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Eyewitness Testimony in John's Gospel

The "Eyes" Have It!

Often the Gospel of John has been interpreted as having only spiritual truths that are not anchored in history, in time and place. It is also thought to be a strictly theological document, written by a disciple or a committee of disciples who really did not witness the ministry of Jesus.

This article, Part Twelve, challenges those assumptions.

Since these articles in the series can be read as stand-alones, here are my reminders, for the true beginner to the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. The authors of the Gospels are also called evangelists. Johannine is an adjective of John.

This article may get complicated unless the readers look up some passages. Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.

1. How important is testimony in John?

The Gospel frequently uses words that are usually translated as witness, testimony, to bear witness, or to testify. They come from the Greek words mature?, martureomai, and marturia, which occur forty-seven times in John. This total outnumbers the other three Gospels by a long way. Combined, the Synoptics use those three words plus another one, marturion, twenty times. The one Book of Acts comes in second with those four Greek words plus marturomai, using all of them twenty-nine times.

The reader may detect the word martyr in the Greek words, for sometimes the upsilon or u in Greek is transliterated as y in English. We indeed get our modern word martyr from this Greek word group. It evolved early on into meaning anyone who remains true to his or her testimony about Christ, to the point of death. In the New Testament, however, it means those definitions noted in the previous paragraph.

The number of these words in John does not spell out a specific theology, but the total demonstrates a major theme, more so than in all other individual books of the New Testament.

2. Does John use the inclusio of eyewitness testimony?

Yes. Recall that inclusio is the literary technique of placing corresponding material at the beginning and end of a particular stretch of text (short or long) in order to mark off that section and to say something about the intervening section of text. Inclusio in this general sense is extremely common in ancient literature, and so readers of John, even if they did not know of the specific device of the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, would be very open to spotting inclusios.

The specific inclusio of eyewitness testimony occurs in two ways in the Gospel of John.

The two-stage epilogue (20:30-31 and 21:24-25) is linked to the prologue (1:1-18). In 20:31 the Beloved Disciple writes “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” In 1:7 John the Baptist (though the Gospel never uses his title) “came as a witness concerning that light [life in Christ] to testify so that through him all persons may believe.” Thus, through the Beloved Disciple’s eyewitness account and John’s eyewitness preaching, everyone should come to faith.

As for the second stage of the epilogue, John 21:24 says that the Beloved Disciple testifies (present tense). And in 1:15 John (the Baptist) testifies (present tense). His present tense testimony has been incorporated into the Beloved Disciple’s written testimony, so both live on into the present, until the Parousia or Second Coming.

As for the second way that the inclusio occurs in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist and the Beloved Disciple in these four passages, one pair at the end, the other pair at the beginning, form an inclusio, which has been expanded a little because John the Baptist and the Beloved Disciple are different persons. But they are linked by the purpose of their eyewitness testimony and the present-tense of their eyewitness testimony (Bauckham pp. 366-67).

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the first two disciples of Jesus are initially unnamed, but one is soon revealed as Andrew (1:35-42). At the end of John’s Gospel, two unnamed disciples go night fishing with Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the two sons of Zebedee, whose names John and James are never cited in the Gospel, either (21:1-9). So the unnamed disciple in 1:35-39, according to Bauckham, is revealed as the Beloved Disciple in 21:1-7. He forms an inclusio of eyewitness testimony at the beginning and end of the Gospel (pp. 390-93).

Though Bauckham’s analysis is insightful, he and I differ on one detail: the identity of the anonymous disciple in 1:35-39 and the Beloved Disciple in 21:1-7 and 20-23. For me, the evidence is stronger that the Beloved Disciple is John the Apostle. So the anonymous disciple and the Beloved Disciple are very probably the same; that means the anonymous disciple is John the Apostle. This works with the inclusio and the linguistic evidence that Bauckham brings out. However, Bauckham may be right about a Jerusalem disciple (turned Elder) who was an eyewitness and who wrote the Gospel, as seen in Bauckham's book here.

In any case, Bauckham’s central thesis is to demonstrate that the Gospel of John is based squarely on eyewitness testimony from the very beginning to the end of Jesus’ ministry, past his resurrection. This direct testimony that comes from personal experience has been incorporated into the Gospel.

