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 2012.—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.

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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.

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in March 2012.


Posted in New Testament.

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  • IOllie says

    Even though it is not certain who wrote the book of John I am thankful for the scriptures written.

  • jeb says

    I read the Wikileaks site on John that claims the Gospels and Revelation were written by the same person or closely suggests such is true.
    Having read the Gospels numerous times I believe it is more likely that marginal Christians have collected fragments that may have been issued in a single volume and mistake that one book equals one author.
    Marginal Christians are always too quick to look for sameness in a fashion that is almost pantheistic to avoid any hint of confrontation as if our only purpose in believing in Jesus is to achieve “Peace” if they had read John and if you have you know to that which I refer. The Peace of Jesus is not the peace of the world.
    Luke is clearly written in a style (Yes I am able to read New Testament Greek but defer to scholars with a more profound ability and concur.) profoundly different than Luke as Matthew and Mark. Each has a distinct character that survives transalton.
    More often than not translation errors are a gift for those who have more imagination than faith.
    The diversity of the Gospels apparent conflicts in retelling their memories is more likely when eye witness testimony is given. The essentials are the same and the basic rule for establishing a dogma remains intact, the truth is given, Jesus was the Son of God understood in His time to mean he was the Messiah. That he was not accepted and did not establish an earthly kingdom has people as much confused today as it did then. John is testimony to faith based belief in the Divinity of Jesus the Christ.
    It is this truth Christians throughout the ages have been persecuted.

  • Douglas says

    Fr. Raymond Brown’s “The Community of the Beloved Disciple” offers a scholarly evaluation of the source, if not the specific authorship, of the Gospel and Epistles of John.

  • Colin says

    According to Richard Baukham in his book, ‘The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Narrative, History and Theology in the Gospel of John’, the reason why the accounts of John and the Synoptics diverge is that he is not depicted as a Galilean disciple who followed Jesus about. He is rather most likely a resident of Jerusalem and reports events which occurred in the city and environs, events which were not known to the other disciples.

    Bauckham argues that John is the anonymous Beloved Disciple by drawing on a variety of sources including, importantly, literary analysis, of course, the Beloved Disciple appears in the Gospel narrative only as a character. This however allows the narrative to proceed without interruption and qualifies him as a witness and ideal author.

  • James says

    I would just like to say that posting a quote from a person with a Master’s or PHD is not evidence. What is your evidence? There are so many quotes above that a person searching for the truth(a true skeptic) would see right through. Instead several posters seem to just be trying to reinforce what they already believe. Might I remind you that people a lot closer in time to Jesus and the apostles explain much of who/what/why/when. Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Eusebius. I would trust what they have to say over someone 2000 years using mainly linguistic evidence, any day of the week. Especially since, with the exception of Eusebius, the people above had nothing to gain but persecution for doing what they did. Sure, less than 1% of what is in editions such as the KJV and the NIV, don’t exist in Codex Sinaiticus, but if you remove the small amount of editions that have happened over the last 2000 years no fundamental teachings or beliefs are changed. Another poster said that most scholars agree that John Mark did not right Mark. ???? Are you serious? what is the evidence for that? Do they have someone from within that lifetime who says this? Do they have something listing characteristics of John Mark that disqualify him from righting Mark? Groundless speculation. Please look at all of the evidence as a whole. And do not just believe what PHD says. There are multitudes on the planet and they do not all agree, so look at the evidence, listen to what scholars have to say. But do not take their word as “Gospel”. Think for yourself. Don’t be a sheeple(sheep + people) for someone who has ulterior motives either way. lol 😉

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