The Consummation of the Ages
In this article we want to briefly examine the evidence demonstrating that John, the son of Zebedee, is correctly identified as the author of the gospel traditionally bearing his name.
As we enter into a discussion about the author of the fourth gospel, it must first be decided what evidence should be admitted in the case. There are two kinds of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence typically consists in the testimony of witnesses bearing directly upon the issue at hand; testimony by a certain man that he witnessed Matthew pen his gospel, or heard him claim its authorship would be direct evidence. Circumstantial or indirect evidence is evidence that proves a fact by means of inference. For example, evidence that a writing began circulation at a time and place where a particular man lived, and contained facts which he alone knew would be circumstantial evidence, allowing us to infer he was its author. In the present case, we have both direct and indirect evidence: Direct evidence in the form of 1) tradition handed down from apostolic times testifying that John is the author of the fourth gospel, and indirect evidence consisting in the circumstance of 2) identity of language and doctrine between the gospel, epistles, and Revelation, and the 3) testimony of experts pronouncing their opinion the authors are the same.
In judging the authorship of the fourth gospel, it is important to realize that virtually none of the gospels are subscribed by their authors. Unlike the epistles of Paul, the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do not recite the author’s name. Like the books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, and other historical accounts of scripture, the authors were content to remain anonymous. The voice of tradition ascribes the first five books of the Bible to Moses, and, in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary, there is no reason we should doubt or reject it. The same is true of the gospels; their authors did not subscribe their names. Hence, we must receive the testimony of tradition into evidence, and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be accepted. This is particularly true of the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Unlike the gospels of Luke and John, Matthew and Mark left us no other writings against which we may compare and judge the identity of their authors. If it were not for the voice of tradition, these gospels would remain completely anonymous and our ability to trust the truth of their testimony would be considerably weakened. It is the ascription of these documents to the apostles and those who accompanied them and were eyewitnesses of the things that they report that invests them with authenticity. Although we should like to have more upon which to base our decision, in the case of these gospels the testimony of tradition is all we possess. However, most of us are completely comfortable with this evidence, and never feel compelled to question it. Given the unanimous voice of Christendom from the earliest times pronouncing in favor of the traditional authors, there is no reason for us to conclude against Matthew or Mark.
The case of Luke is slightly different. The book of Acts was penned by the same author as the third gospel. Both were written to “Theophilos” from an unnamed source (although doubtless known to Theophilos himself). Although Acts does not tell us who its author was, use of the first person plural indicates he was a companion of Paul’s in his journey to Rome to stand trail before Nero Caesar. (Acts 27:2-27; 28:10-16) This information, coupled with Paul’s own testimony to Timothy before his second trail that “Luke only is with me” (II Tim. 4:11) is circumstantial evidence that Luke is author of both books. Moreover, we have the voice of tradition confirming this conclusion. Thus, we have both direct and circumstantial evidence to assist us. We do not question the accuracy of this evidence, nor doubt the correctness of the conclusion in the case of Luke. We have even less reason to doubt the authorship of John.
Testimony of the Manuscripts and Codices
New Advent, an on-line Encyclopedia, states:
The ancient manuscripts and translations of the Gospel constitute the first group of evidence. In the titles, tables of contents, signatures, which are usually added to the text of the separate Gospels, John is in every case and without the faintest indication of doubt named as the author of this Gospel. The earliest of the extant manuscripts, it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century, but the perfect unanimity of all the codices proves to every critic that the prototypes of these manuscripts, at a much earlier date, must have contained the same indications of authorship. Similar is the testimony of the Gospel translations, of which the Syria, Coptic, and Old Latin extend back in their earliest forms to the second century.
Testimony from the Patristic Writers
The church fathers whose writings have come down to us had no personal knowledge who penned the gospels. Like us, they were dependant upon the voice of tradition received in a continuous stream from the time of the apostles. Even though they have no personal knowledge of the facts they relate, their testimony is perfectly competent. Indeed, all of history is dependant upon just this sort of thing, and without it historians would be at a total loss to convey to us information about the past. Historians almost never are eye-witnesses of the things they report, but depend upon secondary sources for the information they report. Hence, the testimony of the early church fathers cannot be dismissed or discounted. Again, it is all we possess for many Old Testament books and the gospels of Matthew and Mark, and I think I speak for the overwhelming majority when I say that we have perfect confidence in its correctness. In addition to the testimony from tradition, we also have the opinion testimony based upon the early fathers’ expert knowledge of the scriptures. Opinion testimony from recognized experts is another source of competent evidence and is perfectly admissible on the issue of authorship. Thus prefaced, let us survey the patristic writers to learn what we may regarding the author of the fourth gospel.
