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The Authorship and Publication of the Gospel of John


By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010


 

The historical literary evidence demonstrates that John the Apostle wrote and published the Gospel of John after the publication of the other three gospels while he was living in Ephesus.


The Authorship of the Gospel of John

The universal testimony of the early church fathers is that John the Apostle, the beloved disciple, wrote the Gospel of John.

Craig Keener states the position of the early church fathers,

“Consonant with what we find from the internal evidence, church tradition identifies the author of the Fourth Gospel with the Apostle John.”1

D.A. Carson concurs,

“We have already traced the principal 'external evidence' (i.e. evidence outside the Fourth Gospel itself) that maintains the Evangelist was none other than the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. That evidence, such as it is, is virtually unanimous. Even if Irenaeus, toward the end of the second century, is amongst the strongest, totally unambiguous witnesses, his personal connection with Polycarp, who knew John, means the distance in terms of personal memories is not very great. Even Dodd, who discounts the view that the apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel, considers the external evidence 'formidable', adding, 'Of any external evidence to the contrary that could be called cogent I am not aware' (HTFG, p. 2; cf. also Robinson, John, pp. 99-104).2

The following church fathers clearly state this.3

Their testimony begins with the earliest and moves to the later ones.

John, who was an apostle and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” wrote the Gospel of John at Ephesus in Asia (Minor).

Irenaeus makes a general statement of the origins of the four gospels including the Gospel of John in his Against Heresies (3.1.1).

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

In this passage, Irenaeus tells us several important points about the author of the Fourth Gospel. First, it was John the Apostle. The description “the disciple of the Lord who leaned on Jesus’ breast” comes from John 13:23-25 where the apostles were with Jesus at the last supper. Although the Fourth Gospel does not identify this particular apostle, Irenaeus does. He says this was John and this John wrote the Gospel. This is important because some scholars try to say that John the Apostle did not write the Fourth Gospel, but that this “disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast” who was not John did. Irenaeus says clearly they were one and the same person. Irenaeus’ testimony is very important because he was a person who was in a position to know who the author of the fourth gospel was.

Thiessen explains the significance of Irenaeus’ testimony,

“From Irenaeus on the evidence becomes clear and full. He himself frequently quotes the Gospel of John, and he does it in such a way as to show that it had long been known and used in the Church. His testimony is perhaps the most important of all the testimonies, for he was a pupil of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a friend of the Apostle John.…

Eusebius has preserved a part of a letter of Irenaeus to Florinus, in which the writer tells of his vivid recollection of the account that Polycarp gave of his intercourse with John who had seen the Lord. He has also preserved a statement from a letter of Irenaeus to Victor the Bishop of Rome, to the effect that ‘Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord and the other Apostles with whom he had associated.’

It is thus evident that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle and that Irenaeus had heard Polycarp tell of his intercourse with him. The testimony of Irenaeus may, therefore, be taken as the testimony of Polycarp, and of the Apostle himself.”4

Tertullian also asserts John’s authorship of the gospel in his work, Against Marcion (4.2),

“Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith, so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfil the law and the prophets.”

Later in the same work he states (4.5),

“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage--I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew--whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter's whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke's form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”

Tertullian makes a significant statement about the role of the apostolic churches in handing down the gospels to Christians including John’s. The apostolic churches were the churches founded or established in apostolic teaching by apostles. These were Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and Antioch, to name a few.

He says that Christians possess the four gospels by their (the apostolic churches) means and usage. That is, they were the channels through which the four gospels were spread throughout the world. This implies that they had them from the beginning.

Theophilus of Antioch (180 A.D.) quotes directly from the Gospel of John (1:1-3) when he writes in his apologetic work “To Autolycus” (2. 22),

“And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,’ showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him. Then he says, ‘The Word was God; all things came into existence through Him; and apart from Him not one thing came into existence.’ The Word, then, being God, and being produced from God, whenever the Father of the universe wills, He sends Him to any place; and He, coming, is both heard and seen, being sent by Him, and is found in a place.”

Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew (1) mentions the gospel that John wrote as the last gospel of the four written,

“Concerning the four Gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the Gospel according to Matthew, who was at one time a tax collector and afterwards an Apostle of Jesus Christ, was written first and that he composed it in the Hebrew tongue and published it for the converts from Judaism. The second written was that according to Mark, who wrote it according to the instruction of Peter, who, in his General Epistle, acknowledged him as a son, saying, "The church that is in Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you and so does Mark my son." And third, was that according to Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, which he composed for the converts from the Gentiles. Last of all, that according to John.”

Later, Origen in his Commentary on John (1.6) states the significance of the four gospels and the special nature of the gospel of John,

“Now the Gospels are four. These four are, as it were, the elements of the faith of the Church, out of which elements the whole world which is reconciled to God in Christ is put together; as Paul says, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself;" of which world Jesus bore the sin; for it is of the world of the Church that the word is written, "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." The Gospels then being four, I deem the first fruits of the Gospels to be that which you so have enjoined me to search into according to my powers, the Gospel of John, that which speaks of him whose genealogy had already been set forth, but which begins to speak of him at a point before he had any genealogy.

For Matthew, writing for the Hebrews who looked for Him who was to come of the line of Abraham and of David, says: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ And Mark, knowing what he writes, narrates the beginning of the Gospel; we may perhaps find what he aims at in John; in the beginning the Word, God the Word. But Luke, though he says at the beginning of Acts, ‘The former treatise did I make about all that Jesus began to do and to teach,’ yet leaves to him who lay on Jesus' breast the greatest and completest discourses about Jesus. For none of these plainly declared His Godhead, as John does when he makes Him say, ‘I am the light of the world,’ ‘I am the way and the truth and the life,’ ‘I am the resurrection,’ ‘I am the door,’ ‘I am the good shepherd;’ and in the Apocalypse, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.’ We may therefore make bold to say that the Gospels are the first fruits of all the Scriptures, but that of the Gospels that of John is the first fruits.”


The Publication of the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John was composed by John at the urging of his Christian friends to complement the Synoptic Gospels by providing a Gospel that was focused on the spiritual truths taught by Jesus and demonstrated in his life and ministry.

Clement of Alexandria gives details surrounding the original writing of the Gospel by John the Apostle. This is preserved by Eusebius in his Church History (6.14.7). After Eusebius enumerates what Clement says about the origins of the first three gospels, he writes,

“But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”

A “spiritual gospel” was a gospel focused on what Jesus Christ said and did that revealed the theological truths of who he was and why he came. John’s Gospel was not meant to tread the same ground as the other three gospels, but to record many other statements and actions of Jesus according to John’s purpose. This is what we would expect from the aged apostle who had spent many years teaching the truths about Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Henry Thiessen, writes,

“Primarily John had the leading and enabling of the Holy Spirit in the writing of his Gospel; his intimate friends and fellow-disciples in Asia Minor may, however, also have had a part in encouraging him to write it. There was, no doubt, also the felt need that the Church should have a fuller commentary on the work and teachings of Jesus than had hitherto been produced. At any rate, this Gospel is just such an intermingling of interpretation with narrative materials. There must have been the feeling that certain incidents and addresses that are omitted by the Synoptists ought to be added. It would seem, then, that a combination of all these factors led to the writing of the Fourth Gospel.”5

The Gospel of John was also written to guard against heresies that were infiltrating the church.

Irenaeus gives another purpose for the Gospel of John. It was to defend the truth of the true nature of Jesus Christ as the God-man. It was being attacked by Cerinthus and the Nicolaitans. Cerinthus was an early “Christian” heretic who denied the deity of Jesus, proclaiming that the Christ spirit entered the human Jesus at his baptism, guided him in his ministry, but left him at the crucifixion. The letter of 1 John also was written to combat this heresy. The Nicolaitans were a heretical group mentioned in the Book of Revelation also written by John.

Irenaeus brings this out in his work “Against Heresies” (3.11.1) when he states,

“John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that ‘knowledge’ falsely so called, that he might confound them, and persuade them that there is but one God, who made all things by His Word; and not, as they allege, that the Creator was one, but the Father of the Lord another; and that the Son of the Creator was, forsooth, one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impossible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into His Pleroma…The disciple of the Lord therefore desiring to put an end to all such doctrines, and to establish the rule of truth in the Church, that there is one Almighty God, who made all things by His Word, both visible and invisible; showing at the same time, that by the Word, through whom God made the creation, He also bestowed salvation on the men included in the creation; thus commenced His teaching in the Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made. What was made was life in Him, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.’”

John died in Ephesus in Asia Minor during the time of Trajan (98AD-117AD).

Ireneaus mentions the general time period of his death in “Against Heresies” (3.3.5),

“those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.”

Trajan was Roman Emporer from 98 AD to 117 AD. So John lived up until Trajan’s reign and died sometime during that time.

Eusebius in his Church History (3.31.2-3) gives a statement written by Polycrates (c.130-196AD) regarding John’s death,

“The time of John’s death has also been given in a general way, but his burial place is indicated by an epistle of Polycrates (who was bishop of the parish of Ephesus), addressed to Victor, bishop of Rome. In this epistle he mentions him together with the apostle Philip and his daughters in the following words:

‘For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the last day, at the coming of the Lord, when he shall come with glory from heaven and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis, and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and moreover 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. He also sleeps at Ephesus.’”

Hendriksen in his Commentary on the Gospel of John explains the significance of this quote by Polycrates,

“Polycrates, writing about this same time, was a bishop of the church at Ephesus. The place is significant and so is the date. At Ephesus at this early date (approximately 196) the traditions with respect to the apostle John who had lived here were still fresh. Polycrates remarks: ‘Seven of my relatives were bishops and I am the eighth.’”6


Summary:

The universal and undisputed testimony of the early church was that the fourth gospel was written by John the Apostle who is described in the Gospel of John as the disciple whom Jesus loved and who leaned on his breast at the last supper.


END NOTES:

1. Keener, Craig, The Gospel of John V.1, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA , 2003, 91

2. Carson, Don, The Gospel According to John, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand rapids, MI, 1991, 68

3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from The Early Church Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, Reprint 2001 at CCEL Internet Library

4. Thiessen, Henry, Introduction to the New Testament, Hendricksen Publishers, Inc., 2002, 163-4, 165ff

5. Thiessen, Henry, Introduction to the New Testament, Hendricksen Publishers, Inc., 2002, 172

6. Hendriksen, William, Commentary on John, William B. Erdman’s Publishing, 1963