The modern argument goes like this: John the Apostle did not write the Fourth Gospel, but someone else did on his behalf. Someone who knew him well. History is littered with references to a John in Ephesus writing a Gospel.
Ignatius of Antioch (circa 100AD) writing to the Ephesians:
“May I attain to this, so that I may be found in the lot of the Christians of Ephesus, who have always had intercourse with the apostles by the power of Jesus Christ, with Paul, and John, and Timothy the most faithful.”
Papias of Heirapolis (circa 130AD) describes how he gathered his information:
“If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders,—what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John say.”
Irenaeus writing from Lyons, France (circa 180AD):
Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus.
“Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.”
Polycrates of Ephesus (circa 180AD) is quoted to have written about:
“John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus.”
And so on. Papias says he is informed by both “John” and “the presbyter John” (or the elder John). Elsewhere reference is made to two graves in Ephesus being attributed to John; apparently proving that both John the Apostle and John the Elder died there.
Proposing that either John the Elder, as an otherwise unknown person who came alongside John the Apostle and wrote on his behalf, or that a Johannine Community at Ephesus established around the Apostle and wrote the Fourth Gospel based on his memoirs could explain the sophisticated theology of John’s Gospel.
Put simply, the Gospel of John is arguably too smart for a Galilean fisherman; it reads like it has been composed by someone trained as a Jewish Scholar.
But the John the Elder / Johannine Community ‘solution’ creates more problems than it solves:
- Why does Irenaeus say it was “John, the disciple” who wrote the Gospel?
- Why does Polycrates assert that the same John who reclined on Jesus was both a witness and a priest?
- Why does the author of John’s Gospel write as if he were a first hand eye-witness if this were not the case? 1
- If John the Apostle, a fisherman from Galilee was the source of the account, how was it that he was “known to the high priest”?
- Why does the author not include the account of the Transfiguration to support his theology that Jesus was one with God from the beginning?
The internal evidence indicates than John the Apostle was not the author. The external evidence suggests that John the Disciple was the author. Either this is a complete contradiction, or John the Apostle and John the Disciple are two different people.
It is worth pausing to remark that Jesus had many disciples and that the use of the title Apostle did not just apply to the Twelve. For example, in Acts 14:14 Barnabus and Paul are described as apostles. Neither of these men were named within the Twelve. Generally speaking, the term Apostle was used of men who had seen Jesus and considered themselves sent by him.
Likewise the term Disciple, or one who is a follower of Jesus, is used at times interchangeably with the term Apostle in Scripture to describe the same person, and can also be used to describe someone who hadn’t seen Jesus in the flesh. But the problem here is more fundamental than a simple mix up of titles — at it’s root, on the evidence available, two different people, both called John and both apparently present at the Last Supper, appear to be referenced in church history and in Scripture.
The conclusion already reached is that John the Apostle, Son of Zebedee, Galilean fisherman, and one of the Twelve disciples, is unlikely to have written the Fourth Gospel. However, the suggestion that it was written by someone who was not a direct follower of Jesus, but was also called John, conflicts with both the internal evidence within the Gospel text, and the external historical assertions about the author.
So is there another John, disciple of the Lord, known to the high priest, present at the Last Supper, observer of the Crucifixion, and eye-witness of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate?
Surely, if such a person existed, it may help us to solve the Problem of John.
What if historical references to John the Elder, presbyter John, and John the Disciple who wrote a Gospel in Ephesus are in fact all pointing to a person clearly identified in the New Testament — another John?
And what if church tradition in the mists of time past wrongly attributed the authorship of a Gospel by this John to the wrong account, because he went by two names, both of which were prevalent in the day?
1 The author of the Fourth Gospel uses the verb ἐθεασάμεθα (etheasametha) in John 1:14 meaning to see or gaze upon intently; suggesting first hand physical observation or close inspection, as opposed to mere perception or vague awareness.
See also John 19:35, “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true” along with John 21:24, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”