Monday, June 12, 2017

Richard Bauckham Is Wrong About John's Authorship

He thinks the fourth gospel was written by a close disciple of Jesus named John, but not the son of Zebedee. The second edition of his Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2017) has a new chapter that expands upon his earlier treatment of the subject.

There's some merit to Bauckham's arguments against authorship by the son of Zebedee and for the existence of another prominent early church leader named John. Like his case for the authorship of the first gospel, however, what he says about the authorship of the fourth gospel becomes much less significant when you look at it in light of the evidence as a whole. He substantially underestimates or ignores a lot of evidence against his position.

I mostly agree with the seven arguments against identifying the author as the son of Zebedee that Bauckham discusses on pages 562-71 (e.g., the gospel's focus on Jerusalem rather than Galilee; the gospel's lesser attention given to the Twelve in some contexts, in contrast to the Synoptics; the lack of attention given to James the son of Zebedee). Authorship by somebody other than John the son of Zebedee makes more sense of some of what we see in the gospel. But the arguments don't amount to much, individually or collectively. It doesn't take much on the other side to outweigh what Bauckham is offering in support of his position. That's true of not just the seven arguments he provides on the pages cited above, but also the arguments he brings up elsewhere.

I agree with him that the author of the gospel was familiar with the gospel of Mark, expected his readers to be, and supplemented what's found there (563). (I suspect John was supplementing Matthew and Luke as well.) Though the author's divergences from the Synoptics favor Bauckham's view over mine, the fact that the author was supplementing the Synoptics to some degree, "refrain[ing] from repeating Mark unless he has good reason to do so" (563), makes the fourth gospel's differences from the Synoptics much less important than they would be otherwise.

In addition to the supplementary nature of the gospel, humility probably had a role in what shape the gospel took, much as we see with the other gospels. Somebody like Peter (as relayed by Mark) or John would have to include himself in the accounts he provides to some degree, since he was speaking as an eyewitness, people were interested in his testimony as somebody who witnessed the events in question, etc. To an extent, you couldn't avoid talking about yourself. But you could do more to avoid talking about somebody like a family member, such as your brother. The lack of material on Andrew in the gospel of Mark is somewhat analogous to the lack of material on James the son of Zebedee in the fourth gospel. Bauckham accepts the traditional view that Peter was Mark's primary source. Yet, he refers to how Andrew "has a life of his own in John", in contrast to the Synoptics, and cites accounts about Andrew in the fourth gospel that aren't found in Mark (563 and n.36 on 563). Bauckham doesn't think the lack of material on Andrew in Mark is much of an argument against the conclusion that Peter was Mark's primary source. He's right. And I think the same is true of John's lack of material on James.

Bauckham thinks Mark would have cited John the son of Zebedee's presence at the cross (John 19:25-27) if John had been there (569-70). Why would Mark rely on the women at the cross as witnesses without mentioning the witness of John, who would be a better witness to cite in some ways? But Bauckham's argument proves too much. Even if the other John he argues for would be a lesser witness than the son of Zebedee, he'd still be a better witness than the women. So, does it follow that Bauckham's other John must not have been at the cross either? The best explanation for why Mark only alludes to the testimony of the women in the context of the cross, without referring implicitly or explicitly to others' testimony, is efficiency. There were nearby events, like the discovery of the empty tomb, that only the women witnessed, so relying on their testimony the whole way through would be a simpler way of handling things.

I've only given a few examples of how Bauckham's objections can be answered without much difficulty by those who think the fourth gospel was written by John the son of Zebedee. Other points could be made, but I want to move on to other issues for the remainder of this post.

One of the problems with the case for another John is that the other John isn't mentioned in any of the earliest sources. He's nowhere in the Synoptics, Acts, Paul's letters, etc. By contrast, the son of Zebedee is prominent, as we'd expect of somebody as close to Jesus as was the Beloved Disciple of the fourth gospel. Bauckham responds with comments like:

What seems likely is that the Beloved Disciple came to see the privilege he enjoyed as giving him a special role of witness to Jesus. He may not have seen this until after the events, when he looked back on his relationship to Jesus, especially in the last days of Jesus' life. His closeness to Jesus gave him knowledge and insight that, he believed, Jesus intended him to share. But other disciples need not have thought that at the time. His friendship with Jesus need not have been regarded as giving him any status within the movement at the time of Jesus' ministry or as it developed after Jesus' death….

the Beloved Disciple was not one of the Twelve, but a disciple of Jesus who played only a small part in the events of Jesus' ministry and was not one of the disciples well known in the early Christian movement….

The three disciples, Peter, James, and John, were especially close to Jesus vocationally, whereas the Beloved Disciple was close in an affective, personal way. Nothing in the Gospel suggests that Jesus gave him a special responsibility within his movement. Rather he was Jesus' best friend, whom Jesus naturally wished to have by his side at his last meal before his death and to whom he entrusted his mother. That he did not have a leadership role in Jesus' movement explains why he is absent from the Synoptic Gospels. It may only have been after the events that he came to realise that his particular intimacy with Jesus enabled him to bear a particular kind of witness to Jesus. (560, 570, 574)

A lot of individuals who weren't leaders in the early church get mentioned in multiple sources (Jesus' parents, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, etc.). Bauckham isn't providing much of an explanation for why there's such a lack of reference to his other John in the earliest sources.

More significantly, though, the fourth gospel portrays the Beloved Disciple as close to Jesus not just "in an affective, personal way", but also "vocationally", to use Bauckham's terminology. The Beloved Disciple is first referred to as such in John 13. In chapters 14-17, Jesus refers to some of the prominent roles the disciples will have in his movement. They'll be witnesses of the resurrected Christ (14:19). The Spirit will teach them "all things" and give them a supernatural memory of what Jesus said (14:26). They'll serve as witnesses in a unique way, because they've been with him from the beginning (15:27). The Spirit will guide them into all truth (16:13). The world will believe in Jesus through their testimony (17:20). The Beloved Disciple was one of the disciples to whom Jesus spoke those things, and the text makes no distinction between his role and that of the others. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the high language used in John 14-17 probably alludes to the Twelve's role in authoring scripture and anticipates the fourth gospel in particular. The gospel goes on to assign other prominent roles to the Beloved Disciple. He was an eyewitness of the empty tomb and of the resurrected Christ. The scenario of a Beloved Disciple who was as insignificant early on as Bauckham suggests, and was initially so unaware of the significance he'd later have, isn't an option. The fourth gospel closes that door for us. Whoever the Beloved Disciple was, he was highly prominent in the earliest years of Christianity.

Furthermore, which view of the gospel's authorship better explains the widespread early acceptance not only of the gospel, but also the three other documents from the same author (Bauckham thinks Revelation came from somebody else)? If the Beloved Disciple had been such a minor figure for the first few decades of church history, the high view of his writings and their widespread acceptance so early on is more difficult to explain.

Another problem for Bauckham's view is how poorly it explains the Beloved Disciple's relationship with Peter. Bauckham maintains that the author of the gospel was a close disciple of Jesus and was named John. That makes him similar to the son of Zebedee in two very unusual ways. The more such similarities there are, the more difficult it is to argue that two different Johns are involved. We know that the son of Zebedee had a close relationship with Peter (Mark 5:37, 9:2, Acts 3:1-4:23, 8:14-25, Galatians 2:9). The same is true of the Beloved Disciple (John 13:23-24, 20:2-3, 21:2, 21:7, 21:20).

Bauckham responds that the type of relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Peter "amounts to nothing at all special" (572). In John 13:23-25, Peter may communicate with the Beloved Disciple because the latter is physically nearer to Jesus, which means that Peter's communicating with that disciple has no implication of "personal closeness" between the two (572). He comments that 20:2-9 is the only place where we find Peter and the Beloved Disciple together intentionally (572). He dismisses 21:7 on the basis that the Beloved Disciple may have been speaking to all of the disciples who were present, not just Peter, though the narrator singles out Peter because he wants to focus on Peter's response. Or the Beloved Disciple may have spoken to Peter because Peter was "in charge", which means that the incident reflects no "special relationship" between the Beloved Disciple and Peter (572-73). On the incident in 21:20-22, Bauckham says that we're not told why the Beloved Disciple was following behind Jesus and Peter, and Bauckham thinks it was "natural" in such a situation for Peter to ask what would happen to the Beloved Disciple in the future. Bauckham again concludes that "nothing much" is implied about the relationship between the two men (573). He goes on to say that 18:15-16, if taken as a reference to the Beloved Disciple, likewise doesn't imply anything like a friendship between Peter and the Beloved Disciple (573).

Even if we were to adopt Bauckham's interpretations of these passages, there's one passage he concedes as evidence for a relationship like we see between Peter and the son of Zebedee elsewhere (20:2-9). One passage is less significant than a higher number of passages, but it still has some significance. Bauckham is conceding yet another highly unusual similarity between the Beloved Disciple and the son of Zebedee.

Setting aside the passage Bauckham concedes, what should we make of the others? The closeness of Peter and the son of Zebedee is described in a variety of ways in the sources outside the fourth gospel. Sometimes Jesus chooses Peter and John (along with whoever else) to go with him or be present on an occasion. Galatians 2 tells us that Peter and the son of Zebedee had a reputation as pillars of the church. Etc. Whether the two men are closely associated by Divine providence, in terms of their reputation, in an official capacity, as friends, or in some other manner, the more important point is that they're closely associated. That's a frequent theme in early documents outside the fourth gospel, and the fourth gospel frequently refers to a closeness, for whatever reasons, between Peter and the Beloved Disciple.

