Authorship Of the Johannine Works

The authorship of the Johannine works (the Gospel of JohnEpistles of John, and the Book of Revelation) has been debated by scholars since at least the 2nd century AD. The main debate centers on who authored the writings, and which of the writings, if any, can be ascribed to a common author.

There may have been a single author for the gospel and the three epistles. Tradition attributes all the books to John the Apostle. Most scholars agree that all three letters are written by the same author, although there is debate on who that author is. Although some scholars conclude the author of the epistles was different from that of the gospel, all four works probably originated from the same community, traditionally and plausibly attributed to Ephesus, c. 90-110, but perhaps, according to some scholars, from Syria.

Some scholars, however, argue that the apostle John wrote none of these works, although others, notably J. A. T. Robinson, F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, and Martin Hengel hold the apostle to be behind at least some, in particular the gospel.

In the case of Revelation, many modern scholars agree that it was written by a separate author, John of Patmos, c. 95 with some parts possibly dating to Nero’s reign in the early 60s.


The Revelation

Johannine literature

Main article: Johannine literature

Johannine literature refers to the collection of New Testament works that are traditionally attributed to John the Apostle or to a Johannine Christian community. They are dated to c. AD 60–110.

Gospel of John

Main article: Gospel of John

While evidence regarding the author is slight, some scholars believe this gospel developed from a school or Johannine circle working at the end of the 1st century, possibly in Ephesus.

Most 19th-century scholars denied historical value of the work, largely basing their conclusions on seven particular theses: first, that the tradition of authorship by John the Apostle was created ex post facto to support the book’s authority; second, that the book does not proceed even indirectly from an eyewitness account; third, that the book was intended as an apologetic work, not a history; fourth, that the Synoptic tradition was used and adapted very freely by the author; fifth, that these deviations are not due to the application of other sources unknown to the authors of the Synoptic gospels; sixth, that the discourses in the Gospel express not Jesus’ words, but those of the evangelist; and therefore, that the fourth Gospel has no value in supplementing the Synoptics. Some 19th-century scholars, however, agreed with the traditional authorship view.

In favor of the historical and eyewitness character of the Gospel, a few passages are cited. John’s chronology for the death of Jesus seems more realistic, because the Synoptic Gospels would have the trial before the Sanhedrin occurring on the first day of the Passover, which was a day of rest. Schonfield agrees that the Gospel was the product of the Apostle’s great age, but further identifies him as the Beloved Disciple of the Last Supper, and so believes that the Gospel is based on first hand witness, though decades later and perhaps through the assistance of a younger follower and writer, which may account for the mixture of Hebraicisms (from the Disciple) and Greek idiom (from the assistant).

Fredriksen sees the Fourth Gospel’s unique explanation for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion as the most historically plausible: “The priests’ motivation is clear and commonsensical: ‘If we let [Jesus] go on.. the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ Caiaphas continues, ‘It is expedient that one man should die for the people, that the whole nation not perish’ (John 11:48,50).

Epistles of John

Main article: Epistles of John

Saint John on Patmos by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511

“Saint John on Patmos” by Hans Baldung Grien, 1511

Most scholars agree that all three letters are written by the same author, although there is debate on who that author is. These three epistles are similar in terminology, style, and general situation. They are loosely associated with the Gospel of John and may result from that gospel’s theology. These epistles are commonly accepted as deriving from the Johannine community in Asia Minor. Early references to the epistles, the organization of the church apparent in the text, and the lack of reference to persecution suggests that they were written early in the 2nd century.

First epistle

The phraseology of the first letter of John is very similar to that of the fourth gospel, so the question of its authorship is often connected to the question of authorship of the gospel. The two works use many of the same characteristic words and phrases, such as lightdarknesslifetrutha new commandmentto be of the truthto do the truth and only begotten son. In both works, the same basic concepts are explored: the Word, the incarnation, the passing from death to life, the truth and lies, etc. The two works also bear many stylistic affinities to one another. In the words of Amos Wilder, the works share “a combination of simplicity and elevation which differs from the flexible discourse of Paul and from the more concrete vocabulary and formal features of the Synoptic Gospels.”

