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An Introduction To The Gospel Of John

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I. Author: The Apostle John, Son Of Zebedee

A. Strictly speaking, the Gospel of John does not name its author--it is anonymous. But there is evidence which can lead to the conclusion that is was the Apostle John

B. External Evidence: Early church tradition is unanimous in ascribing the fourth gospel to John

1. Ireneus (c. A.D. 130-202) was the first to name the gospel of John and said that it was written after the other gospels from Ephesus1

2. John was either cited or named as authentic during the first four centuries by the following2

a. Clement of Rome (c. 95-97)

b. Polycarp (c. 110-150)

c. Papias (c. 130-40)

d. Irenaeus (c. 130-202)

e. Justin Martyr (c. 150-155)

f. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215)

g. Tertullian (c. 150-220)

h. The Muratorian Fragment (c. 170-200)

i. The Latin Marcionite Prologue (c. 200)

j. Origen (c. 185-254)

k. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386)

l. Eusebius (c. 325-340)

m. Jerome (c. 340-420)

n. Augustine (c. 400)

3. Eusebius specifically identified John with the Gospel which bares his name when he writes, “of all those who had been with the Lord only Matthew and John have left us their recollections....”3

C. Internal Evidence: The information from within the Gospel itself supports the universal tradition of the early church fathers who assigned the work to the Apostle John:

1. The author was a Jew:

a. He understood and quoted from the OT (12:40; 13:18; 19:37)

b. He knew and understood Jewish customs:

1) Wedding feasts 2:1-10

2) Ceremonial purification 3:25; 11:55

3) The manner of burial 11:38,44; 19:40

c. He knew and understood the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah 1:19-18

d. He perceived the religious differences between the Jew and the Samaritan 4:9,20

2. The author was a Jew from Palestine:

a. He knew the pool of Bethesda had five porches 5:2

b. He knew that Bethany was only fifteen furlongs away from Jerusalem 11:18

c. He knew that Ephraim was near the wilderness 11:54

d. He knew that the Garden of Gethsemane was on the other side of the brook Kidron 18:1

e. He knew that there was a paved area outside of the praetorium 19:13

f. He was aware of the region of Samaria and that Jacob’s well was located in Sychar (4:5-6), and that it was deep 4:11

g. He knew about the sacred mountain of Samaritan worship 4:20-21

h. He was aware of Galilee 1:44,46; 2:1,2

3. The author was an eye-witness of what happened

a. He does not state his name, but there are traces of his own hand in the Gospel

b. “We beheld his glory” 1:14

c. He knew the number of pots used at the wedding at Cana 2:6

d. He knew the value of the anointing perfume 12:5

e. He was at the crucifixion 19:33-35

f. He knew the distance from the shore of the apostles boat and the number of fish caught 21:8,11

g. “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” 21:24

4. The author was an Apostle, probably John:

a. He refers to himself often as the disciple whom Jesus loved 13:23; 19:26; 20:2 21:7,20

b. The identity of this “one whom Jesus loved” is narrowed down to be John through the following correlations:

1) From 21:7 the “disciple” may be identified as one of the seven persons mentioned in 21:2

a) Simon Peter

b) Thomas called the Twin

c) Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee

d) The sons of Zebedee

e) Two others

2) He must be one of the Twelve since only they were with the Lord at the last supper (Jn. 13:23-24; cf. Mk. 14:17; Lk. 22:14)

3) He is not Peter:

a) He sat next to the Lord at the Last Supper, and Peter motioned to him 13:23-24

b) His future is distinguished from Peter’s 21:20ff

4) He is closely related to Peter and thus seems to be one of the inner three (James, John and Peter ) [20:2-10; cf. Mk. 5:37-38; 9:2-3; 14:33)

5) James (John’s brother) died in AD 44, therefore, he was not the author (Acts 12:2)

6) Therefore, if it is true that he was an apostle, and one of the inner three, and he was not Peter, or James, then he must have been the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee

c. Raymond Brown discusses the possible candidates of Lazarus and John Mark as the “disciple whom Jesus loved”4

II. Date: Probably Between AD 85 And 95

A. The Gospel of John provides no explicit evidence regarding its date. This conclusion is arrived at through external and internal considerations

B. External Evidence: Allows for a date between 90-98

1. Extant manuscripts argue for around the turn of the century:

a. The earliest evidence is in the Rylands Papyrus 457 (p52), an Egyptian fragment of John 18:31-33,37-38, dated in the first half of the second century (c. 98-150)5

b. Other papyri (p66, p75 c. AD 175-225) offer significant sections of John

c. The Egyptian witness, Papyrus Egerton 2, supplies a composite work from c. AD 150

d. The above evidence suggests copies of the gospel circulating around Egypt in the first and second halves of the second century. This suggests a date for John to be at least around the turn of the century

2. Ireneaus stated that John remained in Ephesus until the time of Trajan (AD 98-117). This would place John’s writing during the last decades of the first century

3. Therefore, if John is the author of the Gospel, then a date between 90-98 seems to be possible

C. Internal Evidence: may argue for an early date (pre-AD 70)

1. The present tense in John 5:2 “there is” suggests a time when the gate is still standing, unlike after the destruction by Titus (But this could be a part of an earlier writing wherein John expresses its existence at the time and then edited it into his gospel account). This is a strong argument

2. The correct tradition of Palestinian places, situations, and customs argues for a time before or shortly after AD 70 when the scenes could be remembered as they were (but the author could tap his own memory without tying his writing to that period)

3. John 21:18-23 imply the passing of time until the later death of Peter (especially 21:19). This would argue for a later date rather than an earlier one

D. Conclusions:

1. It is possible that the Gospel was written just before or just after AD 706

2. It is also possible that the Gospel was written in the latter part of the first century--around the turn of the century (AD 80-98) which allows for the writing of the three epistles and Revelation by John (external evidence)

3. Eusebius identifies John as the last Gospel written after Matthew, Mark and Luke: “The three gospels which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself.”7 This would support a later time for John more than an earlier one

4. Therefore, it seems best to date John along with many scholars between 80-98

III. Place Of Origin And Destination: Ephesus To Ephesian Gentiles

A. There is no explicit evidence for the place of origin or for the destination of the Gospel of John

B. Irenaeus8 and Eusebius9 affirm that John wrote from Ephesus where he had settled after the Roman war under Titus (AD 66-70)

C. Ephesus was not far from Phrygia, the center of the Montanist movement which made early use of John’s Gospel

D. The primary audience may have been Ephesian Gentiles:

1. The various Jewish feasts are identified for the readers

2. The geographical locations are identified for the readers

3. Jewish names are translated for the readers

4. Jewish usages are explained for the reader

5. The introduction of the “Greeks” in chapter 12 may also reveal the author’s interest in the Gentiles

E. Other considerations are Antioch and Alexandria, but with less evidence

IV. Purposes Of The Gospel Of John:

A. John 20:30-32 states the purpose for the book:

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing you may have life in his name”

1. Chapter 21 need not be considered a portion later added to the original conclusion of the Gospel. While 20:30-31 relay the purpose of the book, chapter 21 is then presented as an epilogue illustrating the result of faith -- restoration into life abundant

2. The two pronged purpose statement for the book relates to the two pronged thrust of the book10

a. The first half of the book of the seven signs (chapters 1--12) are given so that all people “might believe” or come to faith (assuming the aorist subjunctive tense in the textual problem)11 in Jesus as Messiah

b. The second portion of the purpose statement [“you may have life in his name”] correlates with chapters 13--20 where believers are exhorted to close fellowship--eternal life which is not only a quantity of life but also a quality of life (cf. 5:24 with 17:2-3)

B. Gospel of John also was written to reveal who Jesus was:

1. Unlike the synoptics which reveal Jesus inductively (from the ground up), John reveals Jesus deductively (from heaven down)

2. Jesus is also revealed as the “Logos,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “God,” and “Man” fighting the incipient gnostic views of Cerinthus and the Ebionites (that Jesus was only a man upon whom the Spirit visited and then left thus affirming no pre-existence), and fighting Docitism (emphasizing Jesus’ deity over his humanity)

V. The Relation Of The Gospel Of John To The Synoptics

A. There are similarities between John and the synoptics (e.g., the movement from “birth” to crucifixion and resurrection)

B. The significance of relationship lies in the differences:

1. Material is in the synoptics but not in John

2. Material is in John but not in the synoptics

3. John is less narrative and more discourse oriented. John is philosophical and Rabbinic

4. There are differences of historical and chronological items such as the dating of the cleansing of the temple, the duration of the ministry of Jesus, and the dating of the Last Supper

C. John is explained in four possible ways in relation to the synoptics:

1. It was a supplement to the synoptics

2. It was independent of the synoptics

3. It was interpretive of the synoptics

4. It was a substitute for the synoptics12


1 Adv. Haer. (Against Heresies) ii.22. 5, iii.3.4 cited in Eusebius, HE (The Ecclesiastical History), iii.23.3; Also Adv. Haer. iii.1.1 cited in  Eusebius HE, v.20.4-8.

Eusebius reports that Irenaeus’ authority was Polycarp who claimed to know the Apostles and John in particular at Ephesus  (HE, iv.14.3-8).

See the discussion in Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, pp. LXXXVIII-XCII for objections to Ireneus’ evidence.

2 Geisler, A General Introduction, p. 193.

3 HE 3.24.3-8.

4 The Gospel According to John, I:XCIV-XCVIII.

5 Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 38-39.  This strongly disproves Delafosse’s thesis of AD 170 and A. Loisy’s thesis of AD 150-160.  Egypt is a long way from Ephesus, thus it would have taken time for the gospel to reach this land after its composition.

6 Internal evidence; see Tenny, “John” in EBC, 9:9-10.

7 HE iii.24.7.

8 Adv. Haer. 3:1.

9 HE 3:1.

10 NB--John’s reference is to “this book” (20:30) and not only to the immediate context.

11 NB--even if the textual problem supports the present subjunctive tense (“go on believing”), this does not necessarily mean that John’s Gospel is only for the “believer” because the unbeliever also needs to consider a continuing attitude of faith as they consider Jesus.

12 NB--While it need not be an either/or solution, the first two explanations are the most accepted (Guthrie, p. 287-300).  It seems that John did know of the synoptics (allowing for number 2 above), and yet wrote from other sources, and with a different purpose (allowing for number 1 above) [cf. Tenny, “John” in EBC 9:20].

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines