Who Wrote the Gospel of John: Internal Evidence

After looking at the date of the Gospel of John’s composition, as well as the external evidence, we conclude with the internal evidence for who wrote this book.

The internal evidence (that is, evidence inside the Bible) has caused more disputes about the authorship of the Gospel of John than the external evidence. Some arguments against Johaninne authorship seems from an internal perspective seem quite strong on the surface. However, upon further examination the internal evidence also points in John’s favor.

“Leon Morris developed more extensively the earlier classic approach of B.F. Westcott in which he argues progressively that the author of the fourth Gospel was: a Jew, a Palestinian, an eyewitness, an apostle, and John the apostle.”[1] These five points will be discussed in detail as to how they can confidently point us to John as the author of this Gospel. Speaking on the first two points, Carson and Moo write, “The evangelist’s detailed knowledge of Palestinian topography and of features in conservative Jewish debate probably reflects personal acquaintance, not mere dependence on reliable Jewish sources.”[2] Gromacki adds to why the author of John’s Gospel must have been a Jew,

“He understood and quoted from the Old Testament (12:40; 13:18; 19:37). His knowledge of the various Jewish religious feasts seemed to be very natural (2:23; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; 13:1). He was aware of the minute details within the Jewish customs: wedding feasts (2:1–10), ceremonial purification (3:25; 11:55), and manner of burial (11:38, 44; 19:40). He was acquainted with the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah (1:19–28) and perceived the religious differences between the Jew and the Samaritan (4:9, 20). “[3]

The author’s familiarity with the topography and geography is also striking. “The writer mentions many places, and his place-names all seem to be used correctly.”[4] His references to Cana, a village not mentioned in any other earlier writings that have been discovered, means that this reference certainly came from someone who knew the place. Also, “He locates Bethany with some precision as about 15 stadia from Jerusalem (i.e., about 2 miles, 11:18). He has several references to places in or near Jerusalem, such as Bethesda (5:2), Siloam (9:7), and the Kidron (18:1).”[5]

Lastly, though more could be said still, “His knowledge of Galilee can be seen in his descriptions of the cities in that area (1:44, 46; 2:1) and of the terrain (2:12).”[6] All of this leads Walter Elwell and Barry Buitzel to conclude, “Of course, this does not rule out some contemporary of John’s, but it makes it difficult to think of the author as a much later individual writing at a distance from Palestine.”[7] It is with these first two points, that the author was a Jew and from Palestine, that most all scholars will agree upon. It is the next three that many contemporary scholars try to discredit.

There are many areas in the Gospel of John that can be pointed to that show the author to be an eyewitnesses of the events described. “The claim of the author to be an eyewitness appears in 1:14 and 19:35. The knowledge of personal names (Nathanael in 1:45 and Malchus in 18:10) together with vivid deals (six water jars 2:6) also supply evidence of an eyewitness.”[8] Other examples include Jesus teaching “in the treasury” (8:20), a detail which was non-essential to the passage. Also, “The fact that the house was filled with fragrance when the woman broke the perfume jar (12:3) does not materially affect the account but is the kind of detail that one who was there would remember.”[9]

Also noting that the loaves used in the feeding of the multitude were of barley, that the tunic Jesus wore was without seem and woven in one piece from top to bottom (19:23), that the branches Jesus was greeted with were palm branches (12:13), and that it was nighttime when Judas went out (13:30).[10] These examples, among others, show that the author knew the most minute details which certainly would have been lost had the Gospel been transmitted and written by a non-eyewitness at a later date.

Due to the evidence of such fine details, arguing against an eyewitnesses account, along with the last two points, “are all disputed and turn in large part on the identity of the ‘beloved disciple.’”[11] It has been put forth by some that this beloved disciples was Lazarus, “on grounds that ‘beloved disciple’ would be an appropriate form of self-reference for one of whom it is said that Jesus loved him (11:5, 36).”[12]

Also suggested has been the rich young man of Mark 10:21 on similar grounds. As well as the owner of the upper room of the last supper, “supposing that the reason he could lay his head on Jesus’ breast was that, as the host, he was placed in a position of honor next to Jesus; perhaps he was John Mark.”[13]

Another objection to Johaninne authorship comes from those who emphasize the differences between this Gospel and the Synoptics. It is argued that the Jesus as portrayed in the synoptics could not be anything like the Jesus of the fourth Gospel. Elwell and Beitzel comment,

“This is a completely subjective argument, ignoring the fact that any great man will appear differently to different people. The judgment of the church throughout the centuries has    been that Jesus was large enough to inspire both portraits. To put the same point another way, we have no reason for holding that the first three Evangelists tell us all there is to know about Jesus. There is no contradiction. John simply brings out other aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching.”[14]

