There has been much discussion about who wrote this gospel. There is space here for only a brief outline of the main issues.
a. There is a very strong tradition, supported by early evidence from patristic sources, that the author was the apostle John. There are no specific references to the identity of the author in the gospel itself. So how dependable is the tradition? At least as early as Irenaeus (c. ad 130–200) there was belief in the apostolic authorship. Irenaeus may have had access to authentic tradition through his earlier acquaintance with Polycarp (c. mid-second century), who knew the apostle. The fact that Polycarp did not refer to the fourth gospel when writing his letter to the Philippians need not lead to the conclusion that he was ignorant of it. The sole opposition to the apostolic authorship came from a group known as the Alogoi, who appear to have been a small splinter group in Rome. Their view was opposed by Hyppolytus who wrote a defence of the gospel. The history of the book before Irenaeus is not easy to determine, but it must have been regarded as authoritative for some considerable time to have been placed indisputably on a level with the other three as part of the fourfold gospel.
b. Some internal considerations point to the reliability of the tradition (e.g. 1:14; 19:35; 21:24). Although all of these references have been otherwise understood by some scholars, it is most natural to see them as evidence of the author’s own claim to have been an eyewitness.
John, the son of Zebedee, is nowhere mentioned by name in the gospel, while John the Baptist is named simply as John without further description. This would certainly be more intelligible if the author were himself the other John.
A further consideration is the anonymous mention of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, which may well be a reference to John the apostle. Some have disputed that John would have described himself in this way and have concluded from this that John the apostle was not the author. It is impossible to be sure who ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ was, but his close association with Peter would support the view that he was John. His very close association with Jesus in the upper room points to the same conclusion.
c. The author appears to possess detailed knowledge of Palestine and of Jewish customs. This would be most intelligible if he were a Palestinian Jew.
d. Many incidental details also suggest that an eyewitness account lies behind the gospel, e.g. the number of waterjars at Cana and the number of the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. Such details are not essential to the narrative but add a certain vividness to the account.
e. The Hellenistic (Greek) aspects of this gospel are, nevertheless, said to militate against the correctness of the early tradition, since John the apostle was not a Hellenistic Jew. Moreover, parallels with the non-Christian philosophical tractates known as the Hermetica are said to support this contention. There are certainly parallels in terminology with both Philo of Alexandria and Hermes, but this factor does not conclusively show that the author was a Hellenist. Some similar parallels in thought are found also in the Jewish literature at Qumran, and this evidence has tended to lessen the strength of the Hellenistic argument.
f. The close acquaintance of the author with rabbinical methods of argument is another reason why some have rejected apostolic authorship, since John was a Galilean fisherman. But due allowance must be made for the fact that the rabbinical arguments are found in the teaching of Jesus, not in the author’s own comments. It is admittedly difficult, however, in this gospel, always to differentiate between the author’s style and the words of Jesus.
g. The evangelist appears to adopt an almost hostile attitude towards some of Jesus’ contemporaries, as if they were a race apart from himself, referring to them as ‘the Jews’. This may be evidence of the deep feeling of a Jewish Christian over the bitter hostility of his own people towards Jesus.
h. Alternative theories regarding authorship generally attempt to retain some connection of John the apostle with the gospel by regarding him as the witness, while proposing someone else as author. The most widely held theory is that the author was another John, known as John the elder. If there were two Johns so closely associated in the production of the gospel, it is not impossible that confusion may have arisen between them in the early tradition. But the existence of John the elder depends on a somewhat ambiguous statement of Papias, who makes no mention in any case of a gospel being written by him.
i. Some deny all connection of John the apostle with the gospel and suppose that it was attributed to him to gain authority for the work.
In face of all these various opinions it is difficult to be dogmatic, but it is reasonable to suppose that the internal and external evidence points to John the apostle as author.
We cannot do better than examine the author’s own statement of purpose in 20:31, which was specifically evangelistic. The gospel was aimed to produce faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God. The record of the various signs was intended to produce this result, and with this in mind the many references throughout the gospel to believing and non-believing become significant. Both the historical narratives and the teaching discourses were chosen because of their power to focus attention on the specific claims of Jesus. John has no thought, therefore, of producing a biographical or psychological study. An evangelistic purpose does not, of course, weaken the historical truth. To be effective the theological motive needs an authentic historical basis. John may have regarded some of his material as possessing symbolic significance, but again, this does not mean that it is unhistorical or untrue.
There may have been some subsidiary aims, such as the presentation of the true relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, or a refutation of Docetic views about Christ (i.e. theories which drew a distinction between the heavenly Christ and the human Jesus).
Many believe the gospel to be a presentation of Christianity in a Hellenised form. The prologue (1:1–18) may seem to lend support to this theory. But the crucial factor is the extent to which the prologue determines the purpose of the gospel as a whole. It is better to suppose that the body of the gospel supplies the key to the understanding of the prologue, rather than vice versa. The teaching of Jesus was sufficiently comprehensive to be understood by Greek as well as Jew.
The relation to the synoptic gospels
A comparison with the other gospels shows a marked difference in John in the substance and in the method of presentation. A large amount of material included in the others is lacking in John, whereas a considerable amount of the Johannine material is absent from the synoptics. In fact, there is little material common to all four gospels, apart from the passion narrative. A major difference is that whereas the synoptics concentrate on the Galilean ministry, John fixes his attention on the Jerusalem ministry. This could perhaps account for the differences in the style in Jesus’ teaching, the emphasis on parables in the synoptics giving way to the dialogue and discourse style of John. Certain historical differences have also been noted, such as the setting of the cleansing of the temple, the events which led to the arrest of Jesus, the duration of the ministry and the date of the Last Supper. So some have concluded that John aims to correct and supersede the synoptics. This is difficult to maintain, for on many occasions he assumes knowledge of the synoptic traditions as a basis for his own. It is better to regard John as complementary to the synoptics. The most difficult difference between them then is the chronology of the passion events. The solution may lie in the use of different calendars by John and the synoptics, but we do not know enough to arrive at a completely satisfying answer.
