How do we know whether John’s Gospel was written by John, one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus? Did John give a title to his work such as, “The Gospel According To John”? Certainly not! Tradition tells us that the Fourth Gospel was written by John. Why should we believe this tradition? Most scholars say that the book was not written by John and that it could have been written during the last decade of the first century or even as late as the second century. The apostle John couldn’t have written it, they say. That’s why they call it the Fourth Gospel.
Why should any of this debate concern an ‘ordinary’ Christian? It’s because several Christian doctrines about Jesus, eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and the Church rest on this book.
Unless we know for sure that an eye-witness like John wrote this Gospel, why should we even take this book seriously? Why would anyone risk their life following teachings ascribed to Jesus if the book itself was written several decades after Jesus had died?
Indeed, a book’s credibility rests on definitive information about its author. Thankfully, the Fourth Gospel makes a definite claim about its author.
Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved … This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things … – John 21:20, 24
According to verse 21:24 cited above, it was just one person who “testified” about Jesus and “wrote” these things—the one referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Therefore, I do not wish to consider the claim that a Johannine community of disciples at Ephesus authored this Gospel. Verse 21:24 does not say, “this disciple testified of these things and we wrote these down.” It’s an individual who wrote it. There is no way one can doubt this statement without doubting all other claims in this book. Moreover, in my earlier post, I had mentioned that this book must have been written before the siege of Jerusalem that began in AD 67.
Who was the beloved disciple?
Jesus loved all his disciples. Who was this disciple whom Jesus loved in a special way that he should be known as the one whom Jesus loved? Identifying the beloved disciple shouldn’t be too difficult. The beloved disciple was certainly one among the Twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. It is mentioned that he was with Jesus during the Last Supper, “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (13:23). Following Peter’s prompting, the beloved disciple asked Jesus about the betrayer, “Lord, who is it?” (13:25)
This beloved disciple was at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Before his death, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of his beloved disciple. “From that hour, that disciple took her unto his own home” (19:26-27). Before heading home, he had indeed witnessed the death of Jesus and the piercing of Jesus’ side.
“One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water immediately flowed from it.
“This is the statement of one who actually saw it — and his statement may be relied on, and he knows that he is speaking the truth — and it is given in order that you also may be convinced.” (19:34-35 OEB)
The beloved disciple certainly had a home in Jerusalem. He was with Peter in that house on Easter morning. Mary, the mother of Jesus must have been there with them. No wonder Mary Magdalene ran to that house after noticing that Jesus’ tomb had been opened. She informed the beloved disciple and the apostle Peter that the stone had been moved from the entrance to the tomb (20:2). As the trio ran to the tomb, the beloved disciple outran Peter but did not enter the tomb (20:4). By now, you might have noticed that the beloved disciple was often found in the company of Peter.
The beloved disciple was one of the seven disciples who met with the risen Lord Jesus near the Sea of Galilee. Who were the seven who had gone fishing that morning? Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples (21:2). The beloved disciple and Peter were in the same boat. It was the beloved disciple who identified the ‘Stranger’ on the beach and promptly informed his friend Peter, “It is the Lord” (21:7). After receiving this crucial piece of information, Peter fastened his outer garment around him and jumped into the water. He was apparently in a hurry to meet with the Lord.
The beloved disciple who authored this gospel went on to describe how Jesus restored his friend Peter. Mind you, Matthew, Mark and Luke did mention this in their accounts. They just described how Peter betrayed his Master and how he wept bitterly after being caught ‘red-handed’ by Jesus. Even though the beloved disciple was about to conclude his gospel after stating its purpose in 20:30-31, he continued right on to include an account of Peter’s restoration.
After Jesus restored Peter, He predicted that Peter would die as a martyr in his old age (21:18). Jesus then said to Peter, “Follow Me” (21:19) Jesus’ prediction should’ve encouraged Peter. First, it was to happen in his old age. Second, it was Jesus’ way of assuring Peter, You will not deny me again. But it seems that Peter was a little disturbed after hearing those words. He didn’t know what to say. Peter turned and saw his friend—the beloved disciple! He then asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus answered, “If it is my will that he should wait until I come, what has that to do with you? Follow me yourself.” (OEB)
The postscript to this gospel follows that statement. It not only tells us who wrote the gospel but also gives us a strong hint regarding the identity of the beloved disciple.
“So the report spread among his followers that that disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say that he was not to die, but said “If it is my will that he should wait until I come, what has that to do with you?
“It is this disciple who states these things, and who recorded them; and we know that his statement is true.”
Which disciple’s life could sustain a rumour that he would never die? There’s just one among the Twelve whose long life could have fostered such as rumour. That must be the apostle John, son of Zebedee. The author wished to dismiss that rumour.
What about the second half of the verse—“and we know that his statement is true”? It might appear to be a certification by a group of editors who certified the truthfulness of John’s testimony. There are those who think that the “we” refers to John and his close associates, citing the “famous statement” in the Muratorian Canon, according to which “John wrote the Fourth Gospel at the entreaties of his fellow disciples and bishops, but not until he had asked them to pray with him concerning the matter.”1
Regarding our observation that the beloved disciple was close to Peter, we should now ask, “Was the apostle John indeed close to apostle Peter?” Of course, he was! Go through Luke’s account of the early church’s mission in Judea and Samaria to see what a good team they made! They were prayer partners who prayed together. On their way to the Temple at the hour of prayer, they healed a beggar who was lame from birth. They preached the gospel to those who gathered around them to see the beggar on his feet. They were arrested twice, beaten and even imprisoned! Much later, Peter and John were sent by the Church at Jerusalem to Samaria to help Philip the evangelist. They prayed over new believers and God poured out His Spirit on them (Acts 3:1, 3-4, 11, 4:1, 7, 19, 8:17).
Was this an eye-witness account?
We have seen thus far that the Fourth Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, who was none other than the apostle John. That the writer of this Gospel was an eye-witness to Jesus’ glory strengthens the case for John’s authorship.
The disciples indeed saw the glory of Jesus through his miracles (2:11). But on one occasion Jesus revealed his glory in a unique way. That happened on the Mount of Transfiguration. Only Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on that Mount. James did not leave a written record of his experience on the Mount. But Peter referred to that glorious event in his second epistle.
“For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.
“For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: ‘This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.’
“When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18 NET)
The third man with Jesus was the apostle John. Did the author of the Fourth Gospel claim that he had seen Jesus’ glory? Yes, indeed.
Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. (1:14 NET)
There are some who claim that one ‘John the Elder’ wrote the Fourth Gospel towards the end of the first century. That claim goes against our findings in this Gospel. Was that obscure presbyter an eye-witness to Jesus’ glory? Never!
I have shown that the author of the Fourth Gospel had to be an apostle who witnessed the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The evidence in the text supports such a view. Who but an eye-witness could include minute details as these found in this Gospel?
- There were six stone water jars in the house where Jesus turned water into wine; each of those could hold two to three measures of water (2:6 YLT)
- The pool called Bethzada had five covered walkways (5:3)
- Did you know that the five loaves multiplied by Jesus were barley loaves? (6:13)
- The disciples were three or four miles away from the shore when they saw Jesus approaching them, walking on water (6:19)
- Seven disciples had gone fishing in Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. The author was able to recollect the names of five of them (21:2)
- Jesus ordered them to cast their net on the right side of the boat (21:6)
- The disciples caught a hundred and fifty three large fish that morning (21:11)
- The net did not tear even though they had a miraculous catch! (21:11)
- The disciples’ boat was just a hundred yards away from the land when they realized that the man on the shore was Jesus. (21:8)
- When they landed, they saw a charcoal fire with one fish on it and bread (21:9)
- That was Jesus’ third appearance before his disciples after his resurrection (21:14)
If that’s not impressive enough, look at the precise manner in which John wrote about days and times.
- On the next day John saw Jesus … (1:19)
- Again, the next day John was standing there … (1:35)
- And the hour was about the tenth [4 pm] … (1:39 YLT)
- On the next day he wanted to set out to Galilee … (1:43)
- Now on the third day there was a wedding … (2:1)
- [Jesus] stayed in [Samaria] two days … (4:40, 43)
- On the last day of the feast … (7:37)
- [After hearing about Lazarus] he remained in the place … for two more days … (11:6)
- … Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already (11:17)
- … six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany (12:1)
- … eight days later the disciples were again together … (20:26)
This Gospel is certainly an eye-witness account. How else could a writer have remembered such details?
Finally, the author was careful to name a disciple such as Nathanael and the seeker Nicodemus. He recorded the only available speech of apostle Thomas. Yet, two prominent characters in the Gospel remained anonymous, as if by choice. John called himself the beloved disciple as indeed he was. The mother of Jesus too is never named. It seems that both Mary and John – ‘mother’ and ‘son’ – decided to remain anonymous to let the focus of the book remain on their Lord. This Gospel is not about John. It wasn’t an exercise in self-glorification. It’s his testimony about God who appeared in human flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Cited by George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 2nd ed., Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 413.
YLT – Young’s Literal Translation
NET – New English Translation
OEB – Open English Bible