Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel? – an Excerpt from Interpreting the Gospel of John

Cover ArtThe following is an excerpt from Interpreting the Gospel of John, 2nd edition, by Gary Burge.


The authorship of the Fourth Gospel is notoriously difficult to decipher, and yet it is an intriguing mystery because this Gospel, unlike the other three Gospels, gives us hints about its author. Three positions generally represent today’s terrain:

1. The Gospel was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. This is the traditional position, but most who hold to it must admit that at some point later editors came along and completed at least the final chapter. John 21:20–23 seems to refer to the death of “John” (if this is John mentioned here), and 21:24 uses plural pronouns (“and we know that his witness is true”), pointing to other writers who had a hand in the final draft of the Gospel.

2. The Gospel was a production of a community of Christians who possessed the Synoptic Gospels and perhaps some of Paul’s writings. They used some of these ancient stories about Jesus, reshaped most, and supplemented them based on traditions about Jesus that stemmed from the community’s “founder.” Their aim was to bring the reality of Jesus into their own experiences in the Hellenistic world. This drama was their retelling of the Jesus saga in a way that spoke to their own circumstances.

3. The Gospel was a devotional treatise penned by a pious believer in the second century who wrote many of his own experiences back into the life of Jesus. Much like the authors of the apocryphal Acts of John or Gospel of Thomas, the author of John reveals mysteries into the deeper truths about Christ. Above all, many of these Johannine stories were culled from religious accounts in the Greek and Roman world.

…How do we determine the authorship of a document almost two thousand years old? First, we look inside it for internal evidence of the author’s hand. Second, we examine what other writers not far removed from John had to say. This is external evidence, and in the case of the Fourth Gospel there is an abundance of it. Our task, then, is to sift the clues from these sources to see if we can accumulate sufficient evidence for the author’s identity. This is really an exercise in detective work. Legends surrounded most famous ancient documents. We need to discern which bits of evidence we can trust.

©2013 by Gary Burge. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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  1. The author need not have possessed the previous Gospels in order to have heard their stories repeated, and also to have heard new stories about Jesus as they continued to arise, and probably some of those stories like “the anointing of Jesus” had some of their elements recombined by that time.

    Or the author had read the previous Gospel for himself, and the recombining took place inside his own head as he told and retold such tales to himself and/or preached them to others.