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Did John Write the Fourth Gospel?

In my previous post I explained why the author of the book of Revelation, someone named John, was not claiming to be John the son of Zebedee and in fact probably was not John the son of Zebedee.   I also showed why this author was not the same one who produced the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John.  Now I want to talk about the Gospel to show that it too was probably not written by John.

The first thing to stress – it can’t be stressed enough – is that like the other Gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of John (as I’ll continue to call it, for the sake of convenience, since that is, after all, the title that was later given to it) is completely anonymous.  The author does not tell us his name or identify himself in any way.

I have already explained why people in the early church came to *think* the book was written by Jesus’ earthly disciple, John the son of Zebedee (see https://ehrmanblog.org/who-wrote-the-book-of-revelation-and-the-fourth-gospel/ from a few days ago).  There are very good reasons, however, for thinking that this view is wrong.

It is interesting to note that John the son of Zebedee is never (ever)…

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The End of Time in Revelation and the Gospel of John
The Author of Revelation

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Comments

  1. cheito
    cheito  August 2, 2016

    DR Ehrman:
    ________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    John 21:24-This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true.
    _______________________________________________

    From John 21:24 I understand, that it was absolutely a DISCIPLE OF JESUS who was BEARING WITNESS to what Jesus said and did (note the present tense).

    I also understand from John 21:24 that this disciple who was an ‘eyewitness’ also WROTE the things he witnessed.

    And from John 21;24 I understand that the disciple of Jesus who WITNESSED PUBLICLY, and WROTE an account of the things he heard Jesus say and saw Jesus do, was known by the person or persons who recorded for us what we call today, “The gospel of John”.

    The the author himself testifies that “we know this disciple was telling the truth.” And He also asserts that this disciple is the one who is bearing witness to the very things he’s recording in the “gospel of John.”

    Obviously the disciple of Jesus who wrote the things recorded in “The Gospel of John” was among the 3% of literate Jews, assuming the study of ‘ancient literacy’ by the persons you mentioned is accurate.

    Note: One would have to deny the entire book of John to state, “Whether that disciple actually did write anything is up for grabs:”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 6, 2016

      What you insist upon is even less impressive when you resort to words like “absolutely” and “obviously.” What is obvious is that you did not gave a careful or fair reading to what Bart wrote or didn’t understand what he wrote or have chosen to simply ignore what he wrote because you think you have some superior knowledge of the situation. What you have is just the traditional view. If you disagree with Bart’s reasoning, explain where you think he goes wrong. If you don’t want to engage in that way but just prefer being dogmatic, why are you here?

  2. jhague  August 2, 2016

    I know it is all speculation but who do most scholars think was the beloved disciple? Who do you think it might have been?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      There is a wide range of opinion: John the son of Zebedee; Mary Magdalene; Lazarus; an unknown member of the twelve; a fictional character. My view is that: we don’t know!

      • jhague  August 3, 2016

        Oh yes. Did you say before that you leaned toward it being simply be a fictional character?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2016

          Yeah, I slightly lean that way.

        • dostonj  August 13, 2016

          For what it’s worth, I, too, hold the position that the most credible explanation for the Beloved Disciple is that he was a literary creation intended to achieve a theological purpose… and the identity of this fictional character is Lazarus of Bethany. I think Lazarus is fictional, a reification of Luke’s Lazarus who was the subject of a parable.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’ve always found the insistence on the lowly, uneducated status of the disciples to be suspicious. It comes across as faux humility to me. That is to say, it seems as if the earlier stories and descriptions of the disciples exaggerated their lowly status in order to make the truths and wisdom they’ve supposedly been given through the Holy Spirit seem all the more miraculous. If a middling fellow starts speaking “in tongues” and preaching with a certain amount of liturgical acuity, then most people would not think it all that incredible. But if we are told that an abject fellow is preaching great truths via the gift of the Holy Spirit, that’s going to seem like something special.

    We see the very same stories of abject lowliness about Muhammad, who was supposedly illiterate, and if you believe the biographies of Muhammad, he would have been a total imbecile if the angel Gabriel weren’t speaking God’s words into his ear. And let’s not forget that the archetypical prophet Moses supposedly had very similar deficits that were miraculously overcome by the grace of God. Indeed, this sort of miraculous rise from humble origins is so common that — other than Moses or maybe Guatama Siddhartha — I can’t think of another prophet who is purported to have came from an upper class, aristocratic background. More often than not, prophets always have lowly origin stories.

    That’s why I find it suspicious when the NT talks about the lowly origins of Jesus and the disciples. Now, this isn’t to say that the lowly origins story isn’t true. It’s possible that Jesus and Peter and John were, indeed, lower class men from lower class families living in lower class communities. But it’s also possible that the tales of their lowly origins have been greatly exaggerated for effect.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      The reality is that the vast majority of people were dirt poor; unless there are indicators otherwise, I think you have to assume that a person from a remote part of the empire was in that category.

