DagoodS of Debunking Christianity has written an article on the authorship of the gospel of John. Compare that article with an article I wrote on the same subject last year.
Though DagoodS claims that Biblical authorship is an issue he's "studied vociferously", the objection he focuses on (the absence of some Synoptic material on love in John's gospel) is weak by itself and even weaker when contrasted with the evidence we have for Johannine authorship. To recognize the weak nature of DagoodS' objection, we should establish a timeline.
The apostle John lived until around the end of the first century. Irenaeus and Victorinus say so explicitly, other ante-Nicene sources suggest it, and Eusebius, who had access to many documents no longer extant, accepts the report without presenting an alternative. Thus, the second century sources reporting on the authorship of John's gospel are commenting on the subject not long after John's death. John's disciples lived well into the second century. Polycarp didn't die until the early part of the second half of the second century. Irenaeus refers to John's disciples (more than just Papias and Polycarp) living into the second century. He refers to how they were consulted about the correct rendering of a passage in the book of Revelation, for example, which means that people must have known who the disciples of John were and must have associated them with Johannine books, such as Revelation.
From the time of Polycarp's death onward, Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel is nearly universally stated or implied (with the minor exception of the heretical Alogoi, who had no historical knowledge of a different author). Around the middle of the second century, close to the time of Polycarp's death, Justin Martyr writes of an established church tradition of reading the gospels along with the Old Testament scriptures in church services (First Apology, 67). He refers elsewhere to "the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). Notice the plural: "apostles" and "those who followed them". The use of the plural matches our four gospels: apostles (Matthew, John) and those who followed them (Mark, Luke). Justin doesn't cite the number four anywhere, but his comments are consistent with the collection of four gospels that sources living just after Justin's time refer to. In another place, Justin refers to the fact that the apostles composed gospels (First Apology, 66), so he can't just be referring to the apostles as the subject matter of the gospels. Justin isn't as explicit as a source like Irenaeus, but what he reports is consistent with what Irenaeus and other sources tell us.
Shortly after Justin's death, a wide variety of sources (a variety of locations, personalities, backgrounds, etc.) report that the gospel of John was written by the apostle (Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, etc.). They state the fact as if they aren't expecting it to be challenged.
A source like Irenaeus is especially significant, since he had met John's disciple Polycarp, possessed the writings of John's disciple Papias, and had lived in a city John was in contact with (Smyrna, Revelation 2:8-11). Given the recent timing of John's death, the prominence of John's disciples in the second century church, the nearly universal acceptance of Johannine authorship, and other such factors, the external evidence for John's authorship of the fourth gospel is strong. It would require a major amount of internal evidence to overturn the implication of the external data.
But there is no strong internal evidence against Johannine authorship. Instead, the internal evidence further supports the traditional view. The New Testament scholar Martin Hengel argues that the traditional names of the gospel authors were part of the documents all along (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000]). Any claim that John's name isn't part of the document has to be argued, not just asserted. And my article linked at the opening of this post gives a lot of other internal indications that the gospel was written by John. The Synoptics, Acts, and Galatians portray John and Peter as frequently associated with each other, and the gospel of John similarly associates the beloved disciple with Peter. The Synoptics add the qualifier "the Baptist" to John the Baptist's name, whereas John's gospel doesn't, probably because there would be no third person references to another John, since the author was the apostle John. Etc. Anybody who's interested can read my article linked above for more details.
I want to respond to some of the comments DagoodS makes in his article:
"Part of my journey was discovering that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses to the events, and therefore subject to the same troubling problems of error being introduced into their accounts."
The gospels were written within several decades of Jesus' death, when eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles were still alive. They wouldn't have to be documents written by eyewitnesses in order to be historically reliable documents.
And skeptics like DagoodS don't just want to dismiss a few details here and there. Rather, they want us to believe that the gospels are all wrong to a radical extent. The fact that a document wasn't written by an eyewitness (if true) doesn't lead us to the radical conclusions of skeptics like DagoodS.
"John has numerous unique sayings, a lack of parables, and refers to Jesus doing signs, all of which are vastly different than what we see in the Synoptics."
If DagoodS had read the early external sources commenting on John's gospel (Tatian's Diatessaron, Clement of Alexandria, etc.), he would know that the earliest Christians were aware of the differences between the Synoptics and the gospel of John and that they gave an explanation for those differences. John wrote last. He was deliberately supplementing what had been written previously. He chose to focus on different things. He puts more emphasis on the sayings of Jesus and less emphasis on the miracles of Jesus than Mark did, for example. If John was deliberately supplementing one or more of the previous gospels, then the differences make sense. DagoodS' charges of contradiction and non-historicity have been addressed by Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, and other scholars, but DagoodS shows little knowledge of what they've written.
