Our final gospel to discuss is John’s. Was it written by John? Could John even write? Where all those parts about Jesus being God added later? We’re glad you asked. Let’s start by looking inside the Bible for clues.
Internal Evidence that John wrote, oversaw or authorized the Gospel with his name:
- No anonymous manuscripts exist; every copy of this Gospel has the name of John in the title.
- The book claims it was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who sat close enough to Jesus at the Last Supper to lean on him (John 21:20, 24-25); John 13:21-26 says this disciple sat closer than even Peter. John son of Zebedee best fits this description – one of the twelve, at the Last Supper, and part of Jesus’ inner circle
- Peter also had a close relationship with the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in this Gospel, and we know Peter had a close relationship with John son of Zebedee (Luke 22:8; Acts 3:1 and 8:14).
There is plenty of evidence outside the Bible as well. External Evidence that John wrote, oversaw or authorized the Gospel with his name:
- Justin Martyr (apologist, Palestine, around AD 140-165) says John’s memoirs were made by the apostle
- Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was disciple of John, France, around AD 180) says John the disciple wrote his Gospel fourth while living at Ephesus
- The Muratorian Canon (Italy, around AD 180) says John wrote it at the urging of fellow disciples and bishops and that the apostle Andrew reviewed it
- Clement (disciple of elders who knew the apostles, Egypt, around AD 200) said John read the first three Gospels and agreed with them but gave his own account of the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, which the other gospels “passed over in silence”
- Tertullian (apologist, North Africa, early AD 200’s) agreed the apostle John wrote this Gospel
- Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John (manuscript from the 2nd or 3rd century AD) says the Gospel was “given” by John after the Apocalypse by dictating to a scribe
All early writers agree that the apostle John was the author of the fourth Gospel. While some debated if the letters of 2nd and 3rd John or Revelation were written by John the Apostle or John the Elder, there was no debate regarding the Gospel – all agree the Apostle was the authority behind this book. But could John even write?
Was John Illiterate?
An argument against John being the writer stems from Acts 4:13, where Peter and John are described as “uneducated” or “illiterate” (Greek agrammatoi).
- “Illiterate” is only one of the definitions of the word agrammatoi; it is literally translated “unlettered” and has ranges of meaning from illiterate to no formal education.
- If “illiterate” was the intended meaning:
- It could simply be an insult; people often call their opponents uneducated or illiterate to gain street cred. The passage in question says the Jewish leaders “perceived that they were agrammatoi, common men.” The illiterate insult likely amounts to little more than a dismissive “they were unsophisticated, why should we take their word?”
- It could be a generalization; “They were so uneducated, they might as well have been illiterate.”
- It could be a comparison; compared to Pharisees, John was pretty illiterate – as in, “lacking formal education.” The Greek Epictetus, also writing in the 1st century, talks about a man “writing in an illiterate way” (Greek graphein agrammotos) – an oxymoron if illiterate is taken in any literal sense.
- It could be assumption. The accusers likely didn’t know the level of John’s literacy. “He was a fisherman, he must be illiterate.” John’s family owned a fishing business for which they hired servants; they could afford ships and servants – it would be no surprise if John was at least capable at writing, a basic skill in any business. It would also be of little surprise if the Pharisees simply didn’t know the extent of any one disciple’s learning.
- It could have been literal – which still poses no problem for authority, as John could have composed the Gospel without ever having held the pen himself – overseeing the collection by others of stories and quotes of Jesus, or simply approving the final product others pulled together. He may also have dictated the Gospel through scribes, a common practice. 1 Peter 5:12 shows Peter dictated letters and Silvanus was a scribe who wrote them; Paul did the same, writing Romans through the scribe Tertius (Ro 16:22). John also could have learned to write later. John was a fisherman. Then he studied with the best known Jewish rabbi of history for three years and spent the next few decades preaching and teaching – which generally includes extensive reading and writing.
Trivia Before You Go:
One thing Irenaeus teaches us is that John wrote his Gospel to defend the claim that Jesus was divine. Cerinthus and the Ebionites denied the divinity of Jesus. Irenaeus said, “According to the opinion of none of the heretics was the Word of God made flesh” and that John’s introduction regarding the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us (Jn 1:14) was a direct rebuttal of the “false witnesses.” The divinity of Christ goes back to the very first disciples and was well-attested as doctrine by AD 180. This will likely come up in a future article, straightening out the false notion that Jesus’ divinity was a “later addition” or that it was regularly debated before church leaders “voted to make it so” in Constantine’s time! (For a more shoddy treatment of the subject, read Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, which is delightfully entertaining but horribly inaccurate!)