“Who wrote John’s Gospel?” sounds like a trick question. You’re tempted to say, “Uhh . . . that would be John?”
Yes. But which John?
A handful of names were widely popular in first-century Israel. These included Simon, Judas, James, and John. The frequency with which they occur in historical writings, including Scripture, sometimes makes it hard to sort out who is who.
To add to the confusion, first-century Jews didn’t have last names, and sometimes a person went by multiple names. Simon, Simeon, Cephas, Peter, Simon Peter, Simon son of John, Simon son of Jonah—all the same guy.
So who wrote John’s Gospel?
There have been a number of proposals, and, as we will see, Pope Benedict XVI makes an interesting one.
The anonymous author
John’s Gospel indicates it was written by an eyewitness to the ministry of Christ: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things” (John 21:24).
It is ironic that John’s Gospel—of all the four—is the only one that so explicitly points to its author, yet it does not name him.
The author was known to the first readers, so in a sense it wasn’t necessary to say his name, but there may have been other reasons. One possibility is that the author keeps himself anonymous out of humility, identifying himself simply as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
It’s also possible that he is making himself a symbol—a stand-in for all of his readers, all of whom Jesus loves.
Since he was writing in dangerous times, he might have wanted to be anonymous so that he didn’t get in trouble with the authorities, and the strategy may not have worked. If he is also the author of Revelation, as commonly supposed, he ended up being exiled to the island of Patmos. It’s interesting to note that Revelation, of all the books attributed to John, is the only one that explicitly names its author (Rev. 1:4), and it was written after he was exiled.
The case for John the Apostle
The most common view is that the Gospel was written by John the Apostle. Let’s examine the evidence for this.
The author describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the [Last] Supper” (21:20).
This seems to put the author among Jesus’ core group of disciples, and it is an easy step from there to conclude that he was one of the Twelve. But which one?
Here we can use the process of elimination. John’s Gospel names several figures and thus distinguishes them from “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Here is a list, along with their first mention in the Gospel:
- Andrew (1:40)
- Simon Peter (1:40)
- Philip (1:43)
- Nathaniel (i.e., Bartholomew) (1:45)
- Judas Iscariot (6:71)
- Thomas (11:16)
- Judas (not Iscariot) (14:22).
The fact seven of the Twelve are named may be intentional. Seven is a significant number that crops up in unexpected ways in John’s Gospel (and in Revelation).
If none of these are the beloved disciple, that leaves the following members of the Twelve: James, John, Matthew, James the Less, and Simon the Zealot.
If the beloved disciple’s relationship is meant to be an especially close one (as opposed to a symbol of the love Jesus has for all his followers), that might mean he was one of the inner circle of apostles, whom we know from the other Gospels to have been Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
Peter and Andrew have already been eliminated, and James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle to be killed (Acts 12:2), so there would scarcely be an enduring rumor that he would live until the Second Coming, as there was for the beloved disciple (John 21:22-23).
With the other three core disciples eliminated, that would point to John the son of Zebedee.
This is a compelling case, and it is no surprise that the dominant view historically has been that John the Apostle was the author of this Gospel.
Testing the assumptions
The case above depends on certain assumptions—that the author was one of the Twelve and that he was among the core group within the Twelve. Both assumptions are reasonable, but are they certain?
There were other important followers of Jesus.
Two were Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias, the two proposed as Judas Iscariot’s replacement precisely because they had followed Jesus from his baptism to his Ascension (Acts 1:21-26). Yet they are not mentioned in the Gospels at all.
There was also Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own tomb for Jesus’ burial (Matt. 27:60).
Nicodemus also went with Joseph to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, and he later helped with the burial (John 19:39).
John’s Gospel prominently features a disciple who was not a member of the Twelve but who was close enough to Jesus that others commented on how much Jesus loved him: Lazarus (11:36). As a result, some have proposed Lazarus as the author of the fourth Gospel.
This is unlikely, one reason being the anonymity that the beloved disciple employs. It is improbable that he would carefully craft the anonymous, beloved disciple identity for himself and then casually name himself in other passages.