Bottom line for this Q & A: the important point about the inclusio of eyewitness testimony is that it is embodied in real people of real authority. In John they are the ones who are qualified to testify to their Lord’s life and to pass on his teaching. Eyewitness testimony in the Gospel is not merely an abstraction or only a literary convention to give the Gospel a fake sense of authority (see Q & A Eight).

It just makes sense that an author would frame his text with his main human sources, especially himself, if he directly participated in his story. With this device, the author can then thread the eyewitness testimony of his main human sources throughout his narrative, in whole or in sections. John was following his literary context in his own time.

3. How else is testimony important in John?

John uses God’s heavenly lawsuit motif in Isaiah 40-55. God calls the Servant of the LORD and his own people Israel, as witnesses. In John, this trial takes place against everyone who doubts the deity of his Son, who is vindicated. Jesus plays the witnessing role in place of the Servant of the LORD, and Jesus’ followers take the role of Israel. The decisive verdict against the world is delivered on the cross.

In the first phase of the heavenly trial in John, God calls on seven witnesses, a number that is significant in John (note the seven miraculous signs: 2:1-11, 4:43-54, 5:1-15, 6:1-14, 6:16-21, 9:1-41, 11:1-44). The witnesses appear, in this order: John (1:7, etc.); Jesus himself (3:11, etc.); the Samaritan woman (4:39); God the Father himself (5:32); Jesus’ works or signs (5:36); the Scriptures (5:39); and the crowd who testifies about Jesus’ raising Lazarus (12:17). In the second phase of the heavenly trial in John, after the resurrection and ascension and beyond John’s narrative (story), then the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and the disciples go out to testify about Christ’s nature and works (15:26-27).

To incorporate all of the witnesses, the Beloved Disciple wrote his Gospel. So now Jesus’ testimony about himself, coupled with his Father’s testimony about his Son (8:12-18), and Jesus’ other supporting witnesses can live on in John’s Gospel until Jesus’ Second Coming (21:22-25).

According to Bauckham, this lawsuit motif is not simply a metaphor that has no relation to actual reporting from eyewitnesses. We have already seen that the entire Gospel is framed by the inclusio of human and real-life eyewitnesses, particularly John himself. Also, John’s emphasis on such eyewitnesses looks very similar to Luke’s, which we now discuss in the next Q & A.

4. What are the qualifications of the eyewitnesses?

John 15:26-27 says in the context of the Last Supper just before Jesus was arrested. He is speaking:

26 When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father – that one shall testify about me. 27 You also are to testify because you are with me from the beginning. (my translation)

John uses the phrase “from the beginning” often enough (6:64; 8:44; 1 John 1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:8, 11; see also 2 John 6). The Spirit testifies and so do the Twelve. They also have direct experience with the ministry of Jesus within that timeframe.

The reference to that phrase and to the Spirit is strikingly parallel to Acts 1:21-22 and 2:1-42. In the first chapter, Luke, usually considered the author of Acts, has the same qualification for the eyewitness to replace Judas. The eyewitness must have followed Jesus “from the beginning,” during his “comings and goings,” up to his resurrection and ascension. The phrase is also seen in Luke’s preface to his Gospel (1:3) as a qualification of principal eyewitnesses (Bauckham, pp. 389-90).

Once the replacement for Judas is chosen, then in the second chapter of Acts the Spirit is sent, and Peter immediately testifies to the story of Jesus. “All of us are witnesses,” Peter says toward the end of his speech (v. 32). The gift of the Spirit in Acts 2 parallels the promise of the Spirit in John 15:26-27. Recall also in Acts that the Greek words for testimony, witness, testify, and bear witness occur about twenty-nine times, second only to the Gospel of John.

Clearly, drawing from the same traditions on eyewitness testimony embodied in real people, John and Luke are keen to anchor the story of Jesus in living witnesses who are early, from the beginning, and who have direct experience with the ministry of Jesus. Origins serve as an anchor to truth and reliability.

