Defending John As The Author of the 4th Gospel

Historical Critical Analysis

I intend to present a defense of the traditional designation of John as the author of the fourth Gospel and the letters.  However, this defense will play out under the ancient concept of authorship, not the modern one.  Rather than anachronistically applying modern standards and designations to ancient texts, I will attempt to show that the traditional designation of John as author is consistent with ancient practice and a likely designation under the same.


Modern biblical studies have focused much attention on objective historical truth as the ultimate measure of truth for the biblical texts.  The study of biblical texts has produced evidence of a literary process that spans many years and multiple hands.  In some cases, like Isaiah, the period of time can be hundreds of years and the number of authors three with a final editor compiling the work.  For a modern society with clear credit for both the author and editor of all major works, this type of fluidity of authorship has proven problematic.[1]  The modern science of text criticism in biblical studies seeks ultimate truth as the “autograph” of a biblical book.  The autograph is the text as committed to paper by the original author. This quest assumes that God’s word is best understood and studied as originally conceived by the biblical author.[2]  The long and convoluted process of creating the biblical books we now possess appears as “corruption” of the original text to these biblical scholars.[3]

Traditional Catholic and Orthodox scholars have responded by pointing out that none of the biblical texts appeared instantly as scripture.  The community of the Church saved these works, collected them and edited them into collections we now call scripture.  The end result of this process was canonized as the New Testament.[4]  The content and the authority of the material was the guiding factor in determining the worth of a book as scripture.

Were the early Church Fathers, Bishops and leaders less aware than we of the “historical truth” about authorship of these books we are?  Can we automatically assume that our analysis of the literary styles and text of these works reveal information unknown to prior generations, especially when some of these people are within living memory of the composition of the books? If these ancient intellectuals were able to discern the “historical truth”, why would they allow the designation of authorship we have be applied to these biblical books?

Looking towards other ancient texts that are attributed to an ancient leader we can see a pattern of attribution that is similar to the case of the fourth Gospel and John. Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher, left many works under his name.  But critical work on the documents and analysis of the historical period, lead many to believe the works are lecture notes that have been reworked for “publication” by advanced students of the master.[5]  In the modern sense of the term the students would be editors at the very least. Depending on the depth of the notes provided, they could be considered authors, yet we don’t even know their names.

In a similar vein Socrates is the authority behind the dialogues of Plato.  Socrates wrote nothing himself, his teaching was entirely verbal.  This is precisely the situation of the Christian Church after the death of Jesus. There is no written a record only witness of the preaching.  What Plato and Xenophon did in their writing is similar to the situation in the Gospels. We have two different witnesses describing the same events from different perspectives.[6]

In other religious traditions, we see a similar process of compilation and editing over time in the sacred writings.  The Analects of Confucius betray the same marks of an editor that we find in the fourth Gospel.  Likewise, the historical life of Confucius as portrayed in the Analects has been under scrutiny by modern scholars in much the same way that the life of Jesus is from the Gospels.  Yet viewed from the perspective of the writings of the time, the Analects do bear the mark of Confucius as the “author” in the ancient sense and provide us with the best quality information on his life.[7]

In Biblical literature we see the same modern criticism of authorship in many of the letters of Paul. In the Pauline letters modern scholars can detect differences in style and historical situation that make Paul setting pen to paper for some letters unlikely.  Disciples of Paul writing in his name and carrying on his school of thought after his death, likely composed several of these letters.[8]  This situation of students publishing in the name of the master is similar to that of the Aristotelian school publications.  We see a similar situation with Pythagorean, Plato, and the Essenes. I see the same situation occurring with the letters of John.  The corpus of Johannine writings is similarly produced in the name of the master for the benefit of the community.[9]


The conclusion of the fourth Gospel identifies the source of the Gospel as the beloved disciple.  (Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”  Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man? Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.” Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?”  This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true.  John 21:20-24) This statement about the beloved disciple clearly denotes that another hand is working here than in the main Gospel.  At the same time this conclusion seeks to place the source of all the Gospel tradition in the eyewitness of the beloved disciple.

The previous chapter has a clear literary ending.  (And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.  John 20:30-31) This break prior to Chapter 21 indicates that Chapter 21 was appended to the original ending to clarify certain events.  The attribution of the Gospel to the beloved disciple is one function, the explanation of the death of this disciple is another.


(Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved…John 20:2) This verse connects the other disciple with the beloved disciple.  The other disciple is with Peter at the home of the High Priest during the trial of Jesus.