I agree with Bauckham that John 13:23-25 doesn't imply friendship or anything like it. But why was the Beloved Disciple reclining next to Jesus to begin with? The Beloved Disciple's close relationship with Jesus motivated Peter to go through that disciple in order to get to Jesus. Even if the Beloved Disciple and Peter weren't friends (I think they were), Peter had reason (the Beloved Disciple's closeness to Jesus) to closely associate with him in a way distinct from how he associated with the other disciples, which is something we see with Peter and the son of Zebedee in other sources.

In 21:7, we need to keep in mind that Peter and the Beloved Disciple were already together, along with some others, before the incident in question (21:2). And they went somewhere else together (21:3). Why does the Beloved Disciple keep associating with the Twelve, including Peter, if he was as minor a figure early on as Bauckham suggests, one who had a personal relationship with Jesus while being so unassociated with the Twelve? And why are they in Galilee? Bauckham makes much of the non-Galilean setting of a large percentage of the fourth gospel. But John 21 has a Galilean setting in a context that has implications for the identity of the Beloved Disciple. It's often noted that the return to fishing in John 21 is a sort of return to the disciples' previous way of life. That context is a good fit for John the son of Zebedee, who was a Galilean fisherman closely associated with Peter and some of the other disciples. It doesn't fit so well with some other John who lived outside of Galilee and was Jesus' best friend without having had much of a relationship with Peter and the Twelve in general. The context we're given in the opening verses of John 21 makes far more sense with the son of Zebedee than with Bauckham's other John.

As far as Bauckham's explanation of 21:7 is concerned, the author of the fourth gospel could have focused on Peter's reaction to the Beloved Disciple's comment without singling out Peter when describing what came before the reaction. And if Peter was singled out only because of his leadership role, I would repeat what I said above. Even if Peter and the Beloved Disciple weren't always or ever relating to each other as friends in the fourth gospel, the fact that they were so closely associated for some reason is significant. The reason doesn't have to be friendship or something like it.

In 21:20-22, why think it would be "natural" for Peter to be interested in the Beloved Disciple's future if their relationship was as impersonal as Bauckham suggests? If the Beloved Disciple was the sort of insignificant figure Bauckham claims he was in the earliest years of Christianity, and he was neither a church leader like Peter nor something like a friend of Peter, why would Peter respond to him as he does in the passage in question? You'd think Peter would be upset if somebody without much official or personal significance to him was following behind him as he was walking with Jesus. Even if Peter refrained from telling the Beloved Disciple to go away, out of regard for Jesus (who was the Beloved Disciple's best friend according to Bauckham), why would Peter take the initiative to ask about the Beloved Disciple's future (which involves more than just refraining from criticizing him)? The best explanation for why the Beloved Disciple didn't think either Jesus or Peter would object to his following behind them and why Peter showed interest in the Beloved Disciple's future is that the two men had a closer relationship than the one involved in Bauckham's scenario.

In addition to the Beloved Disciple's closeness to Jesus, his being named John, and his closeness to Peter, there are other ways in which the Beloved Disciple is significantly similar to the son of Zebedee. The Beloved Disciple was interested in going fishing with some other disciples in Galilee (21:3-8), which is explained well by the son of Zebedee's occupation as a Galilean fisherman. And there are early, independent, and widespread traditions that the son of Zebedee lived to an unusually old age, as I've documented in another post. Bauckham thinks his other John lived to an unusually old age, and he thinks traditions about that other John and the son of Zebedee got confused over time. But it's unlikely that there would have been such widespread confusing of the two men, and it's even more unlikely that there would have been such widespread confusion if they didn't both live unusually long. Are we to think that every tradition about the son of Zebedee living so long was a tradition that was originally about the other John or is unreliable in some other way?

These similarities between the son of Zebedee and the alleged other John are substantial enough to require a high level of evidence to justify a conclusion that two men are involved rather than one. Bauckham hasn't provided that.

This is a good place to take a closer look at the patristic Johannine traditions, since I just mentioned them. Bauckham acknowledges that attributions of the fourth gospel to the son of Zebedee are found in the second century and became "universal" in the third century (452). The widespread nature of those attributions casts doubt on Bauckham's highly subtle, highly disputable readings of earlier sources. He doesn't cite anybody who explicitly attributes the fourth gospel to another John. Rather, he argues that sources like Papias, the Muratorian Canon, and Irenaeus seem to refer to another John as the author, though in a very subtle way in every case.

I want to make two observations about Bauckham's general approach before I get into other details. First, we need to keep in mind that far more is involved here than authorship attributions of the Johannine literature. When speculating in the third century about another John who may have written Revelation, Dionysius of Alexandria mentions that many Christian parents named their children after the apostles (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 7:25:14). That's a reminder of how the identities of early Christian leaders would come up in many contexts, not just in the context of authorship attributions or literary issues more broadly. Though we're focused on the authorship of the fourth gospel in this post, we need to remember that a lot of other contexts overlap with this one to some degree. Was Bauckham's second John widely, even universally, forgotten in the context of Christians naming their children and other contexts, in addition to being so forgotten in the context of authorship attributions? Secondly, we ought to ask how likely it is that so many and such diverse individuals (Papias, the author of the Muratorian Canon, etc.) would be so subtle in their alleged references to another John. The early sources are so explicit in referring to John the Baptist and John Mark, for example, but we're supposed to think that they were universally much subtler in distinguishing Bauckham's other John from the son of Zebedee?

