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 claims made against it 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).
The Eyewitnesses Lawyers Love
Contrary to the unbelieving claims, Ross Clifford, a solicitor, barrister, theologian and principal of Morling Theological College in Sydney, says: “Matthew and John are the type of witnesses lawyers love…..The book of Matthew contains strong evidence for Matthew’s authorship” (Clifford 1991, p 19). Towards the end of the book, after several chapters in which various leading lawyers and theologians give reasons why the evidence for the authorship is so strong, Clifford writes in an appendix the reasons why the Gospels would be admissible as evidence in a court of law. In a hypothetical case, he gives the example of a newspaper article that was more than fifty years old produced by the defendants in a court case. “The US court admitted the newspaper report and relied on its substance simply on the basis of it being good reliable evidence. In its mind, that overcame any technical objections. The Gospels are likewise good, reliable evidence that address the facts in issue in our hypothetical case” (Clifford 1991, p 138).
He then goes on to say how the “hearsay rule” does not necessarily rule out the Gospels as being admissible. This is under the “Ancient Documents Rule” which normally applies to documents at least thirty years old. Quoting Professor Simon Greenleaf, who became the “foremost legal figure in Maine” in the early 19th century, and whom Clifford calls a leading expert on evidence, we read “Every document, apparently ancient, coming from the proper repository or custody, and bearing on its face no evident marks of forgery, the law presumes to be genuine and devolves on the opposing party the burden of proving it to be otherwise”. Clifford then says “Simon Greenleaf stipulates that a document comes from the proper custody when it is found in the place where, and under the care of persons whom the writing would naturally be expected to be found. Greenleaf declares one would expect the Gospels to be found in the church in the care of Christians. These sacred writings are so found. There is the further requirement that the instrument bear on its face no mark of forgery. As mentioned throughout this book, the Gospels present themselves not as forgeries, but as reliable and honest writings from people close to Christ” (Clifford 1991, p 140).
After further discussion, Clifford writes “Some Christians, even some legal apologists, by their statements that the Gospels are admissible in a court of law, have implied this means all of that which Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record would be received by a modern court. I believe this is an overstatement. Most courts, especially in the Anglo-American common law tradition, would still evaluate the Gospels carefully following the principle of ‘an assertion contained in an ancient document will not be excepted to the hearsay rule if it appears that the declarant would be incompetent to testify if he were present in court’. In short, only those sections of the Gospels would be admitted where it could be shown that the writer was present at the event he described, reporting on what he knew to be fact from personal observation. The rest we call double hearsay and is unlikely to be admitted. In this regard, Luke does not directly indicate he was present at any events he narrates and he writes more as an historian than an eyewitness. Luke’s Gospel, written by a paramount historian, would be considered under ‘historical knowledge’” (Clifford, 1991, p 141-142 – emphases his).
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, 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 was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). John, by saying “we”, says that he himself beheld 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.
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 which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true” (Jn 21:24).
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”.
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 totally untrue.
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, there is still room for doubt in the minds of some people; 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.
And when we read Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles”, it has the same feel as if we’re reading a classical history, and is filled with obvious touches of authenticity. The shipwreck, for example, is full of details that only an eyewitness would think of including, and is so vividly related, with so many details unselfconsciously described, that it could only have been written by Luke, the one who was there.
As for the date of John’s Gospel, there are various claims and suggestions but the earliest date would be 69 or 70 CE when John arrived in Ephesus; some liberal scholars opt for 45-66 CE due to possible links with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it seems that the most likely date is 85-95 CE. Therefore, this has to mean that the Synoptic Gospels were written much earlier because they were already known and accepted when John wrote his Gospel.
“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
“The Four Gospels” 1946, by Dom John Chapman, publ. Sheed and Ward, London, England.