Is John the Author of His Gospel? An alternative to John Shelby Spong’s view

by Mark P Shea

A common notion floating around in Pop Culture is that “modern scholarship” has somehow proven the Gospel of John is more or less unhistorical fantasy written by a pseudonymous author.

Here’s the facts: the tradition of the Church, supported by the unbroken line of patristic testimony, as well as internal evidence from the text itself, is that the gospel is rooted in the testimony of the Apostle John, son of Zebedee.

St. Irenaeus tells us (circa 180 A.D.) that the fourth gospel was published by the Apostle John, the teacher of his own mentor Polycarp. Numerous other witnesses in the second and third centuries corroborate this basic witness. In addition, various elements within the gospel strongly suggest John as the author. Most obviously, there is the attestation of the witnesses penning the gospel that it is the testimony of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:24)—a disciple to whom no one but John corresponds. The source of the gospel is, quite clearly, a Jew familiar with the conditions of Palestinian Judaism at the time of Christ. He speaks Aramaic and Greek. He knows Jerusalem as it looked before Rome reduced it to rubble in 70 AD. And he gives countless details which, if they are not the testimony of a first-hand eyewitness who was present at the Last Supper, are an absolutely isolated occurrence of novelistic realism nineteen centuries ahead of its time. That he was part of Christ’s “inner circle” of Peter, James and John (cf. Galatians 2:9) is even more likely given that he was the disciple at the Last Supper who laid his head on Christ’s breast. He can’t be Peter, who is distinguished from him in the text, and he can’t be James (who died in the early 40s). So it all points to John.

Additionally, the patristic tradition that the gospel was composed in Ephesus also points to John. First, this is the city associated with the Assumption of the Virgin who was commended into his care. Second, the gospel repeatedly answers a sect devoted to John the Baptist with the reply that John “was not the Light” but had only come to “bear witness to the Light” (John 1:8). We know from Acts 18:24 and 19:1-7 that there was such a sect centered in Ephesus. Finally, the sophistication of the gospel fits the fact that the New Testament epistle with the most sophisticated exposition of theology is the epistle to the Ephesians.

Conclusion: all the evidence point to the accuracy of the Church’s tradition (noted by Irenaeus around 180 AD) that John published his gospel in Ephesus in the second half of the first century.

Some critics, eager to look for crack in this evidence, will note that the Greek of John’s gospel and epistles is of a different quality than the Greek of John’s Revelation and say, along with Eusebius, that Irenaeus might have had his Johns mixed up between multiple individuals. Others, grasping at straws, may claim that Mark 10:38-39…

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.

…implies that both James and John suffered a martyr’s death, contradicting John 21:22-23.

But these arguments are weak as well. To be sure, there is a strain of thought dating back to Eusebius that John the apostle and John the “elder” may be two different people. But so what? We know from internal evidence (John 21:24), that the gospel has more than one hand involved in its composition. Given the common use of an amanuensis (a secretary who took dictation) in the New Testament, that shouldn’t surprise us. The editors of John make it abundantly clear that they have some sort of hand in the composition of the gospel, but that the gospel is nonetheless rooted in the testimony of the “beloved disciple” whom they know intimately.

This means the discrepancy in writing styles between the Gospel and the Revelation could be due to any number of factors. It may be that John wrote his gospel with the help of another person named John (then, as now, a common name). It may be that he had no amanuensis when he wrote his Revelation (which would explain the different styles and the difference in competence in Greek). None of this disproves the strong evidence that John bar-Zebedee is the source of the testimony in the gospel.

Likewise the attempt to pit Mark 10:38-39 against the testimony of John 21 is what happens when you let all your biblical interpretation be done by people who are on a single-minded mission to show that everything in the Bible is false, untrustworthy, etc. Such determined misreaders wind up forgetting that it’s a human book using human language in their zeal to prove it’s not God’s book. So the critic sets himself the absurd task of insisting that it couldn’t be possible Jesus is simply saying that James and John are going to endure suffering for his sake, or that the murder of James would be a bitter cup for his brother John to drink. No, they have to insist that Mark thinks John was martyred, even though the whole tradition of the Church preserves no such tradition at all. One hears the sound of an ax on the grinding wheel of an agenda, not of a sensible reading of a text.

