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Why Was the Gospel of John Attributed to John?

Some of the same objections to Matthew having written the First Gospel apply to John the son of Zebedee having written the Fourth.   Unlike Matthew, John did not copy any of our other Gospel sources, and so that’s not the problem that it is for Matthew (who surely, if he was an eyewitness, would not have taken his stories about Jesus from what he found in someone else’s written text).   But there is an even higher probability, bordering on certainty, that John the son of Zebedee could not write.  He was a fisherman from rural Galilee.  Fishermen were not educated.  They were very low class peasants.  John would never have gone to school.   Where he lived, there *were* no schools.  He never would have learned to read.  Let alone learned to write.  Let alone learned to write in Greek.  Let alone learned to write sophisticated, philosophically informed prose narratives in Greek.   I think there is virtually no chance that the historical John of Zebedee wrote the Gospel.

So why did our anonymous editor living a century later, in Rome, claim that the Gospel *was* written by John?   There is the one obvious reason: he wanted this anonymous Gospel to have the authority of an apostle behind it.   Recall who John was.  In the Gospels Jesus had twelve disciples, three of whom form a kind of “inner circle” around him, Peter, James, and John.   James was known to have been martyred early on, according to the book of Act 12:1-2.  And so he’s not a candidate to have authored a Gospel later (John was always regarded as the last of the Gospels to be written, a “more spiritual” account produced to complement the more nuts-and-bolts accounts of the Synoptics).   Peter was going to be named as the ultimate source behind the Gospel of Mark, as we will see, so he was not a candidate for the Fourth Gospel.  That left John.

But there is a more important reason for this association of the Gospel with John.  As we have seen, for a very long time – about as far back as anyone talks about the matter, that is, the second century – it was wrongly thought that John’s Gospel itself indicates that its author was the “Beloved Disciple” (see my earlier post on why this shadowy figure did not write the book).   So who was the Beloved Disciple?

There have been numerous theories about this over the years…


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Why Was the Gospel of Luke Attributed to Luke?
Why Was The Gospel of Matthew Attributed to Matthew?



  1. Avatar
    NW  December 2, 2014

    Dr Ehrman,

    What is the source and date for the legends that Polycarp and Papias were companions of John later in his life? Is there anything that Polycarp or Papias are supposed to have said actually themselves that would indicate this, or is it a claim by someone else?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      No, nothing they say indicates this. It comes from later patristic sources, starting with Irenaeus.

      • Avatar
        NW  December 4, 2014

        Dr Ehrman,

        Is Irenaeus generally considered very trustworthy in passing on informational details, or does he pass on a fair amount of hearsay? Don’t you think Irenaeus could be trusted in saying Polycarp was a companion of John, if Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp himself? I’m just trying to understand your viewpoint. Thank you!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2014

          He does a bit of both. I’m not quite sure what to do about Irenaeus’s claim to have sat at Polycarp’s feet. He must have been very young at the time if he did so. Polycarp died around 156 CE; Irenaeus was writing thirty years later. Does he really mean that he was Polycarp’s disciple? I suppose so…. In any event, if Polycarp was born, say, in the year 70, it is hard to see how he could have been a disciple of John unless John too lived to be a very old man and Polycarp met him when he was very young. It is very odd that Polycarp does not mention John or quote the Fourth Gospel in his surviving letter. It’s all a very big puzzle!

          • Avatar
            NW  December 5, 2014

            Dr Ehrman,

            Yes, it is all one very big puzzle! When I’ve read Evangelical resources/apologetics on the authorship of the gospels. they seem to almost exclusively rely on church tradition. I never see them interacting with the glaring problems involved in simple questions like: could a Galilean fisherman compose sophisticated, learned Greek works? So while there are many tantalizing historical questions we may never know, I find relying on the evidence you’ve presented in your posts as much more reliable than just some old church traditions.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  December 2, 2014

    James Tabor has a lengthy article here:


    where he argues that James is the Beloved Disciple. A summary of what he says:

    – James the brother of Jesus takes over leadership of the followers of Jesus.
    – James would be who Jesus would ask to care for their mother.
    – James is the clear head of the Jerusalem community.

    I know you state that the beloved disciple is not James due to a verse mentioning living a long life. That seems to be a weak argument due to the reliability of anything stated in the book of John.
    Your thoughts on Tabor’s argument?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      It’s a bit hard to believe, since James the brother of Jesus is said not to believe in him in John 7:5.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 4, 2014

        Well, James is not specifically listed. And I don’t put much historical value in the book of John.

