John’s gospel is not a book I have taught often. Without giving it much thought, I have usually assumed that the “John” of its title must be the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ 12 disciples. After all, this is what the Church Fathers, the early leaders and theologians of the church, believed. At least most of them. Or so I thought. Richard Bauckham is giving me reasons to reconsider. Who really is the author of the fourth Gospel?
When it comes to issues like the authorship of a book, we distinguish between internal and external evidence. Internal evidence is what we find in the book itself; external evidence is all the information we may derive from other sources. These “other sources” are often different books of the Bible or extrabiblical documents, for the New Testament especially the writings of the Church Fathers.
For the gospel of John, one bit of external evidence is readily accessible: its title. The gospel titles are not part of the original documents, but they are very old, probably almost as old as the gospels themselves. This means that the link between the fourth gospel and John is ancient. Besides, no other name was ever linked with this gospel. However, this does not answer the question fully. John was a common name. Which John are we talking about? This is where it starts getting interesting.
Papias (ca. 60-130)
The oldest external evidence that we have comes from Papias. Papias lived in the Roman province of Asia and eventually became Bishop of Hierapolis. According to a later Church Father, Irenaeus (who died ca. 202), Papias had been a hearer of John (yes, here, too, the question is which John).
Papias had first- and second-hand information on the apostles and the authorship of the four gospels. In fact, he himself claimed that he deliberately questioned those who had known Jesus or had heard from the apostles directly to gather reliable information:
And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders arrived, I made enquiries about the words of the elders – what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from the books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice. (Quoted in Bauckham 2012: 11)
This is the famous quotation that establishes a real possibility that there were two Johns, both disciples and eyewitnesses of Jesus. After all, the name John appears twice, once in a list of apostles and once, identified as “John the Elder”, together with Aristion, a disciple who is not one of the Twelve. The church historian Eusebius (260/265-339/340) certainly understood Papias in this way, and adds that both Johns had ministered in Asia and that each had his tomb in Ephesus (Eusebius, Book III, Chapter 39).
It is important to notice the difference in verb tenses in the passage just quoted. Papias enquired about what the apostles “had said” and what Aristion and John the Elder “were saying” – they were still active when Papias enquired.
If there were indeed two Johns in Ephesus, who of them wrote the gospel: John the Apostle or John the Elder? Whoever wrote the gospel probably also wrote the epistles of John. It is worth noting that in two of John’s letters the author identifies himself simply as “the elder”. But this alone can hardly be conclusive.
Polycrates (ca. 130-196)
There is another early voice from the same region: Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, and therefore in a position to know which John did what. In a dispute about the correct date for the Easter celebration, Polycrates wrote a letter to Rome in which he states:
For indeed in Asia great luminaries have fallen asleep, such as shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s appearing, when he comes with the glory from heaven to seek out all his saints: to wit, Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who has fallen asleep in Hierapolis, [as have] also his two daughters who grew old in virginity, and his other daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit and rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, [there is] John too, he who leant back on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest, wearing the sacerdotal plate … , both martyr … and teacher. He has fallen asleep at Ephesus. (Quoted in Bauckham 2007: 37)
That this John “leant back on the Lord’s breast” suggests that Polycrates identifies him as the author of the gospel. The reference to the priestly plate is strange, because it suggests that this John had functioned as high priest at some point, the only one who would ever wear this plate. Whatever the truth behind this (Bauckham goes at some length to give an explanation; 2007: 41-50), nothing suggests that John the Apostle had any priestly connection.
Even more important is the remarkable and fascinating omission. Polycrates does not identify “his” John as one of the Twelve or as an apostle, even though it would have fortified his position if he had been able to claim John the Apostle as one of his sources. Instead, the Ephesian John is a witness and a teacher, and the disciple reclining in the bosom of Jesus – but not the son of Zebedee.
Irenaeus (120/140-ca. 202)
Irenaeus is often referred to as the church father who clearly identified John the Apostle as the author of the fourth gospel. To be sure, Irenaeus does state that John wrote the gospel and that he did it in Ephesus. But which John? Richard Bauckham‘s analysis of all the relevant Information (2007: 70-71) shows that the many references to John in Irenaeus are surprisingly ambiguous and inconclusive.
