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Background to the Study of John

Views on the authorship, origin, and historicity of the Fourth Gospel have changed drastically over the last century and a half. One hundred fifty years ago, if one had asked a New Testament scholar which of the four gospels gave us the most information about the life and ministry of Jesus, the answer would almost invariably have been, “The Gospel of John.” Today if one asks a typical New Testament scholar the same question, the Gospel of John would be the last choice as a source of information about Jesus (if it was viewed as having anything to say about this topic at all). How has such a drastic shift in opinion regarding the Fourth Gospel come about? In large part it has happened because of a shift in scholarly opinion about the interrelationship of the four gospels which placed John’s Gospel late in the first century (actually, it would have been pushed well into the second century, as F. C. Baur and the “Tbingen School” had proposed around 1835. The discovery of the fragmentary manuscript known as 52 by C. H. Roberts in 1934 in the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester, however, led to the late first century date). As a late work John’s Gospel was thus regarded as secondary and derivative, and where John’s version of events differed from that of the synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it was assumed that John had altered the traditions to suit his own theological ends.

This state of affairs held sway until only about two decades ago. Things have now begun to change again with regard to views on the Fourth Gospel as a legitimate source for information about Jesus’ life and ministry.

The following summary is quoted from Stephen S. Smalley and serves as a useful starting point for a discussion of the Fourth Gospel:

In 1978 Dr. J. A. T. Robinson gave a paper to an Oxford Conference on the Gospels, entitled “The New Look on the Fourth Gospel.” In it he suggested that if a new look on John existed, it could be distinguuished from an ‘old look.’ He therefore set out what he regarded as the five presuppositions belonging to critical orthodoxy in the first half of the twentieth century so far as the interpretation of John’s Gospel was concerned, and tried to demonstrate that each was in need of and in the process of re-examination.

The five presuppostions listed by Robinson are as follows:

(I) That the fourth evangelist is dependent on sources, including at least one of the Synoptic Gospels.

(II) That his backgound differs from that of the tradition he reports.

(III) That his work is a serious witness not to the Jesus of history but to the Christ of faith.

(IV) That he reflects the latest stage of theological development in first-century Christianity.

(V) That he is neither the apostle John nor an eyewitness.

The most crucial of these assumptions mentioned by Robinson, as indicated already, is the first. Once it is allowed that John to any extent depends on the Synoptic Gospels, it follows that the only way to account for the differences between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions when they are in conflict is to say that the fourth Evangelist has altered his material to suit his own purposes.

And having said that the other assumptions follow. For particular reasons of writing, the Evangelist (it may be claimed) cuts loose from the tradition to which he is presumably indebted, and theologises the ‘history’ he is interpreting. He does this in a developed manner for a late, primarily Hellenistic audience, by which time any eyewitness links have disappeared. In other words, as Robinson himself points out, the effect of adopting the ‘old look’ on the Fourth Gospel is essentially to drive a wedge between the Evangelist and his tradition. It is to oppose Johannine history and theology, and to make the second superior to the first.1

Smalley goes on to point out that it is precisely this presupposition of the literary dependence of the Fourth Gospel on the synoptics, with all the implications that follow from it, that is being most widely and seriously questioned by scholars at present. But for these scholars the issue is no longer one of authorship, but of tradition—whether the tradition behind the Gospel of John is independent of the synoptic tradition or not.

Let us begin by examining the issue of authorship to see what can indeed be said about the author of the Fourth Gospel:

1. Authorship—Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel?

In the popular imagination the author of the Fourth Gospel is normally viewed as the aging Apostle John, but it is important to remember that nowhere in the Gospel does the author actually state his name. This has led to such widespread and thorough discussion in scholarly circles over who the author might be, and when and how the Gospel of John came to be written, that it is almost impossible to group together and summarize the significance of all the different theories that have been advanced concerning the origin of the Fourth Gospel. Nevertheless, that is the purpose of the following paragraphs.

    External Evidence Concerning Authorship

External (that is, historical) evidence regarding the authorship of the Fourth Gospel has been discussed well by Donald Guthrie.2 More recently, the material has also been discussed by Gary Burge in his introductory volume on interpreting John’s Gospel and by Donald Carson in his commentary.3 There is no writer who mentions the Fourth Gospel or its author before Irenaeus.

Irenaeus (born AD 115-142? – died ca. AD 200). Scholars date the birth of Irenaeus between these two dates, chiefly on the basis of whether they give credit to his claims to have known Polycarp. In his work Against Heresies he states that the author of the Fourth Gospel was John, the Lord’s disciple; that the Gospel was published at Ephesus and that John remained at Ephesus until the time of Trajan.4

Eusebius, who reported this, says that Irenaeus’ authority for these statements was Polycarp, who learned truth from the apostles.5

According to Eusebius, Irenaeus himself, in a letter to his friend Florinus, reminisces of their childhood conversations with Polycarp.6

Irenaeus’ testimony has been discounted by many modern scholars, chiefly because they have concluded on other grounds that John the Apostle could not have written the Gospel. They simply claim his memory failed.

However, this presupposes that Irenaeus’ only source of information was Polycarp. But Irenaeus mentions another anonynmous Presbyter (bishop), whom most think was his predecessor as Bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, a man born well before the end of the 1st century. (He died in AD 177 at well over 90 years old.) Also, Irenaeus was in close touch with Rome, and must have known the traditions there.

J. Drummond states: “Critics speak of Irenaeus as though he had fallen out of the moon, paid two or three visits to Polycarp’s lecture-room, and had never known anyone else…he must have had numerous links with the early part of century.”7

All writers subsequent to Irenaeus assume the apostolic authorship of the Gospel without question (Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen). If they were merely reporting Irenaeus’ opinion, they must have considered it worth reporting—without suspicion.

The Muratorian Canon (a document probably written in the last quarter of the 2nd century with firm ties to Rome) describes the Fourth Gospel as proceding from John after a vision given to Andrew that John should write and the others revise. (This is problematic for those who hold a late date, though, in light of the probability that Andrew did not survive that long). But this probably indicates John was associated with the Gospel in Rome at the time.

In conclusion, while more might be said, especially concerning theories relating to the early martyrdom of the apostle John, it should be noted that these contradict Johannine authorship only if a late date is assumed for the Gospel. Such a late date is by no means certain. Also, there really is not much evidence at all for the early martyrdom of John. The evidence is as follows:

      Evidence for the Early Martyrdom of the Apostle John

1. The martyrdom is deduced from Mark 10:39. Both James and John are promised that they will drink from the same cup as the Lord (i.e., referring to a martyr’s death). Therefore, John must have suffered the same fate as James. If not, it is presupposed, then Mark would have altered his text to reflect the fact that only James “drank from the same cup as the Lord.”

2. Two late writers, an epitomist of Philip of Side (5th century AD) and George Hamartolus (9th century AD) report statements supposed to have been made by Papias to the effect that John as well as James was killed by the Jews. George Hamartolus follows this with a citation of Mark 10:39 (see the previous point).

3. A Syrian martyrology (list of martyrs) of AD 411 commemorates John and James on the same day and describes them as ‘apostles in Jerusalem’.

4. The Carthaginian Calendar (ca. AD 505) has a similar entry for Dec. 27th but links John the Baptist with James. Many scholars regard this as an error for the Apostle John and claim this as early evidence for the apostle’s death.

5. A homily of Aphraates (no. 21) states that apart from Stephen, Peter, and Paul, there were only two martyr apostles, John and James.

The cumulative effect of all this evidence is very small. Guthrie thinks the individual points become even weaker on closer examination.

      Evaluation of the Evidence for the Early Martyrdom of the Apostle John

1. The prediction of Mark 10:39 does not necessitate martyrdom, only suffering. There are far too many assumptions here, and even if it is granted that Mark 10:39 is a prediction of martyrdom for John, it does not prove that martyrdom was early. Furthermore, the idea that the evangelists would have adjusted the accounts, instead of recording what really happened, is a presupposition of modern critical scholarship.

2. Neither Philip’s epitomist nor George Hamartolus were noted for historical accuracy. Both Irenaeus and Eusebius know of Papias’ writings but neither refer to this statement about John’s martyrdom. Also, it is questionable whether Papias would have used the late Greek title “the Theologian” for John, as Philip’s report says he did. Furthermore George Hamartolus himself did not take the report from Papias seriously, since he also mentions the apostle John’s peaceful end.

3. The rest of the evidence may be dismissed, since the martyrologies and the homily by Aphraates are probably confusing John the Apostle with John the Baptist.

    Modern Proposals Concerning the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

In light of the text’s silence on the name of the author, a number of theories have been proposed in recent time as alternatives to the traditional view that the author of the Fourth Gospel was John the Apostle. A short survey of these proposals is given here.

1. John of Jerusalem was the author. Existence of a ‘John of Jerusalem’ who had access into the High Priest’s house was first proposed by H. Delff (1889). This John later became influential among Asiatic churches. This does have the advantage of still relying on eyewitness testimony. But no external evidence of any kind supports this theory.

2. The Fourth Gospel is a pseudepigraphal work. This view holds that all the eyewitness details are merely a device to create the impression of apostolic authorship, although the work was not really written by an apostle (thus “pseudepigraphal”). But why did an author intending to write a pseudepigraphal work not just mention the Apostle John’s name, which would have been much more effective and in harmony with general pseudepigraphal practice? Further, how can this theory explain how the gospel gained acceptance generally? Unless this gospel were at once assumed to be genuinely apostolic, it would have had increasing difficulty creating that impression as time went on, especially with the rise of Gnosticism. The Fourth Gospel was a favorite of the Gnostics and if it had not been widely accepted as apostolic, there would have been considerable difficulty gaining later acceptance. There are no known cases of works once recognized as pseudonomous ever losing their pseudonomous ascription at some later time.

3. The Fourth Gospel was written by John Mark. Originally Wellhausen proposed John Mark as author of the Fourth Gospel; more recently by J. N. Sanders and Pierson Parker have done so.8 But in another earlier article Parker had argued for a second edition of the gospel issued fairly late.9 It is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with his view of John Mark as author—not to mention the complications with traditional ascriptions of Mark’s Gospel to John Mark (since the style is so different).

