Attention!
For 10¢ a day you can enjoy StudyLight.org ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

John, Gospel of

Additional Links

JOHN, GOSPEL OF . Introductory . The Fourth Gospel is unique among the books of the NT. In its combination of minute historical detail with lofty spiritual teaching, in its testimony to the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the preparation it makes for the foundations of Christian doctrine, it stands alone. Its influence upon the thought and life of the Christian Church has been proportionately deep and far-reaching. It is no disparagement of other inspired Scriptures to say that no other book of the Bible has left such a mark at the same time upon the profoundest Christian thinkers, and upon simple-minded believers at large. A decision as to its character, authenticity, and trustworthiness is cardinal to the Christian religion. In many cases authorship is a matter of comparatively secondary importance in the interpretation of a document, and in the determination of its significance; in this instance it is vital. That statement is quite consistent with two other important considerations. (1) We are not dependent on the Fourth Gospel for the facts on which Christianity is based, or for the fundamental doctrines of the Person and work of Christ. The Synoptic Gospels and St. Paul’s Epistles are more than sufficient to establish the basis of the Christian faith, which on any hypothesis must have spread over a large part of the Roman Empire before this book was written. (2) On any theory of authorship, the document in question is of great significance and value in the history of the Church. Those who do not accept it as a ‘Gospel’ have still to reckon with the fact of its composition, and to take account of its presence in and influence upon the Church of the 2nd century.

But when these allowances have been made, it is clearly a matter of the very first importance whether the Fourth Gospel is, on the one hand, the work of an eye-witness, belonging to the innermost circle of Jesus’ disciples, who after a long interval wrote a trustworthy record of what he had heard and seen, interpreted through the mellowing medium of half a century of Christian experience and service; or, on the other, a treatise of speculative theology cast into the form of an imaginative biography of Jesus, dating from the second or third decade of the 2nd cent., and testifying only to the form which the new religion was taking under the widely altered circumstances of a rapidly developing Church. Such a question as this is not of secondary but of primary importance at any time, and the critical controversies of recent years make a decision upon it to be crucial.

It is impossible here to survey the history of criticism, but it is desirable to say a few words upon it. According to a universally accepted tradition, extending from the third quarter of the 2nd cent. to the beginning of the 19th, John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, was held to be the author of the Gospel, the three Epistles that went by his name, and the Apocalypse. This tradition, so far as the Gospel was concerned, was unbroken and almost unchallenged, the one exception being formed by an obscure and doubtful sect, or class of unbelievers, called Alogi by Epiphanius, who attributed the Gospel and the Apocalypse to Cerinthus! From the beginning of the 19th cent., however, and especially after the publication of Bretschneider’s Probabilia in 1820, an almost incessant conflict has been waged between the traditional belief and hypotheses which in more or less modified form attribute the Gospel to an Ephesian elder or an Alexandrian Christian philosopher belonging to the first half of the 2nd century. Baur of Tübingen, in whose theories of doctrinal development this document held an important place, fixed its date about a.d. 170, but this view has long been given up as untenable. Keim, who argued strongly against the Johannine authorship, at first adopted the date a.d. 100 115, but afterwards regarded a.d. 130 as more probable. During the last fifty years the conflict has been waged with great ability on both sides, with the effect of modifying extreme views, and more than once it has seemed as if an agreement between the more moderate critics on either side had become possible. Among the conservatives, Zahn and Weiss in Germany, and Westcott, Sanday, Reynolds, and Drummond in this country, have been conspicuous; whilst, on the other hand, Holtzmann, Jülicher, and Schmiedel have been uncompromising opponents of the historicity of the Gospel on any terms. Schürer, Harnack, and others have taken up a middle position, ascribing the book to a disciple of John the Apostle, who embodied in it his master’s teaching; whilst Wendt and some others have advocated partition theories, implying the existence of a genuine Johannine document as the basis of the Gospel, blended with later and less trustworthy matter.

The position taken in this article is that the traditional view which ascribes the authorship of the Gospel to John the Apostle is still by far the most probable account of its origin, the undeniable difficulties attaching to this view being explicable by a reasonable consideration of the circumstances of its composition. Fuller light, however, has been cast upon the whole subject by the discussions of recent years, and much is to be learned from the investigations of eminent scholars and their arguments against the Johannine authorship, especially when these do not rest upon a denial of the supernatural element in Scripture. In the present treatment of the subject, controversy will be avoided as far as possible, and stress will be laid upon the positive and constructive elements in the examination. The method adopted will be to inquire into (1) the External Evidence in favour of St. John’s authorship; (2) the Internal Evidence; (3) the scope of the Gospel and its relation to the Synoptics; (4) Objections and suggested alternative Theories; (5) Summary of the Conclusions reached.

1. External Evidence . It is not questioned that considerably before the close of the 2nd cent. the four Gospels, substantially as we have them, were accepted as authoritative in the Christian Church. This is proved by the testimony of Irenæus, bishop of Lyons, in Gaul, writing about a.d. 180; Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, about a.d. 170; Clement, head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, about 190; and Tertullian, the eloquent African Father, who wrote at the end of the century, and who quotes freely from all the Gospels by name. The full and explicit evidence of the Muratorian Canon may also be dated about a.d. 180. Irenæus assumes the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel as generally accepted and unquestioned. He expressly states that after the publication of the other three Gospels, ‘John the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, himself also published the Gospel, while he was dwelling at Ephesus in Asia.’ He tells us that he himself when a boy had heard from the lips of Polycarp his reminiscences of ‘his familiar intercourse with John and the rest of those that had seen the Lord.’ He dwells in mystical fashion upon the significance of the number four, and characterizes the Fourth Gospel as corresponding to the ‘flying eagle’ among the living creatures of Ezekiel 1:10; Ezekiel 10:14 . Theophilus of Antioch quotes it as follows: ‘John says, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’ ( Aut. 22). The Muratorian Fragment, which gives a list of the canonical books recognized in the Western Church of the period, ascribes the Fourth Gospel to ‘John, one of the disciples,’ and whilst recognizing that ‘in the single books of the Gospels different principles are taught,’ the writer adds that they all alike confirm the faith of believers by their agreement in their teaching about Christ’s birth, passion, death, resurrection, and twofold advent. Clement of Alexandria, in handing down ‘the tradition of the elders from the first,’ says that ‘John, last of all, having observed that the bodily things had been exhibited in the Gospels, exhorted by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, produced a spiritual gospel’ (Eus. HE vi. 14). Tertullian, among other testimonies, shows his opinion of the authorship and his discrimination of the character of the Gospels by saying, ‘Among the Apostles, John and Matthew form the faith within us; among the companions of the Apostles, Luke and Mark renovate it’ ( adv. Marc . iv. 2).

