Jesus Chose a Writer: Implications of the Identity of the Author of John's Gospel

Out of the four gospels, only one makes the claim within its text to have been written by a direct eyewitness to Jesus: the gospel of John (21:24). This eyewitness, the author of this gospel, was not John of the Twelve Apostles, as we tend to believe, but instead a different disciple of Jesus with the name John. This latter point is one of the more difficult claims offered by Richard Bauckham in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which I have just read.

At least, this was a difficult point for me. I have always assumed the John who kept himself anonymous throughout the gospel, the one who referred to himself as the “the disciple Jesus loved” within the text, was in fact John the apostle. This is not the case. John 21:1-7 makes as much clear.

That passage lists seven people present when Jesus appeared by the Sea of Tiberias. Those present were Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples the author does not name. The sons of Zebedee are the apostles John and James. Then, in 21:7, we learn that the author of the gospel—the disciple Jesus loved—is one of these seven. Which one? If he is the son of Zebedee, then his efforts to keep himself anonymous throughout the text are pointless—he has just given his name. Instead, it can be seen that leaving two disciples unnamed in his list is consistent with the aim for anonymity. John is saying he is one of the ones unnamed. In this scene, therefore, two men named John are present. One is an apostle and the other would go on to author a gospel.

How do we even know this anonymous author was named John? Strictly from the text, we do not. Bauckham explains how we do know. First, history shows the gospel acquired its label “according to John” soon after it began to circulate. The ones attaching this label must have known why they were describing the book this way. Second, writing surviving from the early second century by Papias, a bishop near Colossae, refers by name to two different Johns. In the piece, Papias describes a first-century time when certain named apostles had already died, including the apostle John, but when another John, also a witness to the Lord, was still alive and speaking. This Papias passage refers to the latter John as “the elder.” The reference is striking, because in the Bible, in two of the letters attributed to John, “the elder” is how the writer refers to himself (2 John 1 and 3 John 1). None of this is conclusive, but the evidence taken together strongly supports the view that the fourth gospel was written by someone named John. And again, John 21 makes clear this was not John the apostle.

The other three gospels, the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), all derive their information and authority in large part from the Twelve Apostles. Implying this point is the reason why all three of these books include lists of the Twelve by name. By contrast, John’s gospel offers a perspective informed by a different set of witnesses. In John, says Bauckham, we hear from apostles who do not have speaking parts in other gospels (Thomas, Philip, and Judas not Iscariot), while “John’s gospel also gives significant roles to named disciples, not members of the Twelve, who do not appear at all in the Synoptics (Nathanial, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary the wife of Clopas) or who appear only once in one of the Synoptics (Mary and Martha of Bethany),” he says. In drawing close the beloved disciple, in keeping him close essentially as a biographer, Jesus seems to have ensured that a writer would offer an otherwise unheard perspective, bearing ultimate, truthful, lasting witness to who Jesus was and what he did.

Pause to let that sink in. We thus have in our possession a complete, detailed text written by a direct witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a text that is as credible and substantiated as any text we possess out of the ancient world, a text written by the writer Jesus himself chose.

And consider what that document says. In a continuation of that scene by the Sea of Tiberias, after the death of Jesus, after the risen Jesus had begun to appear to his disciples, the author of the gospel reports how he himself recognized the man on the shore. John wrote, “Therefore the disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7).

This is the same author who had seen Jesus hanging on the cross, who had been given care over Jesus’ mother with Jesus’ dying words (19:26-27), who had seen the tomb empty without yet knowing what this meant (20:8-9), now personally documenting seeing Jesus alive after death. And as the gospel further reports, he would go on from here to eat with Jesus and hear him converse (21:15-22), one of various post-resurrection encounters John the writer carefully described.

When I say I am a “Christian,” my awareness of these events is what I am referring to. The label is fraught—so much that I am guarded about using it. I don’t want to take up its presumed claims. For example, I don’t claim I am a more moral person than you (I am not) or that my life is less confused or conflicted than yours (it isn’t). I don’t claim you need to adopt my beliefs (not my business) or that you are in danger of damnation (you’re not). What I do believe is that God set us free by pulling back the veil on the reality that seems to contain us. He did this by entering into that reality, dying in it, and rising from the dead. He explained what he was doing as he did it, and among the evidence is a historical document that records it all.

Recognizing the author of this document as a disciple who was called to write, and perhaps was called only for this, has various implications. For me, certain points of understanding are changed or clarified, including these:

1. The final exchange with Jesus recorded in John’s gospel now makes more sense. After Peter had learned his call to evangelism would cost him his life, he looked to the beloved disciple and asked, “What about him?” (21:21). If Peter had been referring to John the apostle, then the question would come off as strange. John the apostle was seemingly called into the same risky life as Peter, so why would Peter think the way ahead for him was any different? But no, Peter was referring to Jesus’ chosen biographer, the one who had been as close as any of the apostles, but who would be called to remain behind, reflect on what he had seen, and write.

2. Every painting I have ever seen of the Last Supper gets it wrong, because every painting shows precisely 13 people: Jesus plus the Twelve. There must have been more present than this. The Twelve were all present; the gospels state they were present to make clear the betrayer was there and one of the Twelve (Matthew 26:20-21, Mark 14:17-18, Luke 22:14, 21). But nowhere does it say the Twelve were the only disciples present. It must have been a bigger supper than this, because the beloved disciple was there as well, reclining beside Jesus (13:23).

3. The ordering of the books of the Bible now seems more poetic to me. Luke wrote both the gospel named after him and the book of Acts, intending them to be a two-part series (Acts 1:1), yet the ordering of the Bible sticks the gospel of John between them. This has always seemed awkward and arbitrary to me, an unfortunate consequence of clustering the four gospels together. But now I see this ordering making an important implication. Luke’s gospel describes the call of the apostles, and Acts goes on to describe the acts of those apostles. Yet not all are called to witness and evangelize as the apostles were. Back in Jerusalem were disciples called to remember and understand what they had been given to know, the beloved disciple among them. The insertion of John’s gospel as an alternate view between Luke and Acts serves to illustrate how different disciples are called to live their faith in different ways. “What about him?” The very ordering of the books arrays this question and its answer.