The Synoptics and John are similar for the most part. The general outlines of Jesus' life, His character, His enemies, etc. are the same in detail after detail. If the gospel of John is as "vastly different" from the Synoptics as DagoodS claims, then why didn't he notice such a vast difference when he was a professing Christian for a few decades? There are differences, but they aren't as significant as DagoodS and other critics make them out to be.
"John also disappears, a mention is made of his missionary trip to Samaria, and no more. Acts 8:14. The primary leaders of the early Church, according to Acts, were not Disciples."
Why single out the book of Acts? The book was written by a companion of Paul, so its focus on Paul makes sense. But Paul himself tells us that John remained prominent in the church (Galatians 2:9), we have five documents written by John (one of which is addressed to seven churches, some of them churches of major significance), and the early post-apostolic sources tell us that John had an important role in the church of the first century. Has DagoodS read much of Irenaeus? You can't read much of Irenaeus without noticing the large shadow that John and his disciples cast over the second century church.
"Perhaps he was not there that day—it was his turn to go into town and pick up bread."
DagoodS acknowledges that John records some of Jesus' comments about love, yet he asks why John didn't record more of them. Why should we expect him to? He's largely supplementing one or more of the other gospels. Jesus' statement in the Synoptics about love as the greatest commandment is similar to what Jesus states in a passage like John 13:34-35, so why would John need to repeat this theme in its Synoptic form?
"I am stumped as to how one can have Jesus giving a new commandment of 'love one another' after the stories recorded in the Synoptics."
Notice that DagoodS only quotes a portion of the passage. Read the rest of John 13:34. Jesus puts the love in the context of "as I have loved you". No love could be patterned after Jesus' life until Jesus lived that life. And He doesn't set a timeframe on the newness of the commandment. If it was something that originated a few months or a few years earlier, He could still refer to it as new at the time of John 13. For an illustration of how similar commandments can be seen as both old and new, see 1 John 2:7-8. Nothing in John 13 contradicts the Synoptics.
I just cited a passage in 1 John, and I should note something here about the epistles. Notice that DagoodS uses the Johannine epistles in his argument, yet rejects the strong implication those epistles have for the Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel. If all four documents were attributed to the apostle John, it's far more likely that the early Christians were right four times than that they were wrong four times. It's not as if these documents were written anonymously, without anybody knowing who circulated them. As we see in 2 John and 3 John, the author knew the people he was writing to and was writing to them about specific events occurring among them. He wasn't just addressing general principles. How likely is it that the recipients of these documents would leave no trace of the actual identity of the author anywhere in the historical record, followed by Christians living just afterward collectively reaching the mistaken conclusion that all four documents were written by the apostle John?
"I propose that the Gospel of John was written by someone unfamiliar with the Synpotic stories who was not traveling with Jesus."
Then you have a lot of internal and external evidence to the contrary to explain. And that evidence weighs far more than your belief that the apostle John would have repeated more of the passages in the Synoptics. You can't overcome strong internal evidence and strong external evidence with an appeal to weak internal evidence.
How likely is it that the author of John was unfamiliar with the Synoptics? It's highly unlikely. Most scholars date Mark prior to 70 A.D., which would mean that the document was circulating for decades prior to the writing of John's gospel (assuming the late first century dating of that gospel, which makes sense in light of what Irenaeus and other ante-Nicene sources report). Papias reports, early in the second century, that he learned of the origins of Mark's gospel from the church leadership of his day. He tells us that he acquired the information from "the elder" (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:15), a possible reference to the apostle John. Whoever gave Papias this information, it was widely known in his day. The gospels are widely quoted and alluded to by sources of the late first and early second centuries, and Aristides even refers to the gospels' availability to non-Christians who were interested in reading them (Apology, 2). Eusebius tells us that Christians of the early second century distributed copies of the gospels as they traveled (Church History, 3:37:2). The concept that the author of the gospel of John wouldn't have known about any of the Synoptic gospels, and would have been ignorant of the traditions behind them as well, is absurdly untenable. Craig Keener comments:
"Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius’ letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John’s Gospel and the 'postapostolic' period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'" (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 41-42)
Gospel harmonies are already on people's minds and circulating in written form in the middle of the second century (as reflected in Tatian's Diatessaron). In other words, people were perceiving the four gospels as harmonious accounts of actual historical events at a time when eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the apostles were still alive. The people living just after the time of the apostles have no concept of some Johannine community writing a gospel in ignorance of the other gospels or in opposition to the other gospels. The traditional view, involving the historicity and harmony of the four gospels, is there from the start.
I want to close this post with an emphasis on the theme I began with. Compare the arguments cited against Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel to the arguments cited in support of it. If one side has no external sources and the other side has many, and one side has softer internal evidence and the other side has harder internal evidence, what does that contrast suggest? And what does it suggest when the side relying on much weaker evidence in this case does the same over and over again with other books of the Bible and on other disputed topics?