Was this clearly expressed and wide-spread belief of the Church well based? First of all it must be said that the personal link supplied by Irenæus is of itself so important as to be almost conclusive, unless very strong counter-reasons can be alleged. It was impossible that he should be mistaken as to the general drift of Polycarp’s teaching, and Polycarp had learned directly from John himself. On the broad issue of John’s ministry in Asia and his composition of a Gospel, this testimony is of the first importance. The suggestion that confusion had arisen in his mind between the Apostle and a certain ‘Presbyter John’ of Asia will be considered later, but it is exceedingly unlikely that on such a matter either Polycarp or his youthful auditor could have made a mistake. The testimony of churches and of a whole generation of Christians, inheritors of the same tradition at only one remove, corroborates the emphatic and repeated statements of Irenæus.

It is quite true that in the first half of the 2nd cent. the references to the Gospel are neither so direct nor so abundant as might have been expected. The question whether Justin Martyr knew, and recognized, our Gospels as such has been much debated. His references to the Gospel narrative are very numerous, and the coincidences between the form of the records which he quotes and our Gospels are often close and striking, but he mentions no authors’ names. In his first Apol . ch. 61 (about a.d. 160), however, we read, ‘For Christ also said, Except ye be born again, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven,’ which would appear to imply, though it does not prove, an acquaintance with the Fourth Gospel. Other references to Christ as ‘only begotten Son’ and the ‘Word’ are suggestive. The recent discovery of Tatian’s Diatessaron ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 160) makes it certain that that ‘harmony’ of the Gospels began with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ and that the whole of the Fourth Gospel was interwoven into its substance. The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (before a.d. 120) apparently quotes 1 Jn. in the words, ‘For every one who does not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist,’ but no express citation is made. The Epistles of Ignatius (about a.d. 110) apparently show traces of the Fourth Gospel in their references to ‘living water,’ ‘children of light,’ Christ as ‘the Word’ and as ‘the door,’ but these are not conclusive. Papias may have known and used this Gospel, as Irenæus seems to imply ( adv. Hær . 36); and Eusebius distinctly says that he ‘used testimonies from the First Epistle of John’ ( HE iii. 39).

Some of the most noteworthy testimonies to the use of the Gospel in the former part of the 2nd cent. are drawn from heretical writings. It is certain that Heracleon of the Valentinian school of Gnostics knew and quoted the Gospel as a recognized authority, and it would even appear that he wrote an elaborate commentary on the whole Gospel. Origen quotes him as misapprehending the text, ‘No one has seen God at any time.’ Hippolytus in his Refutation of all Heresies (vi. 30) proves that Valentinus (about a.d. 130) quoted John 10:8 , ‘The Saviour says, All that came before me are thieves and robbers,’ and that Basilides a little earlier made distinct reference to John 1:9 : ‘As it is said in the Gospels, the true light that enlighteneth every man was coming into the world.’ Slighter and more doubtful references are found in the Clementine Homilies and other heretical writings, and these go at least some way to show that the peculiar phraseology of the Fourth Gospel was known and appealed to as authoritative in the middle of the 2nd century.

It is not, however, by explicit references to ‘texts’ that a question of this kind can be best settled. The chief weight of external evidence lies in the fact that between a.d. 150 and 180 four Gospels were recognized in the Church as authentic records, read in the assemblies, and accepted as authoritative. Also, that the fourth of these was with practical unanimity ascribed to St. John, as written by him in Asia at the very end of the 1st century. This acceptance included districts as far apart as Syria and Gaul, Alexandria, Carthage and Rome. Can the whole Church of a.d. 180 have been utterly mistaken on such a point? True, the early Christians were ‘uncritical’ in the modern sense of the word criticism. But they were not disposed lightly to accept alleged Apostolic writings as genuine. On the other hand, the inquiry into their authenticity was usually close and careful. A period of fifty years is short when we remember how generations overlap one another, and how carefully traditions on the most sacred subjects are guarded. It is hardly possible to suppose that on such salient questions as the residence of the Apostle John for twenty years in Asia, and the composition of one of the four authoritative Gospels, any serious error or confusion could have arisen so early. At least the prima facie external evidence is so far in favour of Johannine authorship that it must stand accepted, unless very serious objections to it can be sustained, or some more satisfactory account of the origin of the Gospel can be suggested.