Donald Guthrie's comments on Dionysius of Alexandria are appropriate here:

"In this [speculating about another John] Dionysius foreshadowed, as a man born before his due time, those modern schools of criticism which have peopled early Christian history with a whole army of unknown writers, whose works attained as great a prominence as their authors obtained obscurity." (The Logos Library System: Deluxe Collection [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, 1997], New Testament Introduction)

More should be said about Dionysius. I don't remember any discussion of him in either edition of Bauckham's book, and he's absent from the indexes. That's significant, since Dionysius is the earliest source to explicitly discuss another John. You can read his comments in section 7:25 of Eusebius' Church History. I recommend reading the whole section, since it sheds so much light on the subject under consideration here. Dionysius accepted Revelation as scripture, but thought the author was a John other than the son of Zebedee. He attributes the fourth gospel to the son of Zebedee and shows no knowledge of any other view. Instead of appealing to a tradition about another John, Dionysius speculates that there was a second one on the basis of the existence of a second tomb for a man named John in Ephesus. If he'd known of any tradition of another John, like the tradition Bauckham claims was so widespread in the second century, you'd think Dionysius would have appealed to it and attributed Revelation to that John. He didn't do so. And he comments that many Christians name themselves and their children after the apostles, but doesn't appeal to any practice of naming people John after some other John. So, Dionysius was highly motivated to appeal to traditions and other evidence for another John if such evidence existed and he knew of it. Instead, he resorted to a highly speculative appeal to a second tomb with the name John in Ephesus while acknowledging that the son of Zebedee wrote the fourth gospel and showing no knowledge of Christians naming themselves and their children John after some other John.

One potential way for Bauckham to get around this evidence from Dionysius would be to approach him in much the same way he approaches Eusebius. He argues that Eusebius was aware of an early tradition that another John wrote the fourth gospel, but that Eusebius suppressed that tradition (424-25). However, applying that sort of explanation to Dionysius would be unconvincing, for reasons similar to why it's unconvincing with regard to Eusebius. If the tradition of authorship of the fourth gospel by another John was as widespread as Bauckham suggests and was referred to as explicitly in non-extant portions of Papias' writings as Bauckham suggests, why would Dionysius think he could adequately suppress it, even if he wanted to? And why think Dionysius (or Eusebius) was of such a character that he would engage in that kind of suppression? We know Dionysius was willing to dispute an early and widespread authorship attribution, even one for a document he considered scripture (Revelation). Why think he would have wanted to suppress evidence of an attribution he disagreed with for the fourth gospel? He could have appealed to evidence for Bauckham's John, if such evidence existed, argued that the people who attributed the gospel to that John were wrong, and appealed to that John as the author of Revelation instead. It looks like Dionysius was the sort of person who should have known about this other John Bauckham appeals to and should have referred to him and the evidence for his existence if such a John existed, yet Dionysius doesn't do so. Instead, he refers to the son of Zebedee's authorship of the fourth gospel as if it's undisputed, refers to the Christian use of the name John as if there is no other disciple of Jesus who would inspire it, and thinks the argument for another John depends on an approach far different than Bauckham's scenario postulates (speculating about a second Johannine tomb in Ephesus).

Let's look at the earlier patristic sources, beginning with Papias. Here's the most important passage from his extant fragments, as Bauckham quotes it. The comments in brackets are Bauckham's, not mine. This is exactly how the passage appears in Bacukham's book (15-16):

I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form for you [singular] everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else's commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on (parēkolouthēkōs tis) the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders - [that is,] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said (eipen), or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord's disciples, were saying (legousin). For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4).

Bauckham thinks the elders are "the senior Christian teachers in various cities of Asia at the time to which Papias refers in this passage" (17). He explains that if the elders are the apostles, then "it is hard to understand why Papias uses the word 'elders' so emphatically and does not simply label this group 'the Lord's disciples.'" (16) Bauckham argues that "the elder John" isn't the son of Zebedee, but is instead another John and the author of the fourth gospel. He argues that the first six of the seven apostles listed by Papias follow the order in which the apostles appear in John's gospel, with the exception of Judas (not Iscariot) in John 14:22 (417-18). Since Papias lists John the son of Zebedee sixth rather than first or second, he must not have thought the son of Zebedee was the unnamed disciple who's with Andrew in John 1:35-40. He doesn't list the son of Zebedee between Thomas and James either, which we'd expect him to do if he thought John 13:23 (the first mention of the Beloved Disciple) was the place where the son of Zebedee is first mentioned. It follows that Papias likely didn't view the son of Zebedee as the Beloved Disciple, who wrote the gospel.

There are a lot of problems with Bauckham's argument:

- If you remove the words Bauckham has added in brackets, the most natural way to take "the words of the elders - what Andrew or Peter said" is that the elders are the apostles. The words of the witnesses of the apostles and the words of the apostles wouldn't normally be equated. Rather, the words of the apostles would only be a subset of the words of the witnesses who heard them. The best explanation for why the words of the elders are equated to the words of the apostles is that the elders are the apostles. Papias may have had the qualifiers in mind that Bauckham adds in brackets, but that's a less natural way to interpret the passage.

- If the elders were witnesses of the apostles, then we have a situation in which Papias is highly dependent on thirdhand information. That's an unlikely scenario in the late first century, which is the timeframe Bauckham (rightly) thinks Papias is addressing. The apostles, especially the Twelve, who are the ones Papias is focused on in his initial list and comments, were small in number. It would make sense for people who had heard the apostles speak to only occasionally visit the area where Papias lived. But if the elders in question were the senior Asian teachers Bauckham refers to, then not only would there frequently be people in Papias' area who had heard those teachers, but the teachers themselves would often travel through Papias' area as well. Papias is more likely to be referring to his reliance on secondhand information about the words of the apostles, not thirdhand information. The reason why he refers to himself as so distant from the elders is that the elders are the apostles, not the senior Asian teachers Bauckham cites.

- Under Bauckham's scenario, the elders are too small a group. Since Papias was interested in what the apostles said, then he'd have taken testimony on that subject from anybody in contact with them ("anyone who had been in attendance on the elders", as he puts it), not just the Asian teachers in question. Why would Papias accept anybody's testimony when seeking to find out what the Asian teachers said, but then only rely on senior Asian teachers (or teachers more broadly) when trying to discover what the apostles said?

- Bauckham objects that if the elders are the apostles, then "it is hard to understand why Papias uses the word 'elders' so emphatically and does not simply label this group 'the Lord's disciples.'" (16) But Papias goes on to refer to an individual named John who's both "the elder" and "the Lord's disciple", so we know that he was willing to use both terms to refer to Jesus' disciples.

- There are too many problems with Bauckham's explanation of Papias' list of apostles. He's right that Papias largely follows the order of the apostles as they appear in the fourth gospel, probably because that gospel had so much influence on Papias' thinking. And I agree with Bauckham that Matthew was included because of his gospel (417-18). But why does Papias pass by Judas (not Iscariot) and name James and John as individuals, even though they're named as a group instead in the fourth gospel ("the sons of Zebedee" in 21:2)? Papias' list largely follows the order in which the apostles are named in the fourth gospel, but the unnamed disciple of 1:35-40 and the Beloved Disciple in 13:23 aren't named, so Papias' not placing the son of Zebedee earlier in his list doesn't have the significance Bauckham suggests. While Papias' list largely follows the order of the naming of the apostles in the fourth gospel, not all of what Bauckham is arguing follows from that fact.

- And he neglects something significant about the end of Papias' list. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that Papias departed from the wording of the fourth gospel (using "James and John" rather than "the sons of Zebedee") and added Matthew to the list, next to John, thereby concluding his list with the two apostles traditionally thought to have written gospels. Though Papias' list mostly follows the unusual order of the naming of the apostles in the fourth gospel, he goes out of his way to name John the son of Zebedee as an individual (which is different than how he's named in the fourth gospel), goes out of his way to add Matthew to the list (though Matthew isn't named in the fourth gospel), and places the two men together at the end of his list. Bauckham acknowledges that Matthew probably is included in the list because of his gospel. The best explanation for the inclusion of John's name and its placement next to Matthew's is that the John in question (a member of the Twelve and mentioned next to James, thereby identifying him as John the son of Zebedee) also wrote a gospel.

- The large majority of the sources who had access to Papias' writings and commented on his relationship with a church leader named John refer to Papias as a disciple of the son of Zebedee. See the collection of fragments about Papias here, for example, such as the ones from Prosper of Aquitania, Balthasar Cordier, and George Hamartolus.

Bauckham writes that Eusebius may have refrained from discussing Papias' comments on the authorship of the fourth gospel, since Papias identified the author as a John other than the son of Zebedee (424-25). That hypothesis is problematic for reasons I discussed earlier when addressing Dionysius of Alexandria. It's also problematic because it's so inconsistent with what we're told by at least the large majority of the other people who had access to Papias' writings and commented on his relationship with a church leader named John and the authorship of the fourth gospel. The scenario Bauckham is suggesting requires us to think that not only Eusebius, but also such a large number of other relevant sources over the centuries were all dismissing Papias' view without commenting on it or were misunderstanding his view and all misunderstanding it in the same way. That's highly unlikely.

Why did so many people over the centuries who were influenced by Papias, some of whom thought highly of him, not only believe that the fourth gospel was written by the son of Zebedee, but also show no awareness of any need to interact with a contrary view in Papias' writings? It's likely that his writings were at least consistent with the son of Zebedee's authorship of the fourth gospel, and he probably even affirmed it. We probably have an allusion to that authorship attribution in the fragments of Papias that have survived down to our day (in his list of the apostles, as explained above).

One of the relevant sources of the early patristic era who isn't discussed by Bauckham is Marcion. Tertullian tells us that Marcion and his early supporters cited Galatians 2 against the gospels other than Luke (the only gospel they accepted, in edited form). And Tertullian suggests that they cited Galatians 2:9 in that context, a passage that mentions John by name (Against Marcion, 4:3; cf. 1:20). It's the son of Zebedee who's being referred to in Galatians 2:9, and Bauckham acknowledges that. (Furthermore, even if we set aside Galatians 2:9, the apostles significant enough for Paul to rebuke in any portion of Galatians, not just 2:9, couldn't include Bauckham's other John. That John is supposed to have not become a significant figure in church leadership until later.) It seems, then, that Marcion and his early supporters thought the mainstream view of the fourth gospel's authorship was that the son of Zebedee wrote it, they accepted that attribution, and they argued against the gospel on the basis that John was a corrupt apostle who was condemned by Paul in Galatians 2.

Bauckham places a lot of weight on three sources from the late second century: the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus, and Polycrates. A theme that keeps coming up is how sources like the Muratorian Canon and Irenaeus supposedly were largely or entirely dependent on Papias for their information on issues related to the authorship of the fourth gospel. I think Bauckham overestimates the influence Papias had on later sources (e.g., nobody other than Irenaeus even mentions Papias' name in the earliest centuries). But however influential Papias was, it seems that he was a disciple of John the son of Zebedee and attributed the fourth gospel to that John, as I've argued above and elsewhere. So, later sources' dependence on Papias would go against Bauckham's position rather than supporting it.

Bauckham also makes much of an alleged distinction between references to disciples of Jesus and references to his apostles. The second John supposedly was typically referred to as a disciple of the Lord, which allegedly helps us distinguish him from the son of Zebedee. Bauckham acknowledges that the author of the fourth gospel can be considered an apostle and was sometimes referred to as an apostle by the sources in question, but he argues that the John who was behind the gospel is usually referred to as a disciple rather than an apostle.

One problem with that sort of argument is that the sources under consideration could easily have had reason to usually refer to the son of Zebedee as a disciple rather than an apostle. Since the Beloved Disciple, whichever John he was or whoever else he was, was known as the Beloved Disciple, there may have been a tendency for that reason to refer to him as a disciple more often than as an apostle. A preference for the disciple terminology when discussing the author of the fourth gospel doesn't tell us that one John was being distinguished from another or which John was in view.

And if the early Christians had wanted to distinguish between two Johns who were close disciples of Jesus, why would they have done so in such an inefficient way? They made explicit distinctions among Johns when referring to John the Baptist and John Mark, for example. Why would they be so much more subtle when distinguishing between the two Johns who most easily could have been confused? To make matters worse, Bauckham acknowledges that some second-century sources attribute the fourth gospel to the son of Zebedee and that attribution to him became "universal" in the third century (452). Under those circumstances, it would be especially unlikely that all of the sources Bauckham appeals to, writing in so many contexts in Irenaeus' case, would rely on such subtle means of distinguishing between the two Johns. A much better explanation of the evidence is that there weren't two Johns to distinguish. The disciple terminology was just another way of referring to the same John, the son of Zebedee.

Bauckham's argument about the Muratorian Canon doesn't just have the weaknesses mentioned above, but also some others. The relevant section of the document refers to how John consulted with "his fellow-disciples and bishops", then refers to what one of them, "Andrew, one of the apostles", said. If the disciple and apostle terms were interchangeable with Andrew (he was one of the "fellow-disciples" and "one of the apostles"), then what significance is there in the reference to John as a disciple? And John as an individual is only referred to as a disciple once. That's not much to go by. The document goes on to refer to how the gospels discuss "the life [Jesus had] with his disciples". Again, the document is using a variety of terms and doesn't reserve the disciple language for a second John or some group that a second John would belong to, but the son of Zebedee wouldn't belong to. The document goes on, in the remainder not quoted by Bauckham, to refer to John many times. It never offers any further qualification about which John is in view, even though we'd expect it to offer such a qualification if there had been two close disciples of Jesus named John. In a section Bauckham doesn't discuss, the document refers to how Paul wrote letters to seven churches "following the example of his predecessor John", "following the rule of his predecessor John", or some such thing, depending on which translation you adopt. (See the collection of translations here.) If the John who wrote the fourth gospel was less prominent than the son of Zebedee and was as minor a figure during Paul's lifetime as Bauckham alleges, it's more difficult to explain why the author of the Muratorian Canon would write of Paul following John's example or rule. The passage makes more sense if a more prominent predecessor of Paul, like the son of Zebedee, is in view.