        • Avatar
          jhague  December 5, 2014

          I see your point. The author of John mentions a beloved disciple and that same author states that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.

          I imagine that the author writes “brothers” and does not name James due to the attempt to ignore James by the NT authors in general.

          What about the idea that the beloved disciple was James and the author did not mention his name due to the attempt to remove any historical occurrence of James? The NT sources did not want to admit that James was Jesus’ brother who took over leadership after Jesus’ death so James was mostly left out of the NT.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 6, 2014

            Seems like a bit of a stretch to me!

          • Avatar
            jhague  December 8, 2014

            It’s less of a stretch than people thinking that John wrote the book (which we know he didn’t) and was referring to himself as the beloved disciple.
            We know tht the early Christian authors down played James’ importance.
            And in John 19:26-27, the author clearly has Jesus passing the care of his mother to the next oldest son.
            How is that a stretch?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2014

            John 19:26-27 doesn’t say anything about “next oldest” son. Jesus appears to be announcing to his mother that this disciple is now her son — something that wouldn’t make much sense if he really was her son (since then she would know that he was her son). And, as I pointed out, the Gospel of John is explicit that the actual brothers of Jesus were not his followers.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 2, 2014

    You mention that the disciple James was known to have been martyred at a fairly young age, because it’s mentioned in Acts.

    That made me curious. I understand that Acts was written by the author of Luke, and that the Gospel was written first. But…about when was Acts written? And when (and how) can scholars be sure proto-orthodox Christian writers were familiar with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      There are debates about the date of Acts. It is usually dated to around 85 CE, but some outspoken scholars are now arguing for a much later date, around 120 CE. Starting with authors like Irenaeus, it gets quoted by proto-orthodox church fathers. But one would not need to know the text of Acts to know that James was known to have died early in the Christian movement. I assume it would have been common knowledge.

      • Avatar
        nsnyder  December 5, 2014

        It seems strange to me that the first Gospel rather quickly spawned a bunch of other Gospels, but that Acts would have come out and then there’d be a 70 year pause before its imitators came along (none of the other “Acts” are dated before 150AD). If Acts really was early, then it must have been oddly unpopular for a long time…

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2014

          It’s not clear to me that later Gospels were written in imitation of the canonical four. I think, instead, people wrote down stories and sayings of Jesus. Why were they not as interested in writing down stories and sayings is q good question. Maybe they just didn’t think the apostles were as important as Jesus?

  4. Avatar
    ajbarnhart  December 2, 2014

    Hello Bart, Is there any credible evidence that you know of which might indicate the author of John was actually John?

  5. Avatar
    qaelith2112  December 2, 2014

    I would think that another argument against authorship by an eyewitness, or I would imagine even against authorship by someone who is recording the account of an eyewitness who is informing him, is the apparent use of external sources. In John 14, Jesus says “Get up, let us go”, and then he goes on talking for 3 chapters before actually getting up and leaving. That would appear to me to be a literary seam, and I’d guess some other source material was included at this point. Or am I wrong about this?

  6. Avatar
    fishician  December 3, 2014

    As with Matthew, why would an apostle of Jesus, commissioned to be a WITNESS of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection be coy when it comes to identifying himself as an eyewitness? The fact that none of the canonical Gospel writers identify themselves is clear evidence that they were not true associates or apostles of Jesus.

  7. Avatar
    Ini  December 3, 2014

    Hello Bart, I listened recently to your work on the Davinci Code, and it was an excellent piece. I noticed however you didn’t refer to the Koran, apparently the Koran mentions Jesus, what are your views on the Koran or the prophet Mohamed comments about Jesus? I also think that many more people need to know the truth about the origin of the bible, are you considering making a movie with all this great work you are doing? Regards I.A

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 3, 2014

    I think you have the making of another book here entitled “Were the Gospels Written by Eyewitnesses?” What about the idea that these Gospels could have been dictated to someone who could write Koine Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      Yes, it’s an interesting idea. The problem is that we have no evidence of this kind of dictation (from one language being translated into another language) happening in antiquity. Scholars have looked for the evidence, but it doesn’t seem to exist.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 3, 2014