Irenaeus (A.D. 140-202) – Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyon, in Gaul (France), and is the first and greatest authority for the authenticity of John’s gospel. Irenaeus quotes over one hundred times from the gospel of John, and states “John, the Lord’s disciple, he that leaned on his bosom, published the gospel at Ephesus during his abode in Asia.”
Theophilus (A.D. 115-181) – Bishop of Antioch before A.D. 170, Theophilus quotes John’s gospel, saying, “And hence the holy writings teach us, and all of the spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,’ showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him.”
Muratorian Fragment – This fragment provides a canon of the scripture by the early church and is dated to about A.D. 170. This fragment places the fourth gospel among the canonical books, and attributes authorship to John (lines 9-34). “Of the fourth gospel [the author] was John, one of the disciples.”
The same fragment assigns authorship of I, II, and III John to the apostle, and calls the first an “appendix” to the gospel. “What wonder is it, then, that John so constantly should bring it forth, even in his Epistles, and mentioning details, should say as from himself alone, ‘What we have seen with our eyes, and heard with our ears, and our hands have handled, these things have we written to you’? For so he professes that he was not only an eye-witness, but also a hearer, and, moreover, a writer in order of all the wonderful things of our Lord.”
Tertullian (A.D. 145-220) – Tertullian expressly declares John to be one of the authors of the gospel: “We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel…Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.”
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 153-217) – Eusebius preserves an important quote for us from Clement, which assigns one of the gospels to John: “And again in the same books Clement has inserted a tradition of the primitive elders with regard to the order of the gospels, as follows. He said that those gospels were first written which include the genealogies, but that the gospel according to Mark came into being in this manner: When Peter had publicly preached the word at Rome, and by the Spirit had proclaimed the gospel, that those present, who were many, exhorted Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been spoken, to make a record of what was said; and that he did this, and distributed the gospel among those that asked him. And that when the matter came to Peter’s knowledge he neither strongly forbade it nor urged it forward. But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel. This is Clement’s account.”
Eusebius – Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340) is one of our earliest and most reliable witnesses; he was also a Preterist. In his Ecclesiastical Histories, Eusebuis sets out the books received as canonical by the early church. At the time of his writing (circa A.D. 324), issues involving the authorship of Hebrews and Revelation, among others, still remained unsettled for some. However, there was unanimous agreement that John was the author of the fourth gospel:
“Of those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John have left us their recollections…John, it is said, used all the time a message which was not written down, and at last tool to writing for the following cause. The three gospels which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself; it is said that he welcomed them and testified to their truth but said that there was only lacking to the narrative the account of what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of the preaching. The story is surely true….Of the writing of John in addition to the gospel the first of his epistles has been accepted without controversy by ancients and moderns alike but the other two are disputed, and as to the Revelation there have been many advocates of either opinion up to the present.”
Here is direct testimony of the authorship of John’s gospel, and its unanimous reception among the early church as authentic and canonical. The first epistle was also unanimously received, though there are those that questioned the author of 2nd and 3rd John and Revelation. Happily, these have all been long been resolved and John is now universally owned as the author of all the works that traditionally bear his name.
These are by not means all the quotes that could be marshaled; the testimony might be continued in indefinitely beyond the Anti-Nicene father, to the post-Nicene father, unto the reformation and beyond. Neither do these men uncritically embrace the traditions they received, but judged for themselves the evidence of scripture, and all pronounced in favor of John.
