The Gospel According to John -Introduction-


“These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.”
John 20:31

“As to the four Gospels, which alone are indisputable in the Church of God under heaven, I learned from tradition that the first to have been written was that of Matthew, who was formerly a tax-collector, but later an Apostle of Jesus Christ.  It was prepared for those who were converted from Judaism to the faith, and was written in Hebrew letters.  The second was that of Mark, who composed it under Peter’s guidance…. The third, the Gospel which was praised by Paul, was that of Luke, written for gentile converts. Last of all, there is that of John.”
Origen (b. circa 185AD) quoted by Eusebius, History of the Church, Bk. 6 ch. 25

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The Gospel According to John, Apostle of Jesus Christ, Bishop of Ephesus, stands as a unique testimony among the other 3 Gospels and indeed unique among the other books of the New Testament.  Only in John’s account of the ministry and life of Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus revealed as the “Word”, the Living, creative Second Person of the Divine Trinity.  It is John who gives us the theology of Christ as revealed in this deep mystery in which the promised Messiah comes to fulfilled the Old Covenant in His sacrifice and death on the cross, and through His resurrection to establish the New Covenant which transforms man’s relationship with God through the gift of the redemption and salvation of mankind.

When I had completed my year of research on John’s Gospel I identified 5 statements of truth around which I would build this study:

  1. The fourth Gospel is the last Gospel to be written, therefore, John assumes we have read and studied the other 3 Gospel texts.
  2. Rather than just recording the events of Jesus’ life, John is more concerned with the significance of Christ’s coming and the His significance of His ministry.
  3. That the events and “signs” about which John writes had a deeper meaning not perceived at the time but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit these events and signs were revealed after Christ’s resurrection and His appearance to the disciples and Apostles.  It was after His resurrection that Jesus instructed the Apostles in the whole truth (John 2:20, 22; 12:16; 13:17-19; 14:26; 20:9;Luke 24:25-27, 44-48) and John’s Gospel looks back on Christ’s earthly life in the light of this complete understanding.
  4. In John’s Gospel there is a deeply connected thread of the liturgy of the Old Covenant  Church which will be transformed in Christ’s resurrection into the New Covenant creation.  Grasping the multiple Old Covenant connections is very important to understanding and correctly interpreting John’s Gospel and its connection to Old Covenant feasts and sacraments.
  5. John’s Gospel reveals to us the ministry of the divinity of Christ and the mystery of Christ united in the Most Holy Trinity, the unity and diversity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.


Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

The first questions we must address are the questions of authorship and the date this Gospel account was written.  Today most modern Biblical scholars do not accept that John (Yehohanan) the Apostle, son of Zebedee, brother of James the Greater, and Bishop of Ephesus is the author of the fourth Gospel despite the fact that the Fathers of the Church unanimously identified the Apostle John as the inspired writer.  Why then is John the Apostle’s authorship almost universally rejected in modern critical scholarship?  The answer involves several objections as to why the son of the fisherman Zebedee could have authored such a deeply theological text.  The following list is a summary of the most often expressed arguments against Johannine authorship:

Argument #1: The fourth Gospel does not agree with the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke):The most often quoted argument against St. John’s authorship is that so much of the synoptic Gospel portrait of Jesus is missing from the fourth Gospel account and what is included is very different.  Many modern scholars allege that an Apostle close to Jesus could not have written this very different Gospel account.  This argument does not address the fact that John may have had good theological and/or literary reasons for omitting what was covered in the other Gospels and ignores or dismisses the testimony of early Church Fathers like the great Biblical scholar, theologian, and head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD150-211/216).  St. Clement wrote:  “John, last of all, seeing that the plain facts had been clearly set forth in the Gospels, and being urged by his acquaintances, composed a spiritual Gospel under the divine inspiration of the Spirit.”   The inspired writer of the fourth Gospel may also be addressing these differences when he records in John 20:30,31 “There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of the disciples, but they are not recorded in this book.  These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.” And again in  John 21:25 the inspired writer of the fourth Gospel writes “There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written.”  In other words, the fourth Gospel does not claim to record all that Jesus said or did.

Argument #2:  That the fourth Gospel’s themes of love and unity could not have been produced by one of the Apostles to whom Jesus gave the name “Sons of Thunder” in Mark 3:17According to this argument James and his brother John were wrathful, emotional, and ambitious men who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54) and desired to secure a place of honor at Jesus’ right hand in His coming kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). This argument offers only a one-dimensional view at the sons of Zebedee. Surely decades of suffering for Christ and years of growing in faith and understanding yielded a much more mature man of Christian faith.  By the time the fourth Gospel was written John Zebedee, the Bishop of Ephesus, was no longer the impetuous youth described in the synoptic Gospels.