The closing chapter makes clear that the beloved disciple is the source for the Gospel, the author in the ancient sense.  The beloved disciple is connected to the other disciple in the John 20:2 as well. The Gospel has one other unnamed disciple at the opening of Jesus’ ministry, a disciple of John the Baptist that leaves with Andrew to follow Jesus.[1]  From these combined references of anonymous disciples we see the complete picture of our author.  One prepared for the coming of the kingdom.  An eyewitness from the opening days of Jesus’ ministry.  One who was lying at the breast of Jesus, an intermediary for Peter to the master.[2]


While the internal evidence in the text of the fourth Gospel point to the beloved disciple as the author, there is no indication in the text that this disciple is John son of Zebedee.  We can proceed to connect this anonymous author with John by the early attestations of this authorship, and by the logical associations of the apostolic characters in the rest of the New Testament.


Throughout the later part of the second century we can see John ascribed as the author of the fourth Gospel by a number of sources with a wide geographic spread, Irenaeus in Lyons, Polycrates in Epheseus and in Rome.[3]  Irenaeus is the most important of these sources.  He connects his knowledge with the testimony of Polycarp, an eyewitness to the testimony of John at Epheseus.[4]  In addition to this early and unanimous attestation in the Christian community, the Gnostic community as well identifies John as the author of the fourth Gospel.[5]  Likewise Papias attributes the fourth Gospel to John son of Zebedee in Ephesus.[6]


The beloved disciple can be identified with John by his association with the Apostle Peter.  In the fourth Gospel Peter and the beloved disciple are a pair.  Throughout the Gospel the apostles are paired.  The same is true in other books of the New Testament.  Peter and the beloved disciple are one of the pairings in the fourth Gospel.

In the book of Acts Peter and John are a consistent pair.  Throughout the action of the early ministry John and Peter are travelling companions.[7]  In Luke the sons of Zebedee are associated with the call of Peter.  Mark and Matthew support this general tradition of calling pairs of brothers.[8]  Taken together, these associations of Peter with John allow us to deduce that the beloved disciple is John son of Zebedee.[9]


Further support for John as the author can be derived from the intimate knowledge of both Palestinian geography and the culture of Jewish Palestine.  While these factors will not conclusively point to John, they do disqualify some of the scholarly candidates for authorship.  This situation also undermines the scholarly position that the fourth Gospel was written much later by a Christian in the Diaspora, rather than a displaced Palestinian Jew.[10]


Scholars are deeply divided over candidates for authorship on the fourth Gospel.  But they are remarkable united in their dismissal of the traditional designation of John son of Zebedee as the author.  For the most part their focus is on the historical and critical evidence that would disallow John as the author under modern usage of the term.  The premise of this paper is that the ancient concept of authorship should be the rule, not the modern one.  In the face of this premise many of the objections to John’s authorship disappear, but a number of significant ones remain.

This critical consensus that John could not be the author of the fourth Gospel is based on a number of factors.  At least one of the synoptic Gospels was used and other sources.[11]  This precludes an eyewitness from their memory of the actual historical Jesus. The fourth Gospel shows evidence of outside narration and represents a more developed Christianity than a first hand experienced disciple would have.[12]  There is some logic to all of these positions.  But the evidence of history and the text can be read another way. John could be using these sources without compromising his own witness to the events.  He could be aware of the synoptic tradition and deliberately avoiding duplication of events he witnessed already sufficiently described there. The other hands and sources could indicate collaboration with close associates.  This is the scenario Dicharry narrates in his potential reconstruction.[13]


While the local color and detail justify a Palestinian Jew as the author of the fourth Gospel, the author’s inside access to the High Priest’s house is unlikely for a Galalian fisherman.  At the same time the bulk of the action in the fourth Gospel is in Judea.[14]  The action being around Jerusalem is less of a problem.  Most of this action occurs around the pilgrimage feasts that would bring outsiders to Jerusalem anyway.  Indeed, that is why Jesus is there.  The connection with the High Priest is more problematic but not necessarily conclusive. While John is a Galalian fisherman, the synoptic tradition portrays Zebedee as a well off family with servants. This social standing would not rule out contact with important families in Jerusalem.[15]


Another objection to the traditional identification of John as the author rests on a different view of the patristic evidence.  Modern commentators have noted that the very first patristic sources are notably silent on authorship of Johaninne literature.  Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin all make no mention of John as author of a Gospel despite their close connections with the period and the city of Epheseus where this would have taken place.[16]  This is an argument from silence and could be explained by the paucity of data and the lack of need to defend such an assertion at that time.