The Author was Intimate Companion of Jesus during his Ministry
The writer of the fourth gospel provides details from his personal companionship with Jesus during his ministry. Whereas the synoptic gospels begin their narrative after John was put in prison and appear to cover only the last year of the Lord’s ministry, the fourth gospel takes up its narrative from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and specifically mentions three Passovers. (Jno. 2:12, 23; 6:3, 11:55) It is probable that the unnamed disciple that was with Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, who was at the first a follower of the Baptist, was also the author of the gospel. (Jno. 1:35-42) The author provides details Jesus’ overthrowing the tables of the money changers in the temple at the beginning of his ministry (Jno. 2:13-22), whereas the synoptic gospels relate a similar incident at its very end. Matt. 21:12-17) He appears to be present and may have witnessed the conversation with Nicodemus and the woman of Samaria. He is one of the disciples present in the ship when Jesus came walking upon the water. (Jno. 6:15-21) He is closely connected with Simon Peter and is present at the Last Supper, leaning upon the Lord’s breast. (Jno. 13:21-25) It is he that Simon Peter persuades to ask who it was that would betray the Lord. He is known to the high priest, or to his house, and gains admittance for himself and Peter to Jesus’ trial (18:15-18); he is present at the foot of the cross where he is made the guardian of the Lord’s mother, and is witness when water and blood issue from the Lord’s riven side. (Jno. 18:15; 19:26, 34, 35) Again, we find him with Peter after the Lord’s resurrection where he out runs Peter and is first to the tomb. (Jno. 20:1-10) He is present with the disciples, the doors being shut for fear of the Jews, when the Lord appeared in their midst. (Jno. 20:19, 20) He is among those that received for a second time the promise of the Holy Ghost. (Jno. 20:22) He is present with Peter fishing, when the Lord appeared to them again after his resurrection, and it is he that recognizes from the miracle of the fishes that the mysterious man upon the shore is the Lord. (Jno. 21:1-7) Finally, Jesus tells Peter that, although he will glorify the Lord in martyrdom upon a cross, the author will live unto Christ’s return. (Jno. 21:22, 23)
All of these facts are consistent with the authorship of an apostle. None of Jesus’ other disciples (the seventy, for example) would have been witness to so many events of Jesus’ life and ministry except one of the apostles, who companied with him always, and shared the most intimate details of his life. But if the larger picture is consistent with apostolic authorship, the minute details point to John. James and John were partners with Andrew and Peter as fisherman upon the sea of Galilee. (Lk. 5:10) John was therefore with Peter in the ship when Jesus first performed the miracle of the fish (Lk. 5:4-10), and was present with Peter when the Lord performed the same miracle a second time, and by this sign thus recognized that the mysterious figure upon the shore was none other than the Lord. It was John who was sent with Peter to prepare the place for the last supper. (Lk. 22:8) After the Lord’s ascension it is Peter and John who come to the fore as leaders of the twelve. Peter and John are together at the healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1); they stand trial together before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19), and travel to Samaria together to communicate the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. (Acts 8:14) Given the repeated appearance throughout the gospels and Acts of Peter and John together, the inference is natural that it was John who lay upon the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper and gained admittance for Peter into the palace of the high priest. It is believed by many that John was Jesus’ kinsman on his mother’s side. Matthew states that there was present at the cross with Jesus’ mother, “May Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.” (Matt. 27:36) However, the fourth gospel adds “there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” (Jno. 19:25) Mary the wife of Cleophas evidently is the mother of James and Joses, and the Virgin’s sister the mother of James and John, Zebedee’s children. We learn her name from Mark’s account, which puts Solome in place of the mother of Zebedee’s children. (Mk. 15:40) From this it is inferred that James and John were cousins to Jesus (like John the Baptist who was also a relative of Christ). This fact would help account for Jesus committing the care of Mary to John at the cross, for it is natural that she be taken into the home of her sister before that of one to whom she bore no relation. It may also say something about the special relationship between Jesus and the “disciple he loved.” In none of this is there a reasonable inference to suppose anyone else is referred to. If John is not the anonymous disciple of the fourth gospel, then he is omitted all together, for he is nowhere referred to name. This fact alone implies that John is the author, for it is inconceivable that the second most prominent member of twelve after Peter should otherwise go unmentioned and be omitted from the account.
The Author was Present at the Transfiguration
From the synoptic gospels we learn that only Peter, James, and John were present at the Lord’s transfiguration. The author of the fourth gospel seems to indicate he was witness to that event when he states “we beheld his glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” (Jno. 1:14) When compared with Peter’s statement in his second epistle, this is seen to almost certainly refer to the transfiguration, and thus becomes evidence that John is author.