4. It was written by John the Elder. A famous statement of Papias has given rise to a widespread conviction among many scholars that there was another John who had associations with Ephesus and had some connection with the production of the gospel. This might be called the ‘confusion’ theory for interpreting the external evidence. Irenaeus’ evidence is easily discounted by assuming that he was really referring to John the Elder.

Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying: “And again, if anyone came who had been a follower of the Elders, I used to enquire about the sayings of the Elders—what Andrew, or Peter, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or John, or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s Disciples said (eijpen) and what Aristion and the Elder John, the Disciples of the Lord, say (legousin). For I did not think that I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice.”10

The problem concerns the interpretation of Papias’ words. Who are the so-called “Elders”? Are they to be identified with the “Disciples” also named, or separated from them? Barrett is convinced the “sayings of the Elders” consisted of reports of what the named disciples (i.e. apostles) had already said, and Papias only heard these second hand. There would be no question of Papias being a hearer of the apostle John and companion of Polycarp. Thus Papias would be referring to three groups: the apostles (Disciples), their followers the Elders, and the other disciples.

If, however, Papias is describing the apostles as Elders, then there are only two groups (apostles and disciples), and Papias used to enquire directly from the followers of the apostles what the apostles had said. His testimony is therefore closer to Irenaeus’.

But if Papias is describing the apostles as Elders, then it is possible that the “Elder John” is also the Apostle John mentioned earlier. In this case, Papias is distinguishing between what John said in the past and what at the time of Papis’ enquiry he was still saying.

At the same time, the possibility that there may have been two men with the name John cannot be ruled out. It is supported by Eusebius’ interpretation of Papias’ words. But since Eusebius wished to attribute the Book of Revelation to a different John than the author of the gospel, his interpretation may not have been impartial.

In any case, the only other evidence for the existance for an ‘Elder’ John may be the introduction to 2 and 3 John, where the author calls himself this.

But even if there was a second person named John, known as ‘the Elder’, Papias gives no location and no hint of any writings. He merely happens to possess a name which is identical to the person to which the Fourth Gospel is traditionally ascribed, and this makes the ‘confusion’ theory possible.

Of course a possible response to this is that if the later Church mixed up apostles and elders in this way, might not Papias have done so himself? And after all, it is still possible that he was originally referring to only one person himself, and Papias’ words were confused by Eusebius.

5. Lazarus was the author of the Fourth Gospel. Floyd Filson proposed Lazarus as author of the Gospel.11 Lazarus is the one male figure of the Gospel of whom it is specifically said Jesus loved him (filein, filo" in 11:3, 11, 36; ajgapan in 11:5). (But referring to the Beloved Disciple, ajgapein is more frequently used.) Filson argues that the Gospel was meant to be self-intelligible to readers who, without the second century tradition which ascribed the Gospel to John, son of Zebedee, would have understood the Beloved Disciple as a reference to Jesus’ love for Lazarus.

But this argument is valid only if readers were unaware of the author’s identity even before they started the Gospel. This is not so likely if the author were a famous Apostle like John.

Developing the relationship between John and Lazarus even further, K.A. Eckhardt went so far as to suggest Lazarus was a pseudonym for John the son of Zebedee after he was brought back from the dead by Jesus.12 It seems incredible that if John died during Jesus’ ministry and was resurrected by Jesus, there remains absolutely no trace of this in the Synoptic accounts and/or tradition.

Finally, J. N. Sanders thinks the basis of the Fourth Gospel was an Aramaic work by Lazarus, edited by John Mark, who was the Evangelist.

Now we need to consider the internal evidence of the Gospel regarding authorship.

    Internal Evidence Concerning Authorship

It is important to remember that internal evidence concerning the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is indirect. B. F. Westcott’s “concentric circles of proof,” originally part of the introduction to his commentary are still very helpful here.13 (They have never really been refuted, merely ignored.) Westcott outlined the evidence for authorship as follows:

      I. The author of the Fourth Gospel was a Jew.

        A. He is familiar with current Jewish opinions.

          1. Messianic Expectations —1:21, 4:25, 6:14 ff, 7:40 ff, 12:34 ff.

          2. Attitude toward Women —4:27

          3. Importance of religious schools — 7:15

          4. Disparagement of Jews of the Diaspora (Hellenistic Jews) —7:35

          5. Hostility of Jews and Samaritans —4:9

        B. He is familiar with Jewish observances, customs, etc.

          1. Ceremonial pollution of entering a gentile court —18:28

          2. Feast of Tabernacles (hinted at) by symbolism of “living water” and the “light of the world”—7:8 and 8:12

          3. The last day of the feast was the “great day”—7:37

          4. Customs at marriage feast —2:1-10

          5. Customs of burial—11:17-44

        C. Vocabulary, sentence structure, symmetry and numerical symbolism, expression and arrangement of thoughts are essentially Hebrew. “The source of the imagery of the narrative…is the OT. The words are Greek words, but the spirit by which they live is Hebrew.” (Westcott, Introduction, vii)

        D. The Old Testament is the source of the religious life of the author.

          1. Judea was the “home” of the Word become flesh; these people were “his own people”—1:11

          2. Judaism is constantly taken as the starting-point for Christianity.

            a. The writer assumed as axiomatic that Scripture cannot be broken—10:35

            b. That which is written in the prophets is assumed to be true —6:45

            c. OT types are mentioned as Christ applied them to himself:

        i. Serpent —3:14

        ii. Manna —6:32

        iii. Water from the Rock —7:37 ff., etc.

