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.

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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.
 

 

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  • 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 😉

  • Susan says

    Interesting and articulate article proposing Lazarus as the author of the Gospel of John: http://bibletruth.cc/DWYL.htm#The%20Disciple%20Whom%20Yeshua%20Loved

  • Joanna says

    It’s generally understood by biblical scholars today that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not eyewitness accounts.

    Mark is the earliest of the gospels and there is pretty much consensus that it was written around 70 AD (earlier that the 300 AD Ryan seems so certain about). John was written around 93 AD, though the earliest found documents from John are from 125 AD. John himself died in 44 AD.

    Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all anonymous. Most scholars no longer believe that Mark was John Mark the scribe of Peter. And it was very normal at the time for other scribes to write ‘in the style’ of someone famous who’s teachings they were interested in. It would not have been unusual for someone to write ‘as John would have written’ and then said that it was actually written by John. Today we would call that a forgery, but in those times it was pretty normal.

    There’s a good summary on the following page with more detailed references there: http://www.humanreligions.info/gospels.html

  • Minister says

    I don’t understand why it is so hard for people to understand that Jesus was not married. When if you believe and understand the bible from start to finish you should know as a child also understand as a child staying pure in your thoughts. Then you would understand that God would only accept a pure unblemished sacrifice. Now that being said if Jesus was married then he would not and could be a sacrifice pleasing to God. If people would tell the truth ? The first attribute of a woman wasn’t her wisdom, are even her spiritual desires and love for God. No it was her flesh. Her physical appearance. Paul even says it’s better to marry than to burn. Also Jesus said if you have lusted after a woman then you have already committed adultery. So tell the truth what was it that drew you to your wife? I already know
    ( sin. ) There for Jesus could not have been married.

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