2. Internal Evidence . The first point to be noted under this head is that the book makes a direct claim to have been written by an eye-witness, and indirectly it points to the Apostle John as its author. The phrase ‘We beheld his glory’ ( John 1:14 ) is not decisive, though, taken in connexion with 1 John 1:1-4 , if the Epistle be genuine, the claim of first-hand knowledge is certainly made. There can be no question concerning the general meaning of John 19:35 , though its detailed exegesis presents difficulties. The verse might be paraphrased, ‘He that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is genuine and real; and he knoweth that he speaketh things that are true, so that ye also may believe.’ No one reading this can question that the writer of the narrative of the Crucifixion claims to have been present and to be recording what he had seen with his own eyes. A peculiar pronoun is used in ‘ he knoweth,’ and Sanday, E. A. Abbott, and others would interpret the word emphatically, of Christ; but its use is probably due to the fact that the writer is speaking of himself in the third person, and emphasizes his own personal testimony. Parallel instances from classical and modern writers have been adduced. In John 21:24 further corroboration is given of the accuracy of the disciple who was at the same time an eye-witness of the events and the author of the narrative. It appears, however, to have been added to the Gospel by others. ‘We know that his witness is true’ is probably intended as an endorsement on the part of certain Ephesian elders, whilst the ‘I suppose’ of John 1:25 may indicate yet another hand. In addition to these more or less explicit testimonies, notes are freely introduced throughout the Gospel which could proceed only from a member of the innermost circle of Christ’s disciples, though the writer never mentions his own name. Instead, he alludes to ‘ the disciple whom Jesus loved ’ in such a way that by a process of exhaustion it may be proved from chs. 20 and 21 that John was intended. It can hardly be questioned that the writer delicately but unmistakably claims to be that disciple himself. An ordinary pseudonymous writer does not proceed in this fashion. The authority of an honoured name is sometimes claimed by an unknown author, as in the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Baruch , not fraudulently, but as a literary device to give character to his theme. In this case, however, the indirect suggestion of authorship either must indicate that the Apostle wrote the book, modestly veiling his own identity, or else it points to an unwarrantable pretence on the part of a later writer, who threw his own ideas into the form of a (largely imaginary) narrative. Some modern critics do not shrink from this last hypothesis; but it surely implies a misleading misrepresentation of facts incredible under the circumstances. A third theory, which would imply collaboration on the part of one of John’s own disciples, will be discussed later.

Does the Gospel, then, as a whole bear out this claim, directly or indirectly made? Is it such a book as may well have proceeded from one who ranked amongst the foremost figures in the sacred drama of which Jesus of Nazareth was the august centre? The answer cannot be given in a word. Many features of the Gospel strongly support such a claim. Putting aside for the moment its spiritual teaching, we may say that it displays a minute knowledge of details which could have come only from an eye-witness who was intimately acquainted not only with the places and scenes, but with the persons concerned, their characters and motives. No artistic imagination could have enabled an Ephesian Christian of the 2nd cent. either to insert the minute topographical and other touches which bespeak the eye-witness, or to invent incidents like those recorded in chs. 4 and 9, bearing a verisimilitude which commends them at once to the reader. On the other hand, there is so much in the Gospel which implies a point of view entirely different from that of Christ’s immediate contemporaries, and there are so many divergences from the Synoptics in the description of our Lord’s ministry as regards time, place, the manner of Christ’s teaching, and particular incidents recorded as to make it impossible to ascribe it to the son of Zebedee without a full explanation of serious difficulties and discrepancies. But for these two diverse aspects of the same document, there would be no ‘Johannine problem.’ It will be well to take the two in order, and see if they can be reconciled.

It has been usual to arrange the evidence in narrowing circles; to show that the author must have been a Jew, a Palestinian, an eye-witness, one of the Twelve, and lastly the Apostle John. It is impossible, however, to array here all the proofs available. It must suffice to say that a close familiarity with Jewish customs and observances, such as could not have been possessed by an Ephesian in a.d. 120, is shown in the account of the Feast of Tabernacles (ch. 7), the Dedication (John 10:22 ), Jews and Samaritans ( John 4:19-20 ), conversation with women in public ( John 4:27 ), ceremonial pollution ( John 18:28 ), and other minute touches, each slight in itself, but taken together of great weight. The numerous references to the Messianic hope in chs. 1, 4, 7, 8. and indeed throughout the Gospel, indicate one who was thoroughly acquainted with Jewish views and expectations from within. Familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures and a free but reverent use of them are apparent throughout. The places mentioned are not such as a stranger would or could have introduced into an imaginary narrative. As examples we may mention Bethany beyond Jordan ( John 1:28 ), Ænon ( John 3:23 ), Ephraim ( John 11:54 ), the treasury ( John 8:20 ), the pool of Siloam ( John 9:7 ), Solomon’s porch ( John 10:23 ), the Kidron ( John 18:1 ). It is true that difficulties have been raised with regard to some of these, e.g. Sychar ( John 4:5 ); but recent exploration has in several instances confirmed the writer’s accuracy. Again, the habit of the writer is to specify details of time, place, and number which must either indicate exceptional first-hand knowledge, or have been gratuitously inserted by one who wished to convey an impression of ‘local colour.’ The very hour of the day at which events happened is noted in John 1:39 , John 4:6; John 4:52 , John 19:14; or ‘the early morning’ is mentioned, as in John 18:28 , John 20:1 , John 21:4; or the night, as in John 3:2 , John 13:30 . The specification of six water-pots ( John 2:6 ), five and twenty furlongs ( John 6:19 ), two hundred cubits ( John 21:8 ), and the hundred and fifty-three fishes ( John 21:11 ), is a further illustration either of an old man’s exact reminiscences of events long past or of a late writer’s pretended acquaintance with precise details.

