The Authorship of John’s Gospel

One of the most hotly disputed subjects in New Testament studies is the authorship of the fourth gospel.  The Gospel of John was definitively written after the synoptic gospels, likely between 70 and 95 a.d.  Critics of Johannine authorship point to the fact that few first century and second century church fathers quoted John.

On the other hand, we do not have a lot of surviving data from the first or second century.  St. Justin wrote extensively, and quoted the synoptic gospel authors quite a bit.  It has been falsely argued that Justin never quoted John. On the contrary, there are a handful of Johannine quotes.   However, the frequency of synoptic quotation in Justin, and the rarity of Johannine quotation, appears to have lent itself to the argument that John was not an authoritative gospel.

However, most scholars concede that the canonicity of John is a different question than its authorship.  In other words, we know John was written later than the synoptics; we know that John’s emphasis was not on the parables of Jesus; and we know that John was adopted as a book of the Gospel later… but this tells us nothing about who wrote the Fourth Gospel.

In 1820, the German reformed theologian Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider suggested in a scholarly article that it was possible that john the apostle was not the author of the fourth gospel.  The work proved to be controversial and Bretschneider backed off his thesis, suggesting his intent was only to provoke discussion.

By the 1840s, the Tubingen School in Germany was proposing that John’s Gospel was simply a dialectical reconciliation of Greek and Jewish thought.  F.C. Baur, a professor at Tubingen, assigned a date of 170 a.d. to the fourth gospel.  Baur was a disciple of Hegel, and he argued that the fourth gospel was simply an attempt to overlay Gnostic thinking onto the story of Jesus. Baur’s position was influential in Gemany during the 19th century.

Von Harnack, influenced by the Tubingen school, also rejects the historicity and the Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel.  While holding considerable influence in Germany and certain universities elsewhere in Europe, the Tubingen theory is not as broadly accepted in the English speaking world.  But do not let me underestimate their influence either.  The historical critical school, much of the damage being done by these Tubingen scholars, has plenty of influence in American universities and seminaries.  However, the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the English-speaking Christian world over the past ten years has made the world safe for those who wish to challenge the orthodoxy of the Tubingen-historical critical school.

The criticism that Baur and Bretschneider experienced did not stop Rudolph Bultmann from taking up the same old (and already challenged) argument that there was too much Gnostic or Greek thought in John’s Gospel.  Bultmann wrote the gigantic work  The Gospel of John in 1941.   Bultmann is an insightful and competent technical literary analyst of Holy Scripture.  But to  the dismay and embarrassment of Christian scripture scholars the world over, Bultmann argues that the modern Christian ought to believe in Jesus Christ, whether or not the events described in the four gospels are historically accurate or not.  For Bultmann, the only kerygma of Scripture is that Jesus was crucified. Even the resurrection is, for Bultmann, an historical uncertainty.

This presents something of a challenge for Christian scholars of scripture, who like to present the historical-critical scholarship as believable and capable of being reconciled with the practice of Christianity, while at the same time hiding from their students the awkward reality that the most famous proponents of historical criticism do not believe in the Resurrection.

Well then, who believes that John wrote the Gospel of John?   Answer: most Christians – at least those who are students of Scripture.  I’ll never forget what a participant in a bible study class once said to me: “So you think John wrote the Gospel of John – are you kidding?” But what was his reasoning for the apostle not writing John – that he had heard it in a university class?  You might expect me to directly respond to the arguments put forth by Von Harnack, Bultmann, Baur, et.el.  The problem being, their reasoning is so weak, so circular, and so self-justifying that it is a complete waste of time.

Even the NAB bible commentary implies that the Apostle john did not write the fourth Gospel.  Why? Their reasoning is that a) the gospel argues too forcefully that Jesus is God, b) the story line is so theologically coherent that it could not have been an adaptation of an eyewitness account, anc c) because the theology is simply too sophisticated for a Galilean with no formal education to have written single-handedly.

This reasoning isn’t logically valid, let alone theologically valid.  What the modern critics of Scripture would have us believe is that John the Apostle of Jesus was (like Peter) too stupid, too naive, and too simple to have written the Gospel of John.  Apparently, writing a Gospel requires a PhD in Holy Scripture, with a few years of foreign languages and biblical criticism thrown in for good measure.  Clearly, being a one-time fisherman does not explain, in the eyes of our “Tubingen Scholars” the theological depth of John’s Gospel.

And it is for that reason that Baur and Bultmann argue that John had “gnostic” influence.  If John the Apostle didn’t write it, clearly someone who was learned – who had an understanding of Greek philosophy – did write it. But again, this presumption assumes that Christian theology is unlearned, and it presumes that Jesus is not the Son of God.  Rather, some gnostic intellectual took the Jesus story and turned it into a document that appeared, er, intellectual.

One has to be a true believer, and a student of Scripture, to appreciate how deeply offensive – and bigoted – this view is.  According to the Tubingen “school,” and modern critics of the bible, the Gospel of John is not an account of the life of Jesus Christ.  It is a distortion of the account of the life of Jesus Christ, perpetrated by a “Johannine Community” that was equally versed in “Gnostic philosophy.”

But again, the argument is circular. There is zero evidence of gnostic influence in the Gospel of John.  Jesus is portrayed as human.  He shows compassion, has friends, jokes with the disciples and weeps with Mary and Martha, and he suffers the agony in the garden.  This is not an account that presents Jesus as a demiurge or demi-god or “pure spirit” as the defenders of the bogus gnostic theory would have us believe.

On the contrary, the Gospel of John is an apologetic account of the life of Jesus.  The Apostle portrays Jesus as a man chosen by God to suffer on the cross, and as a man through whom many miracles were performed in the name of the Father.  It is also an account that challenges the faith of the reader at every turn, as many of the eyewitnesses to the miracles discount or reject the divine favor of Jesus Christ. Finally, it explains the obvious – that Jesus is the Good Shepherd – Christ the Son of God, who commissioned the disciples to propagate the faith and baptize the faithful in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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