I see no reason to think the Muratorian Canon supports Bauckham's position. To the contrary, the unqualified references to a disciple named John, with the surrounding context using the disciple and apostle language interchangeably, suggest that the author didn't think there were two Johns who needed to be distinguished. And the reference to Paul's following the example or rule of his predecessor John makes more sense if the son of Zebedee is in mind. So, the Muratorian Canon supports attribution of the fourth gospel to the son of Zebedee instead of supporting Bauckham's view.

His analysis of Irenaeus is also unconvincing. He gathers the references to named apostles in Irenaeus' writings and shows that John is referred to with the disciple terminology much more often than any member of the Twelve, Paul, etc. But a preference for applying that terminology to John more than to others doesn't suggest the existence of multiple Johns or that somebody other than the son of Zebedee was being referred to, as I explained above. Bauckham notes that the passages in Irenaeus that are explicitly about the son of Zebedee don't identify him as the author of the fourth gospel and don't apply the disciple terminology to him. But Bauckham acknowledges that there are only five such passages in Irenaeus (458). The number and nature of the passages are too insignificant to tell us much.

One of the objections to Bauckham's view that I raised above is particularly applicable to Irenaeus. Since Irenaeus addresses John in so many passages and at such length, the lack of any explicit effort to distinguish between two Johns is striking accordingly. He explicitly refers to "John the Baptist" (Against Heresies, 4:4:3) and "John who was called Mark" (ibid., 3:14:1), but nowhere makes any explicit effort to distinguish between two close disciples of Jesus named John.

Another problem with Bauckham's approach toward Irenaeus is that he puts all of Irenaeus' writings together when collecting the references to John. But Irenaeus' writings would have been written and read somewhat independently of one another. Somebody reading his Demonstration Of The Apostolic Preaching, for example, wouldn't necessarily know or remember what was said about John in Against Heresies. When we read Demonstration, what should we make of the references to John there, independent of what's said in Against Heresies? In Demonstration, we find four references to some John or another by name. The first is referred to as "John the Baptist" in section 41. The next reference is to "his [Jesus'] disciple John" (43), then "John the Baptist" (91), then "his disciple John" (94). The apostles had been referred to as "disciples" prior to the first reference to a disciple named John (41), and the apostle and disciple terms are shown to be interchangeable elsewhere (76, 81, 83). (For the significance of the Twelve among the apostles/disciples, see section 46.) Why would anybody reading Demonstration come to Bauckham's conclusion? If John the Baptist is so explicitly distinguished from other Johns, why would readers think that "his disciple John" is referring to one among multiple Johns who had all been referred to as "disciples" earlier and would be again later? A more natural way to take Irenaeus' language is that there was only one disciple of Jesus named John, so that no explicit qualifier akin to "the Baptist" would be needed. Given the centrality of the Twelve in Demonstration, wouldn't we expect an unqualified reference to "his disciple John" to be about the son of Zebedee? And the John in question is referred to as the author of the fourth gospel. In both passages that mention the disciple John, Irenaeus attributes the words of the fourth gospel to that John. It seems, then, that Irenaeus identified the son of Zebedee as the gospel's author.

The last source Bauckham appeals to is Polycrates, especially his reference to how the Beloved Disciple was "a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet" (in Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:2). Bauckham argues that:

it is extremely unlikely that a disciple of Jesus officiated as a Jewish high priest. Polycrates must simply be wrong about this. The interesting question is: how could he have come to think so? My suggestion was [in the first edition of his book] that, knowing that John the Beloved Disciple was not the son of Zebedee, Polycrates looked in the New Testament texts for another John who could be the Beloved Disciple. He found this John in Acts 4:6, in a list of members of the chief priestly family of Annas. If Polycrates thought the Beloved Disciple was this John, he cannot have thought he was John the son of Zebedee. (581-82)

In the first edition of his book, Bauckham had referred to how Polycrates was "an expert exegete" (n. 56 on 452). But the kind of misuse of Acts 4:6 that Bauckham is attributing to Polycrates doesn't suggest exegetical expertise. Why should we think Polycrates would have been so intent on finding another New Testament reference to the Beloved Disciple that he would have taken Acts 4:6 so badly out of context to find such a reference? And if he could have so misused that passage, why think he didn't make a mistake on some other level instead? Maybe he mistakenly thought that what he'd read in Acts 4:6 was something he'd read or heard about the son of Zebedee somewhere else.

