Question: Was John the only one who wrote the fourth gospel or were there 2 other writers as some have claimed?


To discuss the authorship of the fourth gospel of the New Testament, we look at both the external evidence and internal evidence.

External Evidence

External evidence refers to the evidence that is outside the text. The testimony of the early church strongly point in favor of John, the son of Zebedee, as the author of the fourth gospel.

  • Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 180) agrees with the superscription to the Gospel and attributes at least its opening lines to “John,” whom he names as one of the “spirit-bearing men” whose authority ranks with that of “the holy writings.” He does not identify “John” either as “son of Zebedee,” or “apostle,” or “disciple of the Lord.” His testimony could have been simply taken from the superscription, “According to John.”
  • Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) says that it was written by John the Apostle, and his source appears to have been Polycarp, who knew John personally. This is considerably later than we might have expected.

I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which have happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and becomes united to it, so I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourse which he made to the people, how he reported his converse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, including his miracles and his teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures. (Irenaeus)

  • Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) wrote, “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.”
  • The Muratorian Canon says that “it was revealed to Andrew, one of the Apostles, that John should narrate all things in his own name as they remembered them.”

One way of circumventing the force of the external evidence is by appealing to the words of Papias, as reported by Eusebius, in support of the hypothesis that there were two Johns.

And if anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would enquire as to the discourses of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples; and things which Aristion and John the elder, disciples of the Lord, say. (Papias)

Here it is worth noting that twice in his enumeration he mentions the name of John: the former of these Johns he puts in the same list with Peter and James and Matthew and the other apostles, clearly indicating the evangelist; but the latter he places with the others, in a separate clause, outside the number of the apostles, placing Aristion before him; and he clearly calls him ‘elder’. (Ecclesiastical History III xxxix. 4-5, Eusebius)

But there are at least four arguments that make this argument weak.

  1. It is now widely recognized that whereas Eusebius makes a distinction between ‘apostles’ and ‘elders’, understanding that the latter are disciples of the former and therefore second-generation Christians, Papias himself makes no such distinction.
  2. In the Papias quotation the most obvious reason why John is designated ‘the elder’ is precisely because he is being grouped with the elders just mentioned.
  3. It appears that the distinction Papias is making, in his two lists, is not between apostles and elders of the next generation, but between first-generation witnesses who have died (what they said) and first-generation witness who are still alive (what they say).
  4. Eusebius had his own agenda. He so disliked the apocalyptic language of Revelation that he was only too glad to find it possible to assign its authorship to a John other than the apostle, and he seizes on ‘John the elder’ as he has ‘retrieved’ him from Papias.

Internal Evidence

Wescott classically argues that the author of the Fourth Gospel had to be the following:

  • a Jew
  • from Palestine
  • an eyewitness
  • an apostle, one the the Twelve
  • the apostle John

The first two characteristics are not disputed. The later three have been disputed. The debate is dependent on the understanding of the “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side. (John 13:23)

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:2-9)

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. (John 21:24)

The traditional view that he is John the son of Zebedee has been advanced for multiples reasons.

That the beloved disciple was at the last supper is not disputed (John 13:23). The Synoptics insist that only the apostles joined Jesus for this meal (Mark 14:17), which places the beloved disciple within the band of the Twelve.

He is repeatedly distinguished from Peter (John 13:23–24; 20:2–9; 21:20), and by the same token should not be confused with any of the other apostles named in John 13–16. That he is one of the seven who go fishing in ch. 21, and by implication not Peter, Thomas or Nathanael, suggests he is one of the sons of Zebedee or one of the other two unnamed disciples (21:2).

Of the sons of Zebedee, he cannot be James, since he was the first of the apostolic band to be martyred (during the reign of Herod Agrippa I, A.D. 41–44; cf. Acts 12:1–2), while the beloved disciple lived long enough to give weight to the rumor that he would not die (21:23).

The fact that neither John nor James is mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel, which nevertheless has place not only for prominent apostles like Peter and Andrew but also for relatively obscure members of the apostolic band like Philip and ‘Judas (not Judas Iscariot)’ (14:22) is passing strange, unless there is some reason for it.

The traditional reason seems most plausible: the beloved disciple is none other than John, and he deliberately avoids using his personal name. This becomes more likely when we remember that the beloved disciple is constantly in the company of Peter, while both the Synoptics (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33) and Acts 3:1–4:23; 8:15–25), not to mention Paul (Gal. 2:9), link Peter and John in friendship and shared experience.

In the Fourth Gospel, most of the important characters are designated with rather full expressions: Simon Peter, Thomas Didymus, Judas son of Simon Iscariot, Caiaphas the high priest that year. Strangely, however, John the Baptist is simply called ‘John’, even when he is first introduced (John 1:6; in contrast with Mark 1:4).

Arguments Against the Traditional View

  • The most frequently advanced reason for denying that the beloved disciple is the Evangelist lies in the expression ‘beloved disciple’ itself. It is argued that no Christian would call himself ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’: the expression is strong, and is better thought of as something someone else would say about another disciple, than as something any believer would say about himself.
  • Some think that ‘these things’ which the beloved disciple is said to have written (21:24) refers only to the contents of John 21, not to the book as a whole.
  • It is frequently argued that wherever John appears with Peter the superiority of John’s insight is stressed.
  • Some think that John 21:22–23 must be taken to mean that the beloved disciple has died by the time the Fourth Gospel was published, and that one of the reasons for publication was to alleviate the crisis that had consequently arisen.
  • The suggestion that the beloved disciple merely caused these things to be written, apparently through a disciple who served as an amanuensis of sorts (Tertius is commonly cited, Romans 16:22), receives minor support from John 19:19–22: it is doubtful if Pilate actually wrote the titulus on the cross himself, but simply caused it to be written.

Other Points to Consider

  • Although John the son of Zebedee was a Galilean, by the time he wrote he had not only lived for years in Judea (during the earliest period of the church) but (on any traditional view) in the great metropolitan centre of Ephesus.
  • It has long been pointed out that the expression in Acts 4:13 does not mean that Peter and John were illiterate or profoundly ignorant but from the point of view of contemporary theological proficiency, ‘untrained laymen’, not unlike Jesus himself. (John 7:15)
  • The suggestion that a ‘son of thunder’ could not have become the apostle of love, or that a man steeped in racial bias against the Samaritans could not have written John 4, is an implicit denial of the power of the gospel and the mellowing effect of years of Christian leadership in an age when the Spirit’s transforming might was so largely displayed.
  • Although the ‘other disciple’ who arranges for Peter to be admitted to the high priest’s courtyard (John 18:15–16) is not explicitly said to be the beloved disciple, and may be someone else, yet the connection with John has more to be said for it than some think.
  • Although it has been argued in the past that a Palestinian could not write such fluent Greek, the argument no longer stands.

The simplest explanation is that John the son of Zebedee is the one person who would not feel it necessary to distinguish the other John from himself. The internal evidence is very strong, though not beyond dispute.

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