Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (July 1963) 214-23.

          Copyright © 1963 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

                        II. LITERARY KEYS TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL

 

                        The Author's Testimony

                                    to Himself

 

                                                    Merrill C. Tenney

 

THE authorship of the Gospel of John has been a subject of

warm debate for almost two centuries. Edward Evanson,

in his work entitled The Dissonance of the Four Generally

Received Evangelists and the Evidence of Their Respective

Authority Examined, published in 1792, questioned the tradi-

tional view that it was written by John, the son of Zebedee.

His position was repudiated by contemporary scholars, but

in 1820 Bretschneider's Probabilia de Evangelii et Epistolar-

um Joannis Apostoli Indole et Origine renewed the discussion.

Bretschneider contended that John was written by some un-

known Gnostic in the middle of the second century. From

his time the subject, has been a source of endless argument,

which has not yet terminated in a conclusion acceptable to

all concerned.

            Numerous hypotheses have been advanced to account for

the origin of this Gospel. Some critics have ascribed it to

"John the elder," a presbyter of Ephesus, mentioned in Euse-

bius' famous quotation from Papias, a writer of the early

second century:

            "And if anyone chanced to come who had actually been a

follower of the elders, I would inquire as to the discourses of

the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip,

or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any

other of the Lord's disciples of the Lord, say. For I suppose

that things out of books did not profit me so much as the

utterance of voice which liveth and abideth.

            "Here it is worthwhile noting that twice in his enumera-

 



            THE AUTHOR'S TESTIMONY TO HIMSELF                   215

 

tion he mentions the name John: the former of these Johns he

puts in the same list with Peter and James and Matthew and

the other apostles, clearly indicating the evangelist; but the

latter he places with others, in a separate clause, outside the

number of the apostles, placing Aristion before him; and he

clearly calls him ‘elder.’ So that he hereby proves their state-

ment to be true who have said that two persons in Asia have

borne the same name, and that there were two tombs at

Ephesus, each of which is said to this day still to be John's."1

            Following the deductions of Eusebius stated in the second

paragraph, it has been assumed that there were two Johns,

the son of Zebedee and the elder of Ephesus, and that the

latter wrote the Gospel.

            In 1943 J. M. Sanders propounded the thesis that the

Fourth Gospel originated in Alexandria, and that it was later

imported into Asia, where its origin was credited to John the

Presbyter.2 It had originally been used by the Gnostics, who

ascribed it to a man named "John." In Asia this writer was

identified with the Presbyter, who, in turn, was considered

by many to have been the apostle. Irenaeus who lived in Ephe-

sus adopted the latter view, from which the traditional author-

ship was derived. In a later essay published in New Testament

Studies Sanders suggested that the beloved disciple was Laz-

arus of Bethany who wrote the Gospel, and that afterward

it was edited and published by John the Presbyter in Ephe-

sus.3 Still later, he drew a distinction between Lazarus and the

unnamed disciple mentioned in John 20:2 because of the dif-

ference in the verbs descriptive of them: agapao used of Laz-

arus; phileo, of the unnamed disciple. Sanders then advanced

the "admittedly highly speculative" idea that the disciple

whom Jesus loved (egapa) was Lazarus, and that the other

disciple, whom Jesus loved (ephilei) was John Mark, the son

of Mary, who later settled in Ephesus, and was known as

"The Elder." He defended his position on the ground that

there could have been two Marks in Jerusalem at the same

time.4

 

            1 Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiac III, 39. Translation of B. J. Kidd in J. Ste-

venson, ed., A New Eusebius, p. 50.

            2 J. N. Sanders, The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church, pp. 43-46.

            3 Sanders, "Those Whom Jesus Loved," New Testament Studies, I, 29-41.

            4 Sanders, "Who Was the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved?" Studies in the

Fourth Gospel, F. L. Cross, pp. 72-82.

 



216                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA       July, 1963.

 

            The theory that Lazarus wrote the Gospel had been pro-

posed in 1949 by Floyd Filson. He observed that the first

readers of the Gospel would not have any external evidence

to identify the author, and that they would necessarily be

dependent on the content for clues. Since the narrative plain-

ly declares that Jesus loved Lazarus (11:5), the subsequent

references to "the disciple whom Jesus loved" must refer

back to him. His residence at Bethany, only two miles from

Jerusalem, would explain his familiarity with the city and

the fact that the action of the Gospel centers there. Because

he had been raised from the dead he would have a peculiar

interest in the topic of eternal life, which is dominant in

this book, and he would logically deduce from the empty tomb

that Jesus had risen.5

            Even more recently Pierson Parker, in two articles pub-

lished in the Journal of Biblical Literature, denied that John

the son of Zebedee could have written the Gospel, and prof-

fered the astonishing hypothesis, apparently independently

of Sanders, that its author was John Mark, and that the son

of Zebedee wrote the Second Gospel.6 Other critics have sug-

gested that the writer was an unknown mystic of the second

century, or John the priest mentioned in Acts 4:6, or possibly

some assistant of the apostle.