There are other readings of Polycrates that are highly plausible and don't require us to think he was as incompetent as Bauckham suggests. It's possible that Polycrates was referring to the Beloved Disciple as a high priest in a metaphorical sense. Maybe he thought that some of the contents of the fourth gospel are of a priestly nature and that, in that sense, the author can be referred to as having the character of a high priest. Bauckham acknowledges that a couple of other patristic sources, one well before Polycrates and one shortly after, used the concept of high priesthood in a metaphorical way (448). But Bauckham objects that Polycarates' phrase "wearing the high-priestly frontlet" is too precise for a metaphor. But referring to a high priest rather than a priest is already getting somewhat precise, and metaphors are sometimes of a more precise nature. Even if the precision of Polycrates' comments is a problem for the metaphorical interpretation, Bauckham's alternative is far more problematic. It involves concluding that Polycrates was so intent on finding another reference to the Beloved Disciple in the New Testament that he took a passage about a John who was opposing the apostles in Acts 4 as a reference to the Beloved Disciple. I'll take an unusually precise metaphor over Bauckham's alternative.

There is no easy explanation for why Polycrates refers to the Beloved Disciple as a high priest. But there are explanations that are less problematic than Bauckham's. Most likely, either Polycrates erred in some manner less complicated and egregious than his error would be in Bauckham's scenario or he was referring to high priesthood in a metaphorical sense.

Bauckham has failed to demonstrate that any patristic source attributed the fourth gospel to a John other than the son of Zebedee. Of the four patristic sources he emphasizes most (Papias, the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus, Polycrates), the first three support authorship by the son of Zebedee rather than Bauckham's position, and the fourth is neutral. Some early sources who support authorship by the son of Zebedee, namely Marcion, his early followers, and their orthodox opponents, aren't discussed by Bauckham. The second-century evidence is heavily against Bauckham's view, and he refers to how attribution of the gospel to the son of Zebedee became universal in the third century. When Dionysius of Alexandria argues in the middle of the third century for authorship of Revelation by a second John, his argumentation suggests that there was no earlier tradition of another John like the tradition Bauckham proposes. The fact that Dionysius concedes as much as he does and is left with such speculative argumentation is a major problem for Bauckham's position. Much of what Papias, Irenaeus, and other sources in the earliest centuries wrote is no longer extant, but remained extant for hundreds of years prior to modern times. None of the people who had access to those writings and commented on matters related to the authorship of the fourth gospel show any awareness that there were any early reports of authorship by a John other than the son of Zebedee. To the contrary, they act as if there is no proposal of authorship by another John that needs to be addressed. What all of this amounts to is that there is no patristic case for authorship of the fourth gospel by another John.

And we've seen that the evidence internal to the gospel doesn't support authorship by a second John either. The Beloved Disciple was a prominent leader during the earliest years of the church, as we see in John 14-17, contrary to Bauckham's view that the author didn't become prominent until about half a century later. The Beloved Disciple also would have been of a lot of interest to the earliest Christians for other reasons (his knowledge of so many events not recorded in the Synoptics, his close relationship with Jesus, his close relationship with Peter, his close relationship with Mary, his eyewitnessing the crucifixion, his eyewitnessing the empty tomb, his eyewitnessing the risen Christ, etc.). He's closely associated with Peter, as we see with the son of Zebedee in other early sources, and he's similar to the son of Zebedee in other highly unusual ways. The best explanation for the series of highly unusual similarities between the Beloved Disciple and the son of Zebedee is that they're the same person.

When the internal and external evidence converge so well, why should we look for an alternative?

Update On 4/7/21: Here's a post that provides further arguments against Bauckham's position.


  1. Jason, I don't know if it is relevant, but do you have any thoughts on the dating of John's Gospel? If it was written in, say, 90 AD then doesn't that select for one of Jesus' very youngest disciples?

    1. I think John's gospel was written sometime during the last two decades of the first century. There's good evidence that his other writings were composed late in the century, as I've discussed here and here. I suspect that all of his material was written around the same time, in the last couple of decades of the century, when he had a patriarchal role as the last or one of the last apostles and would have been more dependent on writing to communicate. There are early, widespread, and credible reports that John's gospel was the last one written. The differences between the Synoptics and John make more sense if a larger amount of time passed between the two. The prominence of Matthew's gospel in early church history also makes more sense if there was a larger rather than smaller amount of time between that gospel and John's. Since John was the more prominent of the two apostles, a substantially earlier date for Matthew's gospel goes a long way in explaining how it became more prominent than John's. Most likely, Matthew's gospel was the first gospel from an apostle and was the only such gospel for something like two or three decades. And the tradition that Papias was the scribe who wrote the fourth gospel at John's dictation makes more sense if the gospel was written close to the end of the century.

      You're right that the late date of John's gospel advances the argument that one of Jesus' youngest disciples was the author.

  2. Very useful post, though I probably wouldn't even grant as much to the few arguments you think have some force. Though that's probably also your point--that they have very *little* force when considered. I thought exactly as you did about the Polycrates argument.

  3. Here's a post that provides further arguments against Bauckham's position.