  4. Eric  August 2, 2016

    Interesting hierarchy : read, write, compose book.

    Even today, we might say 100% of college graduates can “read” (assuming we don’t put strict a meaning to that). Based on your test and paper grading Professor Ehrman, how many can convey a few simple ideas with their writing? It wouldn’t surprise me if you said 50%.

    How many of those, today, could actually compose an organized 21 chapter book? I’d say less than 1% of college graduates (based on my contact with college graduates in the working world.)

    20% of Americans, say, get a college degree. So in this, the most privileged society in the history of the world (from a material and freedom-from-want sense), I’d say that fewer than 2/10 of 1% could compose a coherent book.

    Even a smaller percentage of our subsistence fishermen.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      Most of my students do write coherent English. Very few could compose a book. At this stage of their lives, hardly any of them.

  5. RonaldTaska  August 2, 2016

    A very convincing argument as usual from Dr. Ehrman.

  6. JamesFouassier  August 2, 2016

    So then, Professor, who are the candidates for the title of “Beloved Disciple”? How about Lazarus? He could have been one of Jesus’ Jerusalem followers, perhaps making arrangements for a donkey at the gate and the Upper Room for the Last Supper. He and his sister have a home in Jerusalem (maybe he hosted Jesus and his followers on occasion?). He must have been very close to Jesus, considering how Jesus reacted when hearing that Lazarus had died. Perhaps the Beloved Disciple was a priest, which would explain the “inside information” that only is provided in the Fourth Gospel? He was known to the Temple guards; after Jesus’ arrest he and Peter appeared at the Temple precincts and he waltzed right in, but Peter was stopped and had to wait outside. Being younger, he beat out Peter in the footrace to the tomb but then refused to enter, perhaps fearing ritual defilement, waiting for Peter to go in and only following when Peter told him that there was no body. Heck, he even may have been the young man in the Garden wearing only a white linen robe – as priests did – which, when grabbed, he left behind as he fled naked into the night. How about it ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      My view is that we can’t know! But I don’t think it is Lazarus. If it were, it wouldn’t make sense (to me) that sometimes he is explicitly named and in other places he is mysteriously identified by circumlocution (the disciple Jesus loved). Also, we have no other traditions of Lazarus actually being one of the twelve disciples.

      • JamesFouassier  August 3, 2016

        But the Beloved Disciple would not necessarily have had to have been one of the Twelve, would he? Couldn’t we say that if tradition has John the son of Zebedee as one of the Twelve then the Beloved Disciple couldn’t have been included also?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2016

          My sense is that the term “disciple” in the days of Jesus normally refers to one of the 12, but I don’t have my books along with me to check. Maybe someone on the blog can. And no, if the BD was someone other than John, he still could have been one of the 12.

          • dostonj  August 14, 2016

            Luke 6:13, says, “And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.” This verse makes clear that there were more than twelve disciples and that Jesus chose from among them twelve to serve as apostles. So, the Twelve corresponds more aptly to the Apostles, not necessarily the number of disciples of Jesus. Plus, both John and Matthew explain that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple.

      • SteveWalach  August 6, 2016

        Your fellow scholar James Tabor has made a case for James, the brother of Jesus, as the “beloved disciple,” who reclined beside Jesus in 13:23.

        The disciple —”the one whom Jesus loved” — becomes the trusted intermediary for Peter’s question: Who in their ranks would be the one to betray Jesus?

        Clearly, even Peter does not have the same level of intimacy with Jesus as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Isn’t it at least feasible that Jesus’s brother James is that person?

        John 19:26 makes an even stronger case: “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother.”

        True, 19:26 seems to belabor the obvious, but so do many of Jesus’s sayings. It could be that Jesus, as eldest son, is emphatically passing the torch to his younger brother James, deeming him to be the guardian and protector of his widowed mother, as one might expect even today.

        Though it is unlikely (though not out of the question) that James — an observant Jew — wrote in Greek, it is possible that he had written a history of the movement in Hebrew or Aramaic, and that is the “testimony” the “we” in 21:24 is referring to.

        I’m no scholar, but I was surprised to see that none of the commenters nor you allowed for the possibility of James being the “beloved disciple” when Tabor’s circumstantial case for James as BD is at least as plausible as all the others offered, including the “fictional character.”

        Is Tabor’s theory — and my tentative support of it — out of the question?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2016

          It’s not out of the questioon, but it’s problematic because of what John himself indicates in chapter 7, that his brothers did not believe in him.