It may at first seem that John’s presentation of Jesus differs so completely from that of the synoptics that both portraits cannot be of the same person. But this would be a wrong inference. When we consider the different purposes of the gospels, and the different types of people to whom Jesus spoke, the contrast is more intelligible. It is likely that John was himself drawn to the more reflective style of the discourses.
Date and place of writing
It is not clear whether traces of John’s gospel can be found in writers before the time of Irenaeus (c. ad 130–200). But there is good ground for supposing that Justin (c. ad 150) knew and used the gospel and a possibility that Ignatius (c. ad 115) also knew it. Apart from references in the early fathers there are two early second-century papyrus mss which show the existence and circulation of this gospel. One contains a scrap of John’s gospel and the other echoes the language of this and the other gospels. It is impossible, therefore, to date John beyond the end of the first century. If the apostle was the author, a date a few years before the end of the century would almost certainly be required as the latest possible date. Since this gospel must have come after the synoptic gospels, a date fairly late in the first century is generally preferred (c. ad 90), although some have suggested an earlier date. It is impossible to be anything more than tentative.
As for the place of origin, tradition has it that John lived in Ephesus, and there seems to be no real grounds for disputing this. Some suggest not only that this Ephesus tradition is unreliable, but also that John did not live to old age. The evidence which is claimed to support this view consists of scanty and none-too-reliable clues that John died a martyr’s death much earlier than the gospel could have been written. But the tradition of his long life and of his writing the gospel is much stronger.
The most significant feature of John’s theology is his presentation of Christ. It has already been pointed out that his major purpose was theological, and indeed Christological. The focus of attention is on Jesus’ Messiahship and Sonship. The Messianic status of Jesus more than once formed the topic of discussion among the Jews (7:26–27; 10:24). Moreover, three times in this gospel there are recorded confessions of the Messiahship of Jesus (1:41; 4:29; 11:27). To the author Jesus was the fulfilment of all the Messianic hopes of the Jewish people. In full harmony with this is the frequent appeal to the OT testimony.
Jesus as Son of God is far more characteristic of this gospel. Many times does Jesus bring out his own filial relationship with the Father. Whereas this aspect is not absent from the synoptics, it is specially noteworthy in John because of the frequent occurrence of the term ‘Son’ without further description. The plan of salvation was effected by the Father through the Son. It was through love for the world that God sent his Son (3:16). The Son is the agent through whom the Father reveals himself (1:18). The claim of Jesus to be the Son of God was the basis of the charge before Pilate that according to Jewish law he ought to die (19:7).
The most characteristic feature of the synoptic gospels is Jesus as Son of Man. Although this is not quite so prominent in John, it is still basic to his presentation. It is the Son of Man who not only reveals the Father but who will be lifted up (3:13–14). This process of lifting up will result in the glorification of the Son of Man (12:23). Moreover, there are many indications of the perfect humanity of Jesus in this gospel. He experienced human emotion, hunger, thirst and tiredness. The exalted Christology is never allowed to detract from the perfect humanity of Jesus.
In the prologue the pre-existence and deity of Christ are explicitly expressed. The Word (Gk. logos) was not only with God in the beginning, but was God (1:1), and it was this Word who became flesh and is identified with Christ. Whatever the origins of the idea of the Word for the author, his own Christology is clear. His subject is not a mere man but the pre-existent Son who shared with the Father the creation of the world (1:3).
A further feature of the Johannine Christology is the number of statements of Jesus introduced by the significant ‘I am’. In this manner he described himself as ‘the Way’, ‘the Truth’, ‘the Life’, ‘the Resurrection’, ‘the Bread’, ‘the Shepherd’, ‘the Door’, ‘the Vine’. All of these titles explain different aspects of what Jesus came to be and to do for humankind.
There are many figures of speech used to describe the nature of the work of Christ. The sacrificial lamb (1:29), the temple of his body (2:21), the serpent in the wilderness (3:14), the shepherd giving his life for his sheep (10:11), the grain of wheat (12:24). The death of Jesus was even recognized as expedient by the high priest, but John sees a deeper meaning in it than Caiaphas (11:51). There is throughout the gospel a sense of the inevitable as Jesus’ ‘hour’ draws gradually nearer.
A further important factor in Johannine theology is the frequent mention of the Holy Spirit. His work in regeneration (3:5–8), his promised outpouring following the glorification of Jesus (7:37–39), and the five sayings about him in the farewell discourses (chs. 14–16) are all found only in John’s gospel. He is described as Counsellor, as dwelling in the believer, as the teacher, as a witness to Christ, as convictor of the world and as guide into all truth for Christ’s people. Of all the gospels John shows most clearly that the continuation of the ministry of Jesus would be through the agency of the Spirit.
In addition, we may note several other features which occur in John’s thought. There is a strong OT background. There is no specific reference to the Lord’s Supper, but there is teaching which bears upon it (ch. 6). There is also a mixture of stress on God’s action in choosing and human responsibility in responding. This a gospel which richly contributes to the theology of the NT as a whole. Although its language is often simple, its thought is profound. In its use of powerful symbolism and in its reflectiveness, John’s gospel appeals to many modern Christians.
See also the article Reading the gospels.
B. Milne, The Message of John, BST (IVP, 1993).
F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Pickering and Inglis/Eerdmans, 1983).
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1991).
L. Morris, The Gospel according to John, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971).
c. circa, about (with dates)
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
BST The Bible Speaks Today
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jn 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.