The Gospel According to John

Summary of the Tradition

    Papias: No comment from Papias has survived.

    Muratorian Fragment: John wrote the fourth Gospel under the urging of disciples, bishops, and the apostle Andrew.

    Irenaeus, student of Polycarp, student of John the apostle (Eusebius's Church History 5.20): John was the last Gospel written. It was written by John the apostle, while he was living in Ephesus in Asia Minor (Against Heresies 3.1.1). John died during the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117) in Ephesus (Against Heresies 3.3.4).

    Clement: John wrote a spiritual Gospel, and was aware of the other three (Eusebius's Church History 6.14.5-7).

    Tertullian: John wrote a Gospel (Against Marcion 4.5).

    Origen: John wrote the last Gospel (Eusebius's Church History 6.25.6).

    Jerome: John wrote a Gospel at the desire of the bishops of Asia. John died 68 years after the Lord's passion (Illustrious Men 9). The passion was in A.D. 27-34,[13] which puts John's death around A.D. 100.

    Augustine: John wrote to fill in what the others had omitted (Consensus of the Gospels 1.4.7).


    The tradition is unanimous from the earliest records that we have. There are some small variations in the wording and the emphasis, but there are no real contradictions. In this case, we can even trace our knowledge of the information back to John the apostle, by way of Polycarp by way of Irenaeus. This alone is enough to establish John as the author. However, we actually have more information, from the text itself. From Jn 21:20-24, we know that the curious figure of "The disciple whom Jesus loved" or "the other disciple" wrote the Gospel of John. He is mentioned several times (Jn 13:23, 18:15-16, 19:26, 20:2-8, 21:20-24). There are many clues that lead us to believe that this is John the apostle. First, we must realize that this disciple was present at the last supper and shows a very close relationship to Jesus.

When he had said this, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, "Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me." The disciples looked at one another, at a loss as to whom he meant. One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus's side. So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant. He said to him, "Master, who is it?" Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it." So he dipped the morsel and [took it and] handed it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. (John 13:21-26)

This indicates that the title, "The disciple whom Jesus loved" was not merely an honorific. It indicated the real relationship between Jesus and the disciple. That means that the disciple is one of the apostles, and probably one of the closest apostles. Additionally Mark 14:17 (and parallels in Mt 26:20, Lk 22:14) indicate that no one except the apostles were at the last supper. All of the apostles are named in the Gospel of John except for John, son of Zebedee, James, son of Zebedee, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot. From the synoptic Gospels, it is understood that the closest apostles to Jesus are Peter and the sons of Zebedee. For example, these three were his companions for the vigil at Gethsemane (Mk 14:33 and parallels). The disciple whom Jesus loved cannot be Peter, because Peter and the disciple are mentioned together in the above passages. He cannot reasonably be James, because James was martyred no later than A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2). This argument from the Gospel itself falls short of proof; but it does complement well the tradition, which is sufficient proof by itself.

    However, there is one substantial caveat. It appears that more than one person had a hand in this Gospel. The prologue has a different style than the rest of the Gospel. The author of the epilogue speaks of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" in the third person and himself in the first person. Within the Gospel, there is some clumsiness that a single writer would have been unlikely to create. For example, there are two endings to the public ministry (Jn 10:40-42 and Jn 12:37-43), and two endings for the last supper discourse of Jesus (Jn 14:31 and Jn 18:1). It appears that the current Gospel is a combination of shorter, homogeneous originals.

    So, we have proof that John the apostle wrote the Gospel, and that the Gospel was written by more than one person. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? We must understand that the people of this time had a slightly different definition for author than we do. When they said author, they meant the source of the tradition, not the person who actually held the pen. To know that this is a reasonable interpretation, look at Jn 19:22, "Pilate answered, 'What I have written, I have written.' " Here Pilate is saying that he wrote the inscription on Jesus's cross, but what he means is that he is responsible for the inscription. That he did not actually do the writing is clear from the previous several verses as well as the very low probability that a governor of a province would have a direct hand in the execution of a convict.

    In conclusion, John is the primary source of this Gospel. He told those around him what he remembered of Jesus. It is probable that much of this was written down by his disciples while he was alive, but the Gospel was not put in its final form until after his death. Some of the clunkiness could have been smoothed out by asking him what he remembered, but he was no longer around to ask. Instead, the authors were cautious and kept the somewhat contradictory material in rather than risk losing an authentic tradition.


    The tradition asserts that John lived till around A.D. 100. The Gospel's epilogue (Jn 21:23) looks to have been written around the time of John's death. Otherwise, the timing of John's death with respect to the second coming of Jesus would not have been a controversy. We can also look at papyrus fragments. C.H. Roberts discovered and published an Egyptian papyrus fragment (P52) of John chapter 18 that is dated between A.D. 135 and 150. There are also two long papyri texts of John from the end of the second century in the Bodmer collection (P60,75). You may ask where these dates come from. Experts study the handwriting and compare it to standard texts with non-disputable dates. This has become a universal and well accepted method of dating ancient manuscripts. The fancy description of this technique is paleographic dating. These dates are later, but it gives supporting evidence that a date near the death of John is reasonable.

    Using John's death as a fixed point, it is likely that the Gospel was completed between A.D. 95 and 115. As discussed in the authorship section, this Gospel had a drawn out creation process, so much of it was written earlier, possibly much earlier.

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28