            Despite the multiplication of complex hypotheses, there

has been an increasing tendency to return to the traditional

view. H. P. V. Nunn, after a vigorous defense of the tradi-

tional authorship in his work, The Son of Zebedee and the

Fourth Gospel, has pursued the same argument in later arti-

cles.7  Several contemporary American scholars like E. F.

Harrison8, William Hendriksen9, and A. J. MacLeod10 also

 

            5 Floyd V. Filson, "Who Was the Beloved Disciple?" Journal of Biblical

Literature, 68:83-88, 1949.

            6 Pierson Parker, "John and John Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature,

79:97-100, 1960; "John Son of Zebedee and the Fourth Gospel."

            7 H. P. V. Nunn, The Son of Zebedee and the Fourth Gospel; "The Bear-

ing of the 21st Chapter of the Fourth Gospel on Its Authorship," Church

Quarterly Review, 115 :79-95, 1932; "Considerations on Some Recent Criticism

of the Fourth Gospel," Evangelical Quarterly, 15:169-78, 1943; "The Fourth

Gospel in the Early Church, ibid., 16:173-91, 1944.

            8 E. F. Harrison, "The Gospel of John," Wycliffe Bible Commentary pp.

1071-72.

            9 William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: John, pp. 3-31.

            10 A. J. MacLeod, "The Gospel According to John," The New Bible Com-

mentary, p. 865.

 



            THE AUTHOR'S TESTIMONY TO HIMSELF                   217

 

maintain this position.

            The purpose of this lecture, however, is not to reopen a

controversy nor to argue a case. The writer is personally con-

vinced that the author of the Gospel was John, the son of

Zebedee, aided perhaps by a scribe. The main objective is not

to debate the identity of the author, but to show how his per-

sonality is projected into his writing, and to estimate the

effect produced by that projection.

            The evidence may be classified under specific allusions and

indirect effect. Specific allusions comprise the references to

the "other disciple" or the "beloved disciple" who is finally

identified with the writer (21:24). The indirect reflections

include the use of the first person plural verb, which occurs

at least once (1:14), the implications of personal knowledge,

disclosed by the small details which only an eyewitness would

notice, the personal and doctrinal interests that reveal un-

consciously the writer's predilections, the explanations and

footnotes inserted for the benefit of the reader, and the vo-

cabulary which is peculiar to the author's framework of

thought. From these bits of information one may reconstruct

a picture of the personality through which this Gospel was

given to men.

            The specific allusions to the author are stated in the third

person, and are confined to the last section of the Gospel

which deals with the Passion of Christ. The first of these

occurs in the account of the last supper: "There was at the

table reclining in Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom

Jesus loved (Gr. on egapa ho Jesous). Simon Peter therefore

beckoneth to him, and saith unto him, Tell us who it is of

whom he speaketh. He leaning back, as he was, on Jesus'

breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?" (13:23-25). The

unnamed disciple unmistakably belonged to the inner circle

of Jesus' followers, and was even closer to Him than Simon

Peter, the acknowledged leader of the group. Assuredly he

was acquainted with the other eleven, and knew well their

mental and spiritual traits. Furthermore, when Jesus an-

swered the request which he relayed from Peter, he must

have realized instantly from the following action that Judas

was the prospective traitor. There is, however, no intimation

that he in turn told Peter. In the tension and confusion of

 



218                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA       July, 1963

 

the moment when Jesus gave His command, "What thou

doest, do quickly," Judas withdrew before further action

could be taken, and perhaps Peter never learned even by the

sign who the traitor was. Jesus' answer may have been spoken

only for the ears of His questioner, and not for the whole

company. If so, the "beloved disciple" would have been the

only one who left the feast with a sure knowledge of the

traitor's identity. Perhaps he thought it would be unwise to

divulge this information to the remaining ten disciples, lest

he should precipitate a disturbance among them when Jesus

was about to begin an important discourse.

            A second reference to an unnamed disciple appears in the

story of the trial of Jesus before the high priest. "And Simon

Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Now that

disciple was known unto the high priest, and entered in with

Jesus into the court of the high priest; but Peter was standing

at the door without. So the other disciple who was known unto

the high priest, went out and spake unto her that kept the

door, and brought in Peter" (18:15-16).

            It is conceivable that "the disciple whom Jesus loved"

and this "other disciple" might be two separate individuals,

but that conclusion seems unlikely. Why should the writer

inject two unknowns into his story? Both at the last supper

and at the high priest's court the unnamed disciple was a

close companion of Peter, and in the second instance he was

interested enough in Peter to intercede with the portress that

he might be admitted. The constant association of these two

disciples confirms the conviction that on all occasions the same

person is involved.

