Jesus nicknamed John the Apostle and his brother James, “Boarnerges, that is, Sons of Thunder.” This fascinating insight into the character of John is important. It suggests bravery and hot-headedness combined; it doesn’t exactly portray a wilting violet of a man.
In considering the Problem of John we decided to build a profile of each of the potential authors of the Gospel of John to see which is the best fit, and therefore most likely source of the account. There are a number of references within the Four Gospels to a man named John, one of the Twelve Disciples, who has come to be known traditionally as John the Apostle.
As well as noting his nickname, in Peter’s memoirs as documented by Mark (that is, Stumpfinger), John the Apostle is described as:
- a Galilean fisherman, brother of James, son of Zebedee; Mark 1:16-19
- appointed as one of the Twelve Disciples; Mark 3:14-19
- a witness to the Transfiguration of Jesus; Mark 9:2-8
- bold — asking if he can sit next to Jesus in his kingdom; Mark 10:35-45
- with Jesus, falling asleep whilst praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark 14:32-42
Luke repeats most of the above details and also tells us that John:
- challenges a man who is casting out demons; Luke 9:49-50
- suggests calling “fire to come down fire from heaven”; Luke 9:51-56
- went with Peter to prepare the Passover; Luke 22:7-13
- heals a lame man with Peter outside of the Temple; Acts 3:1-10
- is called, together with Peter “common, uneducated men” by the Jewish Council. Acts 4:13-22
Of the above 10 details about John the Apostle in the Synoptic Gospels, how many are also noted or alluded to in the Gospel of John?
In fact, in the entire account of John we only have one indirect reference to John the Apostle. We are told “the sons of Zebedee” are with Peter, Thomas, Nathanael and “two others of his disciples” when Jesus appears after his death.
On the face of it, the evidence for John the Apostle having authored John’s Gospel is not very compelling. If he did, he appears to have missed out a number of key details about his own life with Jesus. Some would argue that his humility in hiding behind the pseudonym “the disciple that Jesus loved” explains why he makes no mention of himself.
But this does not stack up. If John the Apostle is the author, why does he generally refer to himself as “the disciple that Jesus loved,” but on one occasion refer to himself in the third person as one of “the sons of Zebedee”?
More importantly, given the way the author of John is famed for developing the idea that Jesus was the eternal Son of God, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” why did he not make any mention of the Transfiguration of which only Peter, James and John (the Apostle) were witnesses? Surely this event was a conclusive demonstration of the divinity of Christ — why was it left out?
Whilst we should be wary of making an argument from silence as some do — that is to say, simply because information was not included it can not have been this person or that person — the position here is a little more nuanced.
The author John is making a positive case in the opening remarks of his Gospel asserting an eternal relationship between Jesus and the Yahweh of the Jewish people. Yet the decisive demonstration of this, as recalled by Peter in Mark 9:7 which we have already considered, is the moment of radiant glory on the mountain when a voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
The failure to include this astounding moment, which must have deeply impressed itself on all of those who witnessed it, suggests at the very least that John the author had not seen this, and arguably that he was not even aware of it, as it would have supported his central contention as to the deity of the Messiah.
Likewise compare the account in Mark 14 when the disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane and are asked to wait whilst Jesus takes with him further only Peter, James and John the (Apostle), to the point where he becomes greatly distressed and troubled, praying “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
The comparable account in John 18 includes the disciples entering the garden, but then cuts to the moment when Judas the betrayer arrives. It is as if the author, having remembered in so much detail the Last Supper narrative, was himself among the disciples who were asked to wait in the garden across the Kidron valley, rather than witnessing his final moments of prayerful agony — as seen only by the inner circle of three; Peter, James and John.
Had the author been present to witness Jesus’ prayer in the garden it would then have made sense of the response Jesus makes a little while later when, Peter having cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant Malchus in his defence, he says, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me.”
So whilst history might point us in a clear direction of John the Apostle being one of the Twelve Disciples and subsequently one of the pillars of the early Church in Jerusalem, little else can be said for sure about this man.
However, that this hot-headed, uneducated fisherman from the Galilee region of northern Israel is unlikely to have been “known to the high priest” is a reasonable supposition.
That he who sought a place next to Jesus in his kingdom and asked for fire to be called down from heaven should run ahead of Peter to Jesus’ tomb, yet hesitate and hang back from entering first, is equally as inconceivable.
In our search to determine who exactly detailed the exchange between Pilate and Jesus in John’s Gospel, we have potentially ruled out the one person traditionally held up as the most likely author. So where do we go from here?