Who Wrote and Who Wrecked the Gospel of John?

This blog entry discusses the identities of the amanuensis of the Gospel of John (that is, the “ghostwriter” who took down the oral recollections of Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, who was the eyewitness behind the gospel, and drafted the gospel’s original version), and the redactor of the final version (who made it conform to the later organized Christian religion’s dogma and creed). This is a revision of a section of the introduction to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text. You will find ordering information here.


In concluding this discussion we may wish to speculate on the actual identity of the amanuensis, despite the paucity of extant clues, and even though his very existence is theoretical (albeit his existence is pretty clearly necessary by logic). If an amanuensis was involved in the creation of the original gospel, as seems all but certain, he was extremely well educated in the Greek classics, but apparently not the Latin (which are not quoted), so he was from the Eastern (not Western) half of the Roman Empire. And he was both artistic and meticulous in his work. His name almost certainly was John (Ἰωαννης), and thus it is his name that became associated with the gospel, not that of the Beloved Disciple, if the conclusion above is correct that the Beloved Disciple is most likely Lazarus.

That this gospel may be named after the amanuensis and not the eyewitness is more than mere hypothesis. It is clearly the case with the Gospel of Mark, named after the amanuensis John Mark who (as was noted above, quoting Eusebius’s reference to John the Presbyter’s remarks) put it together from Peter’s oral reminiscences. And it is also the case with the Gospel of Luke, whose author clearly states in the opening verses that his work was that of reading earlier gospels and collating his own version therefrom on behalf of his employer, whom he refers to as Theophilus (“Lover/Friend of God”) – the work of an amanuensis.

The best conclusion is that the amanuensis of the Fourth Gospel is the mysterious first-century figure known to us as John the Presbyter, sometimes called John the Elder. This John is the self-named author of II and III John, and almost certainly I John too, though probably jointly with Lazarus; there is also a surviving small fragment of a fourth letter. These letters bear very strong similarities in style, vocabulary, and subject to the gospel.

Papias was a student of John the Presbyter; his five-volume Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord, of which just quotations survive, is a main source for what little we know about the man. Eusebius in his History of the Church paraphrases Papias in a way that associates John the Presbyter with the disciples’ oral recollections of Jesus, which fits well with the scenario described above. Similarly, a ninth-century Latin text, the Codex Vaticanus Reg. lat. 14, says: Evangelium Iohannis manifestum et datum est ecclesiis ab Johanne adhuc in corpore constituto; sicut Papias nomine, Hieropolitanus, discipulus Johannis carus, in exotericis, id est in extremis quinque libris retulit; descripsit vero evangelium dictante Johanne recte verum. (“The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John [the Presbyter] when he was in the flesh; so a beloved disciple of John, Papias, named [by John as the bishop] of Hierapolis, recalled in Exotericis, the last of [his] five books; John in fact wrote the gospel down faithfully from the correct truth dictated to him.”)

There being no other strong (or weak) candidates, I feel confident enough about identifying as John the Presbyter the John to whom the early Christian leaders always and universally attributed the main authorship of the gospel that I have put his name on the title page of the gospel text, on page 99.

After the Beloved Disciple and amanuensis were no longer involved, the gospel manuscript was somehow passed to the very early Christian community in Pontus (on the south shore of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey) and from them into the hands of John the Presbyter’s student Papias.

During its peregrinations, large blocs of material in the manuscript got inadvertently disordered. Since these displaced “partitions” generally contain a similar volume of writing, scholar Rudolf Bultmann proposed that the displacements occurred within a single manuscript that had been written on papyrus sheets of about the same length. As examples of these displacements: Chapter 2:1-12 (which begins “On the third day…”) clearly should go between 4:45 and 46b. The sixth chapter clearly should follow immediately on 4:54. Jesus telling the disciples to get up and leave with him at the end of chapter 14 clearly should be the end of the Last Supper discourse, not followed by two more chapters of it. The same “partition theory” may explain why the trial interview of Jesus by Caiaphas is missing from the text; it may have filled one page exactly, and that page went missing at around this time.

