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Who Wrote the Book of Revelation and the Fourth Gospel?

Speaking of the Apocalypse (from the previous post giving that odd video):  Someone recently asked me if the same author could have written both the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John.   Interesting question!   Traditionally, both books have been identified as coming from the same person, John the son of Zebedee, the fisherman who was one of Jesus’ closest disciples.   In answering the question I would like to stress two points: first, they almost certainly were not written by the same person (note: they do not claim to be); and second, whoever these two authors were, neither one of them was John the son of Zebedee.

Before making these two points, I need to explain the traditional view: same author for both, John the son of Zebedee.   With the book of Revelation, the reason for the identification was simple: the author explicitly says that he was named John.    Already in v. 1 he indicates that the Revelation was given to himself, John, and in v. 9 he is even more explicit: “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (translation of the NRSV).

The author does not make any big deal of the fact that he is someone named John – that is, he is not claiming to be someone famous.   If he were, we might suspect that he maybe was making a claim in order to provide greater authority for his book – i.e., that the book was a forgery.   But the striking thing about the claim, in this instance, is that he simply names himself without saying which John he was.  He’s just someone named John, who apparently was known to the people to whom he was writing (since he doesn’t need to identify himself any further.)

In the early church there were long and protracted debates over whether…

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Celibacy and Polygamy in the Bible: Weekly Readers’ Mailbag July 30, 2016
Bart Ehrman discusses the Apocalypticist



  1. Avatar
    sheila0405  July 28, 2016

    If Revelation was not written by the disciple John, son of Zebedee, this opens up questions for me. How long did John actually live? What was exile in Patmos like–was it hard labor, isolation, prison, etc.? Do we really know what happened to the original twelve, and how other early Christians thought about apocalyptic books (since Peter’s apocalypse was not included)? Were NT books simply added because of popularity? Looking forward to the next several posts on this subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      I’m afraid all we have about John from outside the NT itself are later legends (e.g., in the Apocryphal Acts of John) (same for all the other apostles)

  2. Avatar
    seward414  July 28, 2016

    Weren’t both books written in Greek, which the son of Zebedee would not have known?

  3. Avatar
    jhague  July 28, 2016

    With you saying, “They could not include the book in Scripture unless it was written by an apostle,” it made me think that if the requirement for books to be included in Scripture was for the book to be written by an apostle who had been with Jesus, then with what we now know, there would not be any books in the NT!

  4. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  July 28, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, when you told me that you reckon the Beloved Disciple was an “unknown person”, did you mean someone whose identity is now lost to history apart from the book of John but who would’ve been recognizable to people at the time? I’m not sure how to interpret it.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      I mean he is certainly unknown to history. Whether he was known to the readers of the fourth Gospel: most scholars think he was, but I really don’t know (he may have been a fictional figure as well as a historical figure, in my opinion. I’m not sure there’s a compelling argument either way)

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 28, 2016

    As always, an excellent post. Readers of this blog might be interested in reading “The Fourth Gospel,” a recent book written by John Shelby Spong.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  July 28, 2016

    Bart Ehrman, would you say it’s problematic that the names Jesus (Yeshu’a), John (Yochanan), James (Yaakov), Simon (Shim’on), Judas (Yehuda) and Matthew (Matityahu) were exceedlingly common names at the time? Don’t you wish sometimes that there were at least one Fred or Brian who could stand out and make your job easier?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      Some names are unusual (Cephas/Peter for example); but you would expect the more common names to occur more often!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  July 30, 2016


      • Avatar
        dragonfly  July 31, 2016

        I believe you used to think Peter and cephas were two different people? Do you still think that?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2016

          Yeah, not so much any more. (I was never sure in teh first place, though I inclined that way)

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 1, 2016

            I suspect that Simon (Peter) was actually called Even (אבן – “stone” in Hebrew) by Jesus, and that Peter (Πέτρος) and Cephas (כפא) were merely what Greek and Aramaic speakers, respectively, would call him. The reason I suspect this is that in the passage in which Jesus purportedly gives Peter his nickname (Matt. 16:18), the phrase “on this rock I will build” suggests a foundation stone on which an edifice is built, and in Hebrew this phrase is a pun, viz. על אבן הזה אבנה — ‘al even ha-zeh ebnah — “on this rock (even) I will build (ebnah)”. Now, certainly this may be just a coincidence, but seeing as how fond of puns Jesus always is, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that this is something he said. The main problem is that the next phrase in the sentence, “my church”, is something Jesus almost certainly would not have said.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 2, 2016

            I think the problem is that neither Jesus nor Simon spoke Hebrew. Matthew 16 is almost certainly a later redaction of earlier traditions.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 2, 2016

            That’s where we disagree. I think that Jesus almost certainly knew Hebrew. Hebrew was probably kind of like the King James English of Judea. In the same way that a modern Evangelical may throw in “thou” and “hath” when they’re preaching in order to make it sound more, well, preachy, Jesus — as other apocalyptic prophets and preachers — probably slipped into Hebrew to make themslves sound legit. For example, instead of saying אבא די בשמיא — abba di b’shamaya (“Father who is in heaven” in Aramaic), he may have said אבא שבשמים — abba sh’b’shmayim (“Father who is in heaven” in Hebrew).