      II. The author of the Fourth Gospel was a Jew of Palestine.

        A. His local knowledge is precise.

          1. Bethany beyond the Jordan (1:28), a place forgotten by the time of Origen, is distinguished from Bethany near Jerusalem (11:18). The location of the latter is given as 15 stadia away.

          2. Aenon near Salim (3:23) is not mentioned anywhere else—indicating direct acquaintance of the writer.

          3. Topography —especially of Jerusalem—is precise.

            a. The pool at Bethesda—5:2

            b. The pool of Siloam—9:7

            c. The wadi Kidron—18:1

            [Points a. - c. are not mentioned in the Synoptics.]

            d. The Pavement (Gabbatha) with its raised judgement-seat—19:13

            e. Allusions to the Temple:

        i. 46 years in building—2:20

        ii. Mention of the Treasury—8:20

        iii. Solomon’s Portico—10:22

        B. The author’s use of OT quotations shows that he is not dependent on the LXX, and at least suggest he was acquainted with Hebrew:

          1. These agree with both the Hebrew text and LXX, where both agree (Hebrew text and LXX in agreement):

            a. 12:38, cf. Is. 53:1

            b. 19:24, cf. Ps 22:18

            c. 10:34, cf. Ps 82:6

            d. 15:25, cf. Ps 34:19

          2. These agree with the Hebrew text against the LXX:

            a. 19:37, cf. Zach. 12:10

            b. 6:45, cf. Is. 54:13

            c. 13:18, cf. Ps 41:9

          3. This differs from both Hebrew and LXX where they both agree:

            2:17, cf. Ps 69:9

          4. These differ from Hebrew and LXX where they do not agree:

            a. 12:14-15, cf. Zech 9:9

            b. 12:40, cf. Is. 6:10

          5. These are free renditions (paraphrases?) of various OT passages:

            a. 19:36, cf. Exod 12:46, Num 9:12

            b. 7:38, no exact OT quote is parallel

            c. 1:23, cf. Is. 40:3

            d. 6:31, cf. Ps 78:24, Exod 16:4, 15

          6. But nowhere does a quotation of the OT in the Fourth Gospel agree with the LXX against the Hebrew text.

        C. The author’s doctrine of the Logos is Palestinian and not Alexandrian—he views the Logos as representing the divine Will manifested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Philo, on the other hand, viewed the Logos as abstract divine Reason.

        D. Qumran documents have many parallels, which indicate that the Gospel is essentially a Palestinian document. See A. M. Hunter, Expository Times 71(1959/60), 166, 202.

      III. The author of the Fourth Gospel was an eyewitness of the events he describes:

        A. Descriptions of persons—in minute detail.

          1. Nicodemus—3:1 ff, 7:50, 19:39

          2. Lazarus—9:1 ff, 12:1 ff

          3. Simon, father of Judas Iscariot—6:71, 12:4, 13:2, 26

          4. Note: The author was aware “Iscariot” was a local or family name; he applies it both to Judas and to his father Simon: 6:71, 13:2, 26, 12:4, 14:22

        B. Details of time:

          1. Number of days before the raising of Lazarus—11:6, 17, 39

          2. Duration of Jesus’ stay in Samaria—4:40,43

          3. Specific mention of the hour at which events occurred:

            a. “the tenth”—1:40

            b. “the sixth”—4:6

            c. “the seventh”—4:52

            d. “about the sixth”—19:14

            e. “it was night”—13:30, etc.

        C. Details of number:

          1. two disciples of John the Baptist—1:35

          2. six waterpots—2:6

          3. five loaves and two fishes—6:9

          4. twenty-five or thirty stadia—6:19

          5. four soldiers—19:23

          6. two hundred cubits—21:8

          7. two hundred fifty-three fish—21:11

        D. Details of manner or circumstance:

          1. The boy had barley loaves—6:9

          2. When Mary poured the ointment, the house was filled with the fragrance—12:3

          3. The branches used at the triumphant entry were palm branches—12:13

          4. Roman soldiers come with the officers of the priests to arrest Jesus—18:3

          5. Jesus’ tunic was seamless—19:23

          6. The facecloth in which Jesus was buried was wrapped and lying in a place by itself—20:7

          7. Peter was grieved because the Lord said to him a third time, “Do you love me?”—21:17

      IV. The author of the Fourth Gospel was an Apostle.

        A. This is clear from the scope of his descriptions of Jesus’ ministry from the call of the first disciple to the appearances after the resurrection.

        B. He is acquainted with the thoughts and feelings of the disciples at critical moments: 2:11, 17, 22; 4:27, 6:19, 60 ff.; 12:16, 13:22, 28, 21:12.

