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The Gospel of John

We will look at a few issues regarding John:

John Differs Substantially from the Synoptics

The gospel of John differs from the synoptics in many substantial ways. It recounts stories about Jesus that do not appear in the other three. Its whole framework of Jesus' ministry also differs substantially from the synoptics. In the synoptics, Jesus ministry begins only after John the Baptist was imprisoned (Mark 1:14; Matthew 4:12), John showed the two prophets preaching together (John 3:24). While the synoptics timetable of Jesus' ministry can be fitted into a single year, John makes the ministry last for three years (for John said Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples thrice: John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55). The main location of Jesus' ministry is given in the synoptics as Galilee. John placed Jerusalem as the principal location. According to John Jesus went to Jerusalem five times (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 10:22; 12:1), while the synoptics only recorded one such trip of Jesus to Jerusalem. [1]

Even the figure of Jesus presented in John is different, and indeed irreconcilable, with that presented in the synoptics. The figure of Jesus presented in John does not even sound like a Jew as, indeed, historically he was. The Jewish scholar, Hyam Maccoby (b.1924) sums this up very nicely:

In the synoptics' account Jesus is still a recognizably Jewish figure, sparing in words and human and concrete in approach; in John, Jesus has become a Greek: voluble, full of abstractions, mystical. [2]

Not only is Jesus presented in the gospel of John as a non-Jew, he is even recognizably anti-Jewish. In his debates with "the Jews" he called them the sons of the devil (John 8:43) and speaks of Jewish Law as "your Law" as though it wasn't his. (John 8:17) [3]

His method of preaching is also different. Whereas in the synoptics he preaches in parables and in short compact sayings, in John the method is with long discourses. If one were to read the gospel of John only one would never guess that the parable was a common method in Jesus' teaching (John 20:2-6 being a rare example)[4]

In the synoptics we find that Jesus kept his messiahship a secret at the beginning only to reveal it after Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16: 13-20; Luke 9:18-21) but in John his special status is made known almost from the beginning. [5] In John, Jesus calls himself "The resurrection and the life", "the bread of life" (John 6:35) and "the light of the world" (John 8:12). [6] There is no such utterance attributed to Jesus in the synoptics.

For some of the episodes in the synoptics that do appear in John, the chronological order in John is irreconcilable with that given in the synoptics. One example is an incident that is given in all four gospels: the Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:12-19; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:12-22). The story involves an incident where Jesus tried to chase the merchants and money changes away from their stores outside the temple. The merchants actually serve a useful function for the Jewish temple worship. The Jewish Law specified that, in certain cases, a worshipper could bring an offering of doves (Leviticus 12:8; 14:22). The moneychangers provide Jewish pilgrims from foreign lands clean money for payment of the temple tax (Exodus 30:13ff). Jesus was, for some reason, angry with these merchants and called them robbers (Mark 11:17). John describes the subsequent happening:

John 2: 15-16
So he [Jesus] made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves, he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

This event must have caused quite a commotion and could not have failed to produce unpleasant consequences for the Galilean prophet. In the synoptics, Jesus was dead within a week of the incident. John incomprehensibly placed this event in the beginning of Jesus' ministry; and made him preach for another three years with impunity! Thus where all the synoptics placed the incident near the end of Jesus ministry, John placed it at the beginning. [7]

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John's Treatment of Traditional Material

Thus we find that the gospel of John deviates substantially from the synoptics. That he makes use of traditional material cannot be denied: the similar events between John and Luke and the story above, among others, should be sufficient to prove this. But John did not faithfully transmit these traditions but used them to weave his own theology. Take for instance this saying of Jesus:

John 8:12
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

I ask the reader to imagine himself present in this scene where the Galilean prophet was uttering this statement about himself. The scene would be unbelievable, and the prophet will look like one on the verge of insanity. The sayings put into the mouth of Jesus by John is too unrealistic for it to have ever been uttered. G.A. Wells showed how John could have invented these statement. There were some traditional materials about discipleship, typified by Peter's statement that he has left everything to follow Jesus. (Mark 10:28). There is also another passage from the Old Testament:

Isaiah 9:2
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light

Thus John used fragments from tradition and scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) and weaved them together with his own theological imagination.[8]

In summary John's material differs substantially from the synoptics. It differs in such a way that makes his material much less likely to be of as much historical value as the synoptics. As Marcello Craveri (b.1914) aptly puts it:

The fourth gospel is of exceedingly little worth as a historical document and the Christian theologians themselves describe it as "pneumatic"-that is, spiritual-Gospel because it can be accepted only as a philosophical Christological dissertation. .[9]

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The authorship of John

Who was the author of John? Tradition has it that it was written by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee who is identified with "the beloved disciple" mentioned on at least four occasions in the gospel (John 13:23-25; 19:26f, 20:2-8 and 21:7f). This would make the gospel an eyewitness account. However several consideration shows that this is extremely improbable.

Firstly it is important to note that nowhere in the twenty chapters of the gospel is the author identified with anyone named John.

Secondly the identity of John, son of Zebedee with the person referred to as "the beloved disciple" is based primarily on parallel passages in the synoptics. For instance it is argued that John is depicted as Peter's companion in Acts (Acts 1:13; 3:1-4; 3:11; 4:13; 4:19; 8:14), the beloved disciple also appears with Peter in the fourth gospel (John 13:23-25; 20:2-8, 21:21-23 and, possibly, 18:15f [a] ).

Yet appealing to parallel passages in the synoptics cuts both ways. For there are many parallel scenes in the synoptics in which the beloved disciple is not mentioned when we would have expected him to, given the importance of his role depicted in the fourth gospel. These episodes are the last supper, the crucifixion and the empty tomb.

In the last supper Peter is made to ask the "beloved disciple" to inquire from Jesus who the traitor was after Jesus reveled that it will be one of the twelve (John 13:18-26). The incident, as described in the other gospels had the disciples inquiring among themselves who the betrayer is (Mark 14:19; Matthew 26:22; Luke 22:23).

In the episode of Jesus' crucifixion Jesus is said to have handed his mother to the care of the "beloved disciple" (John 19:25-27). This episode is nowhere to be found in any of the synoptics' account of the crucifixion. Indeed we are explicitly told by Mark that "all of them [Jesus' disciple] deserted him and fled" (Mark 14:50).

In the episode of the empty tomb, the "beloved disciple" is made to race Peter to the empty tomb and even outran him (John 20:3-5). Again nowhere in the synoptics do we find the "beloved disciple" or anybody apart from the women (and Peter in Luke 24:12) to have seen the empty tomb. This episode provides a clue as to how the stories concerning the beloved disciple is constructed. In the episode on the resurrection, John's account is very similar to Luke where Peter, alone, ran to the tomb after hearing the news from Mary Magdalene (Luke 24:12). The expression in John 20:3 was "Peter went forth". The verb here is singular in Greek and seems to show that John's traditional material only has Peter alone running to the tomb. But the evangelist clumsily adds "and the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb." Far from being an eyewitness account this shows that the character of the "beloved disciple" is merely a inept insertion by the author into his traditional source material. [10]

There is a passage in the fourth gospel that would also seem to exclude John, the son of Zebedee as the "beloved disciple". Recall that sometimes the "beloved disciple" is also referred to as "the other disciple" and is never named (e.g. 21:21-23 and, possibly, 18:15f ). If this indeed is an alternate designation, then the disciples who were present during the resurrection appearance at the Sea of Tiberias were given in John 21:2 as Peter, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee and two "other disciples". Given the premise of not naming the beloved disciple, it is more probable that he was among the "two other disciples" than one of the sons of Zebedee.

We should also note, for what it is worth, that Acts 4:13 mentioned John (with Peter) to be "uneducated and ordinary", which according to Bart Ehrman in his textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, means that he was illiterate. It is unlikely that such a theological work could be the result of such a person.

Thirdly the gospel is anonymous for the first twenty chapters. It also seems probable that chapter was the end of the original gospel, as the following verse will testify:

John 20:30-31
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

This sounds very much like a concluding paragraph of the gospel. Prior to this point no claim is made that the beloved disciple himself wrote the gospel. Indeed one passage seems to explicitly ruled him out as the direct author of the gospel:

John 19:35
He who saw it has borne witness -- his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth -- that you also may believe.

The "beloved disciple" was described in earlier (John 19:26) as being the only disciple present at the crucifixion (besides the women), so it is reasonable to assume that "he" here refers to him. However the third person construction of the sentence more naturally means that, whoever this disciple is, his witness is being claimed for the gospel not his authorship.

However chapter 21 restarts rather abruptly with: "Afterwards Jesus appeared again...". It is only here that the author is explicitly identified as the mysterious "beloved disciple."

John 21:24
This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

The first person plural "we" in the above verse , as well as the abrupt beginning mentioned earlier, show that chapter 21 is definitely a later addition to the gospel. And it is also clear that the beloved disciple had died when this chapter was written, as we can surmise from this passage:

John 21:21-23
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"

The explanation provided in John 21:23 above only makes sense if the beloved disciple had already died when the last chapter was penned. Thus the claim that the "beloved disciple" wrote the gospel was made in a chapter that was definitely not written by him! [11]

Even if we have shown that the author was not John the son of Zebedee, what about the claim that it was written by an albeit anonymous eyewitness? This is unlikely in the extreme, as Udo Schnelle, Professor of New Testament at Halle, Germany noted:

The different way in which the life of Jesus is portrayed, the independent theology, the numerous special traditions and the thought world explicitly oriented to the post-Easter perspective point to the conclusion that the Fourth Gospel was not composed by an eyewitness of the life of Jesus. He was a theologian of the later period who, on the basis of comprehensive tradtions, rethought the meaning of Jesus' life, and interpreted and presented it in his own way. [12]

We can summarized the evidence against identifying the author of the fourth gospel as John, the son of Zebedee:

  • Nowhere in the gospel is the author's name given as John

  • The identification of the "beloved disciple" with "John, the son of Zebedee" is false. The very method used for this - parallel passages in the synoptics - can be used to exclude the identification.

  • There is no explicit claim, in the first twenty chapters, of any authorship by the "beloved disciple" whoever he was.

  • The claim was made in chapter 21 was that of another hand and was penned after the death of the "beloved disciple".

  • The content of the fourth gospel explicitly excludes it as an eye-witness account.
The tradition of identifying the author with John the son of Zebedee is very late. It was first stated by Ireneaus around 180 CE who reported that the author of this gospel was John the son of Zebedee. This utterance by Ireneaus was most likely based on his confusion of the two Johns mentioned by Papias:

Quoted in Eusebius'History of the Church 3:39:3-4
And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying.

There were thus two Johns referred to above. One is John, one of original circle of disciples, which as can be inferred from the passage, was already dead. The other is the presbyter John who was still alive at the time of Papias writing around AD125. Now we know that Ireneaus, in his work Against Heresies, maintained that Papias was the follower of the apostle John (Against Heresies 5:33:4). We can see from the above passage that Papias gave no hint of knowing the apostle John but that he knew the presbyter John. It could very well be this same presbyter who wrote the Johanine epistles. In the second and third epistles of John, the writer introduces himself as John the Presbyter (or elder). [13]

Furthermore there is no evidence of any tradition attributing the authorship of the gospel to John the apostle before Ireneaus' assertion. Even some of Ireneaus' contemporaries do not share his opinion. The Roman presbyter, Cauis, writing a few years after Ireneaus, attributed the book to the Gnostic Cerinthus. We have evidence that this gospel was not universally accepted in Rome during the end of the second or beginning of the third century because the presbyter Hippolytus (c170-c236) had to defend the Johanine authorship. [14] After Ireneaus however the attribution apostolic authorship started to gain ground among the Christians. This probably happened via a circular process: the claims of apostolic authorship strengthen its claims to canonicity while the strengthening of its canonicity further boosted the claims of apostolic authorship.

