Who wrote John’s Gospel? James Charlesworth says, “The apostle Thomas.” Ben Witherington believes it was Lazarus. And Esther de Boer contends the author of John’s Gospel was Mary Magdalene! Many others believe the author was in fact a committee of unknown authors, editors, and redactors—the Johannine community. The traditional view of the Church has been that this is the “Gospel according to John,” John the apostle, that is, as in John the son of Zebedee. How can reputable scholars dealing with the same evidence come to such drastically different conclusions? And where does the evidence really point?
In several publications, I have surveyed the external and internal evidence with regard to Johannine authorship. I have documented that the Church, from the second century until around 1790, has universally held that the apostle John wrote the Gospel that bears his name. When the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel was questioned, and the tide turned against Johannine authorship, this occurred not because the evidence supported a different outcome, but because in the wake of the Enlightenment scholars reacted against traditional ecclesiastical dogma, and Johannine authorship became one of the many casualties of critical scholarship.
One important internal datum from the Gospel is that “the disciple Jesus loved” (i.e. the author of the Gospel; compare John 21:24 with 21:20–23) is consistently paired with the apostle Peter (see John 13:23–24; 18:15–16; 20:2–9; 21:1–8, 15–23). This clearly points to the apostle John, as it is this disciple who is consistently paired with Peter elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Luke 5:8–10; 22:8; Acts 1:13; 3–4; 8:14–25; Gal. 2:9). Also, note that John the Baptist, who in the other Gospels is called “John the Baptist” or “the Baptist” or “Baptizer,” is called simply “John” in this Gospel—which is possible because the apostle John remains unnamed.
Now Witherington (BAR 32/2 : 24) believes the author of John’s Gospel cannot be John the son of Zebedee because the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in John 21:2 (and Bauckham says the same). I would respond that, in fact, this reference considerably narrows the pool of candidates for “beloved disciple,” who is mentioned later in the same narrative (John 21:7) and hence must be one of the 7 disciples referred to in John 21:2 but was obviously not Simon Peter, Thomas, or Nathanael, so that he must have been either one of the sons of Zebedee (but not James who was martyred early) or one of the two other disciples not mentioned by name.
As I have demonstrated in a recent essay, most likely “disciple whom Jesus loved” should be understood as an expression of authorial modesty, similar to the word “I suppose” in the last verse of the Gospel (John 21:25). This, as well as the author’s practice of talking about himself in the third person singular or first person plural, is in keeping with first-century historiographical practice. There is therefore no reason to overturn the long-standing belief, held by the Church through most of its history, that the author of John’s Gospel was the apostle John, the son of Zebedee.
For further study see the following writings by Dr. Köstenberger: “Introduction to John’s Gospel” and “Early Doubts of the Apostolic Authorship of the Fourth Gospel in the History of Modern Biblical Criticism,” Chapters 1 and 2 in Studies in John and Gender; Chapter 1 in Encountering John; and “ ‘I Suppose’ (oimai): The Conclusion of John’s Gospel in Its Literary and Historical Context,” in The New Testament in Its First Century Setting (ed. P. J. Williams et al.; Eerdmans, 2004), 72–88.