There once was a man who claimed to be in possession of a lost painting of Leonardo da Vinci. Upon hearing this claim, the curator of a prestigious museum asked him if it had ever been appraised. “No,” said the man. “No one outside my family has ever seen the portrait, but all of us know in our hearts that it’s the real McCoy!” The curator then asked, “How do you know that it’s truly authentic and not a fake reproduction?” The man emphatically replied, “Because it has changed our lives.”
Although the above parable may sound a little far-fetched, it’s actually the approach many Christians take when it comes to authenticating the story of Jesus. How can we know if the picture we find of Jesus’s life and ministry as outlined in the four Gospels is truly authentic? That’s easy. Simply read the texts for yourself and apply them to your life. Then, when you begin to encounter Jesus, you’ll begin to know and experience the truth for yourself.
Of course, the problem with this approach is that it’s basically the same method used to authenticate Scientology, Mormonism, and countless other sects and cults. “Try it, you’ll like it!” Though the use of counterfeit bills may end up changing my life for the better (at least in the short term), that doesn’t make it either good or worthwhile. As the case of the da Vinci painting demonstrates, there’s a huge difference between the subjective appreciation of a given artifact and its objective evaluation. This can regularly be witnessed on a program such as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, where people bring in their favorite family treasures to be appraised by the experts. Whether a person brings in a painting that has been passed down in the family or an antique desk recently acquired at a garage sale, the appraiser doesn’t take into consideration how much the item is loved by the owner but simply begins the process of analyzing the artifact by looking for objective clues regarding its origin, age, and history.
Let’s face it: Those whose job it is to authenticate various kinds of artifacts have taken the time—usually a lifetime—to study all those small little details few of us ever notice. This particular notch or engraving indicates that the desk was made in Boston in the late 1700s by a particular manufacturer. The composition of the oils and the style of the signature reveal that the painting that has been passed down through the family for decades is actually a reproduction. This is the approach I’d like us to consider using as we evaluate the Gospel of John. You and your family may treasure this particular book of the Bible, and you may even have the text of John 3:16 on a plaque somewhere in your home. But if you’re like me, you probably have relatives who think it’s all a load of bunk. No matter how much you try to get them to admire the sentiment of your plaque, they turn away in disgust and eventually change the subject.
All of this, however, is completely subjective. In such a state of affairs, the only factor taken into consideration here is one’s own subjective preferences: “I like this book” or “I don’t like this book.” But if we examined the Gospel of John as we would evaluate a painting someone claimed was a lost da Vinci, then perhaps we could begin to move from our own individual evaluations of this text to more objective considerations.
If it can be shown that various internal clues point to the fact that this document was not actually written by an eyewitness who was close to Jesus, but that this text is actually a kind of ancient fan fiction written at a much later time, then its historical value would essentially be worthless, no matter how much we personally treasure its words and phrases. On the other hand, if it can be demonstrated that the Gospel of John is actually the product of an eyewitness who gives us solid historical information about first-century Palestine that can be verified by other means, then this would give us a solid basis for trusting the author as a reliable source concerning the words and deeds of Jesus.
The first thing that needs to be said as we evaluate this text is that although most scholars argue it’s the latest of all the four Gospels, it claims to have been written by an eyewitness who was with Jesus “from the beginning” (John 15:27). Notice, for example, the words of the narrator at the time and place of Jesus’ crucifixion: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe” (19:34–35). Then at the conclusion of the book, the author makes a similar claim: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). So at this point, we really have two options to consider: the Gospel of John was either written by an actual eyewitness, or it was written by an ancient forger who was merely claiming to be one. This is either a real historical narrative written by someone close to Jesus, or it is a worthless piece of fan fiction or, as scholars prefer to call it, pseudepigrapha.
Historical and Geographical Clues
So how are we to tell whether the writer of this text is actually telling the truth when he claims to be an eyewitness? When we interviewed Cambridge New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham on the White Horse Inn radio program some years ago, he said something worth repeating here. The term “testimony,” he argued, “implies that we can’t independently verify everything a witness says. The whole point of a witness is that they tell you something you don’t know yourself. But what you can do is assess witnesses as either trustworthy or untrustworthy. And if you decide that a witness is trustworthy, then you trust them.” So how exactly does one go about this? How are we to verify whether or not the author of this ancient text is a trustworthy and reliable witness? Bauckham went on to say that the Gospels are actually full of “all kinds of little details about people and places . . . and the controversies [of the period], all kinds of stuff about the historical context in which the stories take place. So that’s one way of verifying that the Gospels are credible from that geographical, historical context that they claim to be about.”1
A quick evaluation of the content of a typical gnostic gospel will be instructive at this point. Most New Testament scholars freely admit that texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene contain almost no temporal or geographical indicators, thus failing to provide any internal evidence that they were actually written by Jewish residents of early first-century Palestine. Instead, they claim to record various esoteric ideas that Jesus revealed “privately” to a given disciple—ideas that have numerous affinities with second- or third-century Gnosticism rather than with any form of first-century Messianic Judaism. In short, the gnostic gospels show clear evidence of being ancient forgeries and provide us with no reason to trust that they are authentic artifacts from the time of Jesus.
