Who Wrote the Gospel of John: External Evidence

Bible New Testament St. JohnContinuing for my last post looking at the date John’s Gospel was written, we now look at the external evidence.

When it comes to the external evidence that supports Johannine authorship (that is, evidence outside of the Bible), D.A. Carson states that the contemporary scholars that dispute John’s authorship do so by virtually dismissing all the external evidences in John’s favor.

He writes, “This is particularly regrettable. Most scholars of antiquity, were they assessing the authorship of some other document, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful, consistent and plainly tied to the source as is the external evidence that supports Johannine authorship.”[1]

As has already been noted on the date of the Gospel’s composition, the Rylands Egyptian papyrus puts the writing earlier than 125, as it would have been written, copied, and spread before that time. This alone puts composition of this Gospel more than likely within John’s lifetime.

The early church fathers also unanimously believed and agreed that John was the author of this gospel. “The early church seems to have accepted Johannine authorship without question. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all see the apostle as the author. The first to quote this Gospel by name was Theophilus of Antioch, about A.D. 180.”[2]

Carson writes, “Before this date, however, several writers, including Tatian (a student of Justin Martyr), Claudius Apollinaris (bishop of Hierapolis), and Athenagroas, unambiguously quote from the fourth gospel as an authoritative source.”[3] Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John himself. Thus, Thomas Lea and David Black write, “The most important external information about authorship of the Gospel comes from Polycarp, who was martyred in Smyrna in Asia Minor in A.D. 156 at the age of eighty-six.”[4]

We see in Eusebius’s rendition of the statements made by Irenaeus that Irenaeus believed the Gospel to be written by John. Irenaeus writes, “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”[5] Thus Lea and Black state, “Irenaeus identified the fourth evangelist as John and linked him with the beloved disciple mentioned in John 13:32. We may feel that ultimately Irenaeus’s information originated with the witness of Polycarp.”[6]

By the end of the second century, “there is virtual agreement in the church as to the authority, canonicity, and authorship of the Gospel of John.”[7] It is also interesting to point out the lack of dispute around this issue. B.F. Westcott writes, “It is significant that Eusebius, who had access to many works that are now lost, speaks without reserve of the fourth gospel as the unquestioned work of St. John.”[8]

Carson importantly adds, “The silence is most significant precisely because it was Eusebius’s concern to discuss the doubtful cases.”[9] Also, “The Muratorian Canon (c. 180–200) gives a legend in which John the apostle is the author, and the apostolic authorship was accepted by Ptolemaeus.[10]

Those who argue against Johaninne authorship as well also use the writings of Eusebius. Carson writes, “One way of circumventing the force of the external evidence, still common but no longer quite as popular as it used to be, is by appealing to the words of Papias, as reported and interpreted by Eusebius.”[11]

A popular alternative to John the disciple writing the Gospel was that there was in fact another John. “In recent years the theory that it was written by an obscure elder at Ephesus, also named John, has been embraced and propagated by some liberal scholars.”[12]

This view comes from a statement by Papias as quoted by Eusebius where Papias writes, “If ever anyone came who had followed the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, had said, and things which Aristion and John the elder, disciples of the Lord, say.”[13]

Eusebius then notes that Papias twice mentions the name of John, writing, “the former of these Johns he puts in the same list with Peter and Jams and Matthew and the other apostles…but the latter he places with the others, in a separate clause, outside the number of the apostles…and he clearly calls him ‘elder.’”[14]

And so it is argued that perhaps it was the second John, maybe even a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, who was the author of the fourth Gospel. However, this argument is rather weak and does not hold much support. Carson gives us four main reasons why:

  • It is now widely recognized that whereas Eusebius makes a distinction between ‘apostles’ and ‘elders’…Papias himself makes no such distinction…
  • In the Papias quotation the most obvious reason why John is designated ‘the elder’ is precisely because he is being grouped with the elders just mentioned…
  • It appears that the distinction Papias is making, in his two lists, is not between apostles and elders of the next generation, but between first-generation witnesses who have died (what they said) and first-generation witnesses who are still alive (what the say).
  • In any case, Eusebius had his own agenda. He so disliked the apocalyptic language of Revelation that he was only too glad to find it possible to assign its authorship to a John other than the apostle.[15]

Robert Gromacki agrees, “In fact, the double reference to John and the difference in verb tenses (“had said” vs. “were saying”) within the quotation may suggest that John was still alive at the time Papias wrote.”[16]

Until the nineteenth century, there had been no substantial challenge to belief in John the son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Carson writes, “The external evidence that maintains that the fourth evangelist was none other than the apostle John, then, is virtually unanimous, though not impressively early.”[17] Perhaps because there was no need to defend Johaninne authorship as it was known by all early on?

Regardless, “But even if we must turn to Irenaeus, toward the end of the second century, to find one of the first totally unambiguous witnesses, his personal connection with Polycarp, who knew John, means the distance in terms of personal memories is not very great.”[18]

Even C.H. Dodd, a critic of Johannine authorship and discounts that view, writes concerning any substantial external evidence against John, “Of any external evidence to the contrary that could be called cogent I am not aware.”[19] Therefore the strength of the external evidence in favor of Johaninne authorship, coupled with the lack of any strong evidence to the contrary, points quite clearly in the direction of John as the Gospels author.

Carson concludes, “The witness of Theophilus, Irenaeus and other second-century writers on the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is indeed ‘formidable’, though not absolutely decisive. Still more important is the internal evidence, i.e. what the Fourth Gospel says about itself.”[20] We will look at the internal evidence in the next post.

[1] Ibid., 69.
[2]Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1180.
[3] Carson and Moo, 228.
[4] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2003), 156.
[5] St. Irenaeus of Lyons Against the Heresies (2012- : New York ; The Newman Press.: Paulist Press, 1991), 3.1.1.
[6] Lea and Black, 156.
[7] Carson and Moo, 232.
[8] B.F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction and notes (London: John Murray, 1908), 1:lix.
[9] Carson and Moo, 232.
[10]I. H. Marshall, “John, Gospel Of,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 600.
[11] Carson, 69.
[12]Gromacki, 130.
[14] Carson, 69.
[15] Ibid.
[16]Gromacki, 130.
[17] Carson and Moo, 232.
[18] Ibid.
[19] C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 12; cf. J. A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John (London: SCM, 1985), 99-104.
[20] Carson, 70.


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