The same reasoning makes it unlikely the beloved disciple is any of the other non-Twelve disciples mentioned in John (e.g., Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus). But the point remains that there were important disciples who were not members of the Twelve. Given that, is there any reason to think that the beloved disciple might not be John son of Zebedee?
Not a fisherman from Galilee?
Several reasons have been suggested. First, the beloved disciple does not appear clearly until chapter thirteen of the Gospel, when he is reclining by Jesus at the Last Supper (13:23). But James son of Zebedee had been a disciple as early as Peter and Andrew (Matt. 4:18-22, cf. John 1:40-42).
Second, the Gospel of John focuses largely on Jesus’ ministry around Jerusalem rather than in Galilee. This is what one would expect of the writings of a native of Jerusalem but not so much those of a Galilean like John son of Zebedee.
Third, the beloved disciple’s residence in Jerusalem may be shown by the fact that he was known by the high priest. This enabled him to enter the high priest’s court with Jesus. Peter was barred from entering, and the disciple had to intervene to get Peter access to the courtyard (18:15-16). The same high priest (Caiaphas) does not appear to recognize John son of Zebedee when he and Peter are brought before him in Acts 4.
Fourth, the beloved disciple may have been a priest himself, as illustrated by the fact that he knew the high priest. The second-century Christian writer Polycrates agreed: “John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and being a priest wore the sacerdotal plate . . . also sleeps at Ephesus” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:31:2). But John the son of Zebedee was a fisherman, not a priest.
Fifth, John son of Zebedee and Peter are specifically said to be “uneducated, common men” by Luke (Acts 4:13). But priests were educated, and the Gospel of John displays literary qualities that would not be expected from an uneducated, common man.
Sixth, at the end of the Gospel, there is a fishing expedition that includes “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples” (21:2). These seven disciples (note the number) include the beloved disciple. But since he has studiedly kept himself anonymous, we might expect him to be one of the two unnamed disciples mentioned at the end, not one of the sons of Zebedee.
As we will see, none of these objections is insuperable. There are ways John son of Zebedee could be the beloved disciple. But they have led some scholars to wonder if the beloved disciple might be someone else.
The name John
The fact the fourth Gospel is known as John’sis important.
Though none of the Gospels explicitly name their authors, their original audiences knew who had written them, and these traditions circulated in the early Church. It is hard to imagine personal names becoming attached to the Gospels if the names were inaccurate.
As a result, we should look for someone named John as the author of the Gospel.
As previously noted, John was a common name in first-century Palestine. About one in twenty men bore it, so among the seventy disciples Jesus sent out on a preaching mission (Luke. 10:1) or among the 120 core disciples present at the election of Judas’s replacement (Acts 1:15), it is likely there were several Johns.
An interesting case is John Mark. We know that he lived at Jerusalem, where his mother had a house (Acts 12:12). Because it is described as his mother’s house rather than his father’s house, his father was likely dead.
This could make John Mark the eldest male in the household, which could explain why the beloved disciple was seated next to Jesus at the Last Supper. Even as a non-member of the Twelve, if he was the official host representing the family that owned the house, he might well be seated next to the guest of honor.
In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict writes, “According to the Jewish custom, the host or, in his absence, as would have been the case here, his firstborn son sat to the right of the guest, his head leaning on the latter’s chest” (v. 1, p. 225).
That could apply to the beloved disciple if he were someone other than John Mark, though. The beloved disciple appears in a clear way for the first time at the Last Supper, and if he were also the owner of the house where it took place, or the eldest male of the family present, he could end up seated next to Jesus even though he was not a member of the Twelve.
The main problem with supposing him to be John Mark is that John Mark is usually identified with Mark the Evangelist, the author of the second Gospel. The tradition in the Church Fathers on this point is very strong.
It also is commonly thought that John Mark appears as one of the unnamed characters in his own Gospel, such as the man who runs away without his clothing on the night Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:51-52).