By contrast, the Fourth Gospel contains numerous temporal and geographical references that place it squarely in early first-century Palestine. For example, in John 2:11–12, Jesus leaves Cana and goes “down to Capernaum.” Whoever wrote this was familiar with the topography of the region, for as travelers follow this route from Cana to Capernaum, they would be forced to make their way down the hills to the basin of the Sea of Galilee. Then during the narration of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, we’re specifically told that the village of Bethany “was near Jerusalem, about two miles off” (fifteen stadia), which is a precise measurement that has been externally verified. Finally, in two places, the author refers to a town by the name of Bethsaida (1:44; 12:21), yet according to Josephus, Philip the Tetrarch completely renovated this town sometime before his death in AD 34 and renamed it in honor of Tiberius’s mother Julias. Writing between AD 73 and 95, Josephus refers to the newer town name (Julias) some sixteen times and only once refers to the older name (Bethsaida), during the account of the name change.2 In other words, John (along with all three of the other evangelists) referred to the city by the right name and at the right time.
We discover something else curious when we consider another town renovated by Philip. According to Josephus and other sources, sometime between AD 14 and 28, this ruler rebuilt a town called Paneas, and renamed it in honor of both Caesar and himself; thus it became Caesarea Philippi.3 Yet, when both Matthew and Mark refer to events that took place here, most likely between AD 28 and 29, they refer to the town by its newer name (cf. Matt. 16:13; Mark 8:27). In other words, once the town was renovated, the updated name seemed to catch on rather quickly. Yet in the case of Bethsaida, for some strange reason, all four Gospel writers (unlike Josephus) continued to use the older name without any additional comments. Why is this? One reasonable explanation could simply be that all four Gospels, including John, were written earlier than when Josephus wrote his histories.
In the case of the Fourth Gospel, there may actually be internal evidence of a pre-AD 70 date. In John 5:2–3 we read, “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids.” Once again, John reveals that he is intimately familiar with the location in which his Gospel is set; for here he not only refers to a specific pool in Jerusalem, but he also indicates to his readers that he’s particularly thinking of the one “by the Sheep Gate” with “five roofed colonnades.” Yet according to Josephus, during the Jewish War of AD 70, “Caesar ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground . . . as to leave future visitors no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited.”4 In an essay titled “Archaeology and John’s Gospel,” Urban von Wahlde notes,
Until the nineteenth century there was no evidence of this pool, which caused some scholars to doubt whether John had actual firsthand knowledge of what he was reporting, but archeologists later uncovered the pool with the five colonnades just as John had described.5
This finding is significant, for it is strong proof that John’s Gospel was written by someone who lived during the eyewitness period, since he appears to have accurate firsthand information about this particular pool that lay covered for centuries.
Many scholars have also noted that there are actually three present tense verbs found in this passage, and this is taken as evidence that the city of Jerusalem, the Sheep Gate, and this particular pool with five porticoes were all still in existence at the time John narrated this scene (that is, before AD 70 when all these were destroyed). A good analogy here might be the experience of seeing a plaque on the wall of a New York restaurant that reads, I Love the Twin Towers. As we know, the present-tense language isn’t accurate today since the Twin Towers are no longer standing. So the best explanation for those printed words is most likely that the plaque was created sometime before Sept 11, 2001.
Late-date advocates typically respond to this argument by saying that John simply used a literary device known as the “historical present.” New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace has done some extensive research into this claim. He discovered 415 examples of the historical present in the Gospels and Acts and concluded, “All are in the third person, in narrative, surrounded by secondary tenses, and eimi (i.e., the Greek verb ‘to be’) is not on the list.”6 Wallace goes on to say that “since eimi is nowhere else clearly used as a historical present, the present tense should be taken as indicating present time from the viewpoint of the speaker.”7 In other words, Wallace claims that this passage should be taken as evidence that John wrote his Gospel at a time when the temple, the Sheep Gate, and pool with five covered porticoes were all still standing, which means that it was written sometime during the crucial eyewitness period before AD 70.
Names in the Gospels
So far we’ve looked at some of the temporal and geographical indicators in the Fourth Gospel, and thus far this ancient text seems to bear all the marks of an authentic document written by someone with accurate knowledge of Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Romans. But there is another test we can use to further establish John’s credibility, and that is by considering the names that appear throughout his Gospel.
Israeli scholar Tal Ilan compiled a database of ancient Palestinian Jewish individuals named in various inscriptions, texts, coins, and so on; currently, her database contains over three thousand male individuals. Richard Bauckham analyzed this data and discovered that when one compares the top ten most popular names of Jewish Palestinian males who lived around the time of Jesus, that list ends up looking remarkably similar to the list of the most frequently occurring names that appear collectively in the Gospels and Acts. This fact led Bauckham to conclude back in 2006:
These features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine. All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels.8
In 2008, New Testament scholar Jens Schroeder offered Bauckham some pushback on this particular point. Schroeder wrote that this “simply shows that the Gospel authors gave their narratives a ‘realistic effect’ by choosing names that were common in the Jewish context of ancient Palestine.”9 In the second edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (released in 2017), Bauckham responds specifically to this objection:
Even supposing that a Gospel writer would try to make the range of his names realistic . . . he was only responsible for one Gospel. Nobody planned the [name] data we get from putting all four Gospels together. . . . We should also note that, while contemporaries would realize that some names were common and others rare, they are unlikely to have known . . . the relative proportions of name usage. . . . The evidence is therefore much more precise than that “persons mentioned in the Gospel stories bear common Jewish names,” and strongly suggests that in most cases the names are those of historic individuals.10
The end result is that the male names that appear in the Fourth Gospel, combined with those we find in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, appear to be the right names, in the right proportions, at the right time, which is a fact that would be essentially impossible to fake. In short, these names appear to be those of real historical individuals rather than fictional characters who were invented for purposes of religious propaganda.
Unnamed Persons in the Gospels
Though the analysis of named individuals is indeed compelling, it’s also worthwhile to consider various unnamed or anonymous individuals who appear in one or more of the Gospels. For example, in Matthew 26:51 we read, “And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” We find this same story recounted in Mark 14:47 and Luke 22:50 as an unnamed assailant injures the high priest’s servant. Readers familiar with John’s Gospel, however, already know the identity of both the assailant and the victim: “Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus” (John 18:10). But we should stop to ask the question, why it is that the first three Gospels omitted Peter’s name from this narrative? After reflecting on this question, New Testament scholar and theologian Gerd Theissen concluded,
It seems to me that the motive for this anonymity is not hard to guess: both of them [had] run foul of the “police.” The one who draws his sword commits no minor offense when he cuts off someone’s ear. . . . As long as the high priest’s slave was alive . . . it would have been inopportune to mention names. . . . Their anonymity is for their protection. . . . Only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus who had endangered themselves by their actions.11
As far back as 1874, F. W. Farrar came to nearly the same conclusion: “The name of Peter may have been purposefully kept in the background in the earliest cycle of Christian records.”12 Similarly, C. H. Dodd observed,
If we are to take account of the general probabilities of the situation, we should reflect that if there were two swords among the Twelve, as Luke says there were (22:38), it is more than likely that Peter had one of them, and if he had, he was (so far as we know him) not the man to let it rest in its sheath. . . . [I]t is not difficult to see why it might have been covered over at a time when Peter was a marked man (cf. Acts 12:3, 17) and it was not politic to let him be represented as a man of violence—above all, as one who deliberately affronted the High Priest in the person of his servant.13
This idea of “protective anonymity” is actually quite intriguing, for if it really is the best explanation for the anonymity we find here in the Synoptic accounts of the attack on the high priest’s servant, then it also suggests that those versions were written at a time when Peter was still alive and in need of protection. Since most scholars conclude that Peter was martyred sometime between AD 64 and 65, one would need to push the date of the Synoptic Gospels to a time before this period. On the other hand, since the Gospel of John records names, some scholars have argued that this should be taken as evidence that Peter had already died by the time of its writing. But there may actually be a clue in chapter 21 that the chief apostle was still alive and well.
As Jesus instructs Peter to tend and feed his sheep, he also says, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” But then the narrator steps in and explains, “This he said to show by what kind of death he will glorify God” (21:18–19). What’s really curious is the fact that this phrasing follows a similar structure we find in John 12:33 and 18:32 in which the narrator speaks of the kind of death Jesus “was going to die.” But here in John 21:19, as Peter is called to follow in his master’s footsteps, the narrator for some reason changes the grammatical structure of this repeated phrase and uses a verb in the future tense (though this is not easy to see in most English translations) when he speaks of Peter’s coming death. Thus it seems to be a reasonable inference that Peter’s martyrdom, from the perspective of the narrator’s position in time, was still yet in the future.
But if Peter was still alive when the Fourth Gospel was written, then why did the author fail to shroud his identity when he narrated the scene about his taking up the sword and assaulting the high priest’s servant? Recall for a moment Theissen’s comment that “only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus who had endangered themselves by their actions.” If this is the case, then it’s quite possible the Gospel of John could have been written sometime after Peter had fled far from Jerusalem during the persecution of Herod Agrippa, as recorded in Acts 12. As Luke writes, once Peter was rescued by the angel and released from prison, he departed from Jerusalem and “went to another place” (Acts 12:17). The fact that Peter’s whereabouts are left unidentified should be seen as additional evidence that Peter was still being protected by Luke and is good evidence that Acts itself was written before his death in the mid-sixties.
There are numerous additional examples of this idea of protective anonymity, which unfortunately space does not allow us to consider. Before we conclude this brief survey, however, I’d like to explore one final intriguing possibility. If you have done any reading at all into issues related to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, then you know there is a big debate over whether this text was written by the apostle John or by some other Jerusalem disciple, such as John the Elder. Wherever you come down on that debate, one thing is clear: The author of this Gospel does not make his identity obvious. Whatever your particular view, it must be arrived at by an evaluation of a variety of clues about the identity of the “beloved disciple” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20–24).
One such clue I think is particularly illuminating is the fact that in the last scene described in chapter 21, five named disciples are gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, along with two unnamed disciples. The sons of Zebedee (James and John) are included among the named disciples; but as the chapter unfolds, the identity of the beloved disciple is never revealed or connected with any of the named disciples. Though he is clearly identified as the author of the Gospel (21:24), his identity continues to be shrouded in mystery. The clear implication here, according to Richard Bauckham, is that the beloved disciple is actually one of the two anonymous disciples mentioned at the opening of the chapter, rather than one of the sons of Zebedee.
But even if one rejects Bauckham’s conclusion on this particular point, one fact remains clear: the beloved disciple is never actually identified. In my estimation, this ends up being one of the strongest arguments for the Gospel’s authenticity. As Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann pointed out back in 1975, “The very fact that the beloved disciple is anonymous does suggest that he was a historical figure. The apocryphal Gospels tend to connect their legendary accounts with a known disciple rather than with an anonymous person.”14 I think this point is worth highlighting. All the inauthentic fan-fiction gospels that were written much later generally claim to have been written by a well-known disciple, which helps them gain credibility. Yet, as Richard Bauckham asks, “Why should a pseudepigraphal author in search of a suitable pseudonym choose such a character [as the beloved disciple]?”15 In order to gain trust, the forger would need to make his identity as an authoritative apostle explicit; but for some curious reason, the author of the Fourth Gospel didn’t feel the need to do this. This should be seen as an indication that the author already had sufficient authority from the Christian community among whom this text was being circulated.
As we have seen through this brief evaluation, the Gospel of John appears to have been penned by someone who had accurate knowledge of the topography of both Galilee and Judea from the time before the Jewish War of AD 70. The author of this text was familiar with the town of Bethsaida, which was a name in use during the days of Jesus’ ministry yet had changed by AD 34. He correctly identified the location of the pool by the Sheep Gate with five porticoes, although it had been covered over for centuries. His text appears to have been written in such a way that implies these landmarks were still standing at the time of his writing. The names we find throughout this Gospel, when combined with names from the other Gospels and Acts, appear to be ones we would expect to find among Jewish Palestinian males at this time and in just the right proportion. And finally, the author of this text did not attempt to secure credibility by what he wrote but appears to have already had sufficient authority in the earliest days of the Christian church.
As with a witness in a court of law, we can’t actually see for ourselves what the person claims to have seen. All we can do is assess whether the witness is trustworthy or untrustworthy. And in the case of the Fourth Gospel, the author of this ancient text left behind numerous clues that give us solid reasons to trust that he was indeed a reliable and trustworthy eyewitness of the events in the life of Jesus. In short, this Gospel is not a fake reproduction but an authentic historical artifact with objective value. This is not a worthless forgery; it’s a priceless treasure.
Shane Rosenthal, executive producer of White Horse Inn, is this year’s program host for the Gospel of John series.