The portraiture of persons and incidents characteristic of the Gospel is noteworthy. The picture is so graphic, and the effect is produced by so few strokes, often unexpected, that it must be ascribed either to an eye-witness or to a writer of altogether exceptional genius. The conversations recorded, the scene of the feet-washing, the representation of the Samaritan woman, of the man born blind, the portraiture of Peter, of Pilate, of the priests and the multitude, the questionings of the disciples, the revelation of secret motives and fears, the interpretations of Christ’s hidden meanings and difficult sayings may , as an abstract possibility, have been invented. But if they were not and it is hard to understand how a writer who lays so much stress upon truth could bring himself to such a perversion of it then the author of the Gospel must have moved close to the very centre of the sacred events he describes. In many cases it is not fair to present such a dilemma as this. The use of the imagination in literature is often not only permissible, but laudable. It is quite conceivable that a Jew of the 2nd cent. before Christ might use the name of Solomon, or the author of the Clementine Homilies in the 2nd cent. a.d. might write a romance, without any idea of deception in his own mind or in that of his readers. But the kind of narrative contained in the Fourth Gospel, if it be not genuinely and substantially historical, implies such an attempt to produce a false impression of first-hand knowledge as becomes seriously misleading. The impossibility of conceiving a writer possessed of both the power and the will thus deliberately to colour and alter the facts, forms an important link in the chain of argument. Fabulous additions to the canonical Gospels are extant, and their character is well known. They present a marked contrast in almost all respects to the characteristic features of the document before us. The name of John is never once mentioned in the Gospel, though the writer claims to be intimately acquainted with all the chief figures of the Gospel history. As deliberate self-suppression this can be understood, but as an attempt on the part of a writer a century afterwards to pose as ‘the beloved disciple,’ a prominent figure in elaborate descriptions of entirely imaginary scenes, it is unparalleled in literature and incredible in a religious historian.

A volume might well be filled with an examination of the special features of the Gospel in its portrayal of Christ Himself. Even the most superficial reader must have noticed the remarkable combination of lowliness with sublimity, of superhuman dignity with human infirmities and limitations, which characterizes the Fourth Gospel. It is in it that we read of the Saviour’s weariness by the well and His thirst upon the Cross, of the personal affection of Jesus for the family at Bethany, and His tender care of His mother in the very hour of His last agony. But it is in the same record that the characteristic ‘glory’ of His miracles is most fully brought out; in it the loftiest claims are made not only for the Master by a disciple, but by the Lord for Himself as the Light of the World, the Bread from Heaven, the only true Shepherd of men, Himself the Resurrection and the Life. He is saluted not only by Mary as Rabboni, but by Thomas as ‘my Lord and my God.’ The writer claims an exceptional and intimate knowledge of Christ. He tells us what He felt, as in John 11:33 and John 13:21; the reasons for His actions, as in John 6:6; and he is bold to describe the Lord’s secret thoughts and purposes ( John 6:61; John 6:64 , John 18:4 , John 19:28 ). More than this, in the Prologue of a Gospel which describes the humanity of the Son of Man, He is set forth as the ‘only’ Son of God, the Word made flesh, the Word who in the beginning was with God and was God, Creator and Sustainer of all that is. This marked characteristic of the Gospel has indeed been made a ground of objection to it. We cannot conceive, it is said, that one who had moved in the circle of the Immediate companions of Jesus of Nazareth could have spoken of Him in this fashion. The reply is obvious. What kind of a portrait is actually presented? If it be an entirely incredible picture, an extravagant attempt to portray a moral and spiritual prodigy or monstrosity, an impossible combination of the human and the Divine, then we may well suppose that human imagination has been at work. But if a uniquely impressive image is set forth in these pages, which has commanded the homage of saints and scholars for centuries, and won the hearts of millions of those simple souls to whom the highest spiritual truths are so often revealed, then it may be surmised that the Fourth Gospel is not due to the fancy of an unknown artist of genius in the 2nd cent., but it is due to one who reflected, as in a mirror, from a living reality the splendour of Him who was ‘the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

3. Scope of the Gospel and its relation to the Synoptics . It cannot be denied that there are grave difficulties in the way of our accepting the conclusion to which we are irresistibly led by the above arguments. Some of these were felt as early as the 2nd and 3rd cents., and have always been more or less present to the minds of Christians. Others have been more clearly brought out by the controversy concerning the genuineness of the Gospel which has been waged through the last half-century. In this section it will be convenient to try to answer the questions, How does this Gospel, if written by the Apostle John, stand related to the other three?, how can the obvious discrepancies be reconciled?, and how far do the writer’s object and method and point of view account for the unique character of the narrative he has presented?

It is clear, to begin with, that the plan of the Fourth Gospel differs essentially from that of the Synoptics. The writer himself makes this plain in his own account of his book (John 20:30-31 ). He did not undertake to write a biography of Christ, even in the limited sense in which that may be said of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; he selected certain significant parts and aspects of Christ’s work, for the purpose of winning or conserving faith in Him, presumably under special difficulties or dangers. We are therefore prepared for a difference in the very framework and structure of the book, and this we assuredly find.

The Fourth Gospel opens with an introduction to which there is no parallel in the NT. The circumstances of Christ’s birth and childhood, His baptism and temptation, are entirely passed by. His relation to John the Baptist is dealt with from a later, doctrinal point of view, rather than from that of the chronicler describing events in their historical development. Only typical incidents from the ministry are selected, and only such aspects of these as lend themselves to didactic treatment. It will be convenient here to give a brief outline of the plan and contents of the Gospel.

The Prologue: John 1:1-18 . The Word in Eternity, in Creation, in History and Incarnate.

Part i.: John 1:19 to John 12:50 . Christ’s manifestation of Himself in a Ministry of Life and Love.

1. The proclamation of His message, the testimony of the Baptist, of His works, and of His disciples. The beginnings of faith and unbelief, John 1:19 to John 4:54 .

2. The period of Controversy and Conflict; Christ’s vindication of Himself against adversaries, partly in discourse, partly in mighty works, John 5:1 to John 12:50 .

Part ii.: John 13:1 to John 20:31 . Christ’s manifestation of Himself in Suffering, in Death, and in Victory over Death.