Given the similarity with the Gospel, the “great majority” of critical scholars assign the same authorship to the epistle that they assign to the Gospel. At the end of the 19th century, scholar Ernest DeWitt Burton was able to write that, “the similarity in style, vocabulary and doctrine to the fourth gospel is, however, so clearly marked that there can be no reasonable doubt that the letter and the gospel are from the same pen.” Starting with Heinrich Julius Holtzmann, however, and continuing with C. H. Dodd, some scholars have maintained that the epistle and the gospel were written by different authors. There are at least two principal arguments for this view. The first is that the epistle often uses a demonstrative pronoun at the beginning of a sentence, then a particle or conjunction, followed by an explanation or definition of the demonstrative at the end of the sentence, a stylistic technique which is not used in the gospel. The second is that the author of the epistle, “uses the conditional sentence in a variety of rhetorical figures which are unknown to the gospel.”

The book was not among those whose canonicity was in doubt, according to Eusebius; however, it is not included in an ancient Syrian canon. Theodore of Mopsuestia also presented a negative opinion toward its canonicity. Outside of the Syrian world, however, the book has many early witnesses, and appears to have been widely accepted.

The First Epistle of John assumes knowledge of the Gospel of John, and some scholars think that the epistle’s author might have been the one who redacted the gospel.

Second and third epistles

Irenaeus, in the late second-century, quotes from 1st and 2nd John, and states that he is quoting the Apostle John. Eusebius claimed that the author of 2nd and 3rd John was not John the Apostle but actually John the Elder, due to the introductions of the epistles. However, modern scholars have argued that Eusibius made this conclusion based on a misinterpretation of a statement from Papias and a desire to invent a second John to be the author of Revelation. Carson suggests that the vocabulary, structure, grammar of the Gospel of John is remarkably similar to 1st John, 2nd John and 3rd John.

Book of Revelation

Main article: Book of Revelation

Saint John of Patmos, by Jean Fouquet

Saint John of Patmos, by Jean Fouquet

The author of the Book of Revelation identifies himself as “John”, and the book has been traditionally credited to John the Apostle. Reference to the apostle’s authorship is found as early as Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho. Other early witnesses to this tradition are Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Hippolytus. This identification, however, was denied by other Fathers, including Dionysius of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom. The Apocryphon of John claims John as both the author of itself and Revelation. Donald Guthrie wrote that the evidence of the Church Fathers supports the identification of the author as John the Apostle.

According to Epiphanius, one Caius of Rome believed that Cerinthus, a Gnostic, was the author of the Book of Revelation.

In the 3rd century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria rejected apostolic authorship, but accepted the book’s canonicity. Dionysius believed that the author was another man also named John, John the Presbyter, teacher of Papias, bishop of Hieropolis. Eusebius of Caesarea later agreed with this. Because authorship was one of several considerations for canonization, several Church Fathers and the Council of Laodicea rejected Revelation.

Mainstream scholars conclude that the author did not also write the Gospel of John because of wide differences in eschatology, language, and tone. The Book of Revelation contains grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities whereas the Gospel and Epistles are all stylistically consistent which indicate its author may not have been as familiar with the Greek language as the Gospel/Epistles’s author. Contemporary scholars note that when Revelation and the Gospel refer to Jesus as “lamb” they use different Greek words, and they spell “Jerusalem” differently. There are differing motifs between the book and the Gospel: use of allegory, symbolism, and similar metaphors, such as “living water”, “shepherd”, “lamb”, and “manna”. The Book of Revelation does not go into several typically Johannine themes, such as light, darkness, truth, love, and “the world” in a negative sense. The eschatology of the two works are also very different. Still, the author uses the terms “Word of God” and “Lamb of God” for Jesus Christ, possibly indicating that the author had a common theological background with the author of John.

According to the testimony of Irenaeus, Eusebius and Jerome, the writing of this book took place near the very end of Domitian’s reign, around 95 or 96. Kenneth Gentry contends for an earlier date, 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero or shortly thereafter.

Early use of the Johannine works

The gospel was not widely quoted until late in the 2nd century. Justin Martyr is probably the first Church Father to quote John’s gospel. Some scholars conclude that in antiquity John was probably considered less important than the synoptics. Walter Bauer suggests:

Can it be a coincidence that immediately after Justin, the enemy of heretics who took aim at the Valentinians (Dial. 35. 6), we note the appearance in Italy-Rome of two representatives of this latter school who especially treasure the Fourth Gospel – namely Ptolemy and Heracleon (Hillolytus Ref. 6. 35)? To be sure, Justin’s disciple Tatian placed the Gospel of John on the same level as the synoptics, but he also broke with the church on account of profound differences in faith – poisoned, so Irenaeus thought, by the Valentinians and Marcion (AH 1. 28. 1 [=1.26.1]).

One reason for this ‘orthodox ambivalence’ was gnostic acceptance of the fourth gospel. The early Gnostic use is referred to by Irenaeus and Origen in quoted commentary made on John by the Gnostics Ptolemy and Heracleon. In the quote below Irenaeus argues against the gnostic heresy from his book Against Heresies:

For, summing up his statements respecting the Word previously mentioned by him, he further declares, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” But, according to their [gnostic] hypothesis, the Word did not become flesh at all, inasmuch as He never went outside of the Pleroma, but that Saviour [became flesh] who was formed by a special dispensation [out of all the Æons], and was of later date than the Word.

Several church fathers of the 2nd century never quoted John, but the earliest extant written commentary on any book of the New Testament was that written on John by Heracleon, a disciple of the gnostic Valentinus.

The following table shows the number of times various church fathers cited John compared to the synoptic gospels.

Gospel Barn. Did. Ign. Poly. Herm. II Clem. Papias Basilides
Synoptics 1? 1? 7(+4?) 1 0 1(+3?) 2 1
John or Epistles 0 0 2? 1 0 0 ? 1
Gospel Marcion Justin Valentinus Hegesip. Ptolem. Melito Apollin. Athenag.
Synoptics Luke 170 1 3? 4 4 1 13
John or Epistles 0 1 0 0 1 4 1 0

John was considered the last to be written. Most scholars today give it a date between 90 and 100, though a minority suggest an even later date. The Fourth Gospel may have been later also because it was written to a smaller group within the Johannine community, and was not circulated widely until a later date. However, claims for authorship much later than 100 have been called into question due to Rylands Library Papyrus P52, a fragment of the gospel found in Egypt that was probably written around 125 as well as by the recent work of Charles Hill. Hill gives evidence that the Gospel of John was complete and in use between 90 and 130, and of the possible use of uniquely Johannine gospel material in several works which date from this period. These works and authors include Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107); Polycarp (c. 107); Papias’ elders (c. 110-120); of Hierapolis’ Exegesis of the Lord’s Oracles (c. 120-132). Hill holds that many early historical figures did indeed reference the Gospel of John.

History of critical scholarship

Main article: Biblical criticism

The modern era of critical scholarship on the works opened with K.G. Bretschneider‘s 1820 work on the topic of Johannine authorship. Bretschneider called into question the apostolic authorship of the Gospel, and even stated on the basis of the author’s unsteady grip on topography that the author could not have come from Palestine. He argued that the meaning and nature of Jesus presented in the Gospel of John was very different from that in the Synoptic Gospels, and thus its author could not have been an eyewitness to the events. Bretschneider cited an apologetic character in John, indicating a later date of composition. Scholars such as Wellhausen, Wendt, and Spitta have argued that the fourth gospel is a Grundschrift or a, “ which had suffered interpolation before arriving at its canonical form; it was a unity as it stood.”

F.C. Baur (1792–1860) proposed that John was solely a work of synthesis of thesis-antithesis according to the Hegelian model—synthesis between the thesis of Judeo-Christianity (represented by Peter) and the antithesis of Gentile Christianity (represented by Paul). He also cited in the epistles a synthesis with the opposing dualist forces of Gnosticism. As such, he assigned a date of 170 to the Gospel.

Early criticism

The first certain witness to Johannine theology among the Fathers of the Church is in Ignatius of Antioch, whose Letter to the Philippians is founded on John 3:8 and alludes to John 10:7-9 and 14:6. This would indicate that the Gospel was known in Antioch before Ignatius’ death (probably 107). Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 80 to 167) quotes from the letters of John, as does Justin Martyr (c. 100 to 165).

The earliest testimony to the author was that of Papias, preserved in fragmentary quotes in Eusebius’s history of the Church. This text is consequently rather obscure. Eusebius says that two different Johns must be distinguished, John the Apostle, and John the Presbyter, with the Gospel assigned to the Apostle and the Book of Revelation to the presbyter.

Irenaeus’s witness based on Papias represents the tradition in Ephesus, where John the Apostle is reputed to have lived. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, thus in the second generation after the apostle. According to many scholars, he states unequivocally that the apostle is the author of the Gospel. (Other scholars note, however, that Irenaeus consistently refers to the author of the gospel, as well as of Revelation, as “the disciple of the Lord,” whereas he refers to the others as “apostles.” And so Irenaeus appears to distinguish John, the author of the fourth gospel, from John the apostle.) Koester rejects the reference of Ignatius of Antioch as referring to the Gospel and cites Irenaeus as the first to use it.

