John's Gospel: The External EvidenceJohn most probably wrote his gospel last, possibly even into the early 90's, though there's some debate about that. One would think that since the early church historian Papias was alive and collecting his sources at the time of the different gospels' authorship, this would be the easiest of the four to identify. Unfortunately, it isn't that cut and dried. The quotation from Papias isn't as clear as we would like.
Eusebius, when he quotes Papias on John's gospel records that Paipas seems to list John the apostle, grouping him with the likes of Andrew, Peter, James, Philip, and Thomas. This group Papias labels "the elders." He then mentions "other disciples of the Lord' which seems to imply those who also heard Jesus's teachings. 1 However, Papias lists another John, whom he calls "John the Presbyter" as well. This John is also called "The Lord's disciple," but Eusebius thinks that this John is different from the apostle, and this use of the term disciple in this second instance may be more generic; it is a way of identifying a follower of Jesus's teachings and not one who sat under Jesus himself. Others disagree and say the phrase is to focus those disciples who were still alive and teaching in churches in Asia.2,3
That doesn't mean we have no testimony on authorship of the fourth gospel from the early church fathers. The claim that Apostle John was the author is made by Irenaeus, who tied it to the epistles of John and the book of Revelation.4 The second century church father Polycrates, writing about AD 190, stated that John "was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord."5
John's Gospel: The Internal EvidenceWhile we cannot point with certainty to Papias, we can at least deduce from early on the author of the Gospel was someone named John. That's actually helpful, as the author of John's Gospel does include himself in the narrative, but never by name. He always refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," such as in John 21:20 where Peter was questioning his fate. He then makes a bold claim: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). Here, we have the author claiming to be an eyewitness of the events he has written about. Knowing that the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper (John 13:22) and leaning on Jesus's breast, it narrows this author down to one of the original twelve apostles. Given that Jesus charges him with the care of his Mother, Mary (John 20:26-27), this must've been not simply any disciple but one who was deeply intimate with Jesus.
Yet, there is more evidence. Another claim to being an eyewitness is found at the beginning of the Gospel. In John 1:14, the author says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory." That phrase of "his glory" is key. Jesus only revealed his glory one time, and that as on the Mount of Transfiguration. While that event is not recorded in John's gospel, it is captures in the other three, who are in agreement that Jesus took only Peter, James and John with him. It was big enough to make an impression on both Peter and John, given that Peter points to it in claiming his eyewitness credentials: For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).
When we look at John's three epistles, we can see that John uses the term "the elder" for himself (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1). The epistle writer also claims to be an eyewitness in 1 John 1:1-3: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you." Further, the style of the three epistles and the fourth Gospel are so close that it is clearly evident they were all written by the same person.
For John's Gospel we now know that:
- The author was an eyewitness of the events he recorded
- He was intimately acquainted with Jesus
- He was an elder in the church, providing instruction through much of the first century
- He wrote the three epistles that are also identified with the apostle John
- He claimed to not only see Jesus, but to see him "in his glory" which points to the Transfiguration
- Jesus's took only three of his closest disciples with him to see his transfiguration
- There is second century tradition that points to john the Apostle as being the author of the fourth gospel.
2. Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006. Print. 17.
3. Blomberg, Craig. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Second ed. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 2007. Print. 27.
4. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.8.4-5
5. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.24.2