Most people assume that the Apostle John wrote the Gospel named after him. They are surprised to find out that the authorship of the Gospel is disputed among scholars.
Formally, the Gospel is anonymous. The author does not begin with the words, “I, John, write this Gospel to you…” He begins with, “In the beginning was the Word…” However, there are enough clues inside the book and in church history that help us discover the identity of the author.
I will break down the evidence based on what is “Internal” – meaning everything in the book itself that might lend a clue – and what is “External” – meaning all evidence outside the actual Gospel.
John 21 gives us the best clue as to who wrote this Gospel. In fact, it states it outright. After a conversation between Peter and Jesus about how long “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:20) would live, the narrator states, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (ESV).
Solved, right? The “disciple whom Jesus loved” (I’ll refer to him as the Beloved Disciple from this point on) is the author.
However, some scholars argue that the “these thing” in 21:20 refers only to chapter 21, which they believe is an appendix added on possibly written by another hand. But this view does not hold much, if any, weight, since there is not a single scrap of manuscript evidence to back up that claim. It is best to take the “these things” to refer to the entire Gospel.
So the book was written by the Beloved Disciple. The question is, who is he? There have been an abundance of guesses, including John Mark, Lazarus, and other even more fanciful.
The Gospel never states his identity outright, but the evidence points in favor of the Apostle John.
We know that the Beloved Disciple was at the Last Supper (13:23). From the Synoptics we learn that only the 12 Apostles were with Jesus at the Last Supper (Mt 26:20, Mk 14:17, 20, Lk 22:14, 30). So this effectively rules out John Mark and Lazarus, who were not one of the 12 Apostles.
We know the Beloved Disciple is not Peter, since Peter and Jesus have a conversation about him in chapter 21 (cf. 13:23-24, 20:2-9). We know he’s not Judas Iscariot, for obvious reasons. We can be reasonably sure he’s not Thomas, Philip or the other Judas, since chapter 14 names these men in a context where the Beloved Disciple is also referred to.
21:2 mentions Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the two sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two other unnamed disciples as possible candidates. Again, some of these have already been ruled out, and Nathanael can be added to that list since he is named here (it would be rather odd for him to be named here, then also referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the same context without explanation).
The Beloved Disciple was comfortable enough in the upper room to lean his head upon Jesus’ chest (13:23). This means he was sitting near Jesus, perhaps indicating a position of honor. This may also indicate that he was one of the “Inner Three,” the top leadership tier of the disciples consisting of Peter, James and John. Peter has already been eliminated, and James was martyred much too early for him to be the author of this Gospel (Acts 12:1-2; c. 44 AD).
This leaves us with the Apostle John as the best candidate for authorship. It accords with what other clues are in the Gospel. Nearly a hundred years ago, B. F. Westcott argues in his introduction to the Gospel that the book demonstrates evidence that the author was very familiar with Jewish customs, he had detailed knowledge of Palestine, and detailed knowledge of events that only an eyewitness could claim. Therefore, the author was 1) a Jew, 2) a Palestinian Jew, 3) an eyewitness. Westcott ultimately argued that the author was the Apostle John.
Some have contended that it seems self-serving to call yourself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” However, there are similar designations by the Apostle Paul in other places in the NT (Gal 2:20). D. A. Carson points out that if the book were written by someone other than John, the failure to mention this disciple’s name throughout the book is very difficult to explain (Carson, John, 77). Others have argued that passages like Acts 4:13 indicate that John (and Peter) were illiterate or ignorant and could not have possibly written such a work. But this passage merely indicates that John and Peter weren’t trained by the educational schools of the day, not that they were too unlearned to write.
So the least we can say is that the internal evidence certainly is consistent with John’s authorship. More strongly put, the internal evidence appears to point in his direction.
The external witness to the authorship of the Gospel is nearly unanimous: John the Disciple wrote the book. The title “According to John” has been attached to the manuscripts as soon as the canonical Gospels began to circulate (Carson, 68). In addition to this, here is a list of some early church fathers that attributed authorship to John:
1) Theophilus of Antioch (181 AD): he was the first writer to unambiguously attribute authorship to the disciple John (Carson & Moo, Introduction to the Old Testament, 229). But even before this, Claudius Apollinaris, Tatian (a student of Justin Martyr), and Athenagoras all quoted from the Gospel as an authoritative source (Carson, 26).
2) Irenaeus/Polycarp: This is perhaps some of the strongest evidence in favor of Johannine authorship. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.20), who himself was a direct disciple of John (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4). Irenaeus clearly attributed authorship to John, affirming he got the information from Polycarp, who was John’s disciple. This link provides very strong evidence.
3) Muratorian Canon (180-200 AD) affirmed John as the author (Kruse, John, 25).
4) Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Tertullian (155-240 AD), Polycrates (130-196 AD) all point to John as the author. Morris (John, 16) notes that, along with Irenaeus’s testimony, this gives widespread support of Johannine authorship from Asia Minor, Egypt and Rome. In other words, this is not a localized idea, but it was a belief that quickly and vastly spread throughout the early church. Clement also pointed out that John spent the last part of his life in Ephesus, overseeing the churches in the region (MacArthur, John 1-11, 8).
5) Along with this last point, Daniel Wallace points to two early papyri (P66 and P75, dated c. 200 AD) both attest to John as the author, and these manuscripts were removed from each other by at least 3-4 generations of copying since they are quite distant in location (ref. in MacArthur, 4). In other words, this is another piece of evidence indicating widespread belief in Johannine authorship.
6) Dionysius (265 AD): He was the bishop of Alexandria and was quite critical of the Bible and the Gospel. However, even in his critical stance, he affirmed John as the author of this Gospel (though not of Revelation; see Kruse, 26). Even opponents of traditional beliefs held to John’s authorship, including some gnostic writers (MacArthur, 4).
7) Papias (60-130 AD): The evidence from Papias is disputed. Some interpret his writings to indicate that he believed there were two Johns in the early church: John the Disciple and John the Elder (the latter of which being the author of the Gospel). However, several contemporary authors have presented good cases against this view (Carson & Moo 233, Carson 69, Morris 21).
The bottom line is that the early church was virtually unanimous that John the Disciple was the author of the Gospel bearing his name. We must dismiss virtually all the external evidence and ignore much of the internal evidence in order to come to a different conclusion.
I will conclude this post with two quotes, one from a commentary by Morris, and one from the updated commentary by Michaels in the same series:
“Plainly the evidence is not such as to enable us to say without the shadow of a doubt, ‘This is the solution.’ No theory so far put forward is without difficulties” (Morris 24).
“The church for nineteen centuries has identified him with the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, and that long tradition deserves the utmost respect” (Michaels 24).