Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (July 1963) 214-23.
Copyright © 1963 by
II. LITERARY KEYS TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL
The Author's Testimony
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
Numerous hypotheses have been advanced to account for
the origin of this Gospel. Some critics have ascribed it to
the elder," a presbyter of
bius' famous quotation from Papias, a writer of the early
"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
borne the same name, and that there were two tombs at
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
latter wrote the Gospel.
In 1943 J. M. Sanders propounded the thesis that the
Gospel originated in
Presbyter.2 It had originally been used by the Gnostics, who
ascribed it to a man named "John." In
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
"The Elder." He defended his position on the ground that
there could have been two Marks in
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
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
8 E. F. Harrison, "The Gospel of John," Wycliffe Bible Commentary pp.
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
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
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
understanding that came after the resurrection (John 2:22;
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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