    I have to ask. Was calling someone the “Beloved Disciple” – and especially, the part about his “leaning on Jesus’s breast” (!!!) – meant to imply a homosexual relationship? Do scholars know enough about the usage of language in that era to be sure, one way or the other? (*Could* the author of this Gospel have been comfortable with the idea that Jesus – whom he regarded as divine – had a sexual relationship with *anyone*?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      We can’t know what the author wanted to imply — but some readers have certainly inferred this. It’s important to remember, though, that ancient views of sexuality were not like ours, and there was no category of “homosexual” in the ancient world. (Though certainly same sex relations happened a lot — at least as much as today)

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  December 4, 2014

      Further to what Prof. Ehrman says, we have to be careful to not project modern American sensibilities and morals onto people from the ancient past, or even onto cultures that are thriving today. In Saudi Arabia men walk down the street holding hands exhibiting their friendship. In many cultures men kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. Even as recently as the 19th century here in America men would walk down the street and hold hands in public just as they do in Saudi Arabia today. Men would share the same bed as a matter of convenience as well.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 6, 2014

        I hope I didn’t create the impression that I myself would see anything “morally” wrong with Jesus’s having had what we’d call a “homosexual relationship” with the “Beloved Disciple.” I wouldn’t.

        What I was really hoping to learn was whether scholars know for a fact whether *in that time and place*, the type of language used in John (and *not*, I gather, in the other Gospels) would have implied it.

        It strikes me as odd, because many of those early Christians seem to have disapproved of sex even in marriage.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  December 4, 2014

    My minister told us Sunday that the crucifixion of Jesus through people for a loop. Jesus told John the Baptist, Jesus told his own disciples, Jesus told a man he to whom he gave sight that Jesus was the Son of Man. The crucifixion put an end to that claim. So, if circumstances make Jesus fail as the Son of Man on his throne, Son of Man at the side of the Power, what justifies making Jesus more than the Son of Man but God, the Power?

    That Jesus became God is sort of illogical from a merit perspective. Basically, the minister says, Isaiah 52 and 53 is how this happened.

    The Christians were thrown for a loop by Jesus being crucified before Jesus reigned and his 12 disciples judged the 12 tribes. So, they found Isaiah 52 and 53 which requires that the suffering servant be exalted. So, if you’re a failed Son of Man, you have to get exalted, promoted, above a job grade that didn’t get its mission/objectives fulfilled.

    I’m having a little trouble buying into this. Second, the Isaiah passage answers the question why does very bad things happen to innocent people: because God not only makes his servant Job suffer but he does it again in Isaiah. God cannot get enough of this “injustice.”

    Jesus deferred to a higher power in the gospels. Something is so unacceptable about Jesus becoming God.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  December 4, 2014

    No one is doing work on what this manuscript was called (and who wrote this fine piece of work) for decades before being called The Gospel According to John?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2014

      I don’t think I understand your question.

      • Avatar
        qaelith2112  December 4, 2014

        I interpreted his question as being something like, “Are any scholars working to determine what this anonymous gospel was called before it was attributed to John, and perhaps who might have actually written it”. I’m not sure that there is anything to go on, though, thus not much point in working on these questions. As far as I know, no one has written anything (at least in extant documents) to indicate what the gospel might have been called prior to its attribution to John. I’m also not sure that there is any possible way of knowing or even reasonably guessing who actually wrote it — “some members of the so-called Johannine Community” is probably the most specific we will be able to get, barring the extremely unlikely discovery of some documents which actually reveal these things. I say “members” because my understanding is that literary development is evident in the text, and who knows where some of the source material originated.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2014

          Oh, OK. My sense is that most evangelical scholars think that John wrote it and it was always called John. Those who think it was attributed to John only later tend to think it circulated anonymously, without anyone’s name attached.

  12. Avatar
    FrankJay71  December 5, 2014

    OK, so what’s with the moniker, The Beloved Disciple? Did the author and his intended audience have a particular apostle in mind? It seems that at every chance he gets the author tries to show the special trust and love that Jesus had for the disciple, and also that he seems to be a more committed disciple than Peter. The author also assures his audience that everything he’s written has come from this beloved disciple, so we know it must be true. So that brings up the question, why would the author appeal to the authority of this disciple, but not name him? Should we assume that his intended audience already knew who he was and were perhaps followers of him, or his disciples?
    Also, it seems that the author takes extra care for his beloved disciple to outshine Peter specifically. Does this show that even in the first century Peter was established as the head apostle, and the author was part of a movement which regarded this beloved disciple as the head apostle?
    Or was “Beloved Disciple” a literary device?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2014

      It’s a much debated question: is it a real disciple? a cipher? if real: then who? John? Lazarus? Mary? Lots of questions and no clear answer. Many think it’s a literary device. Others that it’s the unknown founder of the Johnannine community.