          • Bart
            Bart  August 3, 2016

            My sense is that very few people actually spoke Hebrew in the first century.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 3, 2016

            Well, “few” is relative. If we say, for example, that the population of Palestine was several million, even if a relatively “few” people, say 3%, knew Hebrew, that’s still tens of thousands of Hebrew speakers.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2016

            I can’t remember if Mark Chancey deals with Hebrew literacy in Palestine or not in his books on Galilee

          • talmoore
            talmoore  August 4, 2016

            My guess is it would be difficult to extrapolate Hebrew literacy in 1st century Palestine because Aramaic and Hebrew are so similar. Indeed, even the so-called “Arabs” of Nabatea spoke Aramaic! So are we to assume the Nabatean “Arabs” had completely forgotten Arabic?!? Of course not. Aramaic was kind of like the Greek of Mesopotamia and the Levant. In a similiar way to how one could travel around the Eastern Mediterranean speaking “Greek” in the larger sense (ignoring local dialects), one could travel from the Tigris-Euphrates delta up the rivers to Mt. Ararat, turning west into Syria and south into the Levant and Northern Arabia speaking “Aramaic” in the larger sense (ignoring local dialects). But just as in some Greek speaking areas, such as Alexandria Egypt, one could still find speakers of the pre-Greek native language, such as Coptic, I think the same thing was true with Aramaic and Hebrew in Judea and, possibly, the Galilee. Aramaic was the ordinary, everyday vernacular, but Hebrew was still known and used by Jews for various purposes and various occassions. And one of those purposes and occassions was in preaching, teaching and prophesying. In other words, when the average Galilean heard Hebrew, it didn’t sound like untelligible gibberish. They could, for the most part, understand it. And it sounded, well, Biblical to them, like how when a street preacher today cries out in flowery King James English, using archaic and pretension words and grammar (“I saith unto thee, mark thee my words, and hear thee the good news. Repent of thy wicked ways!” etc.). To an ancient Aramaic speaking Jew, Hebrew probably would have sounded like how archaic and pretension King James English sounds to us.

  7. Avatar
    plparker  July 28, 2016

    Hah! Good one on the final exam for the blog. What about a trivia quiz for the blog? That might be fun.

  8. AoSS
    AoSS  July 28, 2016

    What are your thoughts on identifying Lazarus as the beloved disciple? I once did a small, informal poll for some of the other undergrads at my university and the view between the beloved disciple being Lazarus was almost as common as John being the beloved disciple. There were other views, but all paled in comparison to these two.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      It’s obviously appealing since Jesus is said to have loved Lazarus (and Mary and Martha). But he’s not one of the twelve, and it seems unlikely that he’d be at the Last Supper or closely connected to Peter, the invariable companion of the Beloved Disciple. Also, it’s not clear why he would sometimes be named (explicitly: Lazarus) and sometimes mysteriously unnamed (as teh one whom Jesus loved).

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 29, 2016

    And some people believe John the son of Zebedee is *still alive* somewhere, right? There was some kind of prophecy about the “end times” arrving in his lifetime…which, “of course,” must mean he’s never died!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2016

      No, I’ve never heard ot that.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  July 30, 2016

        It’s the Wandering Jew legend.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  July 31, 2016

        I think that came from a take on John 21:23 even though it says otherwise. But who knows what parts may have been added later.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 31, 2016

        I think it’s a variant of the “wandering Jew” legend. I remember a fantasy-genre TV series some years back having a character turn out to be the “wandering Jew” – and *he* was a centuries-old *Judas*. But I don’t think the legend always refers to Judas. If it did, it woudn’t have such a “generic” name!

      • Avatar
        wisemenwatch  July 31, 2016

        I have that heard as well. It comes from John 21:22.

    • TWood
      TWood  July 31, 2016

      Are you referring to John 21:22?

