Sunday, September 03, 2017

John 21:24 And John's Authorship

Charles Hill recently wrote a chapter about John 21:24 in Lois K. Fuller Dow, et al., edd., The Language And Literature Of The New Testament (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 398-437. He makes too many significant points for me to even summarize them here. I recommend getting the book, from a library if you don't want to buy it, especially to read Hill's chapter and Michael Kruger's. Here's some of what Hill writes:

Bauckham has written a devastating review of the origin and history of this interpretation [that John 21:24 refers to the Beloved Disciple as a source behind the gospel rather than as the author in a more traditional sense], concluding that "no one has yet produced any evidence that graphein can be used to refer to a relationship between 'author' and text more remote than that of the dictation of a text to a scribe. No one seems even to have looked for such evidence." Unless new and convincing evidence is produced in support of this interpretation, Bauckham's review ought to signal its abandonment….Whoever it was that "wrote" (or was responsible for writing) John 21:24 is claiming, whether in truth or in falsehood, that he, the writer, is [the Beloved Disciple].

What I wish to show now is that John 21:24 belongs to a group of passages in the Gospel that may be termed self-disclosure texts. In several of the discourses of the Gospel, at a climactic point in the discourse, Jesus reveals that he is a person or entity that, up to that point in the conversation, had been spoken of in the third person. The Samaritan woman, for instance, after calling Jesus a prophet, refers to a third person, the Messiah who is to come. At the climax of their dialogue she states her belief that "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us" (4:25). At this point Jesus discloses, "I who speak to you am he" (4:26). On analogy with 4:26, the author of 21:24a could have written, "I who write to you am this disciple."…

But then comes the climactic Son of Man self-disclosure text in 9:37, and this one is even more like the self-disclosure in 21:24, for in it Jesus does not use "I" but maintains the use of the third person….On analogy with Jesus' self-disclosure in 9:37, the author of 21:24a would have written, "you have been reading this disciple's writing, and it is he who is bearing witness of these things to you," which is very close to what he did write…

At the end of his Gospel, by narrating a story about a character spoken of in the third person, and then at a climactic point in the narrative identifying himself as that character, the author follows the same pattern of self-disclosure that has been exemplified multiple times by the figure of Jesus in his narrative.

The obvious point is that 21:24ab is not a source-disclosure - the author disclosing that the principle source for the material in his book was the disciple who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper - but a self-disclosure, revealing that the author is that favored disciple….This is the most natural way to read the text grammatically, it is the way most suited to the Johannine literary tendencies, and it is the way early readers instinctively understood it. That some other party, an editor/redactor, could be thought to have slipped in between the beloved disciple and the author, at this point speaks only to the power of a pre-imposed theory about the composition of the Gospel….

If [the Beloved Disciple] had died, and the rumor [in John 21:23] had been allowed to circulate uncensored, then surely the focus would no longer be on the disciple and his death but on the Lord and his failure to return. This would seem especially so if, as many interpreters say, the disciple had been "long since dead." For in this case the community obviously would have somehow found a way to function successfully for a "long" period of time, despite the non-return of the Lord. And in that case, there surely would have been no need to reintroduce the potentially damaging rumor, and indeed there would have been an unnecessary risk in doing so. Verse 23 makes good sense, on the other hand, if the disciple was fully alive, and more especially so if he was quite old at the time when the book was released. For it was when he was no longer a young man, no longer middle-aged, but actually old and seemingly not far away from natural death, that such a rumor would be most capable of arousing the greatest interest….

The Gospel author's reticence about using the first person singular, but instead shifting to the plural when his authority comes into view [the "we" in John 21:24], is of a piece with his decision not to name himself explicitly in his Gospel. Compare Paul's "modest" uses of the epistolary plural in Rom 1:5…2 Cor 10:13…how Josephus switches from singular to plural when speaking of his intention to author a new book on matters relating to mutual relations between Jews [Antiquities Of The Jews, 4:198]…the plural here is simply a substitution for the singular, perhaps because it sounded a bit less pretentious….

From the aggregate of these passages [in the fourth gospel and the Johannine letters], at least two conclusions ought to be drawn. The first is that the verification in 21:24c, "we know that his testimony is true," is utterly domestic in John; it is not an oddity requiring a complex compositional theory to explain its existence. This eliminates the need for supposing that we might have here an intrusion of an outside third party before the Gospel was finished, or a later interpolation. Confessional verifications are a feature of the Johannine literature and in no other instance is the confessional verification given by an otherwise unknown, third party….

Second, and contrary to what is commonly held to be an indubitable fact, no matter how we understand the "we" in 21:24c, the verification here does not arise from a necessity to find a plurality of witnesses to legitimize or legalize the witness of the beloved disciple, least of all does it arise from some "extreme need to support the trustworthiness of the Johannine tradition." In two of the texts cited above (John 5:32; 12:50) it is Jesus who verifies that the Father's testimony is true, or that the Father's commandment is eternal life. In John, the Father is hardly someone who suffers an "extreme need" for external verification….

The author's use of the third person singular to refer to himself, both in the earlier narratives of the Gospel and here in 21:24 ("This is the disciple…his testimony is true"), was a common practice among ancient historical writers, it is a convention modeled by Jesus himself repeatedly in this Gospel, and it was easily recognized and understood as such by early readers of this Gospel….

The final two verses of the book, then, function as an "authentication" of the whole, by revealing that the author, as a participant in the narrative, is abundantly qualified to give his witness, and then by solemnly confessing his knowledge that the witness is true….

What this means is that those who seek support for the idea of a Johannine school of writers responsible for the writing of the Fourth Gospel ought to look for another "classic proof text for the School's existence." If there are any good reasons to posit an extensive redaction of this Gospel sometime after the death of the beloved disciple, they do not arise from John 21:24. (403-404, 406-408, n. 81 on 422-23, 431, 433-34)


  1. You can read Hill's chapter online here.

  2. Though Hill cites 2 Corinthians 10:13 as an example of a plural of modesty in Paul's letters, I think a better example is verse 11. In verse 10, Paul had been singled out for criticism. Paul responds to those criticisms with "we". I doubt that he was including anybody else with him, since the criticisms are of such a personal nature. It does seem, then, that Paul is using the plural to refer to himself alone.

    And I should add something about John 21:25. If verse 24 is using a plural of modesty ("we") to refer to the author, the Beloved Disciple, and John is affirming his confidence about his testimony rather than suggesting that other people are confirming what he's said, then verse 25 makes more sense. There's no move from a group in verse 24 to the singular "I" in verse 25. Rather, there's a focus on one person the whole way through.

    A potential obstacle to understanding or accepting the concept of a plural of modesty is how accustomed we are to hearing of a plural of majesty. If a king refers to himself as "we", we tend to think of that in terms of a high self-image rather than in terms of modesty. But the fact that a plural can be used to refer to one individual in an immodest way doesn't mean that it can't be used in a modest way as well. A "we" does, after all, take the focus off of "I", even though it includes the I. There is an element of modesty to switching from "I" to "we" in some contexts. What we should do is expand the range of options for how "we" can be used. It does sometimes suggest immodesty when used to refer to one person. But it can also be used for the purpose of modesty. We have to judge case-by-case.