Further, Papias is just as close in time and place to the Epheseus of John son of Zebedee and does show knowledge of both John the apostle and John the elder.  He further places a great deal of stock in the testimony of the apostle.[17]


The fourth Gospel shows abundant use of metaphor.  There seems to be a clear association between Peter and the beloved disciple.  Some have suggested that this relationship is a metaphor for the relationship of the Johannine community with the other apostolic Churches.  There are two ways of following Jesus, Peter and the beloved disciple are the representatives of these ways.[18]  The logical extension of this thought is that the beloved disciple is not a real person at all, he is a representative of how a disciple should act, but not a real historical person in the ministry of Jesus.

Under this understanding of the beloved disciple, he could not be the author of the fourth Gospel or John son of Zebedee.  The logic for this position fails to account for the fact that Peter, with whom the beloved disciple is contrasted in this metaphor, is clearly a historical character. With Peter as a clear historical character, the beloved disciple seems most likely to be the same as well.[19]


As noted above, Papias acknowledges the existence of two Johns in Ephesus, John the apostle and John the elder.  This has led some commentators to dismiss John son of Zebedee as author of the fourth Gospel in favor of John the elder.  I grant this authorship for the second and third epistle of John, which bear the name of John the elder explicitly.[20]  But I still hold, as mentioned above, that his authorship of these two letters is well within the bounds of the ancient concept of intellectual school where John son of Zebedee is the ultimate author.

The first letter and the Gospel do share a great deal in common.  The style and vocabulary are remarkably similar.  There is a wide range of similarities between the two works. Even the early patristic commentator Dionysius of Alexandria (265) notes these parallels in thought and style.[21]  These factors, plus the unanimous attribution of the works in antiquity, make a powerful argument for the traditional designation of John son of Zebedee as author.

[1]John 1:35-42

[2]Mcpolin, John, p 7.

[3]Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to John, p 77.

[4]Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, p 34.

[5]Malooney, The Gospel of John, p 7.

[6]Brown, The Gospel According to John, Volume 1, p XCI.

[7]Acts 13; 3:1 , 3, 4 , 11 ; 4:13, 19 ; 8:14

[8]Luke 5:10

[9]Culpepper, John, the Son of Zebedee, pp 73-73.

[10]Sanders, The Gospel of John in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Volume II p 942

[11]Smalley, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, p 40.

[12]Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, p 36.

[13]Dicharry, Paul & John: Human Authors of the New Testament, pp 141-155.

[14]Culpepper, The Gospel & Letters of John, p 31.

[15]Brown, The Gospel According to John, Volume II pp 822-823.

[16]Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, p 34.

[17]Brown, The Gospel of John, Volume I pp. XCII-XCIII

[18]Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, p 82-83

[19]Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, p 93.

[20]Brown, The Epistles of John, p 15.

[21]Brown, The Epistles of John, p 20-21.


BROWN, Raymond.  The Gospel According to John.  (Two volumes) Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Epistles of John.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1982.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Community of the Beloved Disciple. NY: Paulist Press, 1979.

BROWN, Raymond.  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. NY: Paulist Press, 1984.

CULPEPPER, Alan.  The Gospel and Letters of John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

CULPEPPER, Alan.  John: the Son of Zebedee.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

DICHARRY, Warren.  Human Authors of the New Testament: Paul & John.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992.

HAVENER, Ivan, OSB. Collegeville Bible Commentary: First Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1983.

HAYES, John & HOLLADAY, Carl.  Biblical Exegesis.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987.

MALONEY, Francis.  The Gospel of John.  Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1998.

MCKEON, Richard.  Introduction to Aristotle.  NY: Random House, 1947.

MCPOLIN, James.  John.  Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1979.

METZGER, Bruce.  The Text of the New Testament: Its’ Transmission, Corruption and Restoration.  London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

ROUSE, W.H.D.  Great Dialogues of Plato.  NY: Mentor, 1956.

SANDERS, J. N.  The Gospel of John.  In The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible.  Volume II.  Nashville: Abington Press, 1986.

SCHNACKENBURG, Rudolf. Gospel According to John. (volume 1).  Translated by Kevin Smyth.  NY: Burns and Oates, 1968.

SMALLEY, Stephen.  John Evangelist and Interpreter.  NY: Nelson, 1978.

STYLIANOPOULOS, Theodore. The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective.  Brookline: Holy Cross Press, 1997.

WALEY, Arthur. Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius. NY: Harper & Row, 1992.

Originally published to 8/1/19