        C. He recalls words spoken amont themselves: 4:33, 16:17, 20:25, 21:3,5.

        D. He is familiar with the places to which they withdrew for time alone: 11:54, 18:1-2, 20:19.

        E. He is acquainted with imperfect or erroneous impressions they received initially: 11:13, 12:16, 13:28, 20:9, 21:4.

        F. He stood very near the Lord:

          1. He knew the Lord’s emotions: 11:33, 13:21.

          2. He knew the grounds of the Lord’s actions: 2:24 ff, 4:1, 5:6, 6:15, 7:1, 16:19.

          3. He knew the mind of the Lord in many cases: 6:6, 6:61, 6:64, 13:1,3; 13:11.

      V. The author of the Fourth Gospel was the Apostle John.

        A. John 21:24 assigns authorship to “the apostle whom Jesus loved.”

        B. This disciple is mentioned by this title twice in the passion narrative (13:23, 19:26) and twice afterwards (21:7, 21:20).

        C. He is known to the high-priest (18:15).

        D. He stands in close relationship with Peter (13:24, 20:2, 21:7).

        E. From the list in 21:2 of those present, this disciple must have been one of the sons of Zebedee, or one of the two other unnamed disciples present.

        F. The synoptics present Peter, James and John as standing in a special relationship to Jesus. Peter is eliminated (see 20:21), James was martyred very early (Acts 12:2); this leaves John.

      VI. Corroboration:

        A. John is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Gospel.

        B. While John is not mentioned by name, the author is very particular about defining names in his gospel—he frequently qualifies by using additional names; Simon is never called merely Simon after his call, but always by his full name Simon Peter or the new name Peter. But in spite of this tendency, the author of the Fourth Gospel never refers to the Baptist as John the Baptist (as the synoptics do) but only as “John.”

Further Remarks on Johannine Authorship: Variations on the Theme

If one accepts the traditional view that John the Apostle was the author of the gospel which bears his name, there are still some possible variations in the way the composition actually took place, as follows:

1. John the Apostle was the witness and some other person was the author. A parallel to this solution may be found in the traditional relationship between Peter and Mark in the production of Mark’s Gospel. There is no fundamental objection to this theory, but it does involve a rather broad interpretation of gravya" in John 21:24, in the sense of “writing by means of another”(there are probably other NT parallels for this, however). It would not be out of keeping with the external evidence provided the apostle himself held the main responsibility for what was said. Under this theory, the amanuensis would remain anonymous and the apostle would take credit for the Gospel. In this respect it would differ from the Peter-Mark relationship and would suggest John had more of a personal hand in the writing than Peter did in the case of Mark.

2. A further modification (possible but less likely) is that a disciple of John wrote the memoirs of the apostle after his death. According to this theory the substance of the Gospel is John’s but not the actual writing. In this case 21:24 would constitute a reference not to John the apostle himself, but to the disciple doing the writing.

While these two theories offer interesting possibilities, there is almost certainly not enough concrete information in the text of the Gospel itself to confirm or deny either one. Furthermore, arguments based solely on stylistics are indeterminative since they are only probability statements.

2. Date—When Was the Fourth Gospel Written?

Given the diversity of opinion concerning authorship of the Fourth Gospel, the consensus on its dating is remarkable. A century and a half ago, F. C. Baur and his adherents, who became known as the “Tbingen School” because they were located at the University of Tbingen in southern Germany, advocated a date late in the second century for John’s Gospel (ca. AD 175). They did so mainly on the basis of the similarity between the Fourth Gospel and Gnosticism, which flourished in the mid- to late second century and was thought by many to be the background for “Johannine” thought. Today no New Testament scholar would advocate such a late date, primarily for two reasons. First was the discovery of a small fragment of papyrus containing a couple of verses from John 18 by a British scholar, C. H. Roberts, while studying fragments of uncatalogued fragments in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in 1934. This fragment, which has become famous as 52, is now dated (by a consensus of NT scholars and papyrologists) ca. AD 125.14 Since no one believes this fragment is actually part of the autograph (the original document), and since it came from Egypt, it is generally conceded that it would take several decades for the Gospel of John to be circulated, copied, carried to Egypt (and end up buried there). This suggests a date for John’s Gospel late in the first century. The second contributing factor to such a date was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The scrolls exhibit much of the imagery and symbolism that had formerly been attributed to Gnosticism. For example, the so-called “War Scroll” from Qumran is properly titled The War of the Sons of Light With the Sons of Darkness. Concepts which were thought to indicate a late date for John because of their connection with Gnosticism have now turned up in documents written (in some cases) as early as the second century BC.

