Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

There is much hay made in skeptical circles of the fact that none of the four Gospels were signed by an author, that if we reconstruct the original texts from the copies we have, there are no sentences in the texts that explicitly say something like, “This Gospel was written by John, son of Zebedee.” 

Yet church tradition does claim that the four authors were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all of them apostles or companions of apostles of Jesus.  I have written previously on the authorship of the first Gospel, but today I want to quote from an outstanding blog post written by Timothy McGrew which makes a compelling case that the author of the fourth Gospel is indeed the disciple John.

If you want the full treatment, go to McGrew’s post.  What I will do is summarize some key points from his post below.  McGrew starts with the following:

I am persuaded that the fourth Gospel was written by John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee. There are quite a number of reasons for thinking this, and that means that this is going to be a rather long note.

So here’s the short answer:

1. Every scrap of evidence we have from the writings of the early church indicates that the fourth Gospel had always been known to be written by John. And we have lots.

2. A careful examination of the Gospel itself shows that it must have been written by a Jew who was a native of Palestine and an eyewitness of numerous events, including many where only Jesus and the disciples were present. From internal clues, we can pretty safely narrow it down to John.

The first group of evidence is called the external evidence, as it consists of evidence external to the Gospel text itself.  McGrew lists several early, ancient authors and documents that mention John as the author of the fourth Gospel and/or quote passages only found in the fourth Gospel (this second line of evidence is important because it establishes that the fourth Gospel was considered apostolic very early, and thus more likely to be written by an apostle such as John).  In his post, McGrew provides background information on each of these sources, but I will only list the sources themselves.

  1. Eusebius (~AD 325)
  2. Origen (~AD 220)
  3. Tertullian (~AD 200)
  4. The Muratorian fragment (~AD 180)
  5. Irenaeus (~AD 180)
  6. Tatian (~AD 160)
  7. Justin Martyr (~AD 145)
  8. Anti-Marcionite Prologue quoting from a work of Papias (~AD 125)
  9. The Apology of Aristides (AD 117 – 138)
  10. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, book 7, quoting early second century heretic Basilides
  11. Ignatius (~AD 107)

McGrew finishes up this section of external evidence with the following summary:

These are the primary pieces of early external testimony to the authorship of John, though I could easily double the size of the list by pulling out more obscure quotations from the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, Hermas, Hegisippus, Athenagoras, Polycrates, etc.  But they make the point sufficiently clear.

There is no other tradition of authorship for the fourth gospel.  There is no record of any uncertainty about it at any time; we have one brief mention of some gnostics (not even named) who claimed it was written by Cerinthus, the founder of their heretical sect—but they are mentioned only to be dismissed.  It does not appear that any Christian group ever had the slightest doubt about this work.

 In part 2 of this series, we will look at the internal evidence that McGrew presents.

  • I concur. There is a very high probabilty, practically certain, that John the apostle wrote the fourth gospel. It is very unlikely that he didn’t. As far as I know, Revelation is the one that is questionable and I still think there is enough common between what is in it and in the gospels and epistles of John to say John the apostle also wrote it. Exactly when it was written is probably the bigger question.

  • DonS

    For those with the critical view that the gospels were not signed by the authors I think there is a very good reason why they weren’t signed.

    At the time of authorship Christians were being severely persecuted and many put to death for their beliefs. So what would be the penalty for a gospel writer sending out a book that would influence many in a pagan and Jewish world? The penalty would probably be death.

    Also, another big objection to the authorship of the 4th gospel is the date which it is purported to be written – 90 A.D. to 100 A.D. Since John was very near the age of Jesus critics point out he would have to be very, very old if he had authored the 4th gospel. My feeling is that John wouldn’t have been the only elderly person to author a great work. History is replete with such authors.

  • Walt Tucker,

    What do you think about the internal difficulties pointing toward the Gospel being a compilation? Or Bauckham’s theory it was another disciple named John, but not John, son of Zebedee?