  13. Robert
    Robert  December 6, 2014

    The gospel of ‘John’ does seem to be written in very simple Greek. I don’t take this to imply that it was written or dictated by a native speaker of Aramaic, or even that Greek was the author’s second language, ‘though Greek was only a second language of most peope in the Roman Empire, I suppose. Writing even in one’s native language was a difficult skill acquired by few ancients. Some people think this gospel betrays greater familiarity with Judean practices, but it seems to me to have more affinity to Egyptian Christianity, perhaps originating or early passing through Alexandria. Despite simple language, it has long been recognized for its mystical or theological tendencies. Wouldn’t you just love to know who wrote/compiled this gospel? Any thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2014

      Yes, I’d love to know who it was! But I don’t think we know enough about Egyptian Xty in the first century to say anything about it. In fact, our sources are completely silent!

      • Robert
        Robert  December 7, 2014

        It’s all hypothetical, right. Perhaps we can reasonably project some tendencies of later Egyptian Christianity back to earlier times. What about the gospel of Thomas? Don’t you see that as independent of the synoptics and thus relatively early?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2014

          My view is that the Gospel of Thomas was probably put together, in its present form, around 120 CE. But it is generally thought not to have been composed in Egypt, even though a later manuscript of it wsa discovered there.

  14. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 8, 2014



    43When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
    Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

    Then Thomas (also known as Didymus ) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him didymus there when speaking of lazarus NEXT CHAPTER resurrected Lazarus is RECLINING AT TABLE WITH JESUS, next chapter BELOVED DISCIPLE is RECLINING AT TABLE WITH JESUS
    20Peter 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?”) 21When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
    22Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23Because 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?”
    24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
    bart where was Lazarus during all this ?
    could not be peter because he interacted with peter and could not be mary because they interact with each other ?
    FROM JOHN 11:36 TO 11:43 TO JOHN 13:22-23 WHERE WAS THE RESURRECTED LAZARUS just before the passover ? ONLY CHAPTERS LATER.
    john 12:2 – Martha served, while Lazarus was among those ( RECLINING ) at the table with him.
    john 13:22 – One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was ( RECLINING )next to him.
    20Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
    why did Jesus say John the Baptist was the best teacher he ever knew why did he raise Lazarus and not John the Baptist what happened to him how long did he live till,
    33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
    “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
    35Jesus wept.
    36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

    (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) I KNOW THIS PAINTING WELL)

    saying to Jesus the one you love is sick, ( now what does that mean? ) due to the inspiration of the 4 major gospels of the NT were inspired by the 4 major winds.
    In this verse why does jesus speak of 12 hours of daylight the earth rotating in 24 hours what is it about day and night and winter and summer soltice etc, so jesus went to resurrect some one and who speaks first
    Thomas which in aramaic and Didymus in greek means TWIN !
    so was this ORIGINATED before of after John 11:16 ?
    john 11:16 / GOT Line 1
    Then Thomas (also known as Didymus ) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.
    ”These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 8, 2014

    Just wondering… Is it possible the author of John was familiar with the Synoptic Gospels, and knew very well that he was writing something extremely different? Suppose he wanted readers to believe the earlier Gospels came from bad sources, and the “Beloved Disciple” was the only trustworthy source. Could he have meant to imply that he didn’t know the name of the disciple in question, because when the disciple spoke to a decades-earlier confidant, he’d been taking a risk in revealing the “truth” that others, for some reason, had decided to suppress?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2014

      Yes, what you ask about as a first possibility is one of the traditional answers to why John is so different from the other three (whether or not he thought the others had bad sources). But normally it’s thought that he knew who the beloved disciple was, but didn’t cite his name either because he knew that his readers knew full well who he was talking about, or because he wanted it to seem more mysterious.