For some time it was common practice to assert that the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, which contains a small portion of chapter 18 of John’s gospel, demonstrated that the text of the Gospel of John spread rapidly through Egypt in the second century. However, more recent scholarship has shown the fragment may date from as late as the third or fourth century, rather than the second century, as was previously supposed.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 211) mentions John the Apostle’s missionary activity in Asia Minor, and continues, “As for John, the last, upon seeing that in the Gospels they had told the corporal matters, supported by his disciples and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wrote a spiritual Gospel.” Origen (185–c. 254) responded, when asked how John had placed the cleansing of the Temple first rather than last, “John does not always tell the truth literally, he always tells the truth spiritually.” In Alexandria, the authorship of the Gospel and the first epistle was never questioned. Bruce Metzger stated “One finds in Clement’s work citations of all the books of the New Testament with the exception of Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John.”

Rome was the home to the only early rejection of the fourth Gospel. The adversaries of Montanism were responsible. Irenaeus says that these persons tried to suppress the teaching about the Holy Spirit in order to put down Montanism, and as a result denied the authorship of the Gospel and its authority. Later Epiphanius called this group, who were followers of the priest Caius, the Alogi in a wordplay between “without the Word” and “without reason”.

Modern criticism

Modern criticism can be broken down into three main sections: (1) Foundations with Bauer to Braun (1934–1935), (2) Heyday with Schnackenburg to Koester (1959–60), (3) Uneasy supremacy from Hengel to Hangel (1989–2000).

Walter Bauer opened the modern discussion on John with his book Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum. Bauer’s thesis is that “the heretics probably outnumbered the orthodox” in the early Christian world and that heresy and orthodoxy were not as narrowly defined as we now define them. He was “convinced that none of the Apostolic Fathers had relied on the authority of the Fourth Gospel. It was the gnostics, the Marcionites, and the Montanists who first used it and introduced it to the Christian community.”

J.N. Sanders, who wrote The Fourth Gospel in the Early Church, examined “the alleged parallels with John in Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, and the Epistle to Diognetus, and concluded that there were no certain traces of the Fourth Gospel’s influence among any of the Apostolic Fathers.” Sanders argued the book originated in Alexandria.

The Gospel of John states explicitly in its text that it was written by the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, so a great deal of effort has been put into determining who this person might be. Traditionally he is identified as John the Apostle, since otherwise, one of the most important apostles in the other Gospels would be entirely missing in the fourth gospel. However, critical scholars have suggested some other possibilities.

Filson, Sanders, Vernard Eller, Rudolf Steiner, and Ben Witherington suggest Lazarus, since John 11:3 and 11:36 specifically indicates that Jesus “loved” him.

Parker suggested that this disciple might be John Mark; nonetheless, the Acts of the Apostles indicate that John Mark was very young and a late-comer as a disciple. J. Colson suggested that “John” was a priest in Jerusalem, explaining the alleged priestly mentality in the fourth gospel. R. Schnackenburg suggested that “John” was an otherwise unknown resident of Jerusalem who was in Jesus’ circle of friends. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary identify Mary Magdalene as the disciple whom Jesus loved, a connection that has been analyzed by Esther de Boer and made notorious in the fictional The Da Vinci Code. Finally, a few authors, such as Loisy and Bultmann and Hans-Martin Schenke, see “the Beloved Disciple” as a purely symbolic creation, an idealized pseudonym for the group of authors.

Gnosticism scholar Elaine Pagels goes further and claims that the author himself was a Gnostic, citing similarities with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.

Various objections to John the Apostle’s authorship have been raised. First of all, the Gospel of John is a highly intellectual account of Jesus’ life, and is familiar with Rabbinic traditions of biblical interpretation. The Synoptic Gospels, however, are united in identifying John as a fisherman. Acts 4:13 refers to John as “without learning” or “unlettered”.

Objections are also raised because the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is not mentioned before the Last Supper.

The title (“beloved disciple”) is also strange to George Beasley-Murray because “if the beloved disciple were one of the Twelve, he would have been sufficiently known outside the Johannine circle of churches for the author to have named him”.

Raymond E. Brown, among others, posit a community of writers rather than a single individual that gave final form to the work. In particular, Chapter 21 is very stylistically different from the main body of the Gospel, and is thought to be a later addition (known as the appendix). Among many Christian scholars the view has evolved that there were multiple stages of development involving the disciples as well as the apostle; R.E. Brown (1970) distinguishes four stages of development: traditions connected directly with the apostle, partial editing by his disciples, synthesis by the apostle, and additions by a final editor. At the very least, it seems clear that in chapter 21 someone else speaks in the first person plural (“we”), ostensibly as the voice of a community that believes the testimony of this other person called the “beloved disciple” to be true.