Yet another criticism of Johannine authorship turns the very sophistication of the gospel against it. Some declare that John bar-Zebedee, a mere fisherman, could not have been an educated Greek-speaking theological genius and therefore could not have written such a theologically sophisticated work.

Here’s the problem: The assumption that a Jewish fisherman living two thousand years ago couldn’t be multi-lingual, or educated, or a genius or a contemplative—or all four—is a very fine illustration of what the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis used to refer to as “chronological snobbery”. This is, roughly speaking, the notion that we are, by virtue of our blenders and hi-def TVs, 2000 years smarter than people who lived in Jesus time and that we are therefore comfortably ensconced on the final and permanent platform from which to look down on all human history. It is to forget something a reader of mine puckishly pointed out:

I mean, come on–the Greek text clearly indicates someone who had at least 4 years of Koine Greek in college, and maybe even some in grad school (classics major, perhaps?). And Aramaic, on top of it. That’s TWO foreign languages to learn. And it was someone with intimate knowledge of Judaism (religious studies minor?).

How could John have had time to take these courses, much less pay for them? I mean, Hebrew and Bar-Ilan wouldn’t even be founded for nearly 2,000 years!

And where’d he pick up all that theology, if it was John? After all, John was spending all his free time running around with Jesus, so he wouldn’t have had time to study theology.

Sheesh! To think that a Jewish fisherman in ancient Hellenized Palestine would have had time to learn ancient Greek and Aramaic and theology while he was running around with Jesus…I mean, it’s ridiculous!

[In further exchanges, we can argue about the authorship of “Caesar’s” Gallic Wars:

How could a mere military commander have time to learn Classical Latin and French geography while he spent all that time encamped on remote Gallic battlefields? He wasn’t a professional geographer with a flair for ancient languages, after all!

And the plays of “Shakespeare”:

How could a regular guy living just after the Middle Ages, of all times, take the time to learn Shakespearean English? I mean, all those thees and thous—do you expect anyone other than a tenured English professor to manage those?]

In other words, in the zeal to argue John was “just” a fisherman, the critic forgets that Paul was “just” a tentmaker, yet still had plenty of time to get educated. He forgets that native Aramaic-speak John lived in “Galilee of the Gentiles” and that the normal lingua franca of a tradesman at this crossroads of various civilizations was Koine Greek.

But beyond his language skills, the matter of his theological prowess is much more acute—and surprising to moderns who think education begins and ends with plump suburbanites. It should be carefully marked that John’s gospel makes a rather curious note—and not one anybody would invent: it says that John was “known to the high priest” (John 18:16). That would be Caiaphas, the guy John’s gospel holds accountable for engineering Jesus’ death. John—the supposedly ignorant and uneducated fisherman—was known to the most important theological and political brain in Judea c. 33 AD. And this strongly suggests that John may have spent more time in Jerusalem and gotten more of an education than we think.

The fact is, most our pop culture picture of John comes from movies full of “humble fishermen” in ragged clothes. But it is quite possible to construct a picture of the fisherman John from the New Testament which leaves room for a man as well-educated as the tentmaker Paul. The fact that the Jerusalem elite thought the apostles uneducated means only that the Jerusalem elite were snobs, which we knew. It’s entirely possible that John had studied with rabbis. It’s possible he was familiar with the work of his contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, (who has his own notions about the Logos and its relationship with the word of God). It’s possible that John, after his apostleship began (or even before), was interested in the philosophy of the pagans. He would have known plenty of them in in Galilee of the Gentiles. Indeed, that may have been exactly what drew him to preach the gospel in cosmopolitan Ephesus. It’s possible that he was taught by rabbis in Jerusalem who were interested in the conversation between the Scriptures and the pagan philosophies. All sorts of things are possible. But certainly nothing merits the claim that there is “absolutely no scholarly evidence” that the gospel is substantially the eyewitness testimony of John the apostle.

