Few books of the Bible are as well known as the four Gospels in the New testament. These four books relay Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection as well as his teachings which are central to the Christian faith. Each Gospel emphasizes or highlights different parts of Jesus’ life and mission in order to better help readers to understand the story and its significance. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they provide a synopsis or narrative account of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospel of John is set apart. John has a broader theological focus and is less concerned with providing a straightforward narrative of events.
But who wrote the Gospel of John? And what does the identity of the author tell us about the message this Biblical book presents? We’ll take a look at some of the different scholarly perspectives on this question and offer insights to help you engage the Gospel of John in a new way.
Who’s the Author?
The question of who wrote the Gospel of John is one surrounded by a lot of misconception. Many people assume that the “John” in question is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, but this is not actually the case. In fact, the Gospel of John does not directly name its author. The clues as to who wrote the Fourth Gospel lie in its references to the “Beloved Disciple”, or “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. This phrase or designation occurs five different times throughout the Fourth Gospel, and after the final time, John 21:24 states that the Beloved Disciple was “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.”
Who is the Beloved Disciple?
Given that the author of the Fourth Gospel appears to be written by the Beloved Disciple, our next question may rightly be, "Who is the Beloved Disciple?" Several potential candidates have been posited by scholars. Some have suggested Lazarus, as he is the only explicitly named person referred to in scripture as the one whom Jesus loved. Others have posited John Mark or Thomas. Ultimately though, most scholars agree that the most compelling answer is that the Fourth Gospel was written by John, the son of Zebedee.
John the son of Zebedee was one of the twelve disciples as was his brother, James. Part of the rationalization of this theory of authorship comes from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), where John appears with Peter more than with any other disciple. Additionally, Peter and John are presented in the book of Acts as companions in Jerusalem and in Samaria. This is significant because of the passage in the Gospel of John chapter 21--the place that identifies the disciple whom Jesus loved as the author of this account. John 21:20-25, deals with an apparent rivalry or comparison between Peter and the Beloved Disciple.
Interestingly, the notion that John, son of Zebedee, was the Beloved Disciple and the one who wrote the Fourth Gospel is the traditional belief. Many of the early Christian fathers asserted the apostle John was the author. Irenaeus, writing around 200 CE, was the first to denote John as the Beloved Disciple. Polycarp and the historian Eusebius both back up this claim. These ancient attributions led to the Fourth Gospel being known as the Gospel of John. Tradition has held that the same John, son of Zebedee, wrote the Gospel as well as the letters 1, 2, 3 John, and the book of Revelation.
What does knowing who wrote the Gospel of John add to one's experience of reading this New Testament book? As we've discussed, John's Gospel is set apart from the other three Gospels by its structure and intention. John outlines his purpose for writing the Gospel in John 20:31:
"These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
John, as the disciple whom Jesus loved, was writing to convey the enormity of his experience walking alongside Jesus in his ministry. For John, this Gospel account is less about conveying linear events as he experienced them and more about conveying the significance Jesus has had upon all of creation. The Gospel of John was written by a disciple of Jesus--a member of the inner circle in order to convey the majesty and mystery of God's love for the world as embodied in Jesus.
If you want to learn more about the Gospel of John and the rest of scripture, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your journey. Also, to best experience the Bible as a whole, we suggest taking a look at our resources on how to start reading the book and the best translation, too.