W. G. Kümmel says:

If John was known in Egypt in the first quarter of the 2nd century, the beginning of the second century is a terminus ad quem. On the other hand, John’s knowledge of Luke is extremely probable, so it could not have been written before ca. 80-90. The assumption that John was written probably in the last decade of the first century is today almost universally accepted.15 [my emphasis]

J. A. T. Robinson likewise says:

Indeed one of the facts about the remarkable scholarly consensus which we shall be noting on the dating of the Johannine literature is that it cuts across almost every possible division. Those who believe that all five books—the Revelation, the gospel and the three epistles—are by one man, and that man the apostle John, and those who hold to none of these, or to almost every possible permutation of them, find common ground in dating both the Revelation and the gospel and epistles in the years 90-100.16 [my emphasis]

    External Evidence Regarding the Date of John’s Gospel:

      I. That the apostle John lived to a very old age is widely attested:

        A. Irenaeus in Against Heresies claims that John lived into the reign of the Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117).17

        B. Eusebius repeats Irenaeus’ statement about John living until the time of Trajan.18

        C. Jerome placed John’s death “in the 68th year after our Lord’s passion.”19

      II. That John was the last evangelist to write is also well attested, mentioned by Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. iii.1.1), Clement (according to Eusebius, HE 4.14.7), and Eusebius himself (HE 3.24.7).

      III. But that John wrote as a very old man is an inference which only appears later and combined with other statements which cast considerable doubt on its accuracy.

        A. The Muratorian Canon (probably ca. AD 180) describing the origin of the gospel (the vision that John should write and the others revise) suggests no date, but it presupposes that John’s “fellow-desciples” including Andrew are still alive and with him, and thus argues against a very late period.

        B. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue20 records that “the gospel of John was revealed and given to the churches by John while still in the body” (some manuscripts add, “after writing the Apocalypse”). The Prologue also claims the authority of Papias for this statement, and says that John dictated the gospel to Papias. The Prologue adds that Marcion (who taught in Asia Minor ca. AD 130) was “rejected” by John (i.e., Marcion’s theology was disapproved by the Apostle). However, Eusebius knew Papias’ works, and quotes nothing from him about the origin of the Fourth Gospel.21 It seems unlikely that the gospel was dictated to Papias, and impossible that John knew of Marcion.

        C. Victorinus of Pettau (died ca. AD 304) also says that John wrote the Gospel after the Apocalypse, but sees it as written against (among others) Valentinus, a Gnostic who taught in mid-2nd century.

        D. Epiphanius (ca. AD 315-403) says explicitly that John, refusing in his humility to write a gospel, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to do so in his old age, when he was over ninety, after his return from Patmos and after living “many years” in Asia.22 However, this is combined with the confused statements that John’s banishment took place “under Claudius” and that he prophesied under that emperor “before his death.” Claudius reigned from AD 41-54 (but Epiphanius could be referring to Nero, whose full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus).

        E. George Hamartolus (9th century) stated, “After Domitian, Nerva reigned one year, who recalled John from the island, and allowed him to dwell in Ephesus. He was at that time the sole survivor of the twelve Apostles, and after writing his Gospel received the honour of martyrdom” (Domitian reigned from AD 81-96).

        F. Note, however, that Irenaeus and Eusebius did not say John wrote when a very old man.

This is basically the extent of the external evidence.

J. A. T. Robinson summarized well:

With marginal variation at each end (and even Bultmann goes down as far as 80 for the first composition), the span 90-100 is agreed by Catholic and Protestant, by conservative and radical, by those who defend apostolic authorship and those who reject it, by those who believe that John used the synoptists and those who do not. It includes virtually all those who have recently written commentaries on the gospel, not to mention other interpreters. It is one of the relatively few points at which over a span of two generations Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible and The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible agree, and the consensus includes now the redaction-critics. Indeed many commentators (e.g. Schnackenburg) scarcely bother to discuss the issue of dating, and the space it occupies in introductions, whether to the New Testament or to the gospel, compared with that of authorship is minimal. Kümmel’s two-sentence summary…[mentioned previously] is typical: the question appears to be settled.23

    Internal Evidence Regarding the Date of John’s Gospel

In the opinion of many interpreters, John’s use of the synoptics (especially Luke) must indicate a later date (toward the end of the first century).But much scholarly disagreement over the use of the synoptics by John exists, especially over their precise relationship. In any case, John could be written after the synoptics and still be early.

For others, John’s highly developed theology and ecclesiology must date from the end of the 1st century. But other books such as Romans and Hebrews have highly developed theology and are not necessarily late. Mention of the “spiritual” significance of sacraments (ordinances) like baptism is characteristic of John’s point of view (note the literal/figurative interplay throughout). And John does not even mention the “sacrament” of the Lord’s Supper!

John makes no reference at all to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thus it is assumed this must be far enough removed not to seem as important. But of all the NT writings with the exception of Hebrews and Revelation, the Fourth Gospel is the most likely to contain an allusion to the fall of Jerusalem. The focus of the gospel is on the rejection of Messiah by “his own” (1:11). The visitation and rejection must mean divine judgment.

Ultimately, the temple (2:21) is replaced by Christ himself. Yet in chapter two there is no mention of Jerusalem’s fall. Instead, Jesus’ prophesy is seen as a prophecy not of what the Romans would do in destroying Jerusalem, but of the events of AD 33—what the Jews would do to Jesus. With an author as reflective as John, it is very strange that he does not see something of the coming doom in all of this.