Argument #3:  Probably the most popular argument against Johannine authorship 60 years ago was that the author of the fourth Gospel must have been a Hellenistic (Greek culture) Israelite of the Diaspora(living outside Israel/Judea) or a Greek gentile convert to Judaism and/or Christianity because the language and concepts of the fourth Gospel were simple not found in Jewish literature of the 1st century AD but instead reflected Greek thought and language.  Scholars with this view pointed out that terms and concepts peculiar to the fourth Gospel like the divine “Logos”, the contrast between “light and darkness”, etc. were strictly Greek cultural expressions.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 proved that the theology of the fourth Gospel was part of the 1century AD Jewish community view.  The Scrolls not only contained copies of all the Old Testament texts with the exception of the Book of Esther (many in multiple copies) but also commentaries on Old Testament books and documents of the Community at Qumran where the scrolls were found.  These sectarian documents expressed the same language and concepts that scholars had previously thought was unique to the fourth Gospel.  The similarities are so striking that today many scholars believe there was a connection between John the Apostle and the religious Community at Qumran near to where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Argument #4:  Another frequently used argument is that John the Apostle, a poor fisherman from the Galilee, was too uneducated and unsophisticated to have written the fourth Gospel.  There is no evidence in Sacred Scripture that John was poor.  Scholars have quite a good idea of the scale of John’s family’s fishing operation on the Sea of Galilee.  He and his brother James along with their father, Zebedee, were partners in the fishing business with the brothers Peter and Andrew (Luke 5:7).  They owned several boats and had hired helpers (Mark 1:20).  They were free to start and stop work when it suited them (John 21:1-3 and Luke 5:11). They were also able to leave their business for a 3 year period to follow Jesus and yet were able to return to the Galilee at the end of 3 years to boats they still owned (see John 21:1-3).  We know that fish was a food staple of the ancient world (“Bread and fish, with the addition of olive-oil and wine, formed in ancient times the most substantial parts of the diet of the people, rich and poor..” M. Rostovtzerff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World). We also know that the Roman authorities hired fishermen on the Galilee to provide fish, salted, pickled and dried, to be exported to Rome and other Roman cities.  The contracts required the fisherman to provide a set number of fish and anything they caught beyond the limit was extra income.  The size and quality of Peter’s house, excavated at Capernaum, confirms the impression that these were men of means who controlled their own lives.  It is larger than most of the other houses excavated there and is located directly across from the local Synagogue, a prestigious location.  I do not know of any serious scholar who believes Peter, Andrew and Zebedee & Sons were poor.

Acts 4:13 is usually cited as proof that John and Peter lacked education.  This passage, from the New Jerusalem Bible translation reads:“They [members of the Jewish Law court] were astonished at the fearlessness show by Peter and John, considering that they were uneducated laymen…”  The people of Jerusalem and the more sophisticated Greek-culture Jews of the Diaspora generally regarded themselves as superior to the “hicks” from the Galilee, but what is really meant by this passage from Acts is that the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish law court which was composed of Biblical scholars trained in the Law and Temple priests, were amazed at the eloquence of Peter’s defense when he and John were brought before them and charged with false teaching.  Their statement “uneducated laymen”, ‘am-ha’aretz,is more literally translated “common men”.  Considering the fact that Peter and the others Apostles had not received a formal theological education that prepared one to become a member of the hereditary ministerial priesthood nor were they formally trained scribes or rabbis, the members of the court were impressed with Peter’s fearless defense.  Therefore, the passage does not indicate that the Apostles lacked education, only that the members of the court were astonished at the eloquence of their defense.

In the first century AD every village in Judea and the Galilee had a school in association with the local Synagogue to teach boys to read and write Hebrew (the liturgical language) and/or Aramaic (common language) and probably some Greek (the international language/ the language of commerce). Boys also studied Scripture intensively from about the ages of five to twelve, and boys who showed particular promise would have been sent to Jerusalem to continue their studies.  In any event, it is entirely credible that John the Apostle, who grew up in a Greek-culture dominated Galilee (even his friends Andrew and Philip had purely Greek names), who took a leading role in a multi-cultural ministry that spanned over 60 years and serving as the Bishop of the Christian churches of Asia Miner for circa 50 years, would have learned considerable Greek with or without any formal education in the language.  Then too, the Greek of the fourth Gospel is the simplest of the New Testament Greek texts; precisely what one might expect from a man who learned Greek as a second language.

Argument #5: Finally, one of the most often cited arguments is that John the Apostle’s name does not appear anywhere in the fourth Gospel.  This is true; John’s name, the name of his brother the Apostle James, nor the names of his parents Zebedee and Salome, appears in this Gospel where these names are all mentioned in the other Gospels.  However, none of the Gospels bears the names of the Holy Spirit inspired writers just as many of the Old Testament texts lack the names of the human authors.  Then too, there is no reason for John’s name to appear in the text if he were already well known to his original audience as an Apostle and the Bishop of Ephesus. Despite the fact that the sacred writer does not identify himself in the text there are clues, internal evidence in the fourth Gospel, that a minority of modern scholars believe clearly point to John the Apostle as the sacred writer. And, one must consider that the absence of the name of this one very important Apostle in this Gospel, rather than eliminating John as the inspired writer, points to John who, in his humility, omits his personal name and assumes the identify of the “beloved disciple,” a role which all of us are called to fill.

Internal Evidence Which Points to John the Apostle as the Inspired Writer

Point #1: The other Gospel writers all identify the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth (kinswoman of Mary) as John “the Baptist” [or Baptizer]. It is obvious that the use of this title is necessary to avoid confusion with John son of Zebedee, the Apostle.  But in the fourth Gospel, John son of Zechariah is identified simply as “John” 22 times (see John 1:6, 15, 19, 23, 26, 28, 29, 32, 35, 40;3:23, 24, 25, 26, 27;4:1; 5:33, 35, 36;10:40, 41, 41).  If there was an author other than John the Apostle wouldn’t it be expected that there would be confusion between which “John” was being mentioned in the text?  John never identifies himself by name in the Gospel, but if it was understood by the various churches of Asia Minor that their Bishop, John the Apostle, was the inspired writer it was not necessary to make the differentiation between himself and John the Baptist.

Point #2:  As I mentioned earlier, it is generally agreed today that the inspired writer of the fourth Gospel was an Israelite (or Jew) from the region we now call Palestine.  The author accurately portrays Old Covenant customs, religious traditions, and the fine points of halakhic (legal) regulations that were unique to Israel as God’s holy covenant people.   The inspired writer of this Gospel is knowledgeable about the different sects of 1st century Judaism and is especially knowledgeable about the geography and topography of what was the Roman dominated province of Judea and the city of Jerusalem, identifying and correctly describing sites that were not rediscovered in Jerusalem until the late 1800s.  All these qualifications fit John the Apostle.

Point #3: The author identifies himself as an eyewitness to the events of the fourth Gospel and as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  He uses this designation five times:

  1. John 13:23
  2. John 19:26
  3. John 20:2
  4. John 21:7
  5. John 21:20


The author of the book of Revelation (whom the Fathers of the Church testify is John son of Zebedee, Bishop of Ephesus) identifies himself as “John” five times:

  1. Revelation 1:1
  2. Revelation 1:4
  3. Revelation 1:9
  4. Revelation 21:2
  5. Revelation 22:8


This may be a coincidence but considering the symbolic use of numbers in both the Gospel and in Revelation it could be another indicator of John’s authorship; 5 is the symbolic number of grace in Scripture (see the document “The Significance of Numbers in Scripture” in the Documents section of Agape Bible Study).

But how do we know which of the Apostles is “the one Jesus loved”?  The Synoptic Gospels identify 3 Apostles that Jesus singled out on important occasions.  These were Peter, to whom Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom”, James, the son of Zebedee, and James’ younger brother, the Apostle John.  It was to this trinity of Apostles that Jesus chose to reveal Himself in His glory on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-2; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). We can narrow down the identity of the inspired writer of the fourth Gospel to one of these 3 men and, by eliminating the other 2, we can come to one final name.

The “beloved disciple” who authors the fourth Gospel cannot be Peter because the fourth Gospel records that on several occasions Peter was accompanied by the “beloved disciple” (John 20:2; 21:20).  James Zebedee is eliminated as a candidate for the “beloved disciple” by the fact that he was the first Apostle to be martyred (circa 42AD).  We have an accurate date for his martyrdom not only from Christian sources (Acts 12:2, etc.) but also from Jewish accounts.  This fact eliminates James because the fourth Gospel was written at least 25 years after his death. That only leaves John, son of Zebedee as the “beloved disciple”.

Point #4:   A variety of arguments against John’s (inspired) authorship of the fourth Gospel are centered on the linguistically and stylized differences between the fourth Gospel and the 3 Epistles attributed to John and the Book of Revelation (only in Revelation does the name “John” actually appear as the one who wrote down the visions). This argument fails to acknowledge the fact that there are many common expressions and themes used in the Gospel and in the Epistles and Revelation.  For example compare these few verses from the fourth Gospel with 1 John:

1st Epistle of  John Gospel According to John
1:2-3 Something which  has existed since the beginning which we have heard, which we have seen…etc. 3:11 In all truth I  tell you, we speak only about what we know and witness only to what we have  seen.. etc
1:4 We are writing this  to you so that our joy may be complete. 16:24 Until now you  have not asked anything in my name.  Ask and you will receive and so your joy  will be complete.
2:11 “But whoever hates  his brother
is in darkness and is walking about in darkness not knowing where  he is going, because darkness has blinded him.”
12:35 “…Go on your way  while you have the light, or darkness will overtake you, and nobody who walks  in the dark knows where he is going.”
2:15 Do not love the  world or what is in the world.  If any one does love the world, the love of  the Father finds no place (home) in him… 5:38 ..and his word  finds no home in you because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
2:17 And the world with  all its disordered desires, is passing away. But whoever does the will of God  remains (lives= mene) forever. 6:56 Whoever eats my  flesh and drinks my blood lives (remains= mene) in me and I live  (remain=mene) in that person.
5:20 that we may  know the One who is true.  We are in the One who is true.. 8:46 I speak the truth,  why do you not believe me? Whoever comes from God listens to the words of  God; the reason why you do not listen is that you are not from God.
3:8 Whoever lives  sinfully belongs to the devil, since the devil has been a sinner from the  beginning. This is the purpose of the appearing of the Son of God, to undo  the work of the devil 8:44 You are from your  father the devil, and you prefer to do what your father wants.  He was a  murderer from the start; he was never grounded in the truth; there is no  truth in him at all.
3:13 Do not be  surprised, brothers,
if the world hates you.
15:18 If the world  hates you, you must realize that it hated me before it hated you.
3:14 We are well aware  that we have passed over from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love, remains in death. 5:24 whoever listens to  my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life;…such a  person has passed [over] from death to life.
3:16 This is the proof  of love, that he laid down
his life for us, and we too ought to lay down our  lives for our brothers.
15:13 No one can have  greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends…
4:6 Whoever recognizes  God listens to us;
anyone who is not from God refuses to listen to us. This  is how we can distinguish the spirit of truth from the sprit of falsehood.
8:47 “Whoever comes  from God listens to the words of God; the reason why you do not listen is  that you are not from God.
2:12 I am writing to you, children, because your sins have been forgiven through his name. 16:23 ….In all truth I  tell you, anything you ask from the Father he will grant in my name.
1:1 the theme of “the Word”
…the Word of life’this is our theme.   etc
1:1 the theme of “the Word”  …the Word was with God and the Word was God…etc
1:5-2:10 the theme of “Light”:  ..and declare to you,
‘God is light..’  but if we walk in the light, he is  in the light….if we walk in the light as he is in the light.” ..Whoever loves  his brother lives in the light…
1:1-12:46  the theme of “Light”:  “and that life was the light of men”… the true light that give life….  The  light that has come into the world….I am the light of the world, etc
1:5-2:11 the theme of the  contrast between
“light and darkness” in him there is no darkness at all.”  [..]…but hates  his brother is still in darkness.. [..] ..the darkness has blinded him..” etc
1:5-12:46 the theme of  the  contrast between “light and darkness”:  The light shines in the darkness,  but the darkness has not understood it…. but men loved dark instead of  light..” “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.  … no one who believes  in me will stay in darkness..  etc.

This argument based on the linguistically and stylized differences also fails to take into account that any small differences in style between Revelation and the Gospel and Epistles can be ascribed to the lack of literary assistance in his incarceration on Patmos  (during the writing of Revelation) or the influence of different secretaries who wrote down the Bishop John’s correspondence.  Many of St. Paul’s letters were written by secretaries with Paul himself often adding a postscript in his own hand  (Romans 16:22; 1 Corinthians 16:21-24; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17).  Both Silvanius (Silas) in 1 Peter 5:12 and John Mark (author of the second Gospel) were secretaries to St. Peter.  The poor Greek grammar of the Revelation text, which is often cited by modern scholars, could indicate the absence of a secretary when John was imprisoned on the penal colony of Patmos (although I have often found John’s poor Greek grammar to be very good Christian theology).  In any event, the style and linguistic similarities between the works attributed to John’s authorship are far more similar than they are different.  No where else in the New Testament do you find Christ defined in terms of the “Word of God”, the “Lamb of God”, and the “Light of the world” except in those writings attributed to John the Apostle.  (Please refer to the introduction to the Book of Revelation for a more detailed comparison between the literary themes of Revelation and the fourth Gospel).

The Dating of the Fourth Gospel

Scholars, ancient and modern, do agree that the fourth Gospel was the last to be written.  When it was written is another issue. Scholars fall into 2 camps: the “early daters” and the “late daters.”  External evidence offers some help in the debate.  In Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea’s 4thcentury Church history he quotes Clement of Alexandria’s  (b. circa 150AD) statement that John remained Bishop of Ephesus and overseer of the churches in Asia Minor until the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan (AD98) (Church History3.32.3-4).  Bishop St. Irenaeus, disciple of Bishop Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who also credits John as the author of the fourth Gospel, recounts the exact information.  If John were the author of the fourth Gospel, it would have to have been written prior to 98AD.  You may recall in John 21:21-23 that this passage alludes to John living to a remarkable old age’such an advanced age that a rumor was spread that this unnamed Apostle may not die.

Some Biblical scholars of the 19th and 20thcenturies held that the fourth Gospel was written sometime in the late 2ndcentury AD.  However, this position is no longer acceptable because of solid evidence to the contrary.  The oldest copy of the fourth Gospel found in Egypt in 1935 known as the John Rylands Papyrus, contains portions of John 18:31-33, 37-38and the fragments from a copy of the fourth Gospel have been dated to about 120/130AD.  There are also allusions to the fourth Gospel in the last letters of Bishop St. Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred c. 107/110AD, and St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna who was martyred ca 155/156AD.  Even the “late daters” today would hesitate to date this Gospel much later than about 100AD.

The “early daters” place the composition of the fourth Gospel before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70AD; perhaps as early as 60 or 68 AD.  They point out that there is no mention of that catastrophic event which began with the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire and which ended with such brutal devastation of Judea that it signaled the “end of the world” for the Jews of the Old Covenant.  Instead the fourth Gospel makes reference to a site in Jerusalem, in the present tense,that no longer stood after the 9th of Ab, 70AD when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.  In John 5:2 it is written “Now there isin Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda, and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.”  This pool was rediscovered by archaeologists in the late 1800’s.  It had been buried in debris since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.  It proved to have 5 colonnades just as it was described in the fourth Gospel.

External Evidence in Support of John son of Zebedee, the Apostle, as the Inspired Writer of the Fourth Gospel

Point #1: The testimony of the disciples of the Apostles and the generations of disciples to follow them cannot be ignored.  The earliest mention suggesting John as the writer of the fourth Gospel is found in St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology (61.4).  St. Justin was martyred circa 155AD.  In this work he alludes to John 3:3-5 and speaks of the Gospels as including “memoirs of the Apostles”, in the plural.  This would have to be a reference to Matthew and John since Mark and Luke were not Apostles in the narrowest use of the word as applied to the original 12 (eleven after Judas’ death), but who also came to be called “apostles” as this Greek word, which means “emissaries” was later applied to all those who held positions of leadership within the Church.  Justin Martyr’s testimony is very important because Ephesus was his home church and he would have been very familiar with anything his great Apostle-bishop had written and the traditions associated with John’s writings.

Point #2:  Probably the most important second century testimony concerning the authorship of the fourth Gospel comes from St. Irenaeus Bishop of Lyon (b. 140AD, m. 202AD).  Irenaeus was the disciple of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna who was a disciple of John the Apostle.  Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, briefly describes the composition of and authorship of the four Gospels and records that after the first three were written “John, the disciple of our Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in  Asia.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1).  Later in the same work St. Irenaeus quotes verses from the fourth Gospel and attributes the words to “John, the disciple of the Lord.” 

Point #3:  During Irenaeus’ lifetime the Church was working to discern which writings should become the New Testament Canon.  The oldest list that has survived is known as the Muratorian Fragment, named for the scholar of discovered it, I.A. Muratori who published the manuscript in 1740.  Authorship of this document has been variously attributed to Caius of Rome, Hegesippus (first Church historian), Clement of Alexandria, Bishop Melito of Sardes, Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus, and possible Bishop Hippolytus of Rome, who like Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John.  The document contains an account of the writing of the fourth Gospel: “The fourth Gospel is by John, one of the disciples. When his fellow disciples and bishops were urging him, he said, ‘Fast with me for three days beginning today, and whatever will have been revealed to us, let us recount it with each other.’  On that very night it was revealed to the Apostle Andrew that all the things they had recalled to mind, John should write them all in his own name. And therefore while various points are taught in the different books of the Gospels, there is not difference to the faith of believers; for in all of them all things are spoken under the one guiding Spirit, …”(Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. I, page 107).

External Evidence Used to Cast Doubt on St. John’s Authorship

It is not until the early fourth century that any ambiguity appears in the acceptance of John the Apostle as the inspired writer of the fourth Gospel.  Bishop Eusebius (4thcentury AD) in his History of the Church (3.24.5-13) believed that John wrote the fourth Gospel but he also included quotes from Bishop Papias, a disciple of John who was martyred ca. 130, and Polycrates, a successor to St. John as Bishop of Ephesus (ca. AD125-ca. AD 196), that have caused controversy.  Eusebius, quoting from a lost work of St. Polycrates Bishop of Ephesus (ca. 125-196AD) cites Polycrates’ reference to the death and burial of John in Ephesus “Moreover, there is also John, who reclined at the bosom of the Lord and who became a priest wearing the high priest’s mitre, and a martyr and a teacher. He fell asleep at Ephesus.”  It is important that Polycrates identifies “John” as the one “who leaned on the Lord’s breast” and therefore the author of the fourth Gospel (see Gospel of John 13:23).  But then Polycrates identifies John as a “priest wearing the mitre and martyr and teacher.”  The Greek word for mitre, petalon seems to refer to the articles of dress reserved for the Old Covenant high priest.  Since there is no evidence that John Zebedee was from a priestly family nor is there testimony of him suffering a martyr’s death some scholars have argued that there are evidently two Johns and it is the second John who must have written the Gospel.  Even Eusebius discusses this apparent problem.  [See the Appendix for the expanded quotes from these Church Fathers].

There is a reasonable explanation and it hinges on knowledge about the vestments of the early Church and on the deliberate misuse by some modern scholars of the Greek word for ‘martyr’.  There is testimony that both John and James Bishop of Jerusalem, kinsman of Jesus, wore some sort of mitre reminiscent of the sacradotal mitre of the Old Covenant high priest [Bishop Eusebius, Church History, Book III, chapter XXXI.3; Epiphanius, Haereses, LXXVII. 14].  There is no evidence that either John or James were members of the Old Covenant hereditary priesthood, however, both of these deeply orthodox Old Covenant believers would have recognized that the old hereditary ministerial priesthood was now replaced by a priesthood founded on Christ as high priest and His bishops as his representatives in the earthy kingdom.  Given their Old Covenant culture and traditions I think it is entirely likely that they would have adopted sacred dress similar to the vestments of the Old Covenant priesthood.

The word “martyr” is not necessarily a problem either.  There is no evidence that John died a violent death but I do not think this is Polycrates’ meaning in this passage.  The word in this passage, ‘martyr’ in Greek is martyria which literally means “witness” or “testimony”.  John was most certainly a witness for Christ and suffered much during his lifetime for his faith in and obedience to fulfill his mission as Christ’s Apostle.  His entire life was offered up in “martyrdom” for Christ.  I think this is likely Polycrates’ meaning because in the fragments of his writing that have survived he never writes about John suffering a violent death.  Then too, look at the order of his statement that John was a “martyr and teacher.”  If Polycrates had meant that John had been Christ’s witness in his death wouldn’t he have written “teacher and martyr”?  Instead he writes that John “witnessed and taught”.

The other problematic quote in Eusebius’ history that many modern scholars use to reject John as the author of the fourth Gospel and to propose a second John the “elder” as the author is from the surviving writings of Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, disciple of John, in which Papias mentions the name “John” twice.  The question is does he speak of two Johns or one John?  Bishop Papias wrote about the importance of the oral tradition: “If anyone came who had followed the presbyters (elders), I inquired into the words of the presbyters (elders), what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, any other of the Lord’s disciples had said, what Aristion and the presbyter John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying…” (3.39.4; see Appendix for entire quotation). Is Papias distinguishing between two Johns, John the Apostle, no longer alive, and an elder who is alive in Papias’ day, or if John were the sole surviving Apostle/Elder, is it possible that Papias mentions him twice, first in a list of the original Apostles/Elders and then separately as one of the living Elders of the Church in his day?  To refer to St. John as a presbyter or elder was not unusual. There are two letters from St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of both Peter and John, where he addresses his letters to St John the Apostle as to “John the holy presbyter”.

However, there is evidence that there was another John, a presbyter, who was influential in the community at Ephesus.  He is mentioned in several other accounts and his tomb, along with St. John’s tomb, is marked at Ephesus (also see the testimony of Bishop Eusebius, History of the Church, Book III, chapter 39).  That a second John was a priest at Ephesus who may have been part of the first generation  Church and a “hearer” of Christ would not be unusual.  John (Yehohanan) was a very common Jewish/Israelite name, and remember, there were 70 (some ancient texts read 72) disciples who followed Jesus [Luke 10:1].  Even if we accept the possibility that there were two Johns at Ephesus, it is important to note in Papias’ passage that he only says he considered it important to “hear” first hand the testimony of these men. He is not commenting on the authorship of the fourth Gospel.  [For more information from these early documents see the Appendix at the end of the lesson].

Additional External Evidence Supporting St. John’s Authorship of the 4th Gospel from the Writings of the Apostolic Fathers

Writings of the Apostolic Fathers [disciples of the Apostles] and their disciples support John the Apostle as the inspired writer of the fourth Gospel [this is just a small sampling of evidence that spans four centuries]:

  • St. Justin [the Martyr] of Ephesus (martyred ca 155AD): “Since it is written of Him in the Memoirs of the Apostles that he is the son of God, and since we call Him Son, we have understood that before all creatures He proceeded from the Father by His will and power…and that He became Man by the Virgin…” [Dialogue with Trypho the Jew] “[It is recorded] in the Memoirs which, I say, were composed by [Christ’s] Apostlesand their followers…”[Dialogue with Trypho the Jew].
  • St. Clement of Alexandria AD150-211/216 [scholar theologian & catechist]: “John, last of all, seeing that the plain facts had been clearly set forth in the Gospels, and being urged by his acquaintances, composed a spiritual Gospel under the divine inspiration of the Spirit.” Eusebius, History of the Church, Bk.6, ch. 14.
  • St. Theophilus Bishop of Antioch (d. circa 185AD): “This is what the Holy Scriptures teach us, as do all the inspired men, one of whom, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’…” To Autolycus by Theophilus, the 7thBishop of Antioch, Syria, the faith community of St. Paul which was founded by St. Peter and where he served as bishop before he left for Rome circa 42AD. St. Theophilus records that he is the 6th successor of Peter at the church at Antioch.
  • Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (d. ca.202AD, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John) “Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church.  After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.  Luke also, the companion of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him.  Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined at His bosom, also published a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia.” Against Heresies Book III chapter 1.1
  • Muratorian Fragment [ca. 155/200AD] the oldest surviving list of canonical books: “The fourth Gospel is by John, one of the disciples.  When his fellow disciples and bishops were urging him, he said, ‘Fast with me for three days beginning today, and whatever will have been revealed to us, let us recount it with each other.’  On that very night it was revealed to the Apostle Andrew that all the things they had recalled to mind John should write them all in his own name.”
  • Tertullian   ca. 155-240AD lawyer and Catholic Apologist: “The same authority of the apostolic Churches will defend the other Gospels, which we possess through them and because of their using them. I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew, while that issued by Mark may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was.  And the digest by Luke men are accustomed to ascribe to Paul.” Against Marcion, Bk 4, ch 5.1 ca AD207.
  • Origen 185- 253/254AD: Great theologian and prolific writer of the early Church.  His literary productivity was tremendous.  Bishop Eusebius [History of the Church] dedicated his Church history to Origen and compiled a list of his works that has not survived.  St. Jerome knew of some 2 thousand of Origen’s works in the late 4thcentury but Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis gave the count at 6 thousand.  Sadly only fragments of his works survive, including fragments of his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, one of the oldest surviving New Testament commentaries.  His Commentaries on Johncomprised originally at least 32 books written ca. 226-232AD.  Only eight survive and these are in the original Greek.  Origin surely deserves the title “the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity.”Origen’s testimony in favor of St. John the Apostle as author of the fourth Gospel:
    “Matthew first made a noise on the sacerdotal trumpet in his own Gospel.  Mark also, and Luke and John played upon their own sacerdotal trumpets.” [fragment from Eusebius’ history].  “John says in the Gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand that there is no nature to which God is visible..”The Fundamental Doctrines Book 1chapter 1.8 ca 220-230AD
    “As to the four Gospels, which alone are indisputable in the Church of God under heaven, I learned from tradition that the first to have been written was that of Matthew,  who was formerly a tax-collector, but later an Apostle of Jesus Christ.  It was prepared for those who were converted from Judaism to the faith, and was written in Hebrew letters.  The second was that of Mark, who composed it under Peter’s guidance the third, the Gospel which was praised by Paul, was that of Luke, written for gentile converts. Last of all, there is that of John.” Commentaries on Matthew ca AD 244
  • The Decree of [Pope] Damasus [AD 382] Part II = the Gelasian Decree. This is the earliest official decree in regard to setting the canon of Old and New Testament Scripture:  “Likewise, the list of the Scriptures of the New and Eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church receives: of the Gospels, one book according to Matthew, one book according to Mark, one book according to Luke, one book according to John. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul, fourteen in number:…”
    [This decree was followed by the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage (all 4th century) which reaffirmed St. John as the author of the fourth Gospel.]


The overwhelming abundance of testimony of the Apostolic Fathers (disciples of the Apostles) and their successors down through Christian antiquity and the internal evidence of the fourth Gospel itself, all support evidence in favor of St. John the Apostle as the Holy Spirit inspired writer of the fourth Gospel.  It is for these reasons that the Catholic Church has always held that the fourth Gospel is the Gospel according to St. John.

As you continue this study please remember that the Bible is God’s Word for all cultures, and all societies, and all generations.  It does not change over time but is eternally fulfilled in Christ Jesus.  Keep in mind St. John’s “mission statement” in writing the fourth Gospel: John 20:31 “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.”  Please pray before each lesson that God the Holy Spirit will guide you in your studies and reveal to you through the study of Sacred Scripture a more intimate understanding of the Living Word of God, Christ Jesus!


Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus ca. 125-196AD in his letter to Victor, Bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter written ca. 190AD concerning Victor’s order that the observance of the Resurrection of our Lord should always fall on a Sunday instead of the old custom to keeping holy week from the 14th of Nisan.  Polycarp and the bishops of Asia Minor disagree: “As for us, then, we observe the precise day, neither adding no taking away.  For even in Asia great lights have gone to sleep, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord, when He comes in glory from the heavens to seek out all the saints’Philip of the twelve Apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis, and his two daughters who grew old in virginity, and his other daughter who regulated her life in the Holy Spirit and who rests in Ephesus.  Moreover, there is also John, who reclined at the bosom of the Lord, and who became a priest wearing the high priest’s mitre, and a martyr and a teacher.  He fell asleep at Ehpesus.  Then there is also Polycarp in Smyrna; both bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, both bishop and martyr, from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.   And what is to be said of Sagaris, bishop and martyr, who fell asleep in Laodicea? Or of the blessed Papirius? And of Melito………..These all kept the fourteenth day of the Passover, according to the Gospel, deviating in no way, but adhering to the rule of faith.  So also do I, Polycrates, the least of all among you, in accord with the tradition of my kindred, some of whom I have followed closely.  Seven of my kinsmen were bishops, and I am the eighth; and my kinsmen always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. Therefore, brethren, I who am sixty-five years old and in the Lord, and who have been acquainted with the brethren throughout the world, and who have read through the entire Holy Scriptures, I am not frightened by things said as threats. ”

Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, identified by St. Irenaeus as “a man of ancient times who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp.” [bishop of Smyrna and disciple of John who taught Irenaeus] .From Explanation of the sayings of the Lord by Papias written ca. 130AD “I shall not hesitate to set down for you along with my interpretations whatever I learned well from the presbyters and recall clearly, being thoroughly confident of their truth.  Unlike most people, I do not delight in those who talk a great deal, but in those who teach the truth; nor in those who relate the commandments of others, but in those who relate the commandments given by the Lord to the faith, and which are derived from Truth itself.  And then too, when anyone came along who had been a follower of the presbyters, I would inquire about the presbyters’ discourses; what was said by Andrew, or by Peter, or by Philip, or by Thomas or James, for by John or Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples; and what Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. It did not seem to me that I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from a living and abiding voice.” Eusebius, Fragments of Papias’ works in History of the Church, Book III chapter 39

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