The writing of the Gospel has been dated to c. 90-100. John the Apostle, if the principal author, would have been in his 70s or 80s which was higher than normal but not uncommon. On the other hand, if the apostle had actually lived to such an age, it would explain the tradition reported in John 21, that many believed that Jesus had said the apostle would not die (which may have led to the legend of Prester John). A date later than the early 2nd century is excluded because P52, our earliest manuscript evidence of the Gospel, dates from before the middle of the 2nd century. Even in the early church there was a doubt over its authenticity, and both Marcion (heretical founder of Marcionism) and Celsus (a pagan critical of Christianity in general) heavily criticized it as a clear forgery. The debate focused around not only its differences from the other Gospels, but also its teaching about the Paraclete, which was important in the early “charismatic” movement known as Montanism.

Literary criticism in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Theories such as the two-source hypothesis have been circulated for the Synoptic Gospels, but there has been little agreement about the literary sources for the Johannine works.

Criticism in the early 20th century centered on the idea of the Logos (word), which was perceived as a Hellenistic concept. Thus H. J. Holtzmann hypothesized a dependence of the work on Philo Judaeus; Albert Schweitzer considered the work to be a Hellenized version of Pauline mysticism, while R. Reitzenstein sought the work’s origin in Egyptian and Persian mystery religions.

Rudolf Bultmann took a different approach to the work. He hypothesized a Gnostic origin (specifically Mandaeanism which maintains that Jesus was a mšiha kdaba or “false prophet,” ) for the work. He noted similarities with the Pauline corpus, but attributed this to a common Hellenistic background. He claimed that the many contrasts in the Gospel, between light and darkness, truth and lies, above and below, and so on, show a tendency toward dualism, explained by the Gnostic roots of the work. Despite the Gnostic origin, Bultmann commended the author for several improvements over Gnosticism, such as the Judeo-Christian view of creation and the demythologizing of the role of the Redeemer. He saw the Gospel as an investigation into a God who was wholly Other and transcendent, seeing no place in the vision of the author for a Church or sacraments.

Bultmann’s analysis is still widely applied in German-speaking countries, although with many corrections and discussions. Wide-ranging replies have been made to this analysis. Today, most Christian exegetes reject much of Bultmann’s theory, but accept certain of his intuitions. For instance, J. Blank uses Bultmann in his discussion of the Last Judgment and W. Thüsing uses him to discuss the elevation and glorification of Jesus.

In the English-speaking world, Bultmann has had less impact. Instead, these scholars tended to continue in the investigation of the Hellenistic and Platonistic theories, generally returning to theories closer to the traditional interpretation. By way of example, G.H.C. McGregor (1928) and W.F. Howard (1943) belong to this group.

More recent criticism

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran marked a change in Johannine scholarship. Several of the hymns, presumed to come from a community of Essenes, contained the same sort of plays between opposites – light and dark, truth and lies – which are themes within the Gospel. Thus the hypothesis that the Gospel relied on Gnosticism fell out of favor. Many suggested further that John the Baptist himself belonged to an Essene community, and if John the Apostle had previously been a disciple of the Baptist, he would have been affected by that teaching.

The resulting revolution in Johannine scholarship was termed the new look by John A. T. Robinson, who coined the phrase in 1957 at Oxford. According to Robinson, this new information rendered the question of authorship a relative one. He considered a group of disciples around the aging John the Apostle who wrote down his memories, mixing them with theological speculation, a model that had been proposed as far back as Renan’s Vie de Jésus (“Life of Jesus,” 1863). The work of such scholars brought the consensus back to a Palestinian origin for the text, rather than the Hellenistic origin favored by the critics of the previous decades.

According to Gnosticism scholar Pagels, “Qumran fever” that was raised by the discovery of the Scrolls is gradually dying down, with theories of Gnostic influences in the Johannine works beginning to be proposed again, especially in Germany. Some recent views have seen the theology of Johannine works as directly opposing “Thomas Christians”. Most scholars, however, consider the Gnostism question closed.

Hugh J. Schonfield, in the controversial The Passover Plot and other works, saw evidence that the source of this Gospel was the Beloved Disciple of the Last Supper and further that this person, perhaps named John, was a senior Temple priest and so probably a member of the Sanhedrin. This would account for the knowledge of and access to the Temple which would not have been available to rough fishermen and followers of a disruptive rural preacher from the Galilee, one who was being accused of heresy besides. And probably for the evanescent presence of the Beloved Disciple in the events of Jesus’ Ministry. On this reading, the Gospel was written, perhaps by a student and follower of this Disciple in his last advanced years, perhaps at Patmos.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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