A third objection is that the apostle John was incapable of writing such a Gospel. “It is alleged that the apostle John was incapable of writing such a Gospel. He was an unlearned man—a view which finds its only and inadequate basis in a questionable exegesis of Acts 4:13.”[15] Though it has been long been shown that the expression in Acts 4:13 “does not mean that Peter and John were illiterate or profoundly ignorant but, from the point of view of contemporary theological proficiency, ‘untrained laymen”, not unlike Jesus himself (John 7:15).”[16]

A fourth argument against Johaninne authorship comes from the apparent slowness of the church to accept John’s Gospel, as well as the fact that some of the early church fathers who might have been expected to know John’s Gospel and quote from it fail to do so. “Against this must be pointed out the general weakness of arguments from silence and the fact that the evidence for the acceptance and use of the other three Gospels is almost equally scanty before the period in which we find all four Gospels accepted together. Further, we are completely ignorant of the circumstances of publication of John except for the brief note in 21:24.”[17] This leads back to the discussion or the “beloved disciple” as the topic that needs the most explanation.

The traditional view is that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee. “The beloved disciple first appears as such at the Last Supper…He is found at the cross, where he receives a special commission having to do with Jesus’ mother (19:26-27), and at the empty tomb, where he outstrips Peter in speed but not in boldness (20:2-9). In the epilogue (chap. 21), he is said to be the one who wrote ‘these things.’”[18]

Therefore, if “wrote” means that the beloved disciple wrote the material himself, and “these things” refers to the entire Gospel and not just chapter 21, then that would make the beloved disciple the evangelist (author of the Gospel) himself. What is more, “If that is correct, then it is natural to identify the eyewitness who saw the blood and water flow from Jesus’ side as the beloved disciple, even though he is not so described.”[19] How can we narrow down specifically who the beloved disciple was?

It is not disputed that the beloved disciple was at the Last Supper (John 13:23). “The synoptics insist that only the apostles joined Jesus for this meal.”[20] This puts the beloved disciple as one of the twelve disciples. The beloved disciple is also one of the seven mentioned in chapter 21. “Since Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael are mentioned in 21:2, it seems obvious that none of them is the beloved disciple.”[21] On top of this, “Of the sons of Zebedee, mentioned also in 21:2, James cannot be the beloved disciple, for he was martyred during the reign of Herod Agrippa I and could not have lived long enough to lend credence to the belief that he would not die.”[22]

It is also quite strange that neither John nor James is ever mentioned by name in the fourth Gospel. Even more so when prominent apostles such as Peter and Andrew are mentioned, as well as the lesser known members of the disciples such as Philip and Judas (not Iscariot), unless there was a reason for it. Again, the traditional reason makes much sense: the beloved disciple is John himself. Carson and Moo write, “This becomes even more likely when we remember that the beloved disciple is constantly in the company of Peter, while the Synoptics and Acts, not to mention Paul, link Peter and John in friendship and shared experience.”[23]

A question that can also be raised is why John the Baptist is simply called John in this Gospel. “The simplest explanation is that John the son of Zebedee is the one person who would not feel it necessary to distinguish the other John from himself.”[24] Kostenberger gives a couple of possibilities as to why, if John is in fact the author of this Gospel, he did not explicitly identify himself as the Gospel’s author. On top of the fact that all of the biblical Gospels are formally anonymous and including John’s Gospel, “Thus the only difference between the Synoptics and John is that the author of John’s Gospel features himself also in a prominent position in the narrative. Why does he do this? One obvious answer is: historical fact.”[25] He explains,

“Historical evidence shows that John the son of Zebedee, the author of John’s Gospel, was one of only three disciples in Jesus’ ‘inner circle.’ This would certainly explain why the author of John’s Gospel, John features himself in a prominent role… At the same time, it is not surprising that John would seek to avoid doing anything that would steal the spotlight from Jesus. Thus he invented the self-designation ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.'”[26]

Of course, some of these points arguing in favor of John as the beloved disciple as well as all of the mentioned external evidence in John the son of Zebedee’s favor could receive some push back in certain areas. Therefore Carson and Moo write, “But once logical possibility has been duly noted, it seems to be a rather desperate expedient that stands against the force of the cumulative internal and the substantial external evidence.”[27] John himself must have written this Gospel.


[1] Lea and Black, 156.
[2] Carson and Moo, 236.
[3] Gromacki, 130–131.
[4] Elwell and Beitzel, 1179-1180.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gromacki, 131.
[7] Elwell and Beitzel, 1180.
[8] Lea and Black, 156.
[9] Elwell and Beitzel, 1180.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Carson and Moo, 236.
[12] Ibid., 237.
[13] Ibid., 238.
[14] Elwell and Beitzel, 1180.
[15] Marshall, 601.
[16] Carson and Moo 239.
[17] Marshall, 601.
[18] Carson and Moo, 236.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 237.
[21] Lea and Black 157.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Carson and Moo., 237.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Kostenberger, 23.
[26] Ibid., 24.
[27] Carson and Moo, 237.

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