  16. Christopher
    Christopher  December 14, 2014

    Are there any further mistruths or inaccuracies, in relevant the church father, that would cause us to doubt their claims concerning Papias and Polycarp being “disciples” of the 12? My sense is that, in reality, the earliest Christians should be looked at as you would look at any cult movement starting out – full of really desperate, unusual, and downright strange, people, that you typically wouldn’t trust to be alone with your kids. I know that’s mean… But it’s the truth… Apologists want to give the early church fathers, the 12, and the apostles, special status among religion founders because they see them as part of the same mainstream church we see today. What evidence is there concerning how reliable these guys are? I’m *desperate* to know!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2014

      Yes, often these church fathers stretch the truth (whether they know it or not) in claiming an “apostolic line” of tradition, unbroken, that goes all the way back to Jesus.

      • Christopher
        Christopher  May 14, 2015

        Do critical scholars maintain that the writer of the Gospel of John is the writer of the Epistles of John and Revelation?

        Is there any connection between the writer of the Johnaninne epistles, who calls himself “the elder”, and the “John the Elder”, or Presbyter, in the writings of Papias?

        You can probably infer from these questions that I am indeed in discussion with apologists concerning authorship 🙂

        Apologists claim that because the writer of the Epistles of John calls himself “the elder”, and Papias seems to have studied with a “John the Elder”, that therefore Papias got his information concerning Mark and Matthew writing something from John the disciple.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 15, 2015

          The general consensus is that the author of the epistles lived at a later period in the community’s history, but was a different person with a similar theology. The author of Revelation *may* have been connected with the community, but his theology is very different indeed (especially his eschatology). yes, Papias’s “Elder” is often thought to be the author of Revelation. But he’s not (historically) the same as wrote the letters.

          • Christopher
            Christopher  May 15, 2015

            What is generally thought to be meant by the author of the Johaninne epistles (did I say that right?) identification as “the elder”? Is he trying to claim to be “John the Elder”?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2015

            No, he’s just a presbyter in that Christian community. They obviously knew who he was. But we don’t!

          • Christopher
            Christopher  May 15, 2015

            Also, you said that Papias’ “Elder John” is thought to be the author of Revelations, but is not (historically) the same as wrote the epistles attributed to John. So are the Epistles of John later than Revelations?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2015

            It’s really impossible to say.

          • Christopher
            Christopher  May 19, 2015

            This trail of authorship is quite confusing. Can you offer some suggestions on books that would shed light on this subject?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 19, 2015

            I’ll be dealing with it in my next book, but other than that I don’t know a handy place to refer you to. If you have questions about something that isn’t clear, I’m open to trying to answer them.

  17. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 22, 2014

    hello Bart

    I would like to know who is this comforter , advocate or Parakletos. Paraclete. mentioned in John 14:16-17 .Muslims claimed to be the prediction of the coming of their prophet while Christians it is about the holy spirit , but what do you think

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2014

      In the context it is clearly identified as the Holy Spirit.

  18. Avatar
    mvecore  February 17, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m trying to find out when scholars believe John the Apostle died? Is there any historical evidence to suggest when he died? I’ve heard many Theologians claim that he died in 100 CE, but I find it a bit hard to believe that someone in that time period, living in the conditions that he did, could live well into his 90’s.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      The tradition is that it was at the end of the first century, but I think it’s more plausible that it was some time in the 60s. maybe I’ll post on this.

  19. Avatar
    Rafiki14  October 9, 2015

    Dr. Erhman,

    When do you think the final compilation of John took place? Your comment: “So why did our anonymous editor living a century later, in Rome, claim that the Gospel *was* written by John?” A century from what marker? Jesus’s death, Signs Source, Johannine community?


    Kevin H.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      A century after the compilation and distribution of the Gospel of John. Maybe, though, it’s safer to say 80 or 90 years later — depending on when you date John.

  20. Avatar
    jogon  February 11, 2018

    In Irenaeus’ letter to Florinus where he talks about Polycarp being the disciple of John wouldn’t Florinus have known this wasn’t the case? I agree that the evidence that Polycarp knew John is weak but wanted some clarification on this point!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      I don’t know how Florinus would know that.

      • Avatar
        jogon  February 12, 2018

        Ah I thought the gist of the letter was that Irenaeus and Florinus both knew Polycarp when they were younger so I assumed that’s how Florinus may have known

        • Bart
          Bart  February 13, 2018

          Ah, I get it now. Right.

          • Avatar
            jogon  February 13, 2018

            You don’t think Florinus would have necessarily known one way or the other though?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 15, 2018

            I doubt it.

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