            The status of this person was unusual. He was able to

obtain free admittance to the court of the high priest, and

was sufficiently influential to obtain entrance for Peter also.

Evidently he had access to the upper echelon of Judaism,

possibly through acquaintance with Joseph of Arimathea or

Nicodemus, whom he seems to have known personally.

            A few hours later he was standing at the cross in company

with the women who had remained to witness the final scene

of the tragedy. "But there were standing by the cross his

mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and

Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and

 



            THE AUTHOR'S TESTIMONY TO HIMSELF                   219

 

the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his

mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple,

Behold thy mother! And from that hour the disciple took her

unto his own home" (19:25-27). A comparison of the lists

of these women given by Matthew (27:55) and Mark (15:40-

41) indicates that the sister of Jesus' mother was Salome, wife

of Zebedee, and the mother of his sons. If this equation is

correct, the presence of John the son of Zebedee would be

naturally explained, for he was related to Jesus' family. If he

were the sole male relative present, he would be the logical

person to assume the care of Mary, whose distress at that

time would be overpowering. He would also presumably be

acquainted with Jesus' background and associates, so that his

understanding of Jesus' person and work would be more acute

than that of the other disciples.

            The account of the crucifixion stresses the reaction of this

"witness" to the blood and water that flowed from Jesus'

pierced side (John 10:32-35). According to a note in the

postscript, the beloved disciple is "the disciple that beareth

witness of these things, and wrote these things" (21:24). If

the phrase "bear witness" is taken in a technical sense, the

various allusions to the unnamed disciple and the beloved

disciple must refer to the same person. If the question be

raised how this disciple could take Mary to his own home

(19:27) and also witness the piercing of Jesus' side, it is

not impossible that he could have escorted Jesus' mother

back to a dwelling in the city, and then have returned to the

scene of Calvary in ample time to see His death.

            The record of the resurrection couples him again with

Simon Peter. They must have been staying together in the

same place, since Mary Magdalene appealed to them in her

haste when she found the tomb empty. Both he and Peter ran

to investigate the sepulcher, and the "other disciple . . . saw

and believed" (20:8). This belief was the motivation for his

record, for it compelled him to interpret the person whose

life concluded so tragically and yet so victoriously. His inter-

pretation, according to his own words, was intended to lead

his readers into the same faith.

            This mysterious person participated in the miraculous

draught of fishes which Jesus gave to the disciples on the

 



220                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA       July, 1963

 

Lake of Galilee, appearing once again as the special companion

of Simon Peter, both as his advisor (21:7) and as the object

of his curiosity (21:20).

            One wonders why the foregoing allusions to the author

should be grouped in the record of the last week of Jesus'

life. If he accompanied Jesus through the ministry which his

book describes, why should there not be more frequent refer-

ences to his presence? If he did not belong to the apostolic

band, as Mark and Luke did not, why should he not remain

as anonymous as they? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact

that he did not come to the kind of faith that this Gospel

portrays until the events of the Passion compelled him to

rethink the whole career of Jesus in terms of its conclusion.

He was recording not solely the substance of early preaching,

as the Synoptics did, but rather the career of Jesus as his own

experience interpreted it for him and for his followers. It

may be granted that John's Gospel is historical and that its

record is reliable. It is also true that it views Jesus through

the long telescope of an extended spiritual experience, begin-

ning with His, emergence as a preacher after the baptism by

John, and continuing, until the moment when the Gospel

was peened. The author thinks of himself as one whom Jesus

loved, not because he was a special favorite above the others,

but because he was the recipient of divine grace through

Christ. His sentiment is akin to that of Paul, who said, "And

last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me

also" (1 Cor. 15:8).

            This consciousness of the reality of divine love is not only

implied in the use of the phrase, "the disciple whom Jesus

loved," but is also stated directly in the one passage where

the first personal pronoun epitomizes Christian experience.

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we

beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Fa-

ther), full of grace and truth. . . . For of his fulness we all

received, and grace for grace" (John 1:14, 16). The "we"

may be taken as general or editorial, but it seems to indicate

a deep sense of personal participation. In declaring the effect

of the revelation of God in Christ the author cannot suppress

his own feelings, but is constrained to include himself in the

witness to the manifestation of God's glory and in the ac-

 



            THE AUTHOR'S TESTIMONY TO HIMSELF                   221

 

knowledgement of grace. It is quite likely that the phrase,

we beheld his glory” (1:14), is a recollection of the trans-

figuration, which is narrated in detail by the Synoptics (Matt.

17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). If so, it indicates that

the entire Gospel is written in the afterglow of the author's

total earthly experience of Jesus, and that the memories of

the days in Judea, and Galilee were blended with his inward

understanding that came after the resurrection (John 2:22;

20:9).