Bauckham (2007: 72) concludes his investigation:
This gives the Asian tradition that the beloved disciple who wrote the Fourth Gospel was John the Elder a right to be taken very seriously.
…Isn’t it the apostle John who appears in the gospel of John as the beloved disciple? Isn’t he the one who reclined at the breast of Jesus during the Last Supper? Since only the Twelve were with Jesus at the Last Supper, how could this John be anyone else? Wasn’t it John who stood at the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and took her into his home at the word of Jesus? And wasn’t it John, appearing together with Peter in the last chapter of this gospel, of whom Jesus said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23)?
Well, look for yourself. Of whom are these things said in the gospel of John? I found it a fascinating study; none of it was quite as I remembered it.
John 21:2. Where is John in the gospel of John? We now turn to the internal evidence. Remarkably, his name does not appear. Neither do the sons of Zebedee, with one exception. This single reference to the sons of Zebedee in the entire gospel is in John 21:2. This verse includes a list of seven (no doubt the number is significant) who went fishing:
Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.
John 21:20-24. Obviously, one of these seven also is “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. John 21:20-24 is conclusive evidence that this beloved disciple is the author of the fourth gospel. These verses also suggest that the first readers of this gospel knew who this was: he was one of them; this gospel is not anonymous. But which one of the seven is the beloved disciple? Since he identifies himself elsewhere as disciple, it seems likely that he is one of the two anonymous disciples, not one of the sons of Zebedee.
John 13:23. The author does make a few appearances earlier in the book. It is sometimes thought that the nameless disciple in John 1:35-40 is the author. If not, he first becomes visible in John 13:23, during the Last Supper, where he is reclining at the breast of Jesus. Is it conceivable that a disciple, not one of the Twelve, would be present at the Last Supper? Yes, it is, especially if this person would be the owner of the house where Jesus celebrated or his son. After all, the other gospels only state that Jesus came with the Twelve, not that there were only the Twelve with him at the table.
John 18:15-16. “Another disciple … who was known to the high priest” enables Peter to enter the house of the high priest, where Peter betrays Jesus. It is likely that this is again the beloved disciple, but would John the son of Zebedee have such relationships in Jerusalem?
John 19:26-27. Next, we find the beloved disciple at the cross, in John 19:26-27. It is at a word of Jesus that “from that hour the disciple took her [Mary] to his own home.” It is unlikely that John the son of Zebedee or his family would have owned a home in Jerusalem. The family business was located at the sea of Galilee. The beloved disciple, however, appears to have been a resident of Jerusalem. This would explain a noticeable characteristic of his gospel: so much of it takes place in or near Jerusalem, not in Galilee or elsewhere.
John 19:35. When Jesus is pierced by the spear of a Roman soldier, leading to a flow of blood and water, we read:
He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth – that you also may believe.
Clearly, this is the author again. But who of the disciples was present at the cross? None are named (not in the other gospels either), except for some of the women – and the disciple whom Jesus loved (and who took Mary into this home).
John 20:1-10. After the resurrection, we find the disciple at the empty grave with Peter.
All of this eminently qualifies the author to be a witness (and therefore a gospel writer), but it does not reveal him to be John the son of Zebedee. None of it comes close to proving that this is John the Apostle.
On the contrary, the evidence points away from him. Somehow, unwittingly, I ascribed all of the above to the apostle John, but he is never mentioned in these references. Bauckham has a point. It is worth repeating his conclusion:
This gives the Asian tradition that the beloved disciple who wrote the Fourth Gospel was John the Elder a right to be taken very seriously. (2007: 72)
Quite apart from this question of authorship, I see a far more valuable take-away from this exercise. It leaves me wondering: What is it like to be a disciple whom Jesus loves?
On my reading list: Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
Richard Bauckham (2007), The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)
Ibid. (2012), “Papias and the Gospels” http://austingrad.edu/images/SBL/Papias%20and%20the%20gospels.pdf (1 November 2017)
Eusebius (ca. 324), Church History
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. If you purchase anything through such a link, you help me cover the cost of Create a Learning Site.
Illustration: Brown (1852-6), Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_washing_Peter%27s_feet.jpg, Public Domain
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.
Wenn du über diese Links etwas kaufst, hilfst du mir, die Kosten für Create a Learning Site abzudecken.