In sum, if an ancient Jewish tentmaker could be a theologically-well-educated polyglot, so could an ancient Jewish fisherman. All the evidence we possess suggests that this is exactly what John was. At most, it suggests that John’s written testimony was assisted by the work of a more polished writer, who himself insists that John is the source of what he’s writing. Given that there is not a trace of doubt about this in the early Church, a normal literary historian would take this as very strong evidence that this is John’s testimony. Only an agenda-driven conspiracy theorist finds this too difficult to buy.

When all this is said, one last stratagem is sometimes deployed by the critic of Johannine authorship. It goes something like this: Why accept the so-called “internal evidence” of the gospel of John when you don’t accept the Book of Mormon or the Quran?

That argument would have some bearing on the discussion—if we were talking about a sola scriptura claim for the divine inspiration of John’s gospel. But in fact we are talking about textual analysis and historic evidence, not concerning the inspiration of a document, but concerning the human authorship of that document. It takes faith to believe that God revealed the New Testament, the Quran or the book of Mormon. But it takes only reason and evidence to believe Mohammed wrote the Quran, Joseph Smith wrote the book of Mormon—or that John is the author his gospel. Such evidences exist both internal to the documents in question, as well as in testimony from external witnesses. It’s how we know Julius Caesar wrote his Gallic Wars and it’s how we know John wrote his gospel.

What lies behind all this sort of criticism is a scenario like this:

Long ago, sometime between Jesus (whoever he really was) and the rise of the “organized Church”, some unknown editors just cooked up a story about Jesus, attributed it to, say, John, and sent it off to random communities of Stupid People who were 2000 years dumber than us. These Stupid People naturally believed without question both that the book was from John and that John was telling the truth, so they started a Church based on this book. They never bothered to check up on any of this, because they were 2000 years more gullible than we Brights. Nor did anybody from the community where John lived ever say, “Hey! John didn’t write that!” Nor did John himself ever protest that he’d said nothing of the kind. Fortunately, Brights are 2000 years smarter and these elementary questions occur to them.

In fact, however, the community, not the book, comes first. The book is the testimony, not merely of one man, but of the whole Church. The book was believed because the man was believed. And the man was believed, in part, because he was not one man (like Mohammed or Joseph Smith) claiming a vision and promising earthly pleasures and power, but because he is one of 500 people who bear witness by a life of martyrdom to public events that took place within the living memory of all Israel (1 Corinthians 15:6). That’s the meaning of the endorsement at the end of the gospel from the Johannine community (“It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24)). It doesn’t mean “Dear Gullible Stranger: Read this, believe it, and don’t question whether it really came from John. Signed, a Pack of Anonymous Con Men You Can Trust”. It means “You guys in the neighboring diocese down the road know John and what he has suffered for the gospel and you know us. We will vouch for the accuracy of this document.”

That’s why John’s gospel propagated so quickly and was so quickly accepted. It’s also why other gospels that loudly claimed to be from apostles did not propagate quickly and were not accepted, because ancients weren’t stupid enough to accept apostolic authorship just because the document claimed it.

It’s also why gospels written by figures of no importance in the rest of the New Testament, such as Mark and Luke, were accepted and attributed to them, even though the documents themselves make no claim to authored by these men. Think about it: If you are going to cook up a gospel, why attribute it to such second stringers?

Answer: the gospels weren’t cooked up. They are the works of the people to whom they are attributed. The community remembers who wrote them even when the documents themselves do not say, “By Mark”, “By Luke”, or “By John”. That’s the scholarly evidence.

Copyright 2007 – Mark P. Shea

About Mark P. Shea

The terrifying visage gazing back at you right now is a non-bearded version of Mark P. Shea: a popular Catholic writer and speaker who appears in this form from about May to November. He is a double-jump convert: raised more or less as an agnostic pagan, became a non-denominational Evangelical in 1979, and entered the Catholic Church in 1987.

When he is not shaving, he is the author of the books:

  • The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ

  • The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary

  • Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did

  • By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, and;

  • This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence

He also shows up on TV now and then to frighten small children and puppies and prove to the world that he has a Radio Face. Obligingly, he also turns up frequently on radio.

In addition, Mark is busy bopping around the country (and occasionally other countries) speaking on lots of fun and interesting topics. If you want him to speak at your parish, conference, or soiree, check out his Speaking Information.

He also finds time to be an affiliate and devoted friend of the Catherine of Siena Institute and boosts their phenomenally important work wherever and whenever he can. Further, he is an award-winning columnist, contributing a daily blog to Patheos, a thrice-weekly blog and his “Connecting the Dots” column to the National Catholic Register, as well as numerous articles in many other magazines. He has been happily married since 1983 and he and his wife have frequent adventures with their four sons.

Oh, and from about November to May, he just gives up on shaving, stays warm, and looks like this (except that he’s still in color):

Feel free to email Mark in his shaven or unshaven form.

Copyright 2011 – Mark P. Shea

13 thoughts on “Is John the Author of His Gospel? An alternative to John Shelby Spong’s view

  1. The reason why John could confound the wise is that he was a fountain of revelation – he had the Mind of Christ – he had been led into all Truth by the Teacher within – of course he would appear to be a genius – even a drop-kick like me could bamboozle scholars by simply reiterating what we are taught internally in the secret place of the Most High.

    As for you will drink My cup and share my baptism, is this not referring to the substitutionary death of Romans 5 and 6? He drank of the bitter cup and tasted death for all humanity, yes? He was baptized, immersed in death, and then raised up to Newness of Life? Where I go you cannot follow, the cup I drink you cannot drink. All died in Him and all were raised in Him. I think that this what He was talking about, and He meant you cannot drink of it or go where I go, but He would do it on your behalf and so you would share in His cup.

    All shared in His cup, his death, and all shared in His resurrection from the dead. His covenant covers all who care to answer the call come to Him.

    So maybe there is a Catholic agenda that J Z should not be seen to die peacefully already?

    Nice to see the ecumenical thing gaining ground, along with the Hebrew Roots movement, and the resurgence of Nazism and Communism – it should be all the fun of the fear (sic) soon…the Church will split down the middle like a ripe peach…should be fascinating…sheep and goats and all that….

  2. Mr Spong made the claim that John could not have remembered things in such detail, but, as Ian says, Jesus told the disciples the Holy Spirit would be with them and in them and would bring back all things to their remembrance and guide them in to all truth. The Hoy Spirit, being God, has no issues with memory, detail or accuracy.

    A least Greg is providing alternatives so I’ll attempt to be more patient, but I find the practice of eliminating so much of the Old and New Testaments in the name of ‘scholarship’ very trying. It is of no assistance to the seeker to be confounded by the doubts and intrigues of theologists (a new word for people who claim to be theologians but, in fact, know nothing about the True God, the Word, or the Holy Spirit), many of whom show themselves to be unsaved, and others who a, at best, borderline (although that is God’s business, not mine).

    Having been able to fully accept the Gospel of John and take it at face value and then live out what it teaches, I can say that it’s principles work in the context of ministering the gospel, so, for me, and I’m sure most evangelicals, this is evidence enough of its authenticity.

    People who doubt it’s value or authenticity will, of course, never live out its principles, which is why their attempt at theologising what is a powerful and life changing gospel is such a waste of time, space and energy.

    That is why I suggested on the other thread that Mr Spong should spend the next five years putting it into practice to see if it makes a difference to his thinking.

    If it doesn’t it will be because he’s not actually saved. The things of the Spirit are nonsense to the natural mind.

  3. Jesus told the disciples the Holy Spirit would be with them and in them and would bring back all things to their remembrance and guide them in to all truth. The Hoy Spirit, being God, has no issues with memory, detail or accuracy.

    So where there are inaccuracies and contradictions in the Bible, it’s God’s fault.

    Luke tells how a decree went out from Augustus that “all the world should be registered”. The trouble is that there is absolutely no trace—in a well document period—of such a decree. It’s simply a means of getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for theological reasons. The messiah had to be of Davidic descent, and thus from Bethlehem. Luke says the birth occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria. That means it could not have happened before 6 C.E., the year we know he took office. At the same time, Matthew says Jesus was conceived while Herod the Great was in power in Judea. But Herod died in 4 B.C.E.! The authors of The Jesus Mysteries point out that Mary’s real miracle, if both references are taken genuinely, was “a 10-year pregnancy”. For Matthew, Jesus’ hometown was Bethlehem. For Luke, it was Nazareth.