            Many other features of this Gospel reveal the touch of its

author. He observes that the first disciples interviewed Jesus

"about the tenth hour" (1:39); that there were six waterpots

of stone at the wedding feast of Cana (2:6); that the woman

at the well "left her waterpot, and went away into the city"

(4:28); that at the feeding of the five thousand "there was

much grass in the place" (6:10); and he records numerous

small details of time and place that would be important only

to an eyewitness. These incidental items have no theological

significance, but they confirm the feeling that the content

of this Gospel is original and vital. The author is recalling

the impressions that he received at the time when the events

occurred, and is making them a part of the picture which he

paints.

            The author was keenly interested in personality and in its

spiritual development. Eight of the apostles, Andrew, Peter,

Philip, Nathanael, Thomas, Judas Lebbaeus, and Judas Is-

cariot, are definitely named, and "the sons of Zebedee" are

mentioned in the last scene at the Lake of Galilee. Nicodemus,

Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus of Bethany, and Malchus, the

servant of the high priest seem to have been personal ac-

quaintances; others, like the the nobleman of Cana, the

woman of Samaria, the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, and

the man born blind are not identifield by name, but the

characterizations of them, though given in a few words, are

deft and original.

            With few exceptions, each one becomes the example of

some spiritual principle or of some reaction to the person of

Christ that fits into, the major purpose and plot of the Gospel.

Philip, for instance, illustrates the progress of faith in an

essentially materialistic mind. After his initial contact with

 



222                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA       July, 1963

 

Jesus he became a convinced follower, and suggested to the

skeptical Nathanael that he should judge Jesus by pragmatic

observation: "Come and see" (1:43-46). When Jesus tested

him by asking where they might obtain bread for an enormous

crowd, Philip quickly calculated what the necessary supply

would cost, and despaired of being able to make the purchase

(6 :5-7). At the conclusion of Jesus' ministry Philip's spiritual

longing was phrased in terms of physical sight: "Lord, show

us the Father, and it sufficeth us" (14:8). Though he was

naturally a pragmatist, he felt a deep longing for spiritual

truth, and sought it earnestly.

            The description of these reactions of Philip shows that the

author had a sense of relevance. In his selection of episodes

for his record he was careful to present those developments

of character that would illustrate his theme of belief. Fur-

thermore, the types of persons described revealed the catho-

licity of his interests. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea

were aristocrats; the disciples were fishermen and business

men; the woman of Samaria was an outcast; the blind man

was a beggar. He shared Jesus' concern for them, and saw

them through His eyes.

            The vocabulary of the author is distinctive, pointing to

one who had distilled the truth of Christ into concepts em-

bodied in a limited but pregnant vocabulary. "Father" (Jesus'

favorite title for God), "know" (a translation of two words,

ginosko and oida), "world," "love" (translation of two words,

agapao and phileo), "witness," "life," "judge," "send" (trans-

lation of two words, apostello and pempo), "works," "light,"

"truth" or "true" (translation of two words, alethes and ale-

thinos), "sign," "hour," "receive," and others contain the

essence of the writer's theology. His concepts are both simple

and profound. Not one of them is inherently abstruse; each

is drawn from ordinary conversation and its meaning is

commonly known. They have, however, been endowed with

new connotations by their relation to the teaching concerning

Christ. One may say that the Word has penetrated the words,

and has made them glow with a new life. The spiritual illu-

mination of this author has shaped his vocabulary so that

it has acquired a depth exceeding the ordinary connotation

of its terms.

 



            THE AUTHOR'S TESTIMONY TO HIMSELF                   223

 

            To a certain extent each of the Gospels reflects the per-

sonality of its author, but in none of them is there a more

distinctive individuality manifested than in John. Not only

can the vocabulary be recognized in the reading of a verse

or two, but the entire Gospel bears the stamp of a different

mind and of a fuller maturity. The writer has created a fresh

presentation of the person of Christ, illustrated by episodes

not ordinarily used in the preaching tradition, and specially

relevant to the establishment and growth of Christian faith.

He has revealed the growth of his own belief, and in his later

years has organized his thinking so that he can give a true

evaluation of the person of Christ. His quotation of Jesus'

words, "the Holy Spirit . . . shall teach you all things, and

bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you" (14:26),

describes his own experience and method, for both are the

product of the Spirit's inspiration. No unaided human intel-

lect ever put together the paradoxical combination of sim-

plicity and profundity, of divine revelation and of human

experience, that can be found in this Gospel. Although the

writer does not name himself, the evidence of the book com-

pels the conclusion that he was a disciple of Jesus from the

beginning, an eyewitness of the events that he describes,

and a leader in the church to which he bequeathed his testi-

mony. Historical criticism has to this day presented no like-

lier candidate for this honor than John, the son of Zebedee.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu