Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical Is It?

A look at some of the questions surrounding the Bible’s most enigmatic gospel

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in March 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.


 
Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical is It?

The evangelist John rests one hand on his gospel book, in this 83-inch-tall marble sculpture carved by Donatello in about 1415 for a niche in the facade of the Cathedral of Florence. Scholars writing Gospel of John commentary often grapple with the question: Who wrote the Gospel of John? Photo: Erich Lessing.

The Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, tell the story of the life of Jesus. Yet only one—the Gospel of John—claims to be an eyewitness account, the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” (“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” [John 21:24]). “Who wrote the Gospel of John?” is a question that remains unanswered, though noted theologians throughout the ages maintain that it was indeed the disciple John who penned the famous Biblical book.

Gospel of John commentary is easy to find—some of the most famous theologians in history have closely examined the text and underscored its importance from as early as the beginning of the third century. It is believed that Origen, an Alexandrian Christian scholar and theologian, wrote his Gospel of John commentary while in Alexandria at some point after 218 A.D. St. Augustine—a famous fourth century church father—contributed no fewer than 124 tractates in his Gospel of John commentary, while St. Thomas’s Gospel of John commentary of the 13th century is still highly regarded today by modern scholars.

We may never know for certain who wrote the Gospel of John, any more than we can know who wrote the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We do know that John is a gospel apart, however. Early Matthew, Mark and Luke are so alike in their telling that they are called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning “seen together”—the parallels are clear when they are looked at side by side. Matthew and Luke follow the version of events in Mark, which is thought by scholars to be the earliest and most historically accurate Gospel. John, however, does not include the same incidents or chronology found in the other three Gospels, and the fact that it is so different has spurred a debate over whether John’s Gospel is historical or not, something that has been noted in Gospel of John commentary for hundreds—even thousands—of years.

Several hypotheses have attempted to explain why so much of Jesus’ life not portrayed in the Synoptics is present in John and vice versa. One hypothesis claims that John recorded many of the events that occurred before the arrest of John the Baptist, while the Synoptics all have Jesus’ ministry beginning only after the arrest. Another holds that John was written last, by someone who knew about the other three Gospels, but who wished to write a spiritual gospel instead of an historical one. This would mean that the person who wrote the Gospel of John would not have been a contemporary of Jesus, and therefore would not have been an eyewitness as the author claims. There is also the possibility that the author of John did not know of Mark and hence did not have the same information.
 


 
In the brand-new BAS DVD set Digging into the Gospels, leading experts discuss the cities of the Gospels, archaeology’s impact on faith and what we can learn from canonical and noncanonical text. Gospel of John commentary includes James Charlesworth’s “Does the Gospel of John Accurately Describe Jerusalem Before 70 C.E.?”
 

 
One of the facts in dispute among the four Gospels is the length of Jesus’ ministry. According to the Synoptics, it lasted only about a year, while John has Jesus ministering between two and three years. The Jesus of John’s telling also knew Jerusalem well and had traveled there three or four times. The Synoptics, however, have Jesus visit Jerusalem only once. In John, Jesus had friends near Jerusalem, including Mary, Martha and Lazarus of the town of Bethany, which is just outside of the city on the east slope of the Mount of Olives.

The author of John also knew Jerusalem well, as is evident from the geographic and place name information throughout the book. He mentions, among others, the Sheep Gate Pool (Bethesda), the Siloam Pool and Jacob’s Well. The geographic specificity lends credence to the John’s account.

Another aspect of John that may be more historically accurate than the Synoptics is the account of the crucifixion and the events that led up to it. The Synoptics say that Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover meal—held that year on a Thursday evening (Jewish holidays begin at sunset)—and they would have us believe that the Sanhedrin, the high court, gathered at the beginning of a major holiday to interrogate Jesus and hand him over to the Romans. John, in contrast, has Jesus handed over for crucifixion on “the day of Preparation of Passover week, about the sixth hour.” According to John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal (because the holiday that year did not start until Friday evening), and Jesus is crucified and buried before Passover begins. In John’s account Jesus becomes the Passover sacrificial lamb, which was offered the afternoon before the Passover holiday. Some scholars suggest that John may be more historical regarding the crucifixion than the other three Gospels.

Given John’s familiarity with Jerusalem and its environs, it is very possible that he had visited the Pool of Siloam, which he mentions in connection with the story of the curing of the blind man (a story that appears only in John’s Gospel). It is that pool that has only recently been uncovered, as described in the accompanying article.

For more on the question of John’s historical reliability, see D. Moody Smith, “John: Historian or Theologian?Bible Review, October 2004.

——————

Based on “How Historical is the Gospel of John?Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2005.
 

 
Learn about the birth of Jesus, the history of Christmas and the date of the holiday in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
A related Bible History Daily feature considers the contrast between historian and Biblical figure. Read “Titus Flavius Josephus and the Prophet Jeremiah: Avishai Margalit contrasts the legacies of a historian and a prophet.

This article states that “the Synoptics say that Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover meal.” What is the evidence for and against the idea that Jesus’ last supper was a Passover celebration? Read Jonathan Klawans’s full article “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” in Bible History Daily.
 


 

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  1. Gary says

    I remain a firm believer that it was Mary Madgalene who wrote the gospel of John. Christ loved her the most, and in this gospel it is referred to as written by the one whom Jesus loved. This is an amazing first hand account.

  2. Damian says

    My biggest question is ,How come there are no writings by Jesus himself ???

  3. Ryan says

    What I would like to know is, what book the author of this essay is reading?
    1. Yahshua was taken to prison Passover night (as He broke bread).
    2. He was hung on a tree a High Shabbat (Wednesday).
    3. He resurrected on a Sabbaton (Sabbath) before dawn.
    4. John’s account was written by John, the other three are spurious writings of the third century ad.

    Anyone with any brain can figure this one out.

  4. Pieter says

    Internal evidence on probable author identity outweighs external/tradional and ‘John’s’ gospel itself discloses clearly who the beloved disciple was and hence the author of the Fourth Gospel. And it is definitely not ‘John’.

  5. Steve says

    @Ryan ..the other three were spurious?

  6. Steve says

    I agree this author is sounding like some CNN host who knows nothing more than superficial media hear-say.

    Of all the places, is this where you try to mention the untrue “controversies” between the gospels. One quick search on the topic online would help you clarify all those doubts and yet such lethargic unscholarly attitude.

    At least not expected from someone authorized to write on this website with that name for Christ’s sakes.

  7. Gethsi says

    But there is a verse in john:21:24 , like John himself wrote the Gospel of John.. I wanna get clarify with this..

  8. Ryan says

    @Steve, yes spurious for the fact that a lot of the scriptural context of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are quite contrary to Johns testimony. Many theologians have claimed that the three did not write from first-hand accounts, but copied from another text, which is why the geographic details are confused, the parables are not in agreement, and the “resurrection account” of Johns, states that the disciples were in a boat, when Yahshua met them prior to His ascension. Not found in the other three.

  9. Paul says

    The Gospel of John was written by John. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all 4 thrived during Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection and beyond. He descipled all four regularly, although neither Mark nor Luke were one of the first 12 apostles named by Jesus. Mark was probably John Mark (Acts 12) Luke was both a physician and a historian, to whom the book of Acts is attributed. All four were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ minisrty, but only John mentioned being so. I believe That the Gospel according to John was written by John, the brother of James (son of Zebedee.) He was the apostle John which penned the Revelation and also wrote 1st 2nd and 3rd John. The stories of the four Gospel writers vary, but only in chronology and perhaps in their inclusions. They do not vary in essence. All four men commenced their written account a number of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew, John Mark, and Luke collaborated frequently, resulting in their stories being synchronized. John (Zebedee) also collaborated with them, but gave less regard to exact chronology and higher regard to details of certain events as they relate to God’s unlimited love. Jesus exuded the love of God profusely, without measure. (John 13:1) He loved all12 apostles, but John paid more attention to his love, while the others paid more attention to the events. Some had said that Jesus loved John because John was his natural brother. He was not. He was a son of Zebedee. The account in John 19:26 does not indicate that John is Jesus’ brother, but rather, that Jesus was ‘asigning’ to John the task of brother, to comfort and care for his mother. There is also spiritual significance; he was telling his own mother to now look to his ministry for guidence.
    ‘Leaning-on-Jesus-bosom’ is figure of speech. It means John was ‘in tune’ with everything Jesus said. John inclined his own heart towards what Jesus loved. John 13:23; John 19:26; and John 21:7, 20 are translated incorrectly. The correct translation is the disciple who “loved what Jesus loved”. Many people, probably hundreds or even thousands were writing on parchment quickly and simultaneously as orations were presented by prophets, by Jesus and by the apostles. Hundreds or thousands of people also hand copied letters and eye-witness accounts that were written by the apostles. In many cases, the oldest surviving copies that could be found had been hand written 10 to 50 years after the first writings. Many of those were not discovered until two to three hundred years after they were written. scientific dating alone for the generating of the documents is not sufficient to determine when the original writing was first orated or penned. The accounts, (both verbal and written) of reliable historians must also be considered. therefore the oldest discernible writings of any of the Apostles won’t date back to the time of that apostle because those copies ceased to exist. However, other historical accounts will help verify who the original author was.
    Many ‘God-haters’ have cited the scientific dating of certain apostolic copies as a tactic in an attempt to discount and devalue the validity of the Holy Bible. they have also attempted to add certain ancient accounts by claiming they were written by various apostles even though their claim is not supported by either scientific dating or other historical records. The Book of Enoch, and the Gospel of Thomas are two such examples. It behooves every true believer in the Word of God to be mindful of these attacks against God’s Word.

  10. Wendy says

    @Paul- I agree, what you wrote is directed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was showing His appreciation because John loved what He loved which resulted in their close relationship. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned 1 Cor 2: 13,14

  11. Aaron says

    The gospel of John was written by a ressurected Judas Iscariot. Jesus supernaturally caused Judas to betray Him, to fulfill the prophesy in Scripture. The story of Lazarus foreshadows this.

  12. Charles says

    God is not the author of confusion, it is a manipulative tool used by “Satan” (Lucifer) to distract from the truth that is God. When you really think about it, does it really matter who wrote what… it’s all about the truth, loving and caring about, and for, each other. Why should we concern ourselves about chronological/geographical disagreement as long as the essence
    ( there is a consensus) of the word remains in tact.

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