If you have ever read the four gospels, you know that the gospel of John stands out, from the very start: John 1:1-2 In [the] beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. *He* was in the beginning with God. This gospel is so striking that supposedly “most scholars” don’t think John, the son of Zebedee, an ordinary fisherman, wrote it. Among the reasons they give are the sophisticated Greek style of writing and the intellectual nature of its account of the life of Jesus. Those first two verses are used as part of the argument, where the claim is that the author is borrowing from the Platonic syncretism of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria.
But there is a difference between claim and proof. True, Philo of Alexandria used the Greek word Logos to symbolize the creative powers of God as if they constituted a separate being or person from God, itself a concept apparently derived from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (500 BC). Yet to claim that that proves John is talking about Philo’s Logos in his gospel is a non-sequitur. Logos is a perfectly good Greek word, meaning word. And it happens to be the Greek word used by the writers of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) to render the Hebrew word Dabar.
Dabar is used all over the Old Testament when mention is made of the Word (Dabar) of the Lord. And, yes, the way it is used it means more than just a word, it sounds many times like it is referring to a person:
Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of Jehovah came to Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, thy exceeding great reward.
But since Moses, who wrote Genesis, lived around 1300 BC, we can be sure that if anybody borrowed concepts here, it was Heraclitus (and therefore Philo) from Moses and the Hebrew Scripturas, not the other way around.
Why claim the author is not John, the son of Zebedee?
The problem lies in a fundamental assumption of what is called Higher or Historical Criticism. According to this approach, the Bible must be analyzed (the meaning of criticism) like any other historical or literary record. The result is that, often, the analyst finds it necessary to deny or explain away the supernatural claims contained within the narrative. After all, we know miracles don’t happen!
I hope you can see how such an approach is prejudiced from the very beginning. And how quickly it can get nonsensical when applied to a book whose most important claim is that it is the message from a God that transcends time and space. The book claims to be supernatural in origin! Therefore, Higher Criticism cannot clarify it at all; all it can do is distort it.
I think this is an important point because misconceptions do get propagated easily over the internet; and, unfortunately, we live in the age of truth by repetition.
Thus, when you read that this gospel could not have been written by John, the son of Zebedee, because he, as a fisherman, was barely literate, ask yourself: Is there anything in the text of the gospels to suggest such a handicap? Having a humble childhood or occupation has nothing to say about the level of your intellect. Furthermore, our ignorance of the daily life of those people, half a world away and 2000 years in the past, tempts us to fill in the gaps with our imagination or, worse, our biases.
For instance, how many languages do you speak? And I don’t mean recreationally but rather, speak well enough to carry out business. The Jewish people in Jesus’ days communicated not only in Aramean but also in Greek and Latin. The Scriptures which they were taught from childhood, and memorized, were widely available in Greek, as the Septuagint. In fact, there are places in the Gospel when an Old Testament passage is quoted that you can tell from the wording whether it was quoted from a Hebrew text or from the Greek Septuagint. The bottom line is, there is nothing in the gospels that tells us John, the son of Zebedee, was not intelligent enough to write the gospel ascribed to him.
But there is a more important argument for his authorship that Higher Criticism has to deny: The Gospel and the book of Acts make a point of stating that the Apostles, having been called to be witnesses of the Lord, were supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News. Thus, Jesus told them:
Matthew 10:19-20 But when they deliver you up, be not careful how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given to you in that hour what ye shall speak. For *ye* are not the speakers, but the Spirit of your Father which speaks in you.
We see this being fulfilled in the book of Acts. When Peter and John healed the infirm man at the Temple in the name of Jesus, and then preached a sermon that gained 5000 new followers, they were arrested and taken before the chief priests and elders. There they gave their defense… with such intellectual power that their judges were amazed:
Acts 4:13 But seeing the boldness of Peter and John, and perceiving that they were unlettered and uninstructed men, they wondered; and they recognised them that they were with Jesus.
Now, you could try to take the word translated here as unlettered (agrammatos) as meaning illiterate, but then you would have to assume Jesus was also said to be illiterate, since they said the same about him: John 7:15 The Jews therefore wondered, saying, How knows this [man] letters (grammata), having never learned? In other words, the precise accusation is to a lack of formal training in the Scriptures, both in the case of Jesus and the Apostles.
Sure, their opponents would like to think of them as uneducated, even illiterate men… But, so what? Again: Jesus guaranteed that they would have whatever they needed to carry out the Great Commission, through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, neither the excellence of the Greek writing nor the intellectual nature of some of the passages can be used to prove that it is not John the disciple who is writing here.
Denying John, the son of Zebedee, the authorship is just a subtle first step in planting doubt that this gospel may not be the word of God. The point is to weaken its divine authority and demote it to human tradition.
Why do we believe it was John?
The author never names himself. But it is the only gospel that insists in mentioning one of the disciples in Jesus’ inner circle, not by name, but by a description: as the disciple whom Jesus loved. For instance, in the events of resurrection Sunday:
John 20:1-6 And on the first [day] of the week Mary of Magdala comes in early morn to the tomb, while it was still dark, and sees the stone taken away from the tomb. She runs therefore and comes to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, to whom Jesus was attached, and says to them, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid him.
Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and came to the tomb. And the two ran together, and the other disciple ran forward faster than Peter, and came first to the tomb and stooping down he sees the linen cloths lying; he did not however go in.
Simon Peter therefore comes, following him, and entered into the tomb, and sees the linen cloths lying…
This turn of phrase is used four more times. At the Last Supper:
John 13:21-25 Having said these things, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and testified and said, Verily, verily, I say to you, that one of you shall deliver me up. The disciples therefore looked one on another, doubting of whom he spoke.
Now there was at table one of his disciples in the bosom of Jesus, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter makes a sign therefore to him to ask who it might be of whom he spoke. But he, leaning on the breast of Jesus, says to him, Lord, who is it?
At the cross:
John 19: 25-27 And by the cross of Jesus stood his mother, and the sister of his mother, Mary the [wife] of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Jesus therefore, seeing his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, says to his mother, Woman, behold thy son. Then he says unto the disciple, Behold thy mother. And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
And after the resurrection…
John 21:4-7 And early morn already breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; the disciples however did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore says to them, Children, have ye anything to eat? They answered him, No. And he said to them, Cast the net at the right side of the ship and ye will find. They cast therefore, and they could no longer draw it, from the multitude of fishes.
That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved says to Peter, It is the Lord. Simon Peter therefore, having heard that it was the Lord, girded his overcoat [on him] (for he was naked), and cast himself into the sea…
Soon after that breakfast on the shore, Jesus prepares Peter for his new role as a leader among the disciples and He tells him the price he will pay:
John 21:18-22 Verily, verily, I say to thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst where thou desiredst; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and bring thee where thou dost not desire. But he said this signifying by what death he should glorify God. And having said this, he says to him, Follow me.
Peter, turning round, sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned at supper on his breast, and said, Lord, who is it that delivers thee up? Peter, seeing him, says to Jesus, Lord, and what [of] this [man]?
Jesus says to him, If I will that he abide until I come, what [is that] to thee? Follow thou me.
Now, when you read these passages, what picture forms in your mind?
To me it has always been clear that this person was the youngest of the apostles. And also, from the close association to Peter, that he was one of the “three”: Peter, James, and John.
In that passage at the tomb, you notice he ran faster than Peter to get there first. Well, we know Peter was a very big man. (Calculate the weight of the net full of fish that he pulled to shore by himself in that passage in John 21.) So, it makes sense that a younger, limber, person would get there first. But then he was afraid to go into a tomb. It was Peter that entered first. That reaction also speaks to me of youth.
Similarly, the scene at the cross suggests to me that this was a young man. Mary, Jesus’ mother, was about to lose her eldest son. And Jesus’ nearest kin were not believers yet. So, He entrusted her to John. But in the way Jesus says it, it also seems that John needed a mother.
So, if he was indeed the youngest, it makes sense that he could have formed a special attachment to Jesus, looked up to him with the zeal and idealism of youth.
But why not name himself?
Maybe because some things the other John said, resonated with Him…
John the Baptizer had one overwhelming purpose in life: to proclaim the Messiah. When the Pharisees and religious leaders asked him to tell them who he was, and why he was baptizing, this is what he said:
John 1:23-27 He said, I [am] [the] voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the path of [the] Lord, as said Esaias the prophet. And they were sent from among the Pharisees. And they asked him and said to him, Why baptisest thou then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet? John answered them saying, I baptise with water. In the midst of you stands, whom ye do not know, he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to unloose.
He is practically saying, “It doesn’t matter who I am… what matters is Jesus.”
On another occasion John’s disciples came to him, frustrated…
John 3:25-30 There was therefore a reasoning of the disciples of John with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, Rabbi, he who was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, he baptises, and all come to him.
Did you catch what is going on here? The religious leaders are giving them troubles and interfering with them as they are baptizing people, but right there, a mile or so down the river, Jesus and his disciples are baptizing too, and they don’t seem to be bothering them.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing unless it be given him out of heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but, that I am sent before him. He that has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices in heart because of the voice of the bridegroom: this my joy then is fulfilled.
He must increase, but I must decrease.
Do you see it? From the moment Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptizer consistently pointed away from himself and toward the One that defined his very existence: the Lamb of God.
Loss of face? Loss of fame? Loss of freedom? None of those mattered to him because John the Baptizer knew who he was. He knew where his identity came from…
Who am I?
In our age of mail order DNA tests and acute societal awareness of the injustices of the past, it has become fashionable to talk about our roots as the source of our identity. There is nothing wrong with knowing our roots; they are part of our story; in many ways they shaped us into what we are today. But do they define us?
What about our profession, our chosen career? It is a fact that to many of us, what we do defines us. And we proudly prove it when the first thing we ask a new acquaintance is, what do you do for a living? It makes sense. We worked hard to get where we are.
Or maybe it is what we choose to do with our free time and our resources that best defines us: a sport, a hobby, fame… having thousands of followers watching out for our latest postings.
Where does my identity come from? All of the above are invariably centered, focused, on me. But to John the disciple, there was one thing above all that defined his identity:
Jesus loved me.
Isn’t that enough?
Evidently it was enough for him. In fact, it was everything to him, to the point that when he spoke about himself all he could say was, all you need to know about me is that “I am the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Can you imagine knowing that truth… deep in your soul?
Do I know it? …really know it?
Do you know it?
It is true. Jesus loves you.
He knew me for who I was: just an ordinary person, one more person in a sea of billions (today). He knew all the good and all the bad, all my strengths and all my weaknesses… And I know which way the scales tipped… But that didn’t matter to Him. He still chose to love me; love me enough to become one of us, live among us, and teach us that the Father has never forgotten any one of us… that the Father has never abandoned us, that He has been speaking words of life and love to us all along… and that all we need to do is stop and choose to listen, and we will hear Him.
And what will we hear? The Word of God: Jesus Himself, the ultimate proof of the Father’s Love; who loved me so much that He chose to give His life in exchange for mine.
I know that the cares and troubles of life have the power to take our eyes off this truth. And then the result is doubt, even anguish, because life can seem so hard… and circumstances are often so far beyond our power to overcome…
But Jesus has never stopped loving me.
John 14: 23 23 Jesus answered and said to him, If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.
John 16:33 These things have I spoken to you that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye have tribulation; but be of good courage: I have overcome the world.
Matthew 28:20 …And behold, *I* am with you all the days, until the completion of the age.
Did you know you are loved?
May that truth remain close to your heart this whole Christmas season.