The Problem of John

We started out from the foothills of the Himalayas looking to see whether the exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was a real historical event. We have considered some of the evidence for Pontius Pilate including, according to the Roman scholar Tacitus, the fact that a man named Christus “suffered the extreme penalty… at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus”.

We have also examined the written witness testimony of the Gospel of Mark, and noted that, according to the early church father Papias, Mark was a shadow writer for one of Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter.

At the end of the last chapter we concluded that, in all honesty, the Gospel of Matthew and Luke would not take us much further, because they faithfully repeat only what has already been written in Mark.

The likelihood is that when writing their accounts, Matthew and Luke used Mark as an authorative template, adding details and amending the chronologyonly where they knew more. This is despite Matthew also likely being a disciple of Jesus — often identified as the tax collector in Chapter 9 of his own Gospel — because he recognised the supremacy of Peter’s account in Mark.

That leaves us with the problem of John. The account of the Gospel of John is so radically different from that of Mark, Matthew and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) that it is often referred to as the least historical of accounts. To make matters worse, the question of authorship is far from decided. This contravenes one of the first rules of witness evidence – who exactly is giving testimony?

Before considering what is being said, we need to establish who is saying it. And upon that vexed question rests many decades of scholarly debate, in all likelihood, I will suggest, because of a mix up in common names of the day. There are, broadly speaking, three schools of thought as to who wrote John’s Gospel:

  1. John the Apostle, brother of James and one of the Twelve
  2. John the Elder, an unknown early church leader
  3. A Johannine community based in Ephesus

For reasons we will come to, a fourth will be offered to that list. To begin with, however, we need to build a profile of the author from the information within John’s Gospel. We can then compare this with the profiles of each of the three suggested authors to see which is the best fit, if any.

There are a number of references within the Gospel of John where the author appears to describe himself in the third person, detailing events in Jesus’ life:

  • He is at the meal with Jesus before Passover, leaning back on him;
  • After Jesus’ arrest, he follows with Peter and enters the court of the high priest because he was “known to the high priest”;
  • He witnesses Jesus being pierced, describing blood and water flowing;
  • He is aware that Nicodemus, of the Jewish Council, had visited Jesus in secret and helped to bury him together with Joseph of Arimathea;
  • He outruns Peter to Jesus’ tomb, but then waits for him to go in first;
  • Witnessing in the empty tomb the linen sheets and face cloth that had been on Jesus, “he saw and believed”;
  • He is present with the disciples in a locked room when Jesus appears and shows them his hands and his side.
  • The author often refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”;

The author of John’s Gospel leads us to the irresistible conclusion that, at the very least, during much of the last eight chapters of the account, he was personally present and a first hand eye-witness to the circumstances of Jesus’ life as they unfolded in Jerusalem at the time of his death.

Even the closing words of the Gospel, like the dustcover on the back of any good book, commend not only the contents of the journal to the reader, but also the authenticity of the author in this way,

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written about these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there were also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

John 21:24-25

Many have argued over the years that this appending comment at the close of the narrative is evidence that the Gospel was written by committee. We make the mistake of seeing the uniform text printed in a modern Bible without a distinction drawn between the original account, and the closing commendation, and erroneously conclude that the entire work was authored in this way.

Such a conclusion is problematic; first, because it is the antithesis of what is actually being said. The final comments go out of their way to assert that the disciple himself had written these things, rather than anyone else, and that his testimony was known to be true — which is corroborative affirmation by others that the disciple had actually known and witnessed Jesus.

It is a bold, indeed somewhat arrogant, claim to argue centuries later that the inverse is true — namely that the entire account was authored by others, contrary to what the text itself states, as if scholars now know better than those who first put pen to paper.

Second, because if the claim to being an apparent first hand eyewitness is unfounded, our journey to base camp will be in peril. We cannot guarantee the veracity of any of the words put in the mouth of either Pilate or Jesus if the account in the Gospel of John is at best a reconstruction from the faded collective memories of others, or worse, a well-intentioned fabrication of these events.

Conversely, if shown on balance to be true — that is, if we can identify John the author and place him on scene as a plausible direct eye-witness to the dialogue between the Roman Procurator and the so-called Christ — we will have in John’s Gospel the strongest mandate for accepting the historicity of the very public enquiry of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. So we will venture herein to solve the Problem of John.