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