The authorship of the Fourth Gospel has been under attack for the last 150 years, due to its clear testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ. Its claim to be written by an eye-witness has been the focus of many attacks from ex-Christians, Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses, sceptics, liberals and the Higher Critical scholars, and other enemies of the Gospel. One of the false claims made against it is that “it was not the work of an eye-witness but the work of an unknown ‘religious genius’ who lived fifty to one hundred years later’. Thus it is supposed to reflect the thinking of the church about Christ and not what He Himself actually was, said, or did” (MacDonald, W. 2016, p. 1415).
Early Date for John’s Gospel
Dr. Ann Nyland writes: “John’s Good News is clearly pre-war and written before 66 AD. John states that the pool [of Bethesda] has (not had) 5 porticoes, and describes the temple as still standing. Both were not standing after the catastrophic war of 66-70 AD between the Jews and the Romans in Palestine. In the war the temple was destroyed as were many parts of Jerusalem. The reference to Peter’s prophesied manner of death in John 21:19 possibly suggests that John’s Good News was written after 64 AD, the date of Peter’s death in the Neronian persecution” (“The Source New Testament”, p. 163; highlighting and square brackets added).
The Apostle John: an Eyewitness and Author of the Fourth Gospel
Professor Bart Ehrman says: “the fourth Gospel….explicitly claims not to be written by an eyewitness, [but] was nonetheless attributed to one, John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples (he is never actually named in the Fourth Gospel)” (Ehrman 2010, p 111). Yet the very first chapter shows that the writer was claiming to be an eyewitness! “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten son from the Father” (Jn 1:14 RSV-2CE). John, by saying “we”, says that he himself saw Jesus’ glory. Matthew Henry, commenting on this verse, rightly says “Those that were most intimate with Him saw most of His glory. They saw the glory of His divinity, while others saw only the veil of his human nature. They had not their evidence by report, at second-hand, but were themselves eyewitnesses” (Matthew Henry Study Bible). Even the incidental details in the fourth gospel suggest that it was written by an eyewitness e.g. the number and volume of the water jars at Cana, and the number of fishes caught in the “miraculous draught” etc. “John was most accurate in his descriptions of the buildings and places in Palestine. He mentions twelve places not mentioned in the other gospels. Many of the places he mentioned can be located precisely today” (Nyland, p. 163).
The Apostolic Fathers from Irenaeus onwards not only do not question John’s authorship but state it as fact. For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Last of all John, perceiving that the external facts had been set forth in the Gospels, at the insistence of his disciples and with the inspiration of the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel”.
Was the Fourth Gospel Written by a So-called “John the Elder”?
Regarding Professor Ehrman’s claim that the author of the Fourth Gospel is not “the disciple who testifies” (i.e. himself, the apostle John) but that the author says he got his information from one, Guthrie says that this supposed disciple is John the Elder; “but the existence of John the elder depends on a somewhat ambiguous statement of Papias, who makes no mention in any case of a gospel being written by him” (Guthrie 2002, p 1022).
Was the Fourth Gospel Written by John the Baptist?
Dom John Chapman says the author of the Fourth Gospel only ever refers to one person named John, i.e. John the Baptist, whom he refers to simply as John, without the epithet “the Baptist”; unlike the Synoptics, which refer to John the Baptist by that name to distinguish him from John the Apostle; and that the Fourth Gospel doesn’t need to make that distinction because The Baptist is the only John besides the writer. “There were two Simons among the Apostles, and though Simon the Canaanite is never mentioned by St. John, the other Simon is always called by the double name ‘Simon Peter’. Similarly, two of the Apostles were called Judas, and the fourth Gospel always calls the traitor ‘Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon’ and the other is ‘Judas, not the Iscariot’” (Chapman 1946, p 40-41). But because one of the “Johns” is himself, the writer of his gospel, he doesn’t need to give the other his title “The Baptist” because the readers would understand who he referred to because of who was writing.
The Disciple whom Jesus loved
The author of the Fourth Gospel speaks in the third person, and calls himself “the disciple who Jesus loved”; also “the other disciple”. He describes himself as leaning on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (Jn 13:25); that he was at the foot of the cross, at which time Jesus placed his mother in John’s care (19:26-27); that he saw the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side (19:34-35); described himself as running with Peter to the empty tomb (20:3-4); that he was present at the miraculous draught of fishes, of which time he described several important sayings (Jn 21:24); and ends the gospel with the words “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24 NRSV).
That this disciple is John the Apostle is also suggested by the fact that the Fourth Gospel mentions Philip twelve times, Thomas eight times, yet it never mentions the two who were next in importance after Peter, that is, James and John, except once by referring to them together as “the sons of Zebedee”; whereas in the Synoptics, John is mentioned seventeen times and James fifteen times, and three mentions of “the sons of Zebedee”. The writer assumed that his readers would recognise James and John as these two sons. So the “beloved disciple” is either James or John, and nobody has ever said or thought that it was James. Besides, James was killed in about 44 AD.
Another consideration is that the Fourth Gospel always mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as being with Peter, except at the cross. Is this disciple mentioned by name anywhere else; is there a disciple known to be close to Peter? The Synoptics tell us that Zebedee and his sons James and John were partners with Peter and Andrew. Then we find that there were three of the disciples who were always close to Jesus i.e. Peter, James and John; only these three were with Jesus at significant events in his ministry – when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51); the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28); his agony at Gethsemane (Matt 26:37; Mk 14:33); and it was Peter and John who were sent to prepare the Passover (Lk 22:7; Mk 14:13). In Mark’s Gospel, which is the account given by Peter, Peter mentions John more than the two other Synoptics; and in Acts, Peter and John are always together, “Peter and John” being mentioned seven times. So it is not feasible that the author of the Fourth Gospel could be anyone other than the Apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (from Chapman).
Therefore, when we read in the Fourth Gospel that the writer says “we beheld his glory”, and “this is the disciple who testifies of these things”, we know that the author speaks truth because he was an eyewitness; as a disciple, he was with Jesus. And the Church has always recognised this. Professor Ehrman’s claim that the Fourth Gospel was written by an unknown person from the second century, and who knew neither the culture, nor language nor geography of Palestine, is wishful thinking.
John: A Reliable Witness to the Synoptic Gospels
Having now seen that John wrote the Fourth Gospel, and was an eyewitness of the events about which he wrote, we can also see that he becomes a witness for the authorship of the Synoptics, a connecting link between the time of his Gospel and that of the Synoptic Gospels; and thus shows that they were written in the first century and before AD 70, not any time in the second century. As Chapman (from whom I have derived much of the information in this article) points out, John assumes that his readers are familiar with the earlier Gospels – compare Jn 6:1-14 with Matt 14:14-21; Mk 6:35-44; Lk 9:12-17 for the Feeding of the Five Thousand; compare Jn 6:16-21 with Matt 14:22-33; Mk 6:47-53 when Jesus walked on the water.
However, in John chapter 11:2, we see how he has taken the story of the supper at Bethany related in Matthew (26:7-13) and Mark (14:3-9) and added further details. There is the whole history of the death and resurrection of Jesus, with some omissions and much new detail. He supposes his readers know the circumstances of Jesus’ Virgin Birth narrated in Matthew and Luke, so he makes no further statement; he writes more about John the Baptist; how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet after the Last Supper; makes more definite the treachery of Judas. In each of the Synoptic Gospels he refers to incidents they relate and adds more details; so that, “In some passages St John’s wording seems to show that he had all the three Synoptic Gospels before him” (Chapman 1944, p. 36-37).
In speaking of that which Judge Bennett considers legitimate evidence, Clifford writes “The book of John presents as a very honest, eyewitness account of a close acquaintance of Jesus. It is John’s writing which gives us the moving stories of the marriage at Cana (chapter 2), the encounter with the Samaritan woman (chapter 4) and the raising from the dead of Jesus’ good friend, Lazarus (chapter 11). It alone states (in chapter 11, verse 35) ‘Jesus wept’. Without doubt, the Gospel is the testimony of someone who knew Christ well” (Clifford 1991, p 21).
And Leon Morris writes, “The Jews measured their days from sunset to sunset, and divided both night and day into twelve hours. John’s habit of noticing the time of day is one of the small touches which point to an eyewitness (see 4:6, 52; 18:28; 19:14; 20:19)” (Morris, 1971, p 157-158).
However, while the evidence points to John as the author, some still doubt it; for such, it is not as conclusive as if John had written his name at the beginning, so for them it can’t be dogmatically and conclusively asserted that he is the author. But he didn’t write his name; and this was not uncommon. For example, the Roman historian Livy doesn’t identify himself as the author of his History, neither does Polybius identify himself as the writer of “The Rise of the Roman Empire”, nor does Julius Caesar identify himself as the author of “The Gallic Wars”; and Caesar, like John, does speak of himself in the third person. Thucydides and Herodotus both name themselves as the authors of their Histories, yet speak in the third person (as does John in his Gospel). Yet we have no hesitation in accepting that each of these authors wrote the histories attributed to them; so why is there a problem with accepting the authorship of the Gospels as being written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If you were to cast doubt on the authorship of these secular histories, people would think you came down in the last shower; yet there is a long history of so-called theologians who question every jot and tittle of the gospels – indeed, the whole Bible – and deny their authenticity because they don’t have a positive identification attached to them.
I suggest that the real reason unbelievers, liberals, ex-Christians, atheists, and skeptics reject the Gospels is that the authors were committed to Jesus; these authors recorded what they saw, in the cases of Matthew and John; Mark wrote what Peter saw; and Luke wrote what disciples and other eye-witnesses saw. Unbelievers reject the Gospels because the Gospels are religious. They think that this discounts them from being legitimate. They call the Bible a religious text and therefore dismiss it as being a second-rate writing not to be taken seriously, somewhere in between the realms of fantasy and poetry – nice to read for inspiration occasionally, but not to be used in any kind of serious study or research, or – perish the thought – to base a way of life on.
Just because the Gospel writers had religious and spiritual aims or were committed to Jesus doesn’t mean they invented or misrepresented what they saw and heard. And a Christian worldview doesn’t disqualify a person from being a competent or honest writer. There is no reason to doubt the integrity of the Gospel writers. Luke, for example, states his aim in the same way that a secular historian of the time did, and this aim was to present a carefully researched account of the divine Son of God.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31).
“Henry, M. 1997), “The Matthew Henry Study Bible: King James Version”, ed. A. Kenneth Abraham, pub. Hendrickson Bibles, Peabody, Massachusetts, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc.
“Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” 2010, by Bart Ehrman, publ. HarperCollins Publishers, NY.
“Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” 1991, by Ross Clifford, publ. Albatross Books, Sutherland, Australia.
“Believer’s Bible Commentary 2nd edition” by William MacDonald ed. Art Farstad, Commentary on Daniel, copyright 2016, publ. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee
Morris, Leon, 1971, “The Gospel According to John”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, publ. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, USA
Nyland, Dr. A, 2007, “The Source New Testament”, Translation and notes by Dr. A. Nyland. Copyright by Anne Maxwell-Nithsdale Nyland 2004, 2007, publ. Smith and Stirling Publishing, Australia.
“The Four Gospels” 1946, by Dom John Chapman, publ. Sheed and Ward, London, England.