The Gospel of John and Its Authorship
The Gospel of John differs from the Synoptic Gospels in a number of ways. These differences include a unique emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and the use of mystical symbolism.
Although the sacred writer does not identify himself in this Gospel, internal evidence points to the Apostle John as its author. This is confirmed by the Church historian Eusebius (c. AD 300) and Polycrates Bishop of Ephesus.
Several factors in the Gospel of John point to its authorship by the Apostle John. Internal evidence includes John’s emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation, his mystic symbolism, and his interpretation of certain events.
For example, he interprets the feeding of the 5,000 as symbolic of a greater spiritual truth. He also adds interpretative comments to clarify the motivation of Jesus’ miracles.
Another internal evidence is the detailed knowledge the Gospel has of Jewish feasts and sacraments. Carson and Moo write that the author was probably well acquainted with this knowledge through his own experience, not simply from reading Jewish sources.
In addition, the Gospel mentions Peter frequently and omits the name of John the Baptist. This would be unusual if someone else wrote the Gospel. It is more likely that the Gospel writer was trying to avoid drawing attention away from the main figure of his story, Jesus. Thus, he invented the self-designation, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He also suppresses the name of Judas Iscariot.
The Gospel of John, like the rest of the Johannine literature (the Book of Revelation and the Epistles of St. John), is traditionally ascribed to the Apostle John. The external evidence for this claim is rather strong.
First, the Gospel’s author reveals himself to be a disciple of Jesus through his selection of events and details that are recorded in the text. In addition, the Evangelist makes frequent use of mystic symbolism and references from the Old Testament, particularly in his narration of some miracles.
The fact that he used Greek as the primary language also points to his connection to the Apostles. This connection is confirmed by the church historians Eusebius and Irenaeus, as well as Polycrates of Ephesus and Clement of Alexandria in the early church. Moreover, it is strange that the Gospel of John fails to mention the name of James or John, the sons of Zebedee and Jesus’s inner circle of disciples. This makes it unlikely that anyone else other than the Apostle John could have written this Gospel.
The Gospel of John has been a key part of the church’s canon since its earliest days. Many scholars, particularly in the last half century, have pioneered what has become known as a “new look on John,” and in this process discovered far more historical reliability than previous generations had realized.
Among the earliest external evidence of Johannine authorship comes from Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the latter part of the second century. He stated that he had sat at the feet of Polycarp, who in turn had sat at the feet of the Apostle John, and that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle himself.
Other early witnesses – Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, for example – also quote from the Gospel of John. One of the more interesting bits of external evidence is that, in describing Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of John contains statements that would have been embarrassing had the Gospel been written as an invention. This is a good test of authenticity, since authors rarely include embarrassing details unless they are actually recording real history.
Many scholars have noted that John’s Gospel is more in-depth than the synoptics, focusing on specific events and providing an ordered theological interpretation. It seems likely that this reflects the fact that John wrote later and was supplementing the earlier accounts.
He also seems to have known a great deal about Jesus’s travels. For example, he refers to the location of Bethany (John 11:18), and he accurately pinpoints the distance between Jerusalem and the village of Siloam.
Furthermore, he seems to have been familiar with Greek thought. It is quite possible that a Galilean fisherman was acquainted with this, especially considering the fact that Palestinian Judaism had undergone considerable influence from Greek culture.
Moreover, many important early writers referred to John, including Eusebius and the church historian Polycarp. The Gospel of John was also widely accepted among the unorthodox gnostic sects of the time. This is confirmed by the gnostic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi.