One of the commentors on my blog introduced me to this topic. Thanks Chuck. I love a good mystery!
In case you are like me, blissfully ignorant of the assumptions made on our behalf when printers place the title of John on the fourth gospel, let me the one to break it to you. We aren’t sure John wrote “John.” Don’t let that shake your faith in the inspired Bible. The author was inspired, the titles (and chapters and verses) are not.
There is a lot of information on this topic, so I’d like to do one of my sum-ups to whet your appetite. The following information is from The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, a free e-book by J Phillips.
What does the writer of the fourth gospel say about himself?
- He keeps his identity a mystery. No where does he claim his name.
- He uses the phrases “the beloved disciple” (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”), “another disciple,” or the “other disciple” to designate his part in the story.
- He claims authorship of the book in 21:24.
- He is present at the Last Supper reclining beside Jesus. Jesus tells him the identity of the traitor. (13:23-25)
- He is known by the High Priest and is allowed into Jesus’ trial. (18:15)
- He is present at the crucifixion. Jesus gives him the responsibility for caring for Mary. (19:26-27)
- He is present at the empty tomb and is the first to believe in the RISEN Lord. (20:1-10)
- He is the first to recognize Jesus on the shore of Galilee after the resurrection. (21:7)
- His method of death is questioned by Peter on the shore of Galilee after the resurrection. It was rumored he wouldn’t die.(21:20-23)
Why does John get the credit for writing the fourth gospel?
Tradition, or word of mouth, considers John to be the beloved disciple before the book was attributed to him in the 2nd century. From Wikipedia:
As for early Church opinions on the disciple’s identification, a 2nd century quote of Polycrates of Ephesus (c. 130s – 196), recorded by Eusebius in his Church History, supports the classical identification of the Beloved Disciple, who reclined beside Jesus at the Last Supper, with John.
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.~ Eusebius
Because of this tradition, the reasoning for John starts cycling on itself…
- John is the beloved disciple.
- The beloved disciple wrote the fourth gospel.
- John wrote the fourth gospel.
- The beloved disciple is assumed to be John.
That reads a little wonky, but that is how the thinking occurs. Boiled down, it is believed John wrote the fourth gospel because within the earliest phase of Christianity his name was associated with this gospel.
Why does it matter?
John is printed as the title of the fourth gospel in every Bible I’ve read. When it isn’t certain that John is the author, why? And does it do any damage to have the wrong name associated with the authorship? I believe the two most important reasons it matters are:
- The author wanted to remain anonymous. (“John” 21:24)
- Truth matters. The title of “John” is extra-Biblical information that introduces a few contradictions into the inspired Word of God. (Psalm 118:8)
Why would the author not want his name associated with this book? We don’t know for sure, but he may give us a clue in “John” 20:31. “But these have been writtenso that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” The goal for his book was that people find life in the name of Jesus. Maybe the author believed his name would not serve that goal?
When you superimpose John on to the disciple Jesus loved, the text begins to contradict itself in a few places. For instance, if John (the text says another disciple) was present at Jesus’ trial in chapters 18-19, then he would have been known by Annas, the high priest (18:15). Yet, we read in Acts 4:13-16 that John wasn’t recognized as being with Jesus by Annas until after Peter’s speech. A contradiction, unless the other disciple wasn’t John. Read more about the argument against John.
Who fits better?
This is where the mystery gets exciting! Using only the evidence found in the inspired text, and not tradition, there are clues to the author’s identity.
- The author displays a deeper understanding of Christology than the other gospel writers. (“John” 1:1-5 and elsewhere) This may indicate a more intimate and personal experience with Jesus as DIVINITY. Can we find a man who would have this knowledge from experience?
- The author’s desire for anonymity may indicate his identity may distract from his stated goal to point people to Christ. Can we find a man whose fame would rival Jesus’ in context?
- The author uses Jesus’ particular love for him as a means to identify himself. Can we find a man Jesus was known to have particularly loved in the text alone outside of tradition?
- Yes, we can!
From “John” 11-12:
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.
Could the mystery author of the fourth gospel be Lazarus? I think its a good possibility. Lazarus KNEW who Jesus was. Because of his unique experience with death, Lazarus witnessed the glory of God and lived to tell us about it. His fame resulted in the sizable crowds between Bethany and Jerusalem as Jesus’ rode on the donkey, and in his own death warrant. Some notable speculation:
- The other disciple and Peter alone follow Jesus to trial and the cross. Could his resurrection have instilled a courage in Lazarus not found in the other disciples (except Peter and the women) until after Pentecost? He wasn’t afraid to die. Been there, done that!
- The other disciple saw the corpse shroud of Jesus and believed in His resurrection. Lazarus would have a unique experience with death clothes AND what the empty state of them meant! Been there, done that!
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. ~”John” 20
- On the beach of Galilee, Peter is curious about the other disciple’s death after hearing Jesus prophecy about his own. Wouldn’t this curiosity be natural if the other disciple was Lazarus? After all, it was rumored the other disciple wouldn’t die. Been there, done that!
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. ~”John ” 21
I challenge you to read through the fourth gospel this week with Lazarus in mind as the other disciple. I am amazed. Jesus is glorified. I believe in His Name.