Who Wrote John?

From the writings of Clement of Rome and Irenaeus, we know that the core elements of the Christian faith were established by the end of the first century, some 60-70 years following the death and reported resurrection of Jesus. I indicated in my previous post that though this is early testimony in terms of ancient history, there are more ancient documents that communicate these truths. To begin, let’s consider the gospel account of John.

Who is the author?

The authors of these four gospel accounts are anonymous so far as their individual letters are concerned. To determine their identity, we must lean on internal evidence from the letters themselves as well as long-standing traditions concerning their authorship.

The author of the fourth gospel account presents himself as an eyewitness of what transpires. At the beginning of the gospel, the author talks at length about the Word (logos in Greek). The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he states in verse 14, “and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Aside from the significant theological tenet he reveals, notice that the author claimed to be among the witnesses: “we beheld His glory.” Later in 19:35, right after the soldier pierces the side of the crucified Jesus, the author comments, "And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.” Although he speaks of himself in the third person, it is clear from the statement that the author claims to be the one who saw blood and water issue from the side of Jesus. We also can infer that his original audience was acquainted with him. However, the author remains shrouded in anonymity. Jesus had scores of disciples throughout his ministry.

The author claims to be a close companion of Jesus. Throughout the document, he speaks of the disciple loved by Jesus. No reference to this disciple is more important than 21:20-23. The author records an exchange shared between Peter, Jesus, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Following the discussion, the author declares, "This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (verse 24). The disciple Jesus loves is the author of this gospel account. Who then is this mysterious author?

Earlier in John 21, six disciples go fishing with Simon Peter. Among their number were the two sons of Zebedee who we know to be James and John (see Matthew 4:21). In the synoptic gospels, Peter, James, and John appear to be the disciples closest to Jesus. For example, they are the disciples that witness the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1ff). Peter is clearly not the disciple since he plays a prominent role in John 21. If the author was a disciple who was maintained a special relationship with Jesus, then either James or John are reasonable candidates. However, Luke tells us Herod executed James the son of Zebedee (see Acts 12). If the synoptics accurately portray the close relationship of Jesus with these three men, this leaves John as a likely candidate.

There is one other thing to note in John 21:20-23: in the time this gospel account was written, it was widely rumored that the author would not die before the return of Jesus. As the author acknowledges, those who passed these rumors did so out of a misunderstanding of Jesus’s rebuke. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that John outlived his fellow apostles. The traditions surrounding the work and death of the apostles are difficult to substantiate, particularly those that concerning the lesser known apostles. In the case of John, it is generally agreed that he was the last apostle to die and did so very close to the end of the first century.

I believe there is good internal reason to believe that John was the author of this gospel account. Admittedly, my reasoning does assume that the document was accurately transmitted from the original (an issue I do plan to touch on in future posts). However, if the transmission has been faithful, the best internal evidence points to the apostle John as the author.

Lord willing, in my next post, I plan to discuss when and where John’s account was committed to paper. Until then, I would love to talk to you about what you believe. Is John the author of this account? Why or why not?