  • Boz

    I find it to be particularly suspicious that an apologist investigates an issue, and then reaches a conclusion far outside the mainstream, which just happens to align with what they already believe.

    There is a potential conflict of interest here.


    Also Tim McGrew is not a historian.

  • Boz,
    Please read the comments guidelines page. Your comment has nothing to do with the content of the blog post. It only questions my and/or Tim McGrew’s motives in concluding John wrote the fourth Gospel. Consider yourself warned.

  • DonS,

    Aren’t these the same Christians whose bold willingness to die for the beliefs supposedly makes the gospels so reliable?

  • Bill,

    Are you going to delete all the posts in which you have questioned the motives of skeptics and unbelievers?

  • No. If I write a blog post about motives of skeptics, then I have no problem with skeptics making comments about motives underneath that post. If I write a post about evidence for John writing the fourth Gospel, I expect the comments to be about the evidence for and against John’s authorship. It’s that simple.

  • In other words, there is nothing inherently objectionable in discussing motive when you think that it is relevant to understanding why someone has taken the position they have taken. It is only objectionable when you don’t think it’s relevant.

  • Pingback: Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel? Part 2 | Tough Questions Answered()

  • Boz

    A potential conflict of interest and a person’s motive are orthogonal/unrelated issues – each can exist with or without the other.

    I’m sure we have all noticed perceived or potential conflicts of interest in our working lives, and are aware of the importance of managing that perceived conflict.

  • Are our pastors and priests telling us the truth?

    Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations
    regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a “mountain of evidence” for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?

    You MUST read this Christian pastor’s defense of the
    Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners, a man who lost his faith and is now a nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection:

    —A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro’s Defense of the Resurrection—

    (copy and paste this article title into your browser to find
    and read this fascinating review of the evidence for the Resurrection)

  • More fascinating would be a scholarly critique of a Christian scholar’s claims about the resurrection. The pastor was reciting other general work and the responses in red were popular opinions as counter that didn’t address the actual facts. There is reasonable evidence that Acts, and consequently Luke, were written in the first century by Luke. None of that evidence was addressed. Rather claims were made that they were from the second century and we don’t know who wrote them. (Popular opinion, even in some scholarly circles, but not well established in facts and based on many unwarranted presuppositions.) As well, stating the typical slandering characterization of God without proper context as an argument points to an overgeneralized, and incorrect, strawman rather than honest assessment of the claims of the pastor and of the Bible. With the lacking depth of support in the review, I would say it didn’t achieve what might have been hoped by the author – to show the ridiculousness and silliness of the pastor’s statements in support of a resurrection. While the pastor did make some sweeping statements that the reviewer countered from his perspective, most of his statements stand when understood by the supporting data that was not presented. While written for a general audience rather than scholars, Cold Case Christianity, lays out a good case for the resurrection (by an atheist turned Christian based on the evidence) and provides references to supporting scholarly work which would need to be addressed to actually show that the evidence for the resurrection is not sufficient.

    I’m not sure why this parishioner lost his faith, but it can’t be due to an honest assessment of the facts (many of his statements are the repeated popular ones among atheists and don’t demonstrate assessment of all of the facts – rather it is one sided from the negative position; and yes, many Christians only repeat the popular statements from the positive position without really understanding both sides – if more understood the whole picture, fewer would “lose” their faith). From my experience, it is various other reasons that cause people to reject what they thought they once believed. Claiming to now be following “reason and science” is not adequate to prompt a loss of faith, since I also follow “reason and science” as a scientist and as a pastor who does not find conflict except in people’s perceptions that are often out of context, either in their understanding of theology or in their understanding of the philosophy of science and its limits. The case given the evidence is much stronger than there was a resurrection than not. You can never prove anything of history to 100% proof. But the question is whether the evidence that does exist is sufficient to reasonably conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead physically and all that that entails with us being accountable to a Holy God.