Over at his blog Theology in Motion, Carey Bryant posted a piece entitled “The Gospel of John as an Eyewitness Account,” summarizing why he thinks the Johannine Gospel is an eyewitness account to the life of Jesus. He makes four main arguments:
- The author was familiar with Jewish culture.
- The author seems to identify himself as the disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
- The author has insider’s knowledge of events that happen in the Gospel of John.
- The author claims to be an eyewitness.
All this Bryant claims constitutes “strong internal evidence” for Johannine authorship. But is it?
John and Jewish Culture
Bryant points out that in the Gospel of John we see various quotations from the Hebrew Bible as well as a familiarity with Jewish customs. He also points out that the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in John 5:2 has been found in archaeological digs of Jerusalem. Bryant writes,
These details are easily explained if [the author] was a Jew living during the time of Jesus This by itself is by no means decisive, but it is a starting point.
I appreciate Bryant’s candidness here because he is right – this is in no way whatsoever decisive. All this demonstrates is that it was written by a Jew who was familiar with Judaism and Jerusalem.
The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved
In multiple places in the Gospel of John we read about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (see 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:1-10′ 21:7, 20-24). But nowhere does the Gospel of John come out and say, “Hey, the disciple whom Jesus loved was John the brother of James!” Interestingly, though we know Jesus had twelve disciples in the book of John (see John 6:67, 70-71; 20:24) we are not given a list of them as we are in the Synoptics (i.e. Mark 3:13-19).
A Comparison of Disciples in the Markan and Johannine Gospels
Disciples in Mark’s Gospel
Disciples in John’s Gospel
|Simon Peter||Simon Peter (1:42)|
|James the son of Zebedee||Not mentioned but alluded to in 21:2|
|John the brother of James||Not mentioned but alluded to in 21:2|
|James the son of Alphaeus||Not mentioned|
|Simon the Cananaean||Not mentioned|
|Judas Iscariot||Judas “son of Simon Iscariot” (6:71)|
|Not mentioned||Nathanael (1:45)|
As the above table shows, James and John aren’t even mentioned by name in the Gospel of John and they are only mentioned in passing in 21:2 as “the sons of Zebedee.” Isn’t it bizarre that the Gospel of John never once mentions John by name?
Bryant suggests that certain details in the Gospel of John suggest that the author had first-hand knowledge of the events. He offers three examples: 1:39, 2:11, and 6:19. But none of these suggests first-hand knowledge. Instead, it reflects a narrator writing omnisciently as narrators tend to do. For example, the narrator knows of the secret meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3:1-10 and of the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman while the disciples were off buying goods in town in John 4:7-30. This is the narrator at work, detailing for the reader what has transpired. It isn’t insider knowledge.
Is the Author an Eyewitness?
Bryant thinks that passages like John 19:35 or 21:24 demonstrate that the author was an eyewitness. But let’s consider the implications of this.
In John 19:35, we are told that the writer saw a soldier pierce the side of Jesus with a spear indicating that he was dead (19:34). If this is John the son of Zebedee we have a fairly significant problem. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will all become deserters” (Mark 14:27) and this is precisely what happens (14:50). There are no disciples present at Jesus’ death in Mark (15:21-41) and the same is true of both Matthew (27:32-56) and Luke (23:26-49). In the Synoptics, the only ones who knew Jesus who witnessed his death were a group of women who had followed him and, per Luke, “his acquaintances” which is not a term that Luke ever uses to describe the twelve disciples.
So either John is an eyewitness and thus contradicts the Synoptics or John is not an eyewitness and is in error about his claim in 19:35. It is a lose-lose situation, particularly for inerrantists.
John Was Not the Author
It seems unlikely that John, the disciple of Jesus, was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Perhaps some of the material contained in it go back to John but the idea that John wrote it is dubious at best. The “strong internal evidence” for Johannine authorship turns out not to be very strong at all.