The Promise of the Holy Ghost was Given only to the Twelve Present at the Last Supper, of Which the Author was One
The author of the fourth gospel was present at the Last Supper, when Christ promised to send the Holy Ghost, who would lead them into all truth. So far as may be shown from scripture, only the twelve were with Jesus at the supper. This is very clear from the gospel accounts. “Now when even was come, he sat down with the twelve.” (Matt. 26:20) Luke says, “And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him.” (Lk. 22:14) After Jesus’ resurrection, the promise was renewed to the disciples when Jesus appeared to them, the doors being closed for fear of the Jews. (Jno. 20:19 ) Again, there is no basis to conclude anyone other than the apostles were present or were given this promise. Before his ascension, the promise was made a third time. Luke records that Jesus gave commandment to the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Ghost. (Acts 1:2) After Jesus’ ascension, two angels appeared, saying, “Ye men of Galilee.” (Acts 1:11) This proves that only the twelve were present at Jesus’ ascension and were commanded to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Ghost. Two verses later, the same group is enumerated by name, and Matthias is added to their number to fill up the vacancy left by Judas. Next comes the day of Pentecost and the promised Holy Ghost was given to the twelve. No one else received the gift at that time, only the twelve. The account is very clear: “Peter standing up with the eleven” (Acts 2:14) explained to the wondering crowd the meaning of miracle they witnessed. This gift was communicated to others only by the laying on of hands. We thus read of Peter and John traveling to Samaria to impart the Holy Ghost to believers there; baptism in Jesus’ name was not enough, nor could Philip who carried the gospel message there communicate the Holy Ghost himself; only the apostles had power to communicate the gift by laying on of hands. Simon the magician, seeing this, offered money that he might do the same, but was rebuked by Peter for his wicked presumption. (Acts 8:19, 20) Paul, the apostle born out of due time, received the like gift and we later witness him doing the same. (Acts 19:6) The presence of the author at the Last Supper where the promise of the Holy Ghost was made, its repetition to the same group after Christ’s resurrection, and, its repetition a third time to the little band of Galileans at his ascension, is conclusive evidence that the author of the fourth gospel was one of the apostles, for the promise was given only to them. To conclude that the “beloved disciple” leaning upon Jesus breast at the Last Supper was other than one of the twelve is to presume upon the silence of the scriptures and expand the promise of the Holy Ghost beyond the apostles of the Lord.
The Author of the Fourth Gospel used Identical Language and Teaching as the Author of the Epistles of John and Revelation
This is, perhaps, the most persuasive evidence of all. Where a writing uses unique language, grammar, and concepts, appearance of similar indicia elsewhere is indirect evidence that the authors are the same. Here the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of an identity of authors. H.R. Reynolds states “Surely the endeavour to separate the authorship of the First Epistle from that of the Fourth Gospel breaks down at every point.” Moses Stuart, in his commentary on the Apocalypse, lists dozens and dozens of instances where there is a virtual identity of language and grammar between the gospel and Revelation, which are unique to those books. The personal appellation of Jesus as “The Word of God” are unique to the gospel, the first epistle, and Revelation; reference to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” occur only here; the theme of “keeping the word” so unique to the gospel and epistle occurs also in Revelation, and stands as one of the most remarkable coincidences of all. Another remarkable instance is the subscription passages in which the author of the gospel says of his testimony “we know his testimony is true” (Jno. 21:24; cf. 19:35), which identical phrase occurs also in III Jno. 12 and the like terminology in Revelation. Stuart comments regarding these “One can hardly refrain from the feeling, that the same hand must have penned both passages. And this the more, because out of John’s works, there is scarcely any usage of this peculiar and appropriate kind to be found.” “Overcoming” is a theme common to all, as also is use of the word “tabernacle” and the idea of the Godhead “tabernacling” among men. (Jno. 1:14; 7:15; 12:12; 13:6; Rev. 21:3) Stuart adds to these instances of doctrinal sameness that are unique to these books. A smattering is provided below, to which we add some of our own as well as instances where I, II, and III John agree with the gospel and Revelation. We feel the result is all but conclusive in favor of an identity of authorship between them, such that the one cannot be disclaimed to John without also disclaiming the others.
Keepers of the Word
(Occurs generally only in John)
Life & Sanctification Passages
In these twelve short pages we have marshaled by a small portion of the evidence demonstrating that John, the son of Zebedee was the author of the fourth gospel. Novel ideas placing authorship in Lazarus are without merit and should be rejected.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, I, 1.
 Theophilus, To Autolycus, II, xxii.
 Eusebius, Eccl. History VI, xiv; Loeb ed.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, xxiv; Loeb ed.
 The most exhaustive defense of John’s authorship has been in response to skeptics among the German higher critics, a survey of which is beyond the scope of this work.
 H.R. Reynolds, Commentary on John (Pulpit Commentary, Hendrickson), p. lxiv.
 Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse (1845), Vol. I, p. 406.
 Ibid, Vol. I, pp. 405-422.
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