      • ddecker54  August 10, 2016

        Interesting that, in his (well-written) book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”, John Shelby Spong also posits that Lazarus is/was the “beloved disciple”. To your last point, Bart, about having no evidence that Lazarus was “one of the twelve”, I believe the key word here is “disciple” and not “apostle”.

        Brand new to the blog and am enjoying it!

      • dostonj  August 13, 2016

        Interestingly, specific references to Lazarus end in the Gospel immediately before the first reference to the Beloved Disciple. There is no mention of the Beloved Disciple until *after* Lazarus is introduced in the narrative (note: the narrative says specifically that Lazarus is “he whom [Jesus] loves.” This is stated of no other person in the text. Are we to conclude that this was coincidental, especially in a text that centers around the identity of this so-called Beloved individual?)

        Moreover, in the final scene that mentions Lazarus by name, the passage states that Lazarus is *reclining* at a meal with Jesus. Then in the very next scene (the Last Supper), the author states that the Beloved Disciple is *reclining* on the bosom of Jesus. Another mere coincidence? Or, is this an internal clue regarding his identity? I also find it intriguing that the Beloved Disciple is said to be resting in Jesus’ bosom, much like the Lazarus of Luke’s parable is said to have been resting on Abraham’s bosom (note: in John’s gospel Jesus claims that “before Abraham was, I am.”). I think John’s Lazarus is a reification of Luke’s Lazarus.

        As for the notion that the “disciple” designation applied only to the Twelve….I am not sure how that’s accurate. John’s gospel (and Matthew) say that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus. Moreover, in Acts when the Apostles were being named, a replacement was needed for Judas was needed, and the replacement was chosen among the other disciples (a disciple who was not one of the “Twelve”).

  7. Saemund  August 2, 2016

    As you point out in your post, the 3% that could read (mostly Hebrew) and (barely) write were from the upper class of the society who had money. Accordingly, would it not be unlikely for Jesus’ own apostle to pursue money and education?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      Yup!

      • llamensdor  August 6, 2016

        I don’t think Catherine Hezser or anyone else knows the level of literacy in what she refers to as Roman Palestine. I’m a little suspicious of referring to the area as Palestine? During Jesus life — what was that area referred to? Was the kingdom of Herod the Great (who probably died on or about the year Jesus was born), called Palestine?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2016

          When scholars use the term, they use it to refer to that land mass that the Romans somewhat later called Palestine. It is roughly the areas of Israel and the Palestinian territories today.

  8. Jim  August 2, 2016

    Is it possible that John Zebedee paid some writer a bag of fresh fish to write his gospel in Greek for him, and another bag of fresh fish for the cool Greek logos philosophy in the intro, and another bag of fresh fish to write two endings? Sure the idea sounds a bit fishy. But say this bag of fish was sushi grade, and maybe John sweetened the pot with a few bottles of Pinot Noir left over from the Cana wedding.

  9. TWood
    TWood  August 2, 2016

    1. It sounds like you’re saying it’s likely this John was an Aramaic speaking Jew who kind of knew Greek. Is that your sense?

    2. Aside from Paul’s seven letters and Revelation (assuming you agree a Jew wrote Revelation), is it your position that the rest of the New Testament was written by educated Greek speaking Gentiles?

    3. Apocalypticism is a Jewish genre so Revelation’s John probably was thinking in Jewish terms. I find the hypothesis that 666/616 is first century gematria were Greek and Latin transliterations into Hebrew indicate Nero Caesar was the Beast. Do you agree this is the best hypothesis?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      1. Yup. 2. I’m not sure about Matthew. 3. Yup. (Although there was a similar method of using letters for numbers in Greek as well as Hebrew; in Greek it is called isopsephy)

      • TWood
        TWood  August 3, 2016

        Thanks. Somewhat related question. The woman the dragon goes after in Rev 12… I know modern dispy’s say she’s future Israel… but from what I’ve studied in patristics she’s seen as either Mary or the church (the church makes the most sense in the context I think… Rev is about Rome’s persecution of the church)… but I haven’t read *everything* there is.

        1. What was the main view(s) in the early church (Mary or Church)?

        2. Do you know of even one who thought it was future Israel?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2016

          1. I assume the answer is: Church (in earliest writers); 2. Not that I know of.

      • TWood
        TWood  August 3, 2016

        Clarification on your answer for #3: Since the numbers (666/616) were based on the Hebrew (transliterated from either Greek or Latin), then the Neronic ID is gematria rather than isopsephy, isn’t it?

        [I just want to be accurate when I say it’s gematria. To be technically accurate, do I need to add isopsephy and whatever it’s called in Latin too (is it called something in Latin)? I know I’m being pedantic, but as you well know, your enemies exploit little mistakes in order to make you look “stupid.”]

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2016

          Yes, I’d say that’s right. I don’t know what the Latin equivalent is.

          • TWood
            TWood  August 4, 2016

            I guess the Latin equivalent can be called Roman Numerals?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2016

            No, that is simply the name we use for numerals used in Latin. Not every letter of the alphabet is used in Roman numerals.

  10. Stephen  August 2, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    In the past you’ve recommended Father Raymond Brown’s writings. Is it correct to assume you favor his idea of a so-called “Johannine Community” that might have produced the Gospel and the Letters and perhaps even Revelation? Is there anything in the material that makes you think such a community could have traced its origins back to one of Jesus’ original disciples?

    Thanks!

  11. Scott  August 2, 2016

    If so few in the Greek world were capable of composing a narrative, who exactly DID WRITE the Gospels and Acts? Are Paul’s letters considered Greek “compositions” in the same sense? Was he unusual in his ability to do this?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      There were *some* educated people among the Christians, and they would have been the writers who produced our books. Who they actually were is anyone’s guess.

    • HistoricalChristianity  August 3, 2016

      There were plenty of great Greek thinkers and authors at that time, but not in Judea.

  12. ask21771  August 2, 2016

    how do you respond to those who say “you can’t correctly interpret the bible unless you have the holy spirit”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      Good question! I’ll answer it in my Weekly Readers Mailbag soon.

  13. VAmountaineer  August 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, what were some of Hezser’s arguments for showing that Jewish boys learning Hebrew at their local synagogues was a myth? I’m a little confused, because I thought that most in post-exilic Judah took learning the Law pretty seriously!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      The only references to synagogue schools where all Jewish boys learn to read come in later Jewish writings (eventually codified in the Talmud) centuries later. You can be very serious about wanting to know the Law and still not be able to read. There simply wasn’t any mechanism for widespread education in Roman Palestine.

  14. JR  August 3, 2016

    But surely John’s Gospel, 1 john and Revelation could all have come from a community associated with ‘John’. They share the same theology and at some level a connection to the name John.
    Is it not logical to assume that they were written by different people but people that were perhaps associated with the apostle John? Or at least claimed to be direct disciples of John.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      Yes, I think they did all come from teh same community.

  15. Luke9733  August 5, 2016

    Do you think that the author of the Gospel of John’s statement that “we know that his testimony is true” is an indication that he is writing to a community or to a church that the “beloved disciple” started? The statement comes off to me as though the author assumes his audience knows what he’s talking about. What are your thoughts on that?

  16. llamensdor  August 6, 2016

    You clearly believe that places in the gospel(s) where Jesus is said to have read from scripture are later inventions and that he was, in fact, illiterate. Right?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2016

      No, I suspect he may have been able to read, but I’m not at all sure.

  17. Jana  August 6, 2016

    I am confused then and forgive me if I’ve missed a blog … How and why did this Gospel come to be attributed to the disciple John? Wouldn’t those educated leaders who selected the books for THE Bible have known how impossible it would have been for the disciples of that era to have written anything? Why is it important to fundamentalists that the disciple John wrote BOTH the Gospel AND Revelations.

  18. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 7, 2016

    Acts 14:12 still one of my favorites. Bart do we know who it is in Acts 17:23? UNKNOWN GOD?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2016

      It was a God that the Athenians felt they may have left out of their worship, whom they wanted to include, even though they didn’t know whom it might be.

  19. Zboilen  October 17, 2016

    Hi Bart,

    You may have already answered this question, but is it possible that someone could have helped John out in writing his gospel? Maybe the content came from John but it was written down and stylized by someone else. Did this happen in the ancient world?

    – Zak

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2016

      Not so much. I deal with the question at length in my book Forged — you may be interested in reading it!

  20. Christopher
    Christopher  January 12, 2017

    Bart,
    Have you ever read Richard Baukham’s work on the 4th gospel where he argues, quite persuasively, that the author of the forth gospel was “John the Elder”. Part of his evidence concerns a 2nd (or 3rd – I forget) letter to the church in Rome, from the Asia Minor region which reports that they descend from John “the disciple” who wore the crown of the high priest. He then goes in to a list of theoretical conjectures into Papias’ lost writings and conjectures dependencies, from Papias, and finally ends discussing that the “beloved disciple” is reported to be someone known to the high priest, as told in John’s trial scene. Very interesting stuff and just goes to show how messy the whole evidence base really is. Baukham’s essays on the 4th gospel are collected in a book entitled “The Beloved Disciple” or something like that.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      Yes, I’ve read it. I don’t find it at all convincing but more a case of special pleading. But it would take some very long posts to explain why!! (For one thing, Bauckham loves to cite Papias when he gives him something to cling to, but absolutely rejects Papias when he says something he disagrees with! It’s a very selective use of a source)

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