His case does demonstrate, though, that there were other early disciples, not members of the Twelve, who were in a position to write Gospels—and even ones named John.
Some have suggested that the beloved disciple was a priest who lived at Jerusalem but who is otherwise unknown to us. Hypothetically, this is possible, but it seems unlikely. Someone important enough to write a Gospel should have left some trace in history. So does history record any other Johns who could have written the fourth Gospel?
The case for John the Presbyter
In the first half of the second century, an author named Papias wrote a work on the sayings of Jesus. It is lost, but quotations survive in works by other early authors, such as the second-century bishop Irenaeus and the fourth-century Church historian Eusebius.
Papias was in contact with people who had known Jesus. He names two: Aristion and a figure known as John the Presbyter (also called John the Elder and John the Priest, depending on how the underlying Greek word is translated). Note the contrast between what Aristion and John the Presbyter “say” and what the other disciples, including John the Apostle, “said” (see the sidebar “Papias on John the Presbyter”).
Both Johns were associated with the city of Ephesus, and Eusebius cites the statement of Papias as evidence for the claim of those “who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called John’s” (Ecclesiastical History 3:39:6).
He went on to say that “it is probable that it was the second [i.e., the Presbyter], if one is not willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John” (ibid.).
St. Jerome records a common view that 2 John and 3 John were written by John the Presbyter, saying these two letters “are said to be the work of John the Presbyter, to the memory of whom another sepulcher is shown at Ephesus to the present day, though some think that there are two memorials of this same John the Evangelist” (Illustrious Men 9). Note that the opening verse of both letters lists the sender simply as “the Presbyter.”
Scholars who favor the idea that John the Presbyter wrote the fourth Gospel have produced a number of arguments for their position.
A noteworthy one is that John the Presbyter evidently lived to a very old age. Otherwise, he would not have acquired the nickname “the Presbyter,” which in Greek means “the Elder.” If he is addressing his letters simply as “the Elder,” that would indicate an advanced age.
That harmonizes with the rumor that the beloved disciple would live until the Second Coming (21:15-23).
This, as well as literary similarities between the Gospel and the epistles of John, suggest a common author.
Pope Benedict’s solution
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict takes up the question of who wrote John’s Gospel and proposes a solution that other scholars have advocated.
He notes that “the Gospel never directly identifies [the beloved disciple] by name. In connection with the calling of Peter, as well as of other disciples, it points toward John, the son of Zebedee, but it never explicitly identifies the two figures. The intention is evidently to leave the matter shrouded in mystery” (v. 1, p. 223).
Pope Benedict acknowledges the difficulty some have had with seeing John son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel: “Can he, the Galilean fisherman, have been as closely connected with the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem, its language, and its mentality as the Evangelist evidently is? Can he have been related to the family of the high priest, as the text hints (cf. John 18:15)?” (p. 224).
He concludes that “that such an identification is actually quite possible. The priests discharged their ministry on a rotating basis twice a year. The ministry itself lasted a week each time. After the completion of the ministry, the priest returned to his home, and it was not at all unusual for him also to exercise a profession to earn his livelihood. Furthermore, the Gospel makes clear that Zebedee was no simple fisherman, but employed several day laborers, which also explains why it was possible for his sons to leave him” (ibid.).
While it was possible for a Galilean fisherman to also be a priest at Jerusalem, Pope Benedict thinks John the Presbyter also had a role.
In his view, John’s Gospel was based on the memories of the Apostle but put into its final literary form by the Presbyter, who served as “the literary executor of the favorite disciple” after his death (v. 1, p. 227).
The pope also sees John the Presbyter as the author of 2 and 3 John (see the sidebar “Pope Benedict on John the Presbyter”).
These views are not magisterial teaching. As Pope Benedict famously said in the preface to Jesus of Nazareth, “[T]his book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps. 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”
The seriousness with which Pope Benedict takes the traditions connecting John son of Zebedee and John the Presbyter with the fourth Gospel, though, should not be lightly dismissed