Further, Matthew and Mark follow the same storyline of the Spirit's empowerment and the disciples' outreach mission of eyewitness testimony to the whole world. The coherence of this storyline increases the historical reliability of the four Gospels because they are staying with the basic outline of Christ's life and ministry (see Part Nine on Matthew and Part Ten on Mark).

5. Is John’s Gospel historical or theological?

Both, but John follows Greco-Roman historiography more closely than do the Synoptists, in two ways.

First, ancient history writing placed emphasis on the historian’s direct experience with the events. This differs from the modernist requirement of distant observation. The importance of direct eyewitness participation is seen in Josephus’ introduction to Against Apion (who was Apion?). Josephus (c. AD 37 to post-100), a Jewish historian, writes:

And for the History of the War, I wrote it as having been an actor myself in many of its transactions, an eyewitness [autopt?s] in the greatest part of the rest, and was not unacquainted with anything whatsoever that was either said or done in it. (Against Apion 1.10; the Greek may be read here; find paragraph 55)

Josephus may exaggerate the duration and depth of his participation, but this passage nonetheless shows the value that ancient historians placed on personal eyewitness participation. Another close parallel is seen in Luke’s preface (1:1-4), which also uses autopt?s, but in the plural (v. 2). However, Luke was not an eyewitness participant, but he was researching those who were. John was a participating witness. In any case, his words in his epilogue (21:24) echo those in Luke and Josephus. But John draws from the martur- word group (see Q & A One), whereas autopt?s is used in Luke and Josephus. However, the meaning of the martur- word group in John is functionally very close to historical eyewitness experience (Bauckham, pp. 384-86).

Second, the Synoptists preserve their sources with little interpretation of the rich traditions from which they drew. Their story of Jesus comes in a whole and integrated plot and speeches, but the authors do not add very much to the tight structure of their sources. As Bauckham notes:

Though the writers of the Synoptic Gospels incorporate and fashion their sources into an integrated whole, a biography (bios) of Jesus, they remain close to the ways in which the eyewitnesses told their stories and transmitted the sayings of Jesus. (p. 410)

On the other side, John keeps to a more detailed chronology. All of the discourses and debates between Jesus, Jewish leaders, and ordinary people and the clearly delineated plot “make possible the much fuller development of the author’s own interpretation of Jesus and his story, just as comparable features of the works of Greco-Roman historians enable the expression of their own understanding of history” . . . (p. 410).

John’s historical authenticity and anchorage in the fuller craft of the ancient historians give the author of the Gospel more leeway in his interpretation, a leeway which the Synoptists do not take as much, comparatively speaking. This challenges the notion in some scholarly quarters that the Gospel of John could not have been written by an eyewitness.

I like how Mark D. Roberts assesses all four Gospels: they embody “Truthful History Motivated by Theology” (Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007, p. 121).

6. Does the Gospel show that the Beloved Disciple is an eyewitness participant?

Josephus says that he was a direct participant in the events about which he writes. Likewise, the Beloved Disciple says he was an eyewitness participant in the ministry of Christ. Does the Gospel of John offer any evidence of his direct experience in a special way? The Gospel does so by four means.

First, the Beloved Disciple has a special relationship with Jesus, as seen in the description “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He and Andrew were recruited first (John 1:35-40) (see Q & A Two, the second point). It is true that the Beloved Disciple disappears from the narrative until the Last Supper (13:23-26). But in that scene his special intimacy is again stressed. This unique role of intimacy – or direct eyewitness testimony of a special kind – will last into the future after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, through the Beloved Disciple’s Gospel (21:20-25).

Second, the Beloved Disciple is present at key points in the narrative. As just noted, he is recruited from the beginning. And according to John 15:27, which uses the key phrase “from the beginning,” this chronology endows him with a special status, along with Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael (1:37-51). The Beloved Disciple is present during the Last Supper and observed a key event – Judas being exposed as a betrayer and his setting out on his mission of betrayal. The Beloved Disciple sees the blood and water flow from the side of Jesus on the cross (19:31-37). The Beloved Disciple observes that no bone was broken, which makes Jesus the true Passover Lamb, as announced by John the Baptist when he testified that Jesus was the Lamb of God (John 1:29). The Beloved Disciple saw the empty tomb and believes (20:3-10). And he figures prominently as a leader in the Christian community, when he was brought into the dialogue between Jesus and Peter (21:15-23). As noted in the first point in this section, the Beloved Disciple’s presence stretches from the beginning to the end of the Gospel, and in between he is specially positioned. And that is the function of the inclusio of eyewitness testimony.

Third, along with the previous point, whenever the Beloved Disciple appears in the narrative, seemingly unmotivated details are mentioned. In 1:39 the hour of the day is stated: about the tenth hour. In 13:26, the Beloved Disciple, next to Jesus, observes Jesus dip a piece of bread and give it to Judas. In 19:33-35, the Beloved Disciple observes that Jesus’ legs were not broken and that the spear’s thrust produced blood and water. In 20:6-7, Peter and the Beloved Disciple see how the linen wrappings used to enshroud Jesus were laid. And in 21:11, the exact number of the huge catch of fish is provided. However, we should not over-interpret such details, as if they are not the stock-and-trade of any storyteller.

The point is rather that the Gospel portrays the Beloved Disciple as one qualified to give eyewitness reports of the occasions on which he was present. Although there is observational detail in other passages of the Gospel, what is notable is how consistently the appearances of the Beloved Disciple are accompanied by such detail. (Bauckham p. 398)

Fourth, the Beloved Disciple is a perceptive witness. His breakthrough to understanding the key events that lead to the death of Christ, such as Jesus’ betrayer, is spelled out at the empty tomb (20:8-9). Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to it. Peter goes inside first. But it is the Beloved Disciple, also going inside, “who saw and believed” (v. 8).

The Beloved Disciple and Peter are paired together. Their interaction within the Gospel points to the future. Peter’s qualities make him the leader in the whole church, whereas the Beloved Disciple, through his lasting written Gospel, claims the “role of witness to the truth of Jesus for the whole church” (Bauckham p. 400).

7. What’s the bottom line for the historical reliability of John’s Gospel?

The author of John was a direct eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. His eyewitness testimony is everywhere presented and affirmed throughout his Gospel.

  • The eyewitness (martur-) word group outnumbers its uses in the synoptic Gospels by a long way. Only Acts takes a distant second, and is key in understanding word group’s uses in John.
  • The inclusio of eyewitness testimony supports the Beloved Disciple’s eyewitness participatory testimony.
  • Eyewitness testimony from the beginning parallels Luke-Acts; duration of time for participatory eyewitnesses was important in the early church.
  • John parallels Josephus on eyewitness testimony.
  • The Beloved Disciple is present in key scenes, where unmotivated details also appear, so we see things from his point of view.
  • A reliable and honest author in the Greek and Roman world drew from reliable sources. John did this, too.
  • The Gospel is not based on faint memories of anonymous collection of disciples who never witnessed Jesus’ ministry.

8. But isn’t John’s Gospel historical fiction, a kind of fake history?

Circular reasoning: all eyewitness elements in John’s Gospel are mere attempts at appearing like eyewitness testimony. Why? Because John’s Gospel really isn’t derived from eyewitnesses. Though this circularity is presented simply, it reflects the bigger issue of skepticism. So the circle keeps going round and round.

However, this article (so I hope) gets us out of the circle. Also, Paul N. Anderson has done the yeoman’s work in providing more evidence of eyewitness testimony, which, in my view, breaks the circle (pp. 589-99). He hesitates to ascribe the fourth Gospel to John the Apostle, but Anderson helpfully points out that in Acts 4:20 the words often found in Johannine writings are used. John the Apostle says in Acts: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20; cf. John 3:32). This is a hint of independent corroboration inside the New Testament (other than Johannine literature) that the Apostle John may have written the Gospel.

Then Anderson lists the large number of verses in John’s Gospel that use the five senses, particularly seeing and hearing: Words for seeing (ninety-eight times); hearing (thirty times); smell (twice); taste (once) (p. 599). He says that these words in his list of references are not used in a metaphorical or symbolic sense, but are empirical.