1. His last acts, discourses, and prayer, John 13:1 to John 17:26 .

2. His betrayal, trial, death, and burial, John 18:1 to John 19:42 .

3. His Resurrection and Appearances to His disciples, ch. 20.

The Epilogue: John 21:1-23 . Further Appearances and Last Words.

Notes appended by other hands: John 21:24-25 .

The following are some detailed differences of importance. The exact duration of Christ’s ministry cannot be determined either by the Synoptic narratives or by St. John’s; but it would appear that in the former it might he compressed within the compass of one year, whilst the latter in its mention of Passovers and Festivals would require more than three. Again, the Synoptic Gospels describe a ministry exercised almost entirely in Galilee up to the closing scenes in Jerusalem; St. John has little to say of Galilee, but he does mention an important visit to Samaria, and narrates at length events and controversies in Jerusalem of which the other Evangelists say nothing. On these points, however, it may be remarked that none of the Gospels professes to he complete; that an exact chronological outline can with difficulty be constructed from any of them; and that each gives passing hints of events of which the writer had cognisance, though it does not come within his purpose to describe them.

Minute difficulties of detail cannot he discussed here. But the difference between the Synoptists and St. John with regard to the date of the Last Supper and Christ’s death has a special importance of its own. The first three Gospels represent Jesus as partaking of the regular Passover with His disciples, and as being crucified on the 15th of Nisan; St. John describes the Last Supper as on the day of ‘preparation,’ and the crucifixion as taking place on the 14th Nisan, the great day of the Passover. Various modes of reconciliation have been proposed, turning upon the meaning of the phrase ‘eating the Passover’ and on the Jewish mode of reckoning days from sunset to sunset. It has been further suggested that the term ‘Passover’ was applied to the eating of the sacrifice called Chagigah, which was offered on the first Paschal day immediately after the morning service. The explanations offered of the discrepancy are ingenious, and one or other of them may be correct. But it can hardly be said that any has commanded general acceptance among critics, and meanwhile the difference remains. It must not be supposed, however, that this necessarily implies an error on the part of the Fourth Gospel. Many critics contend earnestly that St. John gives the more consistent and intelligible account of the Last Supper, the trial and the death of Jesus in relation to the Jewish festival, and that the phraseology of the Synoptists may be more easily and satisfactorily explained in terms of St. John’s narrative than vice versa . The objection that the writer of the Fourth Gospel had a dogmatic reason for changing the day and representing Christ as the true Passover Sacrifice offered for the sins of the world, is not borne out by facts. The writer nowhere speaks of Christ as the Paschal Lamb (not even in John 19:36 ), and his allusion to the date is too slight and casual to warrant the supposition that he wishes to press home the teaching of 1 Corinthians 5:7 . Further, if the Synoptic tradition of the date had been established, it is most unlikely that an anonymous writer of the 2nd cent. would have set himself in opposition to it. If St. John wrote of his own superior knowledge, a discrepancy is intelligible, and the correction of a previous misapprehension may have been intentional. It may be said in passing that the argument drawn from the Quartodeciman controversy whether Christians ought to keep the Passover at the same time as the Jews, i.e. always on 14th Nisan, whatever day of the week it might be, or always on Sunday as the first day of the week, on whatever day of the month it might fall cannot legitimately be made to tell against the historicity of the Fourth Gospel. The controversy concerned the relation between Christians and Jews as such, rather than the exact date of Christ’s death and its meaning as a Passover sacrifice.

We reach the centre of difficulty, however, when we try to understand the marked difference between the body of the Synoptic narrative on the one band and St. John’s on the other. St. John’s omissions are so striking. He never refers to the miraculous birth of Christ; he gives no account of the Transfiguration, the institution of the Eucharist, or the Agony in the Garden; a large number of miracles are not described, nor is their occurrence hinted at; no parables are recorded, though the Synoptics make them a chief feature of Christ’s teaching, and the very word for ‘parable’ in its strict sense does not occur in the book. On the other hand, his additions are notable. How is it that the Synoptists have nothing to say of the changing of Water into Wine, of the Feet-washing, and especially of the Raising of Lazarus? Is it conceivable that if such a miracle was actually worked it could have had no place in any of the great traditional accounts of His ministry? Are we to understand that the Synoptists are correct when they place the Cleansing of the Temple at the end of Christ’s ministry, or St. John when he describes it at the beginning? Other apparent discrepancies are of less importance. They concern the Anointing of John 12:1-50 as compared with the narratives of Matthew 26:1-75 , Mark 14:1-72 , and Luke 7:1-50; the accounts of the trial of Jesus given in the Synoptics in their relation to that of Jn.; and the appearances of the Lord after His Resurrection as recorded by St. John in the 20th and 21st chapters.

Further, the most superficial reader cannot but be struck by the different representations of Christ’s ministry in its main features. The Synoptic Gospels do not contain the long discourses which are reported in St. John, always couched in a peculiar and characteristic diction, nor do they mention the frequent controversies with ‘ the Jews ,’ who are represented in the Fourth Gospel as frequently interrupting Christ’s addresses with questions and objections to which the Synoptists present no parallel. The very mention of ‘the Jews,’ so often and so unfavourably referred to, is, it is said, a sign of a later hand. The writer of the Fourth Gospel uses the same somewhat peculiar style, whether he is reporting Christ’s words or adding his own comments, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. In doctrine also, it is contended, there are irreconcilable differences between the Three Evangelists and the Fourth. Judgment is viewed by the Synoptists as a great eschatological event in the future, but by St. John as a present spiritual fact accomplished even whilst Christ was on earth. It is said, further, that Gnostic and other heresies of various kinds belonging to the 2nd cent. are alluded to in the Gospel, and that the Johannine authorship is therefore untenable. Last, but by no means least, the use of the word Logos to describe the Eternal Word, and the doctrines associated with the name that are found in the Prologue, point, it is said, conclusively to an Alexandrian origin, and are practically irreconcilable with the authorship of the son of Zebedee.

