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I’ve heard that it has been referred to as John as the man who wrote it. But which John?

Polycrates of Ephesus claims that the Beloved Disciple was someone named John who was a Temple priest and died in Ephesus. Clarly, this is neither John son of Zebedee nor Cerinthus.

The Anti-Marcionite Prologues to the Gospels (could be as early as 2nd century) claim that the Gospel was dictated to Papias of Hierapolis by someone named John and that person was alive in 140s

So how does one make sense of all of this? Is this the John who was an eyewitness of Jesus? Or was this simply a later Christian who complied the gospel from other sources?

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    I'm confused as to why this question was migrated here, on the same day that another question was ruled out of bounds because "Questions about biblical topics but without a specific Bible passage are off-topic as hermeneutical methods cannot be applied when no text is referenced." I am OK with the question here, but I think guideline is imperfect and needs to be revised. Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 16:04
  • @DanFefferman The specific passage in this question is the whole book. That would be too big a passage for most other questions, but authorship questions about entire books of the Bible are fine. Alternatively, authorship questions could be considered a minor sub-category of questions for which the standard rules don't apply, just like contradiction questions. Authorship questions have never been a problematic type of question, so the rules on scoping aren't primarily intended for them. :) (We have our rules primarily to avoid theological fights, not to be strict for the sake of strictness.)
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 12:45

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There are numerous extra-biblical claims about the authorship of the Gospel of John. The traditional view (to be debated shortly) is ably stated by this statement from Wikipedia:

John 21:22 references a disciple whom Jesus loved and John 21:24–25 says: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true..." Early Christian tradition, first found in Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD), identified this disciple with John the Apostle

See also John 13:23, 20:2 for other places where John calls Himself, The disciple whom Jesus loved. That is, John the "beloved" was the son of Zebedee.

Many "higher criticism" scholars question this authorship for questionable reasons such as:

  • the gospel is too theologically deep for a simple fisherman. However, this ignores the advantage of divine inspiration.
  • the gospel Greek style is too perfect. But actually, the Gospel of John is written in the simplest Greek in the NT - all NT students of Greek start with this gospel because its Greek is simple. [Contrast the much more complex Greek of Paul and Luke.]

In any case, the long-running debate is unlikely to be resolved here with a single question.

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  • I can attest that for the learner, the Greek in John's gospel is the most accessible.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 20:20
  • Short but good enough, + 1. Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 5:06
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The statement by our earliest, most well-placed historian on the matter is quite unambiguous:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1)

There's really no getting around the fact that Irenaeus is referring to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. So is Irenaeus a reliable source?

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Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus is arguably our most important external witness to Johannine authorship. He was from the part of the world where John lived in his later years (Irenaeus only moved to Gaul later in life), and was a pupil of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of John. Irenaeus is just one link removed from apostolic testimony and, crucially, only one link removed from the author he claims wrote the Gospel of John.

Irenaeus grew up in a world saturated with John’s influence. He studied the works of Papias (another disciple of John). If Irenaeus believed John wrote John, that is enormously important historical evidence.

So did Irenaeus believe John wrote John or was he just saying that to further an agenda? In a trivial sense, anything written past or present could be a lie. The words you’re reading right now could be outright lies. I’m making arguments and citing sources in the hopes that you’ll believe my comments are both reasonable and honest.

Irenaeus has often been misrepresented by those who do not appreciate his method of argumentation. Irenaeus argues from premises to conclusions. The premises are things that are generally known, the conclusions are the things he wants to prove. His conclusions could be garbage (I think some of his conclusions are clearly not garbage, but certainly some of his conclusions do appear to be false), but that doesn’t matter for our analysis here. We really don’t care about the process of reasoning Irenaeus used to get from his premises to his conclusions—because his attestation of Johannine authorship is used as a premise!

It may take a minute for the impact of that last statement to sink in. Irenaeus uses John’s authorship of the 4th Gospel as a premise (see Against Heresies Book 3 chapter 1). This means in his day and age (circa 180), John’s authorship of the 4th Gospel was generally known. Irenaeus is tearing apart (no joke, read Against Heresies) his opponents’ beliefs; if he cites an obviously false premise, he leaves himself open to a devastating counter-argument.

That Irenaeus can get away with baldly stating that John wrote John, without having to argue for it, in a world just 1 generation removed from John, indicates that this was a statement that was nearly incontrovertible at that time.

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A trove of links for further study

For arguments that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness (regardless of whether or not his name was John), see books here and chapter 9 here. For a discussion of the historical validity of the Gospels in general see this book by Wallace, this video by Williams, and if you really want an extensive discussion of the relationships among the Gospels, see my video series in development here.

For a quick but scholarly review of the evidence of Johannine authorship, Erik Manning covers both the internal and external evidence.

For related, relevant posts on this site regarding Johannine authorship see:

  • John’s use of a scribe discussed here

  • Who are the “we” in John 21:24, including a discussion of the very early attestation of authorship in the Muratorian Canon here

  • External evidence of Johannine authorship here

  • Conclusions that can be drawn from early manuscripts here

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Papias and scribes

The OP mentions Papias -- for further reading on whether Papias was a scribe to John, see discussion in my post here. However, regardless of Papias' involvement, a date in the 140s is unnecessary. Papias wrote during the first part of Trajan's reign (Emperor from AD 98-117); the only historical source putting Papias' work much later is Philip of Side, a highly unreliable author who confused Papias with Quadratus.

Papias was living for the last several decades of John's life and knew John personally (see Irenaues Against Heresies 5.33). Papias certainly could have been a scribe for John during the late first century.

Additionally, as soon as we acknowledge that John, like virtually all other first-century writers, would have employed a scribe (Papias or otherwise), the objection that John could not have written the 4th Gospel because he wouldn't have been able to write well in Greek is found to be baseless. John merely needed a scribe who could write well in Greek.

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Conclusion

The evidence is early & strong that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Some worldviews (e.g. naturalism) demand belief that the Gospel of John is fantasy written generations after the eyewitnesses were gone, but such worldviews presuppose their own conclusion in rejecting John's historicity. If we do not presuppose naturalism (or rely on the foundation of someone else who did), the historical evidence comes down in favor of the consistent historical record: John really did write John.

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  • Just saw this and it's an upvote from me at least. I guess that all the link references put members off. As for myself, I didn't even feel the need to check out the "links", as Irenaeus did it for me. Commented Dec 16, 2023 at 5:00
  • @OldeEnglish thanks! As you've said before, when one puts in the work to write a thoughtful answer, it's nice when somebody can appreciate it. =) Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 4:13

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