Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lazarus Didn't Write The Fourth Gospel

In my last post, I mentioned that I disagree with some of Ben Witherington's arguments in his review of Bart Ehrman's latest book. I cited the authorship of the fourth gospel as an example. I think the gospel was authored by John, the son of Zebedee. Witherington thinks it was written by Lazarus. For those who are interested, I wrote a post against the Lazarus theory a few years ago. I won't repeat all of my arguments here, but I'll mention some of the relevant factors.

The fourth gospel is most naturally read as asserting that the beloved disciple is its author, and that disciple is portrayed as having a close relationship with Jesus and Peter and as somebody who was involved in fishing. The other three gospels, Acts, and Galatians each attribute one or more of those attributes to the son of Zebedee. In those other New Testament sources, the son of Zebedee is portrayed as a fisherman, as among the three disciples who were often closest to Jesus (along with James and Peter), and as somebody who was close to Peter (Mark 5:37, 9:2, Acts 3:1-4:23, 8:14-25, Galatians 2:9, etc.). Other internal evidence also favors authorship by John, and I mention some books that discuss the subject in more depth in my earlier article responding to Witherington, which I linked above.

Witherington has too low a view of external evidence, and he misjudges some of the external sources relevant to the authorship of the fourth gospel. He writes:

In the heat of controversy, trying to snatch this Gospel back from the Gnostics who apparently thought it was the best, Irenaeus and others attributed this Gospel to John son of Zebedee. But frankly, there are severe problems with that guess.

He cites no evidence in support of such a scenario. And it's highly unlikely on its face. Attribution of the fourth gospel to somebody named John is nearly universal in the early centuries of church history, and the tiny minority who departed from that consensus didn't support Witherington's view that Lazarus was the author. A "guess" about authorship, especially one that occurred as late as the time of Irenaeus, if Witherington is suggesting such a thing, would be unlikely to be so widespread. Martin Hengel and other scholars have convincingly argued for the earliness of the gospel titles, including the fourth gospel's title "the gospel according to John", as I've discussed elsewhere. Irenaeus cites earlier attribution of the gospel to John by the heretic Ptolemy (Against Heresies, 1:8:5). And Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp and had access to the writings of Papias. Polycarp and Papias were disciples of John, the son of Zebedee. See here and here. Sources earlier than Irenaeus state or suggest that the fourth gospel was written by an apostle, a description more applicable to the son of Zebedee than Lazarus. For a discussion of such earlier sources, see C.E. Hill's recent book on the gospels, which I discussed here, as well as the other material I link in that post.

Witherington repeats the common suggestion that there were two prominent church leaders named John in early church history, both of whom are mentioned by Papias. See here for a refutation of that theory.

He doesn't discuss the early evidence that John's gospel differed from the Synoptics because the author was writing later than the Synoptics and wanted to supplement them. In other words, the author may have left out some Synoptic material pertaining to the son of Zebedee because he knew that the material was already so widely reported and wanted his gospel to focus on other matters. See here.

Witherington makes many good points in his review of Ehrman's book. But a much better case could be made by somebody who takes the external evidence more seriously, as it deserves.


  1. great work Jason, thanks.

  2. I used to like to read Witherington, but the more I read him these days, the more I find that we have less and less in common in our christian beliefs.
    I am about to the point of jettisoning his blog and no longer reading anything he writes.
    He's too 'Out there' for me.

    And no, I don't find that he 'challenges' me. More like 'annoys' me. Certainly not edifying, and that's the important thing.

  3. Even it wasn't John, the evidence rules Lazarus out.

    This is my review, please give your feedback.