An adequate solution of these acknowledged difficulties can be found only in a full consideration of the circumstances under which, and the objects for which, the Gospel was written. It is an essential part of the hypothesis of Johannine authorship that the book was not composed till a generation after the death of St. Paul, in a community where Christianity had been established for nearly half a century. Such an interval, at such a rapidly advancing period of Christian history, implied changes of a deep and far-reaching kind. An ‘advanced Christology’ that is to say, a fuller development of the doctrines implied in the fundamental Christian belief that ‘God was in Christ,’ and that Christ was ‘the Son of the living God’ was to be expected. The hearing of this truth upon current religious ideas among both Jews and Gentiles became more clearly seen in every succeeding decade. No writer, be he aged Apostle or Ephesian elder, could write in a.d. 100 as he would have written fifty years before. The very point of view from which the wonderful Life of lives was considered and estimated had changed. With it had changed also the proportionate significance of the details of that life and work. The central figure was the same. His words and deeds remained, indelibly imprinted upon the mind of one who had lived ‘when there was mid-sea and the mighty things.’ But if an artist at the same time knows his work and is true to the realities he paints, his perspective changes, the lights and shadows of his picture alter, and the relative size of objects depicted is altered, when a new point of view is taken up.

If the Apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel at all, it must have been composed under these conditions, as early tradition asserts that it was. The same tradition declares that it was written under pressure from without, that it presupposed the first three Gospels, and was not intended to cover the ground occupied by them, that it was ‘a spiritual Gospel’ which is only another way of saying what the author himself has told us, that he recorded some among the many signs that Jesus did, viewed from the side of a Divine mission and purpose,’ that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life through his name’ (John 20:31 ). Omissions and additions, therefore, such as are obvious in a comparison between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel, cannot count as arguments against the authenticity of the latter. Neither can a more completely developed doctrine of the Person of Christ, nor a somewhat altered representation of His ministry and utterances. We have rather to ask whether the modifications observable in the latest narrative of all, written after a long time, under altered conditions, and from a different point of view, imply an incompatibility so marked that it cannot be ascribed to an eye-witness and an Apostle. All the Gospels are confessedly fragmentary, and if one of the Twelve was induced after the lapse of nearly two generations to supplement the records of Christ’s life already in existence, and to present a selection of his own reminiscences for the purpose of inducing and maintaining Christian faith, quite as large a measure of difference in the narrative as that sketched in a previous paragraph may justly he expected. Some of those discrepancies have been exaggerated. For example, the mode of speaking of ‘ the Jews ’ In the Fourth Gospel is prepared for by the expressions found in Matthew 28:15 , Mark 7:3 , Luke 7:3; Luke 23:51 . Indeed, such a habit of estimating and describing the members of a nation which had so steadily set itself against Christ and His followers as to have become the very embodiment of virulent opposition to Christianity, was inevitable. Again, it is undeniable that, as St. John from his later point of view discerned not only the glory that should come after the shame and the death of the Saviour, but the glory that was implied in His suffering and death on behalf of the world, so he described not only the final judgment that was to come at the end of all things, but the present judging, searching, sifting power of Christ’s words and presence in the earth, as the Synoptists do not. His point of view in this and in other respects is confessedly more ‘spiritual.’ But he is not unmindful of that aspect of judgment which predominates in the Synoptics. In John 5:21-29 the two points of view are harmonized, and a very definite reference is made to a final judgment as an eschatological event. If it is true, as we read in John 12:31 , that ‘now is the judgment of this world,’ the same chapter reminds us (v. 48) that Christ’s word will judge men ‘In the last day.’ There is no contradiction, except for shallow interpreters, between the statements that the Kingdom of pod is already come, and that its coming must he waited for with patience, perhaps during a long period. A believer in ‘judgment’ already accomplished is so far prepared for the confident expectation of a final judgment at the end of the ages.

But the examination of details necessarily lies outside the scope of the present article. The only further point which can be noticed here concerns the style and diction of the Fourth Gospel, and the contrast observable between the discourses of Jesus as reported in it and in the three Synoptics. So marked a difference in this respect does obtain, that an upholder of the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel must be prepared to admit that the aged Apostle sees all the objects he describes through a medium of his own, and casts his record into a shape moulded by the habit and working of his own mind. The personal stamp of the writer is very strongly impressed upon his material. Inspiration is quite consistent with marked individuality in the prophet’s character and writings, and the highest kind of inspiration is inseparable from this. The accuracy of the chronicler who regards himself as a mere recording pen is one thing, the truth of the artist or historian who passes all that he knows through the alembic of his own vigorous and active mind is another. As regards the form of the narrative, St. John, if he be the writer, must have allowed himself freedom to present his record in a mould determined by the later working of his own mind and the conditions of the times in which he lived. He presents us not with an exact photograph though traces of the photography of memory are fairly abundant but with a free and true picture of the life of Him who was and is the Life indeed.

