Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Early tradition says that the author lived on for some time after the composition, while many post-eighteenth century critical scholars seem to take for granted that the author (if it even is the disciple whom Jesus loved) had died before the completion of its final form - largely, it seems, based on the text of John 21:20-24, which reads:

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

I realize a host of other considerations must go into any determination of authorship, but my present concern is whether it should be inferred from this text that the original author had since died?

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

I think it's a very strong possibility but it's not the only explanation.

John 21 does appear to be a post script to John's gospel. John 20:30-31 is certainly a fitting conclusion to the gospel proper.

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Other issues also point to John 21 being a later addition to the fourth gospel. For instance Jesus' three questions to Peter, "do love me," appear to point to an original knowledge of the Gospel apart from John 21. In John 21, Jesus' uses the word ἀγαπάω (agape) for love twice followed by φιλέω (phileō) in his questions to Peter. These questions are followed by a discussion between Jesus and Peter about the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20-22). And interestingly enough this is the same pattern we find used in the beloved disciple three appearances before John 20:30-31.

13:23 One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved (ἀγαπάω agapaō), was reclining next to him.

19:26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved (ἀγαπάω agapaō) standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[b] here is your son,”

20:2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved (φιλέω phileō), and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

In fact much of John 21 focus' on Peter and his relationship to the disciple whom Jesus loved. It has less to do with Jesus. This is certainly evident in in the three and possibly four appearances of the disciple before John 20:30-31 but its certainly more pronounced in this last chapter.

With the addition of John 21 this apparently implicit connection is not as clear. This disciple is mentioned twice in this later chapter (21:7, 21:20) which dilutes the three appearances in the Gospel's main body. But if John's gospel had been known first without chapter 21 then Jesus' three questions to Peter when the chapter was later added would most certainly have been associated with the first three appearances of the Beloved disciple.

The author of John 21 also wants to correct a faulty belief about the lifespan of the "disciple whom Jesus loved, who we are told subsequently is the author of the fourth gospel.

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

It's certainly possible that John 21 is added as post script to champion the testimony of the beloved disciple in relation to the more well known Peter in either the wake or the proceeding moments before the beloved disciples death.

But with that said. There is an allusion to the ending of Ecclesiastes here. John may simply be making an intentional allusion. Robert Kashow has recently laid these comparisons out in his article Traces of Ecclesiastes in the Gospel of John: An Overlooked Background and A Theological Dialectic. Note the similarities in the way the two books end.

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
Thanks Matthew. The parallels with Ecclesiastes are interesting. Could you clarify why the pattern of the three "love" questions is more fitting of a later addition? –  Soldarnal Jun 12 '13 at 17:03
@Soldarnal let me know if that's a little more clear. –  Matthew Miller Jun 13 '13 at 1:19
I think I'm understanding now, but it feels like a thin reed, so maybe I don't have it right still. Basically you think there's a literary correspondence that exists only if 1-20 and 21 are viewed separately and the best opportunity for that is a two stage composition/"publication"? –  Soldarnal Jun 13 '13 at 17:15
I ended up creating a question for the bigger question, in case you want to move some of your content here over there. –  Soldarnal Jun 13 '13 at 17:29
Hi Matthew, I guess you are busy at the moment, but I don't want you to come back and find the site philosophy has changed completely without you having a chance to have your say. If you have a moment please take a look at this meta post and consider voting :) –  Jack Douglas Oct 5 '13 at 9:02
add comment

Short Answer: It really depends on what presuppositions you embrace. But it is certainly not clear that the passage requires John to already be dead.

Presuppositions play a huge role in such debates. There are two main groups in this debate, and the division between the two is based largely on their presuppositions. (See here for an excellent treatment of these issues.)

Group A prioritizes the inspired text and church tradition over historical criticism. This group attributes the Gospel of John to John for a variety of reasons, including literary presentation of the implied author, and church tradition. This group might use the passage in question as evidence that John did write the passage, and perhaps even that the Spirit was involved in its production.

Group B follows the tradition of the Enlightenment, presupposes naturalism (in general), and tends to reject the idea of supernatural intervention, legitimate predictive prophecy, and the credibility of church tradition. This group is skeptical of the reliability of John's historical claims, the idea that John wrote the Gospel at all, and the possibility of miracles, to name a few things. This group would tend to use the passage in question as proof that John could not have written it.

The question is really: which group are you trying to be a part of? Personally I can identify more with the approach of Group A. I would point out that John is merely clarifying the misunderstanding of the disciples -- he is not even making a claim one way or the other. John showcases Jesus as a misunderstood man all throughout his Gospel, so this is par for the course. So, in summary, I don't see any reason to think that this is proof that John didn't write it.

share|improve this answer
Think "sitz em laban" :) What in the life setting of the author and has audience would contibute to mentioning this misunderstanding and then correcting it. –  Matthew Miller Jun 11 '13 at 22:55
@MatthewMiller That is a fair point, but what I was attempting to shine some light on is the origin of such arguments (historically). They have their roots in "Group B" thinking, not in "Group A" thinking. This is a point I would encourage everyone to consider very carefully. Personally, I always try to fall on the side of trusting the word and the church, rather than on the side of skepticism. The book I referenced in my answer has a really superb treatment of this issue that I would highly recommend to anyone reading this. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 12 '13 at 0:23
I would agree. But Church and tradition have said little about whether or not John 21 is a later appendage to the forth gospel by the hand of this disciple or one of his close followers after his death. While we should give deference to Group A, I don't think we should disparage Group B. I think they have given us good tools upon which most of us can agree. –  Matthew Miller Jun 13 '13 at 1:38
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.