    Nor at any stage were people required to go back to their hometowns to complete a census or form of taxation.

  4. If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. (John 5:31 NKJV)

    Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true (John 8:14 NKJV)

  5. Wazza, if you read the context of those passages you would understand perfectly, just as I had to point out Mark 16 to you. You’re either being facetious or bone idle, or you’re not saved so you don’t know how to discern scripture in context. If you’re not saved and don’t have the Spirit I’ll do my best to help you with it, but if you are saved and have the Spirit, work it out.

    Bones, Luke was not an Apostle of Christ. He was a Greek physician who was saved and followed the Apostles recording events and sending them to one of his benefactors as a diary of events. He wrote from what he learned from others. Besides which, because you are being so intent on remaining cantankerous about the authentic it of scripture you are placing rules on scripture which do not apply. You are being so ridiculous I can’t be bothered to help you with the petty, unimportant ‘problems’ you throw up.

    But look, I’m not going to continue in some conversation with liberals who have an axe to grind which seeks to demonise the writings of the New Testament, and some contrived list of difficulties in scripture which you will drag up like some atheist antichristian debating club.

    If you have issues with scripture, go ahead, downplay their importance, remove entire passages and books from the canon, question the Word, the context, the fluidity of the accounts, do all you can to produce doubt in your own minds and doubt in the minds of people who ask you for a reason for your hope.

    There’s a question. Has anyone ever asked you for a reason for your hope? Why would they if they do not see any?

    But if you are going post and comment on the errant nature of scripture and the worthlessness of John’s Gospel, or the Revelation, or Genesis, or Luke’s Gospel, or Acts, do it alone. You are missing more than you are gaining.

    I watch you as you go about taking a difficulty here and a difficulty there, and pretending that this demonstrates that the gospels are worthless. Yet the sum total of what is consistent and contextually sound far outweighs the minuscule controversial phrases and passages you attempt to spring upon anyone who challenges your tendency to lap up the work of people like Mr Spong.

    But do I ever hear you say anything about their value, or their virtue, the anointing, the Spirit of the Word which gives life, the quickening power of the Word, or the grace on the Word and Spirit to change people’s lives?

    I think we live on completely different planes of application, because, in my experience, the Word works when it is acted on in faith, just as Jesus said it would. What more do I need to know?

    Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.

    How about you discuss the grace and truth Jesus demonstrated to us and was described so aptly by John in his gospel, letters and revelation? Sow to the Spirit not the flesh for a change.

  6. Should have used the rolf harris version.

    Who is saying the gospels are worthless? Spong isnt saying that nor does he deny that something powerful happened aftrr christ’s death.

    As for rules for scripture. It was you who set the ruley when you say everything in them are historically divinely written events.

  7. Bones (defending Spong’s heresy),
    It was you who set the ruley when you say everything in them are historically divinely written events.

    When did I ever say that?

  8. Sorry, I wrote a long comment on the other thread but accidentally deleted it. Suffice it to say that I can’t stand Spongs theories.
    I gave reams of reasons why but suffice it to say now, that he doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. (not denying something powerful happened?? Bones, he basically states that the disciples thought that Jesus didn’t die and this was powerful for them – and that gradually the story was literalized).

    A person who doesn’t believe not only that the miracles didn’t happen, much of what Jesus supposedly did never happened, that Mary wasn’t a virgin, that people spoken about (Judas) didn’t exist, that much of what he supposedly said etc etc, but then the kicker – that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead is not a Christian in my eyes.

    They may be interesting to talk to and be able to give pep talks, even think that Jesus was a really cool guy – as far as they know from the little in the gospels they think he “might have” said, but they aren’t Christians.
    That doesn’t make them bad people. I know lots of Buddhists and unbelievers who think that maybe they can learn to love some people more by flicking through John after Oprah – but they aren’t Christians.

    Bones and Greg – please rewrite John with ONLY the words that Jesus actually said, the events that happened – to the people who actually existed. THen I’ll read it.

    . Spong is not a brother.

  9. Bones and Greg – please rewrite John with ONLY the words that Jesus actually said, the events that happened – to the people who actually existed. THen I’ll read it.

    OK! I’m on it.

    Detailed version below

    John 1

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