Differences in the mode of presentation do indeed exist, but they need not he exaggerated. For example, as regards the number and length of Christ’s discourses recorded, the Fourth Gospel is not separated from the rest by some impassable gulf. Dr. Drummond has calculated that whilst in Mt. Christ speaks 139 times, in Jn. He speaks only 122 times; and that as regards length of speeches, Mt. records 111 utterances not exceeding 3 verses and Jn. 96; of speeches exceeding 3 and not exceeding 10 verses, Mt. gives 16 and John 20:1-31; whilst of discourses exceeding 20 verses, Mt. records 4 and John 3:1-36 only. Then as regards the character of the sayings of Jesus, it is often represented that those recorded in the Synoptics are pithy, incisive, and telling, whereas in Jn. the style is prolix and monotonous. Dr. Drummond, however, enumerates sixty detached logia taken from the Fourth Gospel quite as aphoristic and memorable as any contained in the other three, whilst it has often been pointed out that in Matthew 11:25-27 Is found in germ the substance, both in matter and in form, of teaching which is fully developed by St. John. At the same time it is not denied that the Fourth Evangelist allows himself the liberty of blending text and comment in one narrative marked by the same characteristic diction, so that, as in ch. 3, it is not altogether easy to determine whether Jesus or John the Baptist or the Evangelist is speaking; or, as in John 17:3 , whether the Evangelist has not expressed in his own words the substance of what fell from the Master’s lips. Such freedom, however, is not really misleading. A measure of translation, of re-statement and reproduction, was necessary from the very nature of the case. Harnack says of the NT generally, ‘The Greek language lies upon these writings only like a diaphanous veil, and it requires hardly any effort to retranslate their contents into Hebrew or Aramaic.’ Such slight, but easily penetrable veils, partly of language, partly of representation, necessarily rest over the four narratives of our Lord’s life and ministry which have been handed down through different media and under different conditions. The argument here briefly sketched out goes to show that the Fourth Gospel contains no representation of the Person, words, or works of Christ incompatible or seriously inconsistent with those of the Synoptics, whilst at the same time it bears the indubitable marks of a sacred individuality of its own.

4. Alternative theories . A considerable number of eminent scholars of the last two generations have not been satisfied by the line of argument indicated above, and they decline to accept not only the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, but also its historical trustworthiness. It is easy to understand that considerations which would strongly appeal to Christian believers might have small weight with those who reject the supernatural, and cannot admit the evidence of an alleged eye-witness of the raising of Lazarus, and who profess to be able to trace the growth of the legend which transformed the prophet of Nazareth into the Word of God Incarnate. For them the document we are examining is an ideal composition of the 2nd cent., of no greater historical value than the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Clementine Recognitions . Others, who are convinced that the book embodies early and perhaps Apostolical traditions, have adopted mediating theories of different types, pointing to the use by a 2nd cent. writer of earlier ‘sources,’ much as the Logia document is supposed to have been used by the author of ‘Matthew’ or the Markan document by St. Luke. The late date assigned by Baur to the composition of the Gospel has long been given up as impossible, and a theory of ‘forgery’ is no longer advocated by any one whose judgment is worth considering. Few responsible critics now would place the document later than a.d. 110 120, and the good faith of the writer is hardly questioned even among those who most strenuously deny that his facts have any historical basis.

Among partition-theories may be classed that of Renan, who considers that the history of the Fourth Gospel is more accurate than that of the Synoptics, and that it was probably derived from the Apostle John by one of his disciples; but he slights the discourses as tedious and almost entirely fictitious. Wendt, on the other hand, holds that a ‘third main original source’ of the Gospels in addition to the Logia of Matthew and the original Mark is to be found in the groundwork of the discourses of the Fourth Gospel, whilst the historical framework came from another hand and is less trustworthy. Ewald held that St. John composed the Gospel with the aid of friends and disciples whose pens are discernible in the body of the work, whilst the 21st chapter is entirely theirs, though written with the Apostle’s sanction and before his death. Dr. E.A. Abbott holds that John the son of Zebedee was the author of the Gospel, but not in its present shape. He says that viewed as history the document must be analyzed so as to ‘separate fact from not-fact,’ but that it has considerable value in correcting impressions derived from the Synoptic Gospels, whilst the spiritual significance of the Gospel is exceedingly high. Harnack attributes the authorship to ‘John the Elder’ of Ephesus, a disciple of the Apostle, who has incorporated in his work some of his teacher’s reminiscences, so that it might be styled ‘Gospel of John the Elder according to John the Son of Zebedee.’ He holds that the Gospel, the three Epistles and the Apocalypse in its latest, i.e. its Christian, form, were all written by John the Elder in Asia about a.d. 100. Bousset ascribes the Gospel to a disciple of this John, who had access to traditional knowledge concerning Christ’s JudgÅ“n ministry which enabled him in some respects to correct and to supplement the Synoptic accounts. Schmiedel, on the other hand, considers that the Gospel cannot be the work of any eye-witness, Apostolic or non-Apostolic, and that it was not meant to record actual history. The author is ‘a great and eminent soul,’ in whom the tendencies of his time (about a.d. 120) are brought to focus; and he finds in the Gospel ‘the ripest fruit of primitive Christianity at the same time the furthest removed from the original form.’

The mention of ‘ John the Elder ’ brings to view the only definite alternative theory of authorship that has gained much support. It is based upon a much discussed passage from Papias, preserved for us by Eusebius ( HE iii. 39), of which the following sentence is the most important: ‘If, then, any one came who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.’ Upon this foundation the hypothesis has been set up that the John who at the end of the 1st cent. gained such a position of influence in Ephesus was not the Apostle, but a presbyter of the same name. It follows that Irenæus totally misunderstood Polycarp when he claimed to have heard ‘John,’ imagining that he meant the Apostle; and moreover, that Polycrates was mistaken in his reference to the Apostle’s residence in Ephesus; and further, that Clement of Alexandria and the whole Church of the 2nd cent. were similarly misled. ‘John the Elder’ is at best a shadowy personage. Dr. Salmon contended that he had no real existence, but that Papias in the extract names the Apostle John twice over, though through his ‘slovenliness of composition’ it might seem as if two distinct persons were intended. It would appear, however, to be fairly established that a second John, known as ‘the Presbyter,’ was recognized by Papias, and perhaps by Eusebius, but he is an obscure figure; history is almost entirely silent about him, and there is no proof that he was ever in Asia at all. It is hard to believe that such a person was really the author of a book which so boldly challenged and so seriously modified evangelical tradition, and that, by an inexplicable mistake which arose within the living memory of persons actually concerned, his personality was confused with that of one of the inner circle of the twelve Apostles of the Lord.

