Who Wrote the Gospel of John?

November 21, 2014

Recently, I have been studying The Gospel of John using a two volume translation with extensive commentary by Raymond Brown – part of The Anchor Yale Bible. I see John as a man who had a profound relationship not only with the historical Jesus, but with the inward Christ, the spirit of God within himself. It is this Spirit that I sense as I read the Gospel – and this is in full harmony with my own Quaker tradition, which looks not to scripture as authority, but to the Spirit through which Scripture was created.

Brown, according to the notes on the book’s jacket, is “internationally regarded as the dean of New Testament scholars.” As a scholar, he is surely familiar with William of Occam, a fourteenth century philosopher best known for the principle of “Occam’s razor” which states “that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable.” Brown doesn’t follow this principle. He postulates an original author, who probably was John, but then thinks that the gospel went through several revisions and finally was placed in its present form by an anonymous editor. He has examined the ancient documents relating to this Gospel far more thoroughly than I. Still, I feel drawn to stating my own theory.

There are only a few references to John in Acts – and in one he is described as “unlearned and ignorant” (Acts 4:13). Like Peter, John was a fishermen when Jesus called him to be an apostles. A scribe was needed to write down what he said. Furthermore, Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, while the New Testament as we have it, was written in Greek.

It would appear that John did not travel widely, but may have settled in Ephesus or another community in the Near East There he ministered to a flock that was probably mostly Jewish believers in Jesus. He would recount episodes in Jesus life that would be orally translated into the Greek. There is a reference in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel, “Now among those who had come up to worship at the feast there were some Greeks.” (John 12:20) We know that in Egypt, Judaism enjoyed some popularity, and its scriptures were translated into Greek about a century before the birth of Jesus. Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish contemporary of Jesus heavily influenced by Greek thought, and reference to “the Word,” in the first chapter of the Gospel, shows an influence of Hellenistic Judaism that has parallels in the work of Philo. The Greeks mentioned here may have become members of John’s flock.

John’s community came to be in strong conflict with the established Jewish institutions. Those who would follow Jesus were expelled from the synagogue and disowned by their own people. Because of this, the emphasis on the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees became a conflict between him and “the Jews.” That conflict was probably in full swing at the time John died.

After his death – maybe immediately after, maybe after a number of years – members of his flock came together, and had a scribe write down the words that they had heard repeated many times. Those who told the words of John didn’t have the sense of time and place that John himself might have had, just as parishioners in a church who had never had a college class in the Bible would know the stories of the life of Jesus but not know the order. That several speakers were involved may account for stylistic variations in the passages. They also may have added some commentary to their accounts. An example of this: in the twenty-first chapter, versus 20-22 recount an incident between Peter and Jesus where John was present:

Then Peter turned around and noticed that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following …. Seeing him, Peter was prompted to ask Jesus, “But Lord, what about him?”

“Suppose I would like him to remain until I come,” Jesus replied, “how does that concern you? Your concern is to follow me.”

Verse 23 appears to be a comment by those who were putting the Gospel into written form:

This is how the word got around among all the brothers that this disciple was not going to die. As a matter of fact, Jesus never told him that he was not going to die; all he said was: “Suppose I would like him to remain until I come.”

The death of John must have had a profoundly negative impact on those expecting an immanent return of Jesus, so this passage seems to have been added for “damage control.”

As I continue to study the Gospel of John, I expect I’ll have other insights to write about in this blog.

One Response to “Who Wrote the Gospel of John?”

  1. […] months ago, I wrote a posting entitled “Who Wrote the Gospel of John.” Since then, I have continued my studies and am now up to the thirteenth chapter, which is […]

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