The authorship of John, like that of the three gospels, is therefore anonymous. We can be reasonably certain, though, that it was not John the apostle.

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The Dating of John

When was the gospel of John written? We know that the gospel was definitely written before 140 CE. This was settled by the discovery of a 6 cm by 9 cm papyrus fragment in Egypt. The fragment, now kept in the John Rylands library contains two verses of the gospel on one side (John 18:37-38) and three verses on the other side (John 18:31-33). The handwriting style on the fragment point to a date of around 110-140 CE. [15] Thus 140 CE sets the absolute upper limit for John's composition.

The lower limit can probably be set by the passage in John chapter nine, it involves the story of a man born blind who was healed by Jesus: The Jews were skeptical and inquired about this man from his parents:

John 9:19-22
"Is this your son?" they asked. "Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it now that he can see?" "We know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was born blind." But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.

I have purposely italicized the last sentence to make it stand out from the rest of the passage. As we have noted earlier, around 90 CE the Jews excluded the Christians from synagogue worship by means of an insertion in the congregational prayer a curse on the "Nazarenes and heretics". Thus any Christian who attends the synagogue service would immediately be detected by his silence at this point of the prayer. While there were undoubtedly some early Christians who were harassed by the Jews before this, by and large the early Christians shared the same worshipping place with the Jews without much trouble. This is attested to by Luke and Acts. After the ascension of Jesus the apostles were said to worship continually in the temple (Luke 24:53). Furthermore the passage above clearly implies a systematic exclusion of Christians from synagogue worship that did not happen until the insertion of the "test clause".

The phrase "being put out of the synagogue" is repeated twice in John (12:42 and 16:2) and clearly points to a period of composition after 90 CE. [16]

Added to this, external evidence also point to a late date. There is no reference whatsoever among the early church fathers- such as Papias (c60-130), Ignatius (d. c110) and Polycarp (c69-c155)- to the gospel of John. [17] This, in my opinion, points to a date considerably later than 90 CE. Whatever that date may be, we can conclude that the most probable date of composition of the gospel of John lies between 90 to 140 CE.

We have discussed the gospel of John at considerable length. It is now time to pause a little and consider the implications of our findings. In the synoptics we note that Mark very probably depended on traditional material. Both Luke and Matthew, while allowing themselves some artistic and theological license, generally tried to preserve the witness of their sources, be it Mark or Q. We do not find this in John. He uses the traditional material rather freely and disagrees on many points with the synoptics. Thus it should be concluded here that John as a historical source for the life of Jesus is the least reliable of the four gospels. In the discussions of the historical evidence for Jesus in this website John will be used rather sparingly and when he is indeed quoted a higher level of skepticism must be applied to it.

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a.John 18:15-16 mentioned an unnamed "the other disciple, who was known to the chief priest" who was with Peter outside the courtyard of the chief priest during the interrogation of Jesus. In the story of race to the empty tomb (John 20:2), "the other disciple" is identified as "the one whom Jesus loved". However it is by no means clear that "the other disciple" at the empty tomb is to be identified with "the other disciple" at the courtyard of the high priest.


1.Guignebert, Jesus: p27
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p271
2.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p245-246
3.Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p42
4.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p275
5.Martin, op. cit.: p280
6.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p266
7.Guignebert, op. cit.: p418
8.Wells, Historical Evidence for Jesus: p130
9.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p312
10.Culpepper, John: p72-76
Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p234-236
Marsh, Saint John: p23-24
Wells, op. cit.: p128-129
11.Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p369 Ehrman, The New Testament: p161
Kümmel, op. cit.: p234-236
12.Schnelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings: p474
13.Davidson & Leaney, op. cit.: p267-268,324
Martin, op. cit.: p277-278
14.Davidson & Leaney, op. cit.: p268
15.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p159
Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?: p18-19
Wilson, op. cit.: p28
16.Wells, op. cit.: p126-127
17.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p15
Martin, op. cit.: p282
Wells, op. cit.: p127

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