A possible indication that Jerusalem was still undestroyed at the time the Fourth Gospel was written is found in 5:2, which speaks of the pool of Bethesda (Bethzatha according to some manuscripts) with its five porticoes as still standing, using a present tense. The present tense is the only one in the immediate context—the writer uses imperfects for the rest of the description. This appears to give it special significance. Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel (4:6, 11:18, 18:1, 19:41) John assimilates such topographical descriptions into the context. The natural inference from this use of the present tense is that John is writing while the building is still standing. H. Hoehner thinks that because of this, the city might actually have been under siege, and Bethany (11:18) and Golgotha (19:1 ff.) had been destroyed, but the pool of Bethesda was still there. D. B. Wallace also argued that the present tense in 5:2 is not to be understood as a historical present, and thus provides a significant clue to the early dating of the Gospel.24 In response to these suggestions, though, it must be noted that (1) while we do have some descriptions in Josephus of the general nature of the destruction in various quarters of the city, we do not know whether a feature like the pool of Bethesda would have survived the destruction or not; and (2) it is possible John, writing after the fall of the city and from a distant location, did not know whether the pool had been destroyed or not, and so naturally wrote as if it were still there, when in fact it may not have been.

Finally, the strong Palestinian influence throughout the gospel also suggests an early date. After John left for Ephesus and lived there for many years, such details would tend to fade and blur in memory.

In conclusion, the Fourth Gospel was probably written shortly before AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem.

3. Literary Point of View

One of the most important developments in the field of literary criticism in the last century or so has been the study of the so-called “literary point of view. For our purposes we can define “point of view” as the position where the author stands in relation to the events he is relating to his readers. It is the “stance” he adopts as he relates his story.

To determine the point of view, one can ask the following questions:

(1) Who is telling the story?

(2) From what physical point of view (or angle of narrative) is he telling the story?

(3) From what mental point of view (or mood [but not grammatical mood, however]) is he telling the story?

The first question (who is telling the story) is really the least important, since except in the case of an anonymous work it is relatively easy to determine who did write the story. The second question (about the physical point of view) is basically limited to 2 choices:

1. The author may adopt a first person point of view. Here the person telling the story is actually an observer of the events he relates. It is like a news reporter on the scene of a story describing what is taking place at the very moment as it happens. [Note: This does not necessarily involve the use of 1st person pronouns, just as a news reporter on the scene describing actions in progress may use second or third person pronouns.]

1 D Advantage: The first person point of view gives a great feeling of immediacy and closeness with the reader.

2 D Disadvantage: It greatly limits the range with which the author can deal with the events—he cannot present himself as knowing another person’s mind or knowing the future, for example.

2. The author may adopt a third person point of view. He tells the story as if he were separated from the events which are being described. He describes events like the narrator of a documentary.

1 D Disadvantage: this loses the feeling of immediacy and closeness with the reader.

2 D Advantages:

1 E A greater range of perspective from which to tell the story is available to the author.

2 E The writer may include later insights which the characters have received through the perspective of time, upon further reflection.

3 E The writer may interrupt the narrative to give his readers additional details and information they could not otherwise have—notes, explanatory glosses, comments, etc.

4 E Allows the readers to survey the lives of characters from a height, participating in the privilege of a novelist.

3. The so-called Omniscient Author convention—with this variation of the third person point of view, the author includes not only information the readers would not have, but information that even a firsthand observer of the events could not know. For instance, the writer may give the thoughts and feelings of more than one person at the same time (assuming these were not verbally expressed).

The third question (mental point of view or “mood”) is just as important as the physical point of view. It must be coherent with the physical point of view. The author’s mental analysis of a situation must agree with the physical point of view he adopts. What is meant is this: an author cannot adopt a 1st person point of view and yet tell the story as an “omniscient author” who knows the outcome. That would create a lack of coherence between the physical and mental points of view and would ring false to the reader or hearer.

In summary, we have seen that we may ask three questions to determine an author’s point of view. They are:

(1) Who is telling the story?

(2) What is his physical point of view? (This may be divided into 1st person or 3rd person, and if 3rd person, may involve the “omniscient author” convention).

(3) What is his mental point of view? (This must be consistent with the physical point of view adopted).

Now we will apply the above analysis to the Gospel of John.

1. Who is telling the story?

We find the answer to this at the end of the gospel itself— 21:24. The disciple whom Jesus loved (cf. 21:20) is the one who has written these things. From our previous discussion of authorship we concluded that this disciple is most likely the Apostle John.

2. What is the authors physical point of view?

This is the basic difference between John and the Synoptics. The synoptics are written from a 1st person point of view (as if the author had personally observed all the events) while John is written from a 3rd person point of view (i.e. removed from the events he describes).

While the author claims to be a participant in the events he very carefully separates himself from the events. However clear it is that he was an eyewitness of the life of our Lord, it is no less clear that he looks back upon it from a distance. While we see the events through his eyes, we are carefully guided to see through those eyes not as they saw the events when they happened but as they now see them. We see more from the position the writer now holds.

We might suspect, even from the opening words of 1:1, the panoramic sweep of John’s view of the life of Christ.