  10. TWood
    TWood  July 31, 2016

    The Muratorian had both Revelations (Revelations with an “s” is actually correct here). I also know the Revelation of John was part of the antilegomena (even during Luther’s day), so I know it was disputed. But I’ve never heard that some wanted Peter’s Revelation *instead* of John’s. Where does that come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      Ah, good question. I suppose it is normally inferred from teh fact that some people thought it was canonical and yet the canonicity of the Apocalypse of John was doubted.

  11. Avatar
    brandon284  August 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman. if being an apostle was a requirement for a book to be canonized, and with disputes over who actually wrote Gospels and Epistles, how did these works ever fit canon criteria? Obviously we are 2 millennia removed from NT compilation but how could these books have been held in such high regard if all (or most) weren’t written by the authors that NT compilers thought they were written by? I know there was push-back on some books, but it seems like the majority were readily received into the canon.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      The people who accepted the books into the canon thought they were written by the people to whom they were attributed, so for them they did indeed pass the criteria.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  August 4, 2016

        Thanks. I’m still curious as to how early Christians, being far closer in proximity to the writings of these texts, didn’t smoke out false (or falsely attributed) authors? I would think that if these early believers knew that Matthew didn’t write his Gospel, or Peter didn’t write the letters ascribed to him, or James didn’t write James, that they wouldn’t be canonized. I suppose I’m really wondering how they (early Christians) could be so duped or that some Christian(s) wouldn’t have vetted/found out falsely attributed authorship?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2016

          I’m not sure proximity matters. Throughout history forgeries have fooled contemporaries, only to be exposed later. Happens all the time. And it happened a lot more in antiquity when there were fewer methods of detecting forgery. You may be interested in reading my book Forgery and Counter-forgery where I give a long and detailed discussion of the matter.

          • Avatar
            brandon284  August 13, 2016

            Thanks. Currently reading Forged!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  August 8, 2016

        A friend who is an Orthodox priest and blogger wrote in a recent post that apostolic authorship was not the decisive criterion for inclusion in the NT canon, but rather whether a work was being read in the churches. He asserts that, had Revelation not been read in Rome (implying it was not being read in any other churches), it would not be in our canon now. Do you think this is a viable argument?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2016

          I don’t think it’s an either/or but a both/and. Widespread usage was extremely important. But so too was apostolic authorship. Yes, if Revelation was not popular it never would have made it in. But if church leaders had never been convinced it was by John the son of Zebedee it would never have had a chance either.

  12. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  August 3, 2016

    As I understand it, the people selecting the proto-orthodox canon wanted texts written near to the time of Jesus, and preferably by apostles. Paul did not at all qualify as an apostle, as Jesus would have used the word. Paul never studied under Jesus, and did not carry on his teachings.

    Dr. Ehrman, in their book The Difficult Sayings of Jesus, Bivin and Blizzard make a very strong case that by the first century, many in Judea had already revived the use of Hebrew, especially for religious discussion. Had Jesus been a prominent sage, he definitely would have spoken Hebrew, but also other sages would have commented on him, either in agreement or disagreement. But Jesus isn’t portrayed that way. He is shown as a sage in backwoods Galilee. If he really had large audiences of local people, he would have spoken Aramaic. B&B argue that Jesus spoke Hebrew. I argue something different. Gospel diarists portrayed Jesus as a sage of Second Temple Judaism. As far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything. So those diarists could well have taken writings of Hillel and used those as a source for things Jesus could have said. B&B explain how the sayings of Jesus in the synoptics read like hasty translations of Hebrew.

    Were Jesus as popular and influential as the gospels portray, then surely someone would have taken care to preserve his sayings.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2016

      I”m afraid I don’t know Bivin or Blizzard, so I can’t really evaluate their claims. They are … unusual! (Jesus wasn’t a prominent sage, btw)

  13. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  September 5, 2016

    My question is a little off the trail, but you mention in your book Forgeries and Counter Forgeries that John most likely did not write the Gospel attributed to him as he almost certainly could not write in Greek. I seem to remember you writing that the Greek of that Gospel was good and fairly nuanced. However, I am being told by someone who is fairly conversant in these matters that John could easily have learned the Greek necessary to write the Gospel, since he lived for over 60 years on the mission field and that his Greek is the most basic of the NT. Is he right? And if so how would you respond?

  14. Avatar
    coolguy6916  May 28, 2020

    What about the early church fathers? For example its all agreed who wrote the 4 gospels. (I’m talking about the ones from late 1st century too early 3rd century.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      The first time anyone identified the Gospel writers as Matthew, mark, Luke and John was Irenaeus around 185 CE. After that there is no disagreement of much consequence.

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