5. Summary and Conclusion . It will be seen that some approximation has taken place between the views of those who have defended and those who have assailed the traditional view of the authorship of the Gospel, since the middle of the last century. It is fairly agreed that the date of its composition must be fixed somewhere between a.d. 90 and 110. It is further agreed by a large majority of moderate critics that the Gospel contains historical elements of great value, which must have come from an eye-witness. These are independent of all the sources upon which the Synoptists had drawn, and they enable us in many important particulars to supplement the earlier narratives. It is admitted, further, that the discourses at least contain valuable original material which may have come from John the Apostle, though many contend that this has been so ‘worked over’ by a later hand that its general complexion has been altered. On the other hand, it is admitted by many who maintain the Johannine authorship, that the Apostle must have written the Gospel in advanced age, that he may have been aided by others, that he has cast his reminiscences into a characteristic form determined by the working of a mind saturated with the teaching of Christ but retaining its own individuality, and that he was of necessity largely influenced by the conditions of the time in which he wrote.

It is not pretended that the measure of approximation thus reached amounts to agreement. The difference in time between a.d. 90 and 110 may appear slight, but the earlier date admits the possibility of Apostolic authorship, and the later does not. The agreement to recognize elements of value in the historical portion of the Gospel is important, but it does not extend to the admission of the possibility that one who had himself witnessed with his own eyes the signs and mighty works that Jesus wrought, did also at the close of his life record with substantial accuracy what he had heard and seen, so that readers of to-day may be assured that they are studying history and not a work of pious Imagination. The deep chasm remains practically unbridged which separates those, on the one hand, who hold that the view of the Person and work of Christ taken in the Fourth Gospel can claim the authority of an eye-witness, one of ‘the men who companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us,’ and, on the other, those who hold that the document contains a ‘developed’ and practically unhistorical representation of facts, devised to support a doctrinal position which belongs essentially not to the first, but to the fourth generation of primitive Christians.

This distinction is deep and vital. It need not be exaggerated, as if such representative scholars as Harnack and Schürer on one side, and Sanday and Drummond on the other, are fundamentally antagonistic in their views of Christianity. But the distinction should not be minimized, for a deep doctrinal difference is often tacitly implied by it. John the Presbyter may seem to be removed by but a hair’s breadth from John the Apostle at whose feet he sat, but it is a question of vital importance to the Christian faith of to-day whether, when we read the first and the eighth and the fourteenth chapters of the Fourth Gospel, we are listening to the voice of an Apostle recalling the memories of years long past and recording them in a form suited to strengthen the belief of his own and succeeding times, or to a developed doctrinal manifesto of the early 2nd cent., in which are included a few reminiscences derived from the lips of an aged Apostle before he passed away from earth. The difference thus indicated can with difficulty be removed, because it depends upon a still deeper difference in the mode of viewing Christian origins. The point really at issue between two classes of scholars and critics is this Did the facts and events, a selected record of which is contained in the Fourth Gospel, take place substantially as described, or has a reconstruction of the original tradition been effected, in all good faith, for dogmatic purposes? Is the picture of the unique Person here described a faithful reflexion of a Divine Reality, or has the comparatively distant remembrance of a true prophet been sublimated into the portrayal of such a Being as never actually lived and spoke on earth?

A spiritual Gospel must be spiritually discerned. External evidence is most important in its place, and in this instance the testimony which assigns the Gospel to the Apostle John is early, wide-spread, explicit, and practically unchallenged in the early Church. Internal evidences, again, are most valuable, and the claims directly and indirectly made by the writer have been briefly described in this article, and the lines along which a vindication of those claims may be established have been indicated. Also, in determining a disputed question of authorship, alternative theories should be compared and their relative probability estimated. Accordingly, it has here been contended that the balance of probability is decidedly in favour of Johannine authorship, though some difficulties involved in that hypothesis have not been denied, and the possibility of co-operation on the part of John’s disciples in Ephesus has not been excluded. But ‘evidences’ cannot prove spiritual truth, and the ultimate criterion between different views of this Gospel is practically furnished by the writer’s own words, ‘These are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.’ Those who hold such views of God, of Jesus Christ, of history, and of the Christian religion, as to be able to accept the view that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Son of God, the Word of God Incarnate, who wrought works that never man wrought and spoke words such as mere man never spake, who died for our sins and rose again from the dead and lives now to impart the gift of that Spirit whom He promised will find little difficulty in accepting the statement that John the Apostle who saw the things recorded in the Gospel ‘hath borne witness, and his witness is true.’ Those to whom such statements are on other grounds quite incredible, and who ascribe them not to the religion of Jesus and His first disciples, but to the dogma of a period which had advanced beyond the teaching of Paul to a point which is characteristic of the 2nd cent., will naturally adopt any theory of authorship that the case allows rather than admit that the Fourth Gospel was written by the son of Zebedee. Absolute demonstration is from the nature of the case impossible, but it may fairly be said that the external and internal evidences combined are such as would in any ordinary case, and apart from all doctrinal prepossessions, be considered strong, if not conclusive, in favour of the Johannine authorship of the Gospel. It may be said in closing that the conditions of current opinion have made it necessary to devote this article almost entirely to the discussion of the question of authorship. But the contents and nature of the Gospel have incidentally been brought somewhat fully into view, and an outline of its theological teaching will be found in a subsequent article. John Theology of].

W. T. Davison.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'John, Gospel of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/j/john-gospel-of.html. 1909.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Y Z