The issues usually brought up on this subject are handled here, here, and here (section on the baptism). It is rather unreasonable to suggest that John's Gospel does not allude to Jesus' baptism by claiming that it is illicit to allow the Synoptics to provide the context, especially in light of the supplemental nature of John noted above, and allusions to baptism in vv. 31 and 33.

    Other objections, which speak of the church putting words in John's mouth, are cases of a theory trying to explain away the data when the data provides an unacceptable conclusion taken as it stands. One may as well say that sayings by those who praised, i.e., Martin Luther King in his own lifetime are retrojections by his later admirers. (For several examples of how this sort of theorizing can be musused, see this series.)

  3. Jesus' Self-Identification. There are a set of objections here that are wrong-headed to begin with. One makes much of places like Mark 1:34 where Jesus "would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was" and others where demons do manage to speak of Jesus' identity and are rebuked.

    This is not, as has been suggested, a case of not wanting his identity proclaimed; rather, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note (Social Science commentary, 183) it is more likely a case of the demons trying to protect themselves from a higher power by "magically using that being's true identity". Other "identity issue" passages like Mark 8:27-30 (in which Jesus warned his disciples not to reveal his identity to others) are discussed here.

    The contrast is noted, however, to Jesus' willingness to proclaim his identity, which is said to be contradictory to the Synoptic view. In view of the social factors listed above, however, all of John's reports make perfect sense and confirm the social factors. When Jesus proclaimed himself most openly, that is when he received the most hostile reactions. In other cases (the Samaritan woman) we see him using oblique language to speak of himself and allowing others to "gather data" first and reach a conclusion comfortably. In this light Jesus in John is in the same social situation as Jesus in the Synoptics, and the portraits are completely consistent.

  4. Miracles. Obviously John deals less in miracles and more in teaching. His focus is different, which does not in any way suggest historical difference unless we let a theory govern the data rather than the other way around. Most significance is made perhaps of John's lack of mention of exorcisms.

    Of course since Luke has only three allusions to exorcisms -- no direct performances are listed -- this isn't much of a difference to see. Why this silence is in any way significant needs an explanation; merely pointing it out serves no real purpose. John does think that Jesus' life and death are for overthrowing Satan (12:31, 14:30, 16:11) so it is hardly likely that he would be unaware of Jesus' exorcisms.

  5. What Jesus Said. Much is also repeatedly made of Jesus in John not using parables to teach. It is of course absurd to suggest that Jesus was incapable of communicating in both parables and long discourses, to say nothing of the dozens of other genres within the range of human communucation. So John would obviously have much to pick and choose from in any event, but why the difference?

    Blomberg [Blom.Jn, 50] suggests that parables were less appropriate for a Hellenistic-Christian readership (especially in an urban setting, when most of the parables used rural imagery), but I prefer another idea: Aside from the issue of supplementation noted already, Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on John [9ff] argue that John serves a special purpose as a manifesto for the Christian "antisociety" which has been labelled as deviant by others, notably Judeans.

    Such documents make use of "antilanguage," a sort of jargon used by a group with a different view of the way things are and ought to be. A modern comparison may be street gangs, prison inmates, or minority groups who consider themselves oppressed, adopting their own slang terms.

    Hence we have specialized phrases like "the/this world" emphasized (79 times in John, but 9 in Matthew and 3 each in Mark and Luke -- note how this fits with Luke being for an "outsider" as hypothesized by Paul on Trial).

    John's Gospel is therefore found to be a "resocializing" document intended to establish ties between the convert and his new "ingroup." To this end it features primarily conversations and monologue, the "main form of discourse used in socialization and reality maintenence" -- thus explaining as well why John does not follow the Synoptics in featuring public teachings and parables. A Sermon on the Mount would not serve John's purpose. The reader is intended to be a "conversation partner" with Jesus and there is nothing at all strange about John's non-usage of parables, which were clearly meant to be consumed by "outsiders".

  6. The Kingdom of God. A last major consideration is that John only mentions the Kingdom of God once (3:3, 5, though cf. 18:36) whereas Matthew has it mentioned 5 times, and Mark and Luke much more often. Like most "word count" objections this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Mark uses the phrase many more times, but in only 9 total pericopes; only Luke really has a comparably anamolous number of mentions, perhaps because of his Gentile readership and desire to emphasize that Christianity was not a political movement.

    It is perhaps better to recognize "Kingdom of God" as a phrase Jesus used publicly, in line with ingroup-outgroup expectations: it served as a catchphrase for his relations with outsiders, while insiders (John's audience) were socialized into the specifics, which is himself as "king". This is why mere word counts are so useless in serious study.

    Blomberg [50] adds that Mark 10:24, 30 show that "eternal life" was used by Jesus as a synonym for the KoG, and the former phrase appears very frequently in John, so that John is "contextualizing the Gospel for a Greaco-Roman world that frequently discussed the nature of life after death but was unfamiliar with the uniquely Jewish forms of theocracy."

In conclusion: The differences between John and the Synoptics are brought to light with closer study, especially of relevant social science factors. John's historicity cannot be questioned on the basis of any such differences.