There are numerous passages which could serve as an example of John’s 3rd person perspective. Four will serve as examples:

a. 2:17—ejmnhvsqhsan oiJ maqhtaiV aujtou' o{ti gegrammevnon ejstivn...

b. 2:22—o{te ou hjgevrqh ejk nekrw'n...

c. 12:16—tau'ta oujk e[gnwsan aujtou' oiJ maqhtaiV toV prw'ton...

d. 20:9—oujüdevpw gaVr h[/deisan thVn grafhVn...

In each of these passages it may easily be seen that John has adopted the “post-resurrection” point of view. He looks back on the events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening in their true perspective at the time they occured. It is only possible for us to understand these things when we consider the resurrection and its significance in God’s plan.

But John has also chosen to use the omniscient author convention.

1 C Details he specifically explains to his readers—

1 D The place where John was baptizing (1:28)

2 D Jewish purification customs (2:6)

3 D The state of Jewish-Samaritan relations (4:9)

4 D The existence of “secret believers” among the Jewish leaders (because they wanted to retain their positions) (12:42-43)

5 D Details of Jewish burial customs (19:40)

2 C The disciples’ lack of understanding is repeatedly pointed out:

1 D Jesus’ exchange with Judas in the Upper Room (13:28-29)

2 D Jesus’ teaching concerning the resurrection (20:9)

3 D The disciples did not at first recognize the glorified Jesus (21:4)

3 C Explanation of yet future events:

1 D 11:2—Mary mentioned as “the Mary who anointed the Lord” before this takes place (not until 12:9)

2 D The coming of the Holy Spirit mentioned by Jesus (7:39) before Pentecost

4 C Things a firsthand observer would not know:

1 D Judas was a thief (12:6)

2 D The appropriateness of Caiaphas’ prophesy (11:51-52). He spoke “more truly than he knew”

3. What is the author’s mental point of view?

It is, in general, consistent with the physical point of view he adopts as omniscient author. The mental point of view chosen by the author has allowed him to choose material which the other gospel writers did not use and to present it with the confidence that his readers, also viewing it from the post-resurrection point of view, would understand it in its true light. Those to whom the teaching was originally delivered did not understand it at the time.

For example, concerning the doctrine of the coming of the Holy Spirit: Jesus relates in 7:38 that “out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water”. The following verse gives Johns point of view when he says: “He spoke this concerning the Spirit which those who believed in Him would receive, for the Spirit was not yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

Finally, Jesus breathes on the disciples (20:22) and (in some sense) they receive the Holy Spirit. But believers, looking back with the author, could understand the teaching in 7:38.

Another example would be Nicodemus in chapter 3. He apparently did not get the point of Jesus’ teaching until after the conversation some time later. But let the reader understand!

4. Conclusions

This has been a brief attempt to deal with literary point of view in relation to the gospel of John. We have seen that John consistently has adopted a “post-resurrection” point of view, looking back on the events with the benefit of further insight and seeing their theological implications. As an “omniscient author” he uses his access to information that a participant in the events could not have had at the time the events occurred.

5. An additional note on the frequency of historical presents in the Fourth Gospel:

This technique allows the author to use the 3rd person point of view, with the “omniscient author” convention, and still preserve, at the same time, some of the immediacy and vividness of a first person point of view. Perhaps this is the reason for the large number of historical presents in the Fourth Gospel. Extensive use of the historical present is a characteristic mark of Johannine style.


1 S. S. Smalley, John: Evangelist and Interpreter (London: Paternoster, 1978), 11-12 [emphasis mine].

2 D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 258-63.

3 G. M. Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 37-54; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 68-81.

4 Adv. Haer. 2.22.5, 3.3.4 (ca. AD 185).

5 Historia Ecclesiasticus [The History of the Church] 3.23.3. ff. and 4.14.3-8.

6 HE 5.20.4-8.

7 J. Drummond, An Inquiry into the Character and Authorship of the Fourth Gospel (1903), 348.

8 J. N. Sanders and Pierson Parker, “John and John Mark,” JBL 79 (1960): 97-110.

9 Pierson Parker, “Two Editions of John,” JBL 75 (1956): 303-314.

10 HE 3.39.4.

11 Floyd Filson, “Who Was the BD?” JBL 68 (1949): 83-88.

12 K. A. Eckhardt, Der Tod des Johannes (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1961).

13 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (1881; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).

14 The date is usually given as between AD 100 and 150, so AD 125 is usually accepted as the approximate average date.

15 P. Feine, J. Behm, and W. G. Kümmel, Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1963); (Introduction to the New Testament, trans. A. J. Mattill, Jr. [1965], 246).

16 J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 254.

17 Adv. Haer. 2.22.5; 3.3.4.

18 HE 3.23.3.ff.

19 De vir. ill. 9 (ca. AD 97 using an AD 30 date for the crucifixion, or ca. AD 100 if AD 33 is used).

20 This work is dated ca. AD 400 by Regul, Die antimarcionitischen Evangelienprologe.

21 Cf. Eusebius’ quote from Papias about the “Elder John” mentioned above (HE 3.39.4).

22 Heresies 51.12.

23 Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 261.

24 D. B. Wallace, “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71 (1990):177-205.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines