Jesus and His Beloved Disciple, Part 2
Key Passages: The Gospels and Acts

By Bruce L. Gerig

Part 1 of this series drew attention to the puzzling, anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” who appears near the end of the Gospel of John, in four scenes (the Last Supper, the Cross, the Tomb, and the Sea of Galilee), with the initial scene clearly revealing a physically intimate relationship.    Yet, who was this Beloved Disciple?    And who wrote the Fourth Gospel, since these questions are related?    Many Christians would answer “John the Apostle” in both cases―and yet many modern scholars would disagree in both instances, in what remains a hot debate.    So now we turn to look at internal evidence, in the Gospels and Acts, as well as at external evidence, from ancient church witnesses, to try to answer both questions.            

Internal evidence for John son of Zebedee being the Evangelist and the Beloved Disciple.    First, what do we know about John son of Zebedee from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and Acts?    Clearly John’s father, Zebedee, was successful enough as a fisherman to employ “hired servants” in his business (Mark 1:20), to work alongside his sons James and John and their partners Simon Peter and Andrew (Luke 5:10; Matt 4:18-22), on the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. the Sea of Tiberias).    The four partners, when they first met Jesus, were astonished at how he filled Peter’s net with fish after they had toiled all night and caught nothing; so afterward they followed him (Luke 5:1-11).    James is considered the older brother and John the younger because James is usually named first when the two are mentioned together in the Gospels (Culpepper).1    The two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John, are named first in all of the lists of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples (Matt 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, cf. Acts 1:13).    Moreover, Peter, James and John formed an inner circle within the Twelve, whom Jesus allowed to be specially present on certain occasions, as when he was transfigured in glory on a high mountain (Matt 17:1-8), raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead (Mark 5:35-43), and asked the three to support him in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his Passion (Matt 26:36-46).    Yet John is also linked with Peter alone, as when Jesus asked the two to make preparations for the Last Supper (Luke 22:8); and in the few cases where John’s name does precede his brother’s (Luke 8:51, 9:28; Acts 1:13), this may have been done to link his name with Peter’s.    In any case, after Jesus’ Ascension, in the early part of Acts John is always mentioned in the company of Peter (Acts 1:13; 3:1,3,4,11; 4:13,19; 8:14), except when we are informed that Herod Antipas “killed James the brother of John” with a sword (Acts 12:1-2).2    Throughout Acts 1–8 John shows real boldness, although then he disappears from the spotlight entirely.     

However, when John son of Zebedee is more specifically described in the Synoptics, it is strangely in an unflattering light.3   On the one occasion when John says something entirely on his own, he reported to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38 ESV); but Jesus told him to leave the man alone, because “the one who is not against us is for us” (v. 40).    Later James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54 NRSV), when the residents of a Samaritan village did not welcome some of Jesus’ disciples who had been sent in advance to make preparations for his arrival; but again Jesus “rebuked them.    Then they went on to another village” (v. 56).    On a third occasion, James and John asked Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37 ESV); but Jesus answered, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (vv. 39-40).    When the other ten heard about this, they were “indignant at James and John,” but then Jesus instructed them all that if they wished to be great they should devote themselves to serving one another (vv. 41-45).    Actually Matt 20:20-22 reveals that James and John had persuaded their mother to bring their request to Jesus, but Jesus saw right through their manipulation.    Perhaps it was because of their “fiery zeal” (Morris)4 that Jesus early on nicknamed James and John “Boanerges,” which Mark translates as “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).    Although the full meaning of this title is debated, an etymological clue may be found in qol-rogez (Strong H6963, H7267) in Job 37:2.    Although rogez basically means “tumult” (Strong) or noisy commotion, this Hebrew phrase in Job 37:2 is commonly translated as the “thunder of His/God’s voice” (REB 1989, NLT 1996, UNASB 1999, ESV 2001); and if one substitutes ben (“son,” H1121) into this Hebrew phrase, it would read ben[e]-rogez (“son of thunder”), which might have evolved over into the Greek as boanērges (G993), pointing to the brothers’ “hasty and violent reactions” to things (France), as seen in Mark 9:38 and Luke 9:54.5    Yet, in the early chapters of Acts John is shown to be one of the leading apostles, second only to Peter, with whom he is associated, as at the healing of the crippled man in the Temple (3:1-10) and at the inquisition before the Sanhedrin council, where they were denigrated as “uneducated, common men” (4:13 ESV), which probably only meant that they had not been trained in the Law (Culpepper).6    Also, Peter and John go to investigate a positive response among the Samaritans to the Gospel (8:14ff), which makes one reflect on John’s earlier request to have lightning destroy them (Luke 9:54) and which shows that John is already being transformed into a mature and sensitive leader.    John’s standing is also noted in Paul’s one reference to him (Gal 2:9), where he refers to “James and Cephas [Aramaic for “Rock,” cf. Matt 16:18, referring to Peter] and John” as “pillars” of the Jerusalem church.    In the end, certain striking parallels can be seen between John son of Zebedee (described in the Synoptics and Acts) and the Beloved Disciple (described in John’s Gospel): (1) both were members of the Twelve, who alone shared the Last Supper with Jesus; (2) both had close associations with Simon Peter; (3) both were younger individuals who attached themselves to older ‘leader’ types, yet (4) later on they were held in high regard among the apostles; and (5) both were from Galilee and (6) were acquainted with fishing.    And beyond this, we have the straightforward witness in John’s Gospel itself that the Beloved Disciple and the author of the Fourth Gospel were the same individual (21:20-24).    The “we” at the end of John’s Gospel (21:24b) could simply refer to all those who were actual witnesses of Jesus’ ministry (1:14-15), or perhaps only the Twelve (Filson).7    Also, John’s reticence to name himself in his Gospel may relate to an embarrassment over his early record as Jesus’ disciple, as revealed in the Synoptics.

Yet, what does the nature of John’s Gospel tell us about its unnamed author?    More than a century ago Brooke Westcott (1881, reprinted 1962) carefully surveyed internal evidence in John’s Gospel pointing to John son of Zebedee as its author;8 and his arguments still “remain valuable” (Keener, cf. Nicol, Carson, Blomberg),9 indeed “ruthlessly logical” (Redford).10    In brief, Westcott argued that the Fourth Gospel shows that the author was a Jew, who was aware of the geography and life of Palestine before the destruction of Jerusalem, in 70 AD.    Moreover, he was an eyewitness to what he describes, as he claims (19:35, 21:24a), giving the exact times and places of events and offering vivid, unique, first-hand details, as in the foot-washing at the Last Supper (John 13:1-17) and the fish fry at the Sea of Galilee (21:1-14).    He notes that barley loaves were used to feed the five thousand (6:9), that the house was filled with fragrance from Mary’s perfume poured on Jesus feet (12:3), and that Jesus’ inner tunic was woven without seam from the top throughout (19:23, all KJV).    That the author was one of the Twelve is shown by his knowledge of their call (1:35-51), their journey through Samaria (4:4-42) and their successive visits to Jerusalem (2:13, 5:1, 7:14, 10:22, 11:7), as well as their feelings and thoughts at critical moments (2:11,17,22; 4:27; 6:19,60f; 12:16; 13:22,28f; 21:12) and their discussions among themselves (4:33; 16:17; 20:25; 21:3,5).    Also, the author stands very close to Jesus, having knowledge of his emotions and thoughts (3:1-21; 4:5-27; 6:6,64; 13:1,3,11; 18:4).    Indeed, the author surely must have been John the Apostle, since of the “inner circle” James is martyred early (Acts 12:1-2) and the author appears a frequent companion of Peter in the Fourth Gospel (13:23f; 20:2; 21:7,20-23).    It would be incredible if John, a central figure among the Twelve in the Synoptic Gospels, never appeared in the last Gospel—but this gap is filled in if he is the Beloved Disciple, as well as (probably) the unnamed disciple mentioned early on (1:37,40), then the “another/other disciple” in the high priest’s courtyard (18:15-16), and finally one of the ‘sons of Zebedee’ (21:2).    Clearly, John the Apostle should be considered the leading candidate for the authorship of this Gospel which bears his name.

Yet numerous questions have been raised about this internal evidence.    For example: (1) John should have included his name as author of the Fourth Gospel.    Although this is not an argument raised by skeptics, it should be mentioned that it is not strange that the author of the Fourth Gospel does not identify himself by name in the text, since none of the Gospels originally carried an author’s name until headings such as Kata Mathaion (“According to Matthew”) and Kata Iōannēn (“According to John”) became attached to all of the Gospels in the second century,11 ascriptions that in each case were accepted by the Church.    (2) John would never have given himself the title “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”    David Strauss (1892) called this title “an offense against modesty.”12    However, Guthrie (1970) suggested that, although this epithet is mysterious, it should be noted that 1 John (where agapaō [“to love”] appears 21 times, more than in any other NT book except John’s Gospel) shows that the Apostle was overawed by “God’s love in Christ and the phrase may have sprung out of his wonder that Jesus should fasten His love on him.”13    Yet Jennings (2003) asks, could John really imagine an Incarnation that took on flesh (John 1:14) without taking on sexuality, so integral to human nature?    Therefore, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” points to an erotic relationship that developed between them.14    (3) John was too uneducated to write the Fourth Gospel.    Keener notes that Galilee was not the backwater that some have assumed.    In fact, Josephus ([My] Life 9) remarks that the level of literacy there was higher than in the rest of the Greco-Roman world; and John’s family was well-off enough (Mark 1:20) to provide its sons with a good education.    Furthermore, sixty years or so having passed since Jesus’ death would have allowed John ample time to acquire the new skills expected of leaders in that society.15    Rabbi Akiba was apparently unlettered (uneducated) until the age of 40, but then he became one of the greatest rabbis of his generation (Carson).16    (4) John was too old at the end of the century to write a reliable Gospel.    Yet Valerius Maximus, a Latin writer who flourished during the reign of Tiberius (14–37), mentions numerous contemporary individuals who lived into their 80s, 90s, and over 100, retaining an alert mind.17    John and the other disciples were probably a good bit younger than Jesus, and John could have been in his mid-teens when Jesus called him (Keener).18    If John was around 18 when Jesus died (in 30 AD), then he would have been around 83 years old in 95 AD, midway through the decade when John’s Gospel was written, based on the view of the early church.19    (5) John as a “son of thunder” could never have written such a Gospel of love.    Although John early on was dubbed a “son of thunder” because he and his brother were “high-minded, impetuous Galileans” with a ”trait of selfishness” (Tasker),20 this does not mean that John did not later experience the transforming power of the Spirit—as did Saul/Paul, who started out persecuting believers and ordering the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:58)—as well as “the mellowing effect of years of Christian leadership” (Carson).21    (6) John would not have known or focused so much on Jerusalem.    Most of the action in John’s Gospel takes place in Jerusalem because this was where the Messiah would be accepted or rejected (Morris).22    That he was from Galilee does not mean that he was unfamiliar with Jerusalem, since the Sea of Galilee supplied the fish for all of the country, except for the coast; and John may have even had a residence in the city (John 19:27), serving there on occasion as his father’s sales agent (Carson).23

Many scholars have continued to support Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, in spite of claims sometimes to the contrary.    Charlesworth (1995) notes these supporters, along with the dates of their works:  J. MacFarlane (1855), James M. Macdonald (1877), Frederic L. Godet (1886), J. Chapman (1911), T. Whitelaw (1917), Robert H. Strachan (1925), H. P. U. Nunn (1927), J. H. Bernard (1928), E. S. Hoernle (1931), W. F. Lofthouse (1936), William Hendriksen (1954), R. V. G. Tasker (1960), Hermann Strathmann (1963), Leon Morris (1971), Werner de Boor (1973), Heinrich Strauss (1973), Stephen S. Smalley (1978), Brune de Solages (1979), T. E. Crane (1980), A. Schlatter (1980), F. F. Bruce (1983), J. Ramsey Michaels (1989), D. A. Carson (1991), Philip S. Kaufman (1991), Fréderic Manns (1991), Gottfried Voigt (1991), Walter Schmithals (1992), and T. Whitelaw (1993).24    Other scholars who hold to John the Apostle being the author include: Everett F. Harrison (1962),25 Donald Guthrie (1970),26 David J. Ellis (1979),27 Merrill C. Tenney (1981),28 Sjef van Tilborg (1993),29 John Boswell (1994),30 John S. McNeill (1995),31 Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. (2003),32 and Craig S. Keener (2003).33    Johns Varghese (2009) notes additional scholars (including himself), mostly European:  Theodur Zahn (1899), Benjamin W. Bacon (1907), M.-J. Lagrange (1928), Alfred Wikenhauser (1948), Hermann Strathmann (1954), H. van den Bussche (1967), John Marsh (1968), Giuseppe Segalla (1972), Salvadore A. Panimolle (1978), V. Pasquetto (1983), Ignace de la Potterie (1983), Domingo Muñoz-León (1990), and M. Silva Santos (1994).34    And this is only a partial list.

External evidence for John son of Zebedee being the Evangelist and the Beloved Disciple.    The most important ancient witness to the Apostle John being the author of the Fourth Gospel is Irenaeus (c.130–c.200),35 a native of western Asia Minor (Turkey) who studied in Rome and then became bishop of Lyons (in Gaul, now France) before 177 AD.36    In Against Heresies (182–188 AD) Irenaeus wrote that “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia” (AH 3.1.1).    He “remained among them up to the times [reign] of Trajan” (Roman emperor 98-117); and Irenaeus identifies this John not only as “the disciple of the Lord” but as one of the twelve “apostles” (AH 2.22.5).    Irenaeus informs us that his main source for this information was Polycarp (trad. c.69–c.15, c.155, or c.173), as he explains: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna [cf. Rev. 2:8ff], whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time . . . having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles . . . [for he was] a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics” (AH 3.3.4).    Polycarp also notes how John, when he went to bathe in Ephesus, would run from the bathhouse without bathing if he found Cerinthus the heretic there (AH 3.3.4).    Irenaeus also bears witness that this John the apostle who knew Jesus (AH 3.11.9, 3.16.2) wrote the Gospel that bears his name (AH 3.11.1,7) and also the Epistle of 1 John (AH 3.16.5,8) and the Apocalypse (AH 5.30.1-2).   

However, another early source appears to cast doubt on Irenaeus’s testimony.    Eusebius (c.260–c.340), bishop of Caesarea (in Palestine) and regarded as the Father of Church History, has left behind a ten-volumed Ecclesiastical History; and Papias (c.60-130) was earlier a bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, located about 100 miles east of Ephesus.    Eusebius quotes Papias as saying, “]I]f ever anyone came who had followed the presbyters [presbyteroi = “elders”], I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, had said, and what Aristion and the presbyter [elder] John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying” (EH 3.39.4).    Eusebius notes that Papias had written that “he had in no way been a hearer and eyewitness of the sacred Apostles” themselves (EH 3.39.2); and Eusebius goes on to distinguish two Johns mentioned here: John the Apostle and also “the elder John” (EH 3.39.5), confusing because all of the Apostles are called “elders,” as well (see above).    The Greek term presbyteros originally referred to an older man who was either an official or unofficial leader in a synagogue or church (Strong G4245, cf. Acts 14:23); then by the late first century the term was applied to a person who exercised “authoritative leadership” over one or more churches (Collins).37    For example, Peter applies the title to himself (1 Pet 5:1).    Eusebius also mentions “two tombs at Ephesus both still called John’s” (EH 3.39.5-7).    The problem here is that Irenaeus affirms (AH 5.33.4) and Eusebius denies (EH 3.39.1-7) that Papias was a contemporary of Polycarp and thus may have had contact with John the Apostle.    Some scholars hold that the distinction between ‘two Johns’ was simply Eusebius’s view (not Papias’s) and stemmed from the church historian’s dislike for the historical Millennium depicted in the book of Revelation (20:4-6), with a desire then to suggest that this work was written by another John and not the Apostle.    Papias simply wished to point out then that of the Twelve only John still remained alive (Carson, Keener).38    Moreover, the reference to a second tomb called John’s at Ephesus may only refer to a rival site that was clamed for the burial of this important leader (Keener).39    However, since Eusebius quotes Papias as writing that he never saw or heard John the Apostle in person (EH 3.39.1), this may also be a reference to a second, minor “John the elder,” although no other reference is made to him in ancient documents. (Schnackenburg).40

However, based on Eusebius’ ambiguous record here, A. von Harnack at the end of the 19th century argued that the Fourth Gospel must have been written by John the Presbyter (Elder) and not John the Apostle; and this hypothesis still attracts many supporters.41    Various ‘critical’ scholars, including Rudolf Bultmann (1973), Walter Schmithals (1979), Martin Hengel (1989), and Richard Bauckham (2006), have argued that Irenaeus was wrong and had simply mixed up John the Apostle and this second John the Elder.42    Yet, Eusebius elsewhere in his history clearly attributes the Fourth Gospel to John the Apostle (EH 3.18.1; 3.23.1; 3.24.5-7,11,17), noting also that his authorship of 1 John “has been accepted without controversy,” while the source(s) of 2-3 John “are disputed” and opinion on Revelation coming from the Apostle’s hand is divided (EH 3.24.17-18).    Schnackenburg (1968) claims that all that can really be said about this second “John the Elder” is that, like Aristion, he was of the “second generation” after the Apostle John.    “We have no idea at all” of any relationship between these two, and “what we know about the ‘Presbyter John’ is too little to base a certain judgment on it. . . . The hypothesis of his having been confused at an early date with the Apostle John, and of his being the author of the Gospel, is much more fragile than is sometimes admitted, and it would be better to drop it.”43   In fact, as Redford (2008) notes, “[T]here is not the slightest positive evidence in antiquity for making John the Presbyter the author of the Fourth Gospel.”    Such an idea is only “a modern theory,” with no real basis.44

On the other hand, there are other ancient witnesses to the Apostle John’s authorship of the Fourth Gospel.    Theophilus (168–181 or 188), bishop of Antioch, is the earliest known orthodox (nonheretical) Christian writer to name John the Apostle as the author of the Fourth Gospel (Ad Autolycum = To Autolycus 2.22)45 around 181 AD.46    Then, Eusebius notes how Clement (c.150–ca. 215), bishop of Alexandria (Egypt), describes how “John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the [other three] Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (EH 6.14.7); and also “that very disciple whom Jesus loved, John, at once Apostle and Evangelist, still remained alive in Asia and administered the churches there, for after the death of [Emperor] Domitian [in 96 AD], he had returned from his banishment on the island [of Patmos] . . . to Ephesus” (EH 3.23.1-2,6).    Keener (2003) notes that after Irenaeus all orthodox sources seem to agree that John the Apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel, including Tertullian (c.160–c.225), the African Church Father of Carthage (Adversus Marcionem = Against Marcion 4.2).    Even Marcion (died c.160), who came to Rome around 140, agreed, although he disagreed with what John had written (Morris).47    Only the so-called Alogoi (“senseless ones”), heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, took exception, attributing the Fourth Gospel to their leader Cerinthus; and Gaius of Rome held the same view.48    Moreover, the titles of all four Gospels seem to preserve an earlier, unchallenged tradition (Keener).49    Although these ascriptions were attached probably no earlier than 125 AD, Martin Hengel (1985) argues that these Gospels were never viewed as anonymous.50    Redford (2008) notes that the Epistle of the Apostles (c.172 AD) and Acts of John (written by Prochorus bet. 150–200) both state that “John the son of Zebedee” was the author of the Fourth Gospel—and Redford asks, if he was not the author, why did not the early tradition more clearly distinguish between two important Johns?51       Yet, Culpepper notes that the Acts of John also claims that John the Apostle commanded bugs to stay out of his bed (58-61), that he raised Drusiana and Callimachus from the dead (62-86), and that when his grave was dug up, no body was found (162-165).52    So, “legendary” elements did creep into early records—although miracles are not always “legends” and John certainly could have prayed to be relieved of bedbugs!    Yet, to dismiss such extensive, multiple witness concerning John’s authorship of the Fourth Gospel simply as “legend” goes too far; and Guthrie (1970) suspects that the real reason such ancient witness is set aside by many modern scholars is simply because it contradicts their revisionist authorship theories.53 

One popular modern theory holds that the reason it took so long for mainstream Christian leaders to accept the Fourth Gospel (mid-2nd century) was because the tradition from John son of Zebedee was later reworked by a school of disciples labeled the “Johannine school” (Alan Culpepper 1975) or “Johannine circle” (Oscar Cullmann 1976), which actually produced the Gospel.54    In fact, both Raymond Brown55 and Rudolf Schnackenburg56 changed their minds on the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, from the Apostle John to a later anonymous leader in the Johannine community in Ephesus.    For example, Brown in The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979) proposed four main stages for the development of this group and the Gospel of John tradition.57    Still, Brown warned of “methodological difficulties” in trying to detect later Christian communities in the Gospels, among them the dangers of “unwarranted reconstruction based on evidence that allows a simpler explanation” and “overly imaginative deductions,” as well as arguing from silence.58    Indeed, Keener holds that while some elements in Brown’s historical reconstruction are convincing, his building of so “many hypotheses on other hypotheses” is a “questionable” way to write solid history.59    Martin Hengel (1989) saw the Johannine school as headed by a “towering figure” who produced the Gospel; it cannot have come from a “quarrelling collective,” although some of John’s pupils may have edited the book and put it into circulation.60   However, as John A. T. Robinson notes, if John the Apostle was not the author of the Fourth Gospel, all alternative views suffer from a “disappearance of the hero.”    If the author was such a great and honored figure, why is he not mentioned even once in the Gospel?61    In fact, concerning the Johannine school hypothesis, Colleen Conway has written in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (vol. 3, 2008) that although this theory has become “thoroughly engrained in scholarship of the Fourth Gospel . . . there are reasons to question both the reconstructed history of this hypothetical community, as well as the assumptions involved in reading the Gospel as a reflection of a particular community.”    For example, there is “little historical evidence to support a scenario in which [later] synagogue leaders widely excommunicated members on matters of belief, especially belief in a particular figure as the Messiah”—if one is to see this reflected back into the episode of the man born blind who was driven out by local synagogue leaders, in John 9.     Scholars now argue that reading this Gospel through the lens of a hypothetical community is a mistaken approach, that no ancient church writer mentions such a group, and that the Gospel from the beginning was intended for a much wider audience.    Therefore, in recent decades scholars have increasingly focused on the narrative itself to discover its meaning.62    A more reasonable explanation for the delay of the Fourth Gospel’s acceptance was the widespread ambivalence which the Church must have felt over its early use (and misuse) by heretical Gnostic groups, some of whom may have split off from the Johannine community—as well as over the gospel’s marked difference from the Synoptic Gospels.63    Yet, in the end its Johannine authorship led to its acceptance as a part of the canon (our NT collection).64    Now, related to the identity of the Beloved Disciple, we have noted how Irenaeus (c.130–c.200) referred to John the Apostle and Evangelist also as the one who “had leaned upon His breast” (AH 3.1.1), and Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c.215) as “that disciple whom Jesus loved” (EH 3.23.1).    Yet Eusebius also records how Polycrates (2nd cent.), bishop of Ephesus, referred to John the Apostle, “who lay on the Lord’s breast” (EH 5.24.3); and Dionysus (c.170), bishop of Corinth, speaks of John the Evangelist as “the disciple loved by the Lord, [who] leaned back on his breast” (EH 7.25.7,12).    There seems little question among early Christian writers that the Beloved Disciple was one and the same with John son of Zebedee and the author of the Fourth Gospel, as is specified in the text itself (John 21:20-24).    

Moreover, other documents support the reliability of both Irenaeus and Polycarp.    Eusebius also quotes from a letter which Irenaeus wrote to Florinus in which he reminds his life-long friend: “For while I was still a boy I knew you in lower Asia in Polycarp’s house when you were a man of rank in the royal hall and endeavouring to stand well with him.    I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed [defended the faith], how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to the people, how he reported his intercourse [conversations] with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and . . . I listened eagerly even then to these things . . .” (EH 5.20.4-7).    As Morris (1995) notes, the importance of this letter should not be minimized, since as R. H. Malden remarked: “A historical fact which appears in a contemporary or nearly contemporary letter may generally be accepted without demur [hesitation], for the reason that the author is not trying to write history. . . . When historical facts are referred to in letters, it shows that they were matters of common knowledge in the circle in which the writer and his correspondent moved.”65    Redford (2008) notes that the authenticity of this letter to Florinus has never been questioned by scholars.66    Culpepper (1994) writes and Weidmann (1999) agrees that since the appeal here is “to Florinus’s memory of their shared experiences, it is most unlikely that Irenaeus would have fabricated any of this.”67    Further, Weidmann notes that if Irenaeus was lying, it is a very “complex” one, involving “lies” about John’s advanced old age, his presence in Asia Minor, his contact with Polycarp, and his authorship of the Fourth Gospel and other NT literature traditionally assigned to him.68    This cannot be simple forgetfulness; and at the same time Ireaneus seems a man committed to truth, and not to concocting complex lies.    Moreover, the length of Clement’s testimony (EH 6.14.7) on John the Apostle authoring the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that this rests on more than Irenaeus’s testimony (Weidmann).69 

But what about the credibility of Polycarp’s witness?    Evidence relating to this comes from 6 pages (sides of papyri) called the “Harris fragments,” from the Harris collection in the British Museum, which discuss Polycarp’s life.    Written in Coptic (the late form of ancient Egyptian), this text has been analyzed by Frederick Weidmann (1999), who believes that the original was probably written in Greek in Smryna in the third century or later.70   This ancient text reads: “There remained after him [John the apostle] a disciple named Polycarp, and he made him bishop over Smyrna, the city” (page b).    “He continued to walk in the canons [teachings] which he had learned during his youth from John the apostle, until he reached a very great age [of 104 years]. . . . Moreover, he had this gift, that he never forgot any who had come into contact with him” (page c).    However, when Polycarp’s disciples learned that a local official was searching for the bishop so that he might kill him, they began moving him around from place to place (page d).    When Polycarp discovered why he was being moved about so, he forbid his disciples, telling them, “It is necessary that I die by the lawcourt,” since John the apostle had told him that since he would die a natural death, Polycarp would be martyred, to balance out things (page e).71    What is of special interest here is the record that Polycarp studied under John the Apostle, and also he retained a remarkable memory even into old age.

It should be remembered that new, fashionable scholarly theories can sometimes turn out to be completely wrong.    Relating to Johannine scholarship, while the composition of Fourth Gospel was once located in the mid-2nd century, today it is commonly dated in the last decade of the first century AD (Morris 1995, Keener 2003),72 although the New Oxford Annotated Bible (2001) places its final form between 80–90 AD73 and Andrew Lincoln (2005) between 90–110.74    Leading Johannine scholars once argued that Greek philosophy heavily influenced the Fourth Gospel, although now it is considered the most Jewish of the NT Gospels.    They also argued that one could never recover Jesus’ authentic words and life, although now there is a renewed, impressive interest in the historical Jesus (Charlesworth).75   As Keener notes, although Irenaeus was not infallible, it is unlikely that he fabricated the line of tradition that he claims concerning the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, since he personally knew Polycarp and refers to this connection as well in a letter to Florinus, where he mentions ‘remembering [his early days with Polycarp] more clearly than recent events.’76    As Carson (1991) notes, most scholars of antiquity could not so easily set aside such plentiful and consistent external evidence, as is frequently done in Johannine scholarship.77    Redford (2008) concludes, “[T]he tradition of antiquity that the author of the Fourth Gospel was John the Son of Zebedee the beloved disciple has not been overturned by criticism [italics the author’s].    It remains a genuine possibility.   Indeed, that could be even an understatement of the case . . . .”78 


FOOTNOTES:   1. Culpepper 1994, p. 8.    2. Culpepper 2008, p. 351.    3. Guthrie, pp. 246-247.    4. Morris 1982, p. 1107.    5. Cf. France, pp. 161-162.    6. Culpepper 2008, p. 352.    7. Filson, p. 953.    8. Westcott, pp. v-xxviii.    9. Keener, p. 89; W. Nicol, 1972, and Craig L. Blomberg, 1993, in Keener, p. 89 and n. 68; and Carson, pp. 70-71.    10. Redford, pp. 180, 177.    11. Achtemeier, p. 120.    12. David F. Strauss, 1892; in Charlesworth, p. 201.    13. Guthrie, p. 247.    14. Jennings, pp. 97, 233.    15. Keener, p. 101.    16. Carson, p. 74.    17. Keener, p. 103.    18. Ibid., pp. 102-103.    19. Achtemeier, p. 204.    20. Tasker, p. 601.    21. Carson, p. 74.    22. Morris 1995, p. 12.    23. Carson, pp. 74-75.    24. Charlesworth, pp. 197-213.    25. Harrison, pp. 1103, 1122.    26. Guthrie, p. 247.    27. Ellis, p. 1299.    28. Tenney, p. 8.    29. Tilborg, p. 97.    30. Boswell, p. 138.    31. McNeill, p. 132.    32. Jennings, p. 17.    33. Keener, pp. 917-918.    34. Varghese, p. 253, n. 72.    35. Cross, “Irenaeus”; note that early Christians’ dates are taken from this source, unless otherwise noted.   36. Reis, p. 67.    37. Collins, pp. 231-232.    38. Carson, p. 70; and Keener, p. 96.    39. Keener, p. 98.    40. Schnackenburg 1968, p. 91.    41. Ibid., p. 88.    42. Redford, pp. 158, 154-155.    43. Schnackenburg 1968, p. 91.    44. Redford, p. 159.    45. Culpepper, p. 353; including dates.    46. Carson, p. 26.    47. Keener, p. 99; and Morris 1995, p. 26.    48. Keener, p. 99; and Cross, “Alogi” and “Gaius.”    49. Keener, pp. 92-93.    50. Carson, p. 24.    51. Redford, p. 156.    52. Culpepper, p. 353.    53. Guthrie, p. 259.    54. Keener, p. 100; and Carson, p. 80.    55. Raymond Brown, John, 1 (Anchor Bible), 1966; then The Community of the Beloved Disciple, 1979.    56. Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St John, vol. 1, 1968; then vol. 3, 1982.    57. Brown 1979, pp. 22-24.    58. Ibid., pp. 18-20.    59. Keener, pp. 106, 108.    60. Martin Hengel, 1989; in Morris 1995, p. 20.    61. John A. T. Robinson, 1976; in Morris 1995, p. 21.    62. Conway, p. 364.    63. Gnosticism included a number of diverse 2nd and 3rd century ‘Christian’ groups which advocated a special gnōsis (“knowledge”), especially given to the descendents of Seth, Adam’s third son (Gen 4:25); and they also held that Jesus did not die a redemptive death or experience a bodily resurrection but was the final manifestation of Wisdom figures who have descended from the divine Mother-Father to enlighten humanity; cf. Perkins, pp. 583-584.    64. Keener, p. 94.    65. R. H. Malden, cited in H. P. V. Nunn, 1952, and in Morris 1995, p. 16 and n. 43.    66. Redford, pp. 153-154.    67. Culpepper, p. 126; and Weidmann, p. 132.    68. Weidmann, p. 129.    69. Ibid., p. 131.    70. Ibid., pp. 8, 11.    71. Ibid., pp. 43-47; this translation text has been slightly smoothed out.    72. Morris 1995, p. 25; and Keener, p. 142.    73. New Oxford Annotated Bible, NT, p. 147.    74. Lincoln, p. 18.    75. Charlesworth, pp. 15, 17.    76. Keener, p. 98.    77. Carson, pp. 68-69.    78. Redford, p. 163.  



Achtemeier, Paul J., Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson.   Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology.   Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001.

Boswell, John.   Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.   New York: Villard Books, 1994.

Brown, Raymond E.   The Community of the Beloved Disciple.   New York and Toronto: Paulist Press, 1979.

--------.    The Gospel according to John.   (Anchor Bible).   Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1, 1966, and 2, 1970.    

Carson, D. A. (Donald Arthur).   The Gospel according to John.    (Pillar New Testament Commentary).    Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1991.

Charlesworth, James H.   The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John?   Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1995.    

Collins, Raymond F.   “Elder in the NT.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2, pp. 231-233.    Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

Conway, Colleen M.   “John, Gospel of.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 3, pp. 356-370.   Nashville: Abingdon, 2008.

Cross, F. L.   Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.   Rev. by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone.   Oxford: Oxford University Press (1958), 1974. 

Culpepper, R. Alan.   “John. 13. John the son of Zebedee.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 3, pp. 351-354.   Nashville: Abingdon, 2008.

--------.    John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend.   Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. 

Ellis, David J.   “The Gospel according to John.”   In G. C. D. Howley, ed., New Layman’s Bible Commentary, pp. 1297-1334.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.

Eusebius.   Ecclesiastical History (Historia ecclesiastica).   Greek and English text.   (Loeb Classical Library).   Cambridge: Harvard University Press.   Vol. 1 (Books I-V), trans. Kirsopp Lake, 1926, repr. 1998.   Vol. 2 (Books VI-X), trans. J. E. L. Oulton, 1932, repr. 2000.   

Filson, Floyd V.   “John the Apostle.”   In George Arthur Buttrick, ed., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2, pp. 953-955.    Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.

France, R. T. (Richard Thomas).   The Gospel of Mark.   (New International Greek Testament Commentary).   Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans; and Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2002.       

Guthrie, Donald.   New Testament Introduction.   Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press (1961–1968), rev. and 3 vols. in 1, 1970. 

Harrison, Everett F.   “The Gospel according to John.”   In Charles F. Pfeiffer, ed., Wycliff Bible Commentary, pp. 1071-1122.   Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Irenaeus.   Against Heresies (Adversus haereses).   In Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, 1, pp. 307-567.   With brief prefaces and occasional notes by A. Cleveland Coxe.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1981.    

Jennings, Theodore W., Jr.   The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament.   Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003.   

Josephus, Flavius.   Josephus [Works], in 10 vols.   Greek and English.   (Loeb Classical Library).   Trans. by Henry St. John Thackeray.   Cambridge: Harvard University Press; and London: William Heinemann.   Includes: [My] Life (Bios) in vol. 1; and Jewish Antiquities (Ioudaikēs archaiologias) in vols. 4-10, 1930–1965.

Keener, Craig S.   The Gospel of John: A Commentary.   Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2 vols., 2003.

Lincoln, Andrew T.   The Gospel according to Saint John.   (Black’s New Testament Commentary).   Peabody, MA: Hendrickson; and London and New York: Continuum, 2005.

McNeill, John J.   Freedom, Glorious Freedom.   Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 

Morris, Leon.   The Gospel according to John.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1971), 1995. 

--------.    “John the Apostle.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, pp. 1107-1108.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan.    Notes for “The Gospel according to John” by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., NT, pp. 146-182.    Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973, 1977, 1991) 2001.

Perkins, Pheme.   “Gnosticism.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,2, pp. 581-584.    Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

Redford, John.   Who Was John?   The Fourth Gospel Debate after Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.   London: St Paul’s, 2008.

Reis, David M.   “Irenaeus.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 3, p. 67.   Nashville: Abingdon, 2008.

Schnackenburg, Rudolf.   The Gospel according to St John.   Trans. from German.   Vol. 1 (John 1-4), New York: Herder and Herder; and London: Burns & Oates, 1968.   Vol. 2 (John 5-12), London: Burns & Oates, 1980.   Vol. 3 (John 13-21), New York: Crossroad, 1982.   

Strong, James.   The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.    Revised and corrected by John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson.   With “Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary-Index to the Old Testament” and “Greek Dictionary-Index to the New Testament.”   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001. 

Tasker, R. V. G.  (Randolph).   “John the Apostle.”   In J. D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary, pp. 601-602.   Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity; and Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House (1962), 1982. 

Tenney, Merrill C.   “The Gospel of John.”   In Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9, pp. 1-203.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Tilborg, Sjef van.   Imaginative Love in John.  Leiden, New York and Köln: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Varghese, Johns.   The Imagery of Love in the Gospel of John.   Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2009.  

Weidmann, Frederick W.   Polycarp & John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Traditions.   Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. 

Westcott, B. F. (Brooke Foss).   The Gospel according to St. John.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1881), repr. 1962.


BIBLE TRANSLATIONS:    English Standard Version, 2001.   King James Version, 1611.   New Living Translation, 1996.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Revised English Bible, with Apocrypha, 1989.   Updated New American Standard Bible, 1999.


© 2010 Bruce L. Gerig

Photo at the top of this article adapted from a detail of Albrecht Dürer's "Last Supper," engraving, 1510

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