Anderson draws the obvious conclusion:

The literary fact that John possesses more appeals to empirically derived information than any other Gospels – canonical [Biblical] or otherwise – seems to support . . . [the claim] that the Gospel embodies “the Evangelist’s reflections on the ministry of Jesus and its implications for later generations. (pp. 599-600)

Thus, the weight of the empirical evidence should eventually make the circular reasoning crack under the pressure. The Gospel’s author’s hands-on experience, so to speak (cf. 1 John 1:1), is not merely a literary device or an abstraction. His Gospel embodies real and truthful testimony of real persons, in addition to himself.

9. What does this mean for the Gnostic texts?

Eyewitness testimony in John affirms the commonsense and obvious truth that the closer a story or account gets to the original sources (in this case to Jesus himself), then the more reliable and accurate the account or story becomes – true to things as they really happened. Origins and close proximity anchor belief and knowledge and truth, in Gospel studies.

This commonsense and obvious truth about origins and proximity contradicts the claims made by some heavy promoters of the Gnostic texts. These scholars say that the texts (should) share an equal or near-equal footing with the four canonical (Biblical) Gospels. However, the Gnostic texts appear much later (second century and beyond) than the four Gospels (a generation or two after Jesus’ ministry). And the Gnostic texts do not have eyewitness testimony to ground them in history. Therefore, the Gnostic texts are filled with flights of fancy and errors, compared to the teachings in the four Biblical Gospels. Indeed, the Gnostic authors seem to delight in avoiding historical concerns and in going their own way with their outlandish (literally out-land-ish) mysticism and fictions about Jesus and the original disciples.

Proximity to the source also contradicts the notion in postmodernism that origins have little or nothing to do with reliability and accuracy and ultimately the truth (see Postmodern Truth Soup).

10. What does all of this mean to the date and authorship of the Gospel of John?

These questions are important in their own right. Evidence for traditional authorship (John the Apostle) is strong. As to the date, I see no problem with placing it in the 90’s, which most scholars assume, also.

However, we have seen in the article on Archaeology and John’s Gospel (see link, below), the three articles on Matthew, Mark, and Luke and in this article that authorship by an apostle and questions of dates take second place, in my opinion. In the Gospel of John itself, we have convincing evidence of eyewitness testimony as its source. We have historical facts as its anchor, though, of course, John teaches a lot of spiritual truths. All of this coheres together to secure the historical reliability of John’s Gospel. The Gnostic and other “gospels” cannot come close to these historical facts and real eyewitness testimony.

11. What does all this mean to the Church of all denominations?

I hope individual church goers will not be pressured into accepting skeptical starting points and conclusions in their reading of the Gospel of John, as if it is a kind of fake history or as if it is strictly a spiritual writing that is not anchored in time and place and does not draw from eyewitness testimony.

I have read a blogger or two who say that connecting the Gospels with historical facts or archaeology, as if to prove the Gospels, is “tripe.” In reply, however, in this series I'm not "proving" the Gospels, whatever that means. But they are historically dependable writings. Example: crucifixion in the Roman world is an historical fact. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, by the typical Roman method of execution. The four Biblical Gospels affirm that historical fact.

Therefore, I for one do not want to interpret the Biblical Gospels only and merely as disembodied spiritual truths. That’s needlessly and heedlessly short-sighted and restricted. Both the historical and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin, at least for the four Biblical Gospels (but apparently not for the Gnostic "gospels"). Both readings can be done successfully and simultaneously in Gospel studies.

The Church everywhere can enjoy confidence in the four Gospels.

This article has three companion pieces in the series:

Authoritative Testimony in Matthew's Gospel: Mission, Possible!

Eyewitness Testimony in Mark's Gospel: Was Peter a Portrait Painter?

Eyewitness Testimony in Luke's Gospel: Ready? From the Beginning Now!

References and Further Reading

See Part Three in the series: “Archaeology and the Gospel of John: Is skepticism chic passé?

See also Part Two: "Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels: Which way do the rocks roll?"

Paul N. Anderson. “Aspects of Historicity in the Gospel of John.” In James H. Charlesworth. Jesus and Archaeology. Eerdman’s, 2006. Pp. 587-618.

Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006.

---. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Baker Academic, 2007.

Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial: the Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel. Hendrickson, 2000.

Mark D. Roberts. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally? Section A.

---. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section B.

---. “Did the Gospel Writers Know Jesus Personally?” Section C.


Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Gospels