A reasonable hypothesis to explain the same-length displacements is that the original draft of the gospel was prepared in the form of a codex: not a scroll, but something like a modern book, with writing on both sides of pages that were then sewn together; a method that in the late first century was just beginning to appear. It would have been something very much like the manuscript from which comes Rylands P52, a surviving fragment (see the image of it on the back cover of this volume), which dates to no later than the early second century, and could have been produced as early as 90 C.E. (Another theory is that the earliest complete manuscript of the original gospel was composed on scrap ends cut from finished scrolls and sold relatively inexpensively.)

Given its age, it is not inconceivable that P52 comes from the manuscript of the original gospel, the writing of the amanuensis himself. The handwriting is neat and careful, but it lacks a professional secretary’s stylistic finesse and flourish, suggesting that it was not scribed with publication in mind but rather for use as a careful private-use working copy. Since P52 was found in Egypt, it could be hypothesized that the amanuensis, escaping Jerusalem around the time of its destruction in 70 C.E., had it with him in his travels that eventually took him to Patmos. Unfortunately, the verses it contains are not among those that would show signs of redaction, which makes it impossible to say whether this was the version prepared by the amanuensis or that produced by the later redactor.

However, Bultmann’s excellent conjecture does not answer all of the textual displacements. Within several lengthy passages which as a whole are complete (though not necessarily in their proper locations, per Bultmann) there are sentences and phrases that are also clearly badly disordered. The theory described above, involving the eyewitness and the amanuensis, could well account for this. Most likely, the gospel was originally drafted with multiple columns, and the collation of material in these columns into a united narrative was never completed by the amanuensis, and the later redactor finished this work, though often the insertions are not in what would seem the proper and intended location. Thus in this matter too we see here again signs of its incomplete state.

Eventually Papias acquired the papers of his former teacher, John the Presbyter, from the Christians in Pontus. Immediately after speaking about John as faithfully writing from dictation (as quoted above), the Codex Vaticanus Reg. lat. 14 goes on to say: Marcion haereticus cum ab eo fuisset improbatus eo quod contraria sentiebat, abjectus est. A Johanne is vero scripta vel epistolas ad eum pertulerat a fratribus qui in Ponto fuerunt. (“Marcion, the heretic, when he had been rejected by him [Papias] because he [Marcion] had suggested contrary matters, was expelled. He [Papias] had even brought him [Marcion] the writings and letters by John from the brothers who were in Pontus.”)

This tells us that Papias had vainly hoped Marcion might refine the roughed-out Gospel of John before expelling him for heresy. Indeed, Marcion was experienced with this kind of work, having turned out an extensively revised version of the Gospel of Luke. After failing to engage Marcion, Papias apparently next turned to his elder colleague Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. That he asked Marcion first, despite the theological differences that eventually caused them to split, suggests that Papias had serious reservations about how Polycarp would revise the gospel. The reservations may cohere with what we can see in the text was done to the gospel, as discussed throughout this work.

Tertullian and Irenæus (who studied with Polycarp) both confirm that he was a student of John the Apostle, which could be a reference to John the Presbyter; the two were often confused. Polycarp’s only known surviving work, a letter to the Christian community in Philippi, is of exactly the high Christology that we find in the final version of the Gospel of John. The letter is bristling with quotations and paraphrases from New Testament writings, reminiscent of the quotations inserted by the redactor into the gospel’s final version. What is more, David Trobisch has persuasively argued that Polycarp was a significant figure in the editing and finalizing of the New Testament into the form in which we have it today; he could well have given the Fourth Gospel a thorough makeover as part of this overall task.

This redactor revised the text (as left by the Beloved Disciple and the amanuensis), mainly to make it conform to the doctrine of the organized Christian religion, and to add phrases aimed at emphasizing the orthodoxy of a high Christology. It was at this point, for instance, that anything suggesting that Jesus was the bridegroom at Cana and that the Beloved Disciple was Jesus’s son/stepson (especially 19:27) was extracted. By now the nascent Jesus movement was establishing itself as a new religion separate from Judaism; even without the breakup of the Jewish core of the Jesus movement in the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70, the evidence is clear that the views held by that Jewish core were already on the wane in favor of the Pauline perspective featuring this “high Christology”. Thus, the redactor probably was in his own thinking simply taking what appeared to him as a rough draft and correcting what he assumed were mistakes, and making sharper and more specific various vague statements (that appeared to the redactor to be) about Jesus’s divinity. No doubt he believed that the eyewitness would have approved of these refinements. The redactor is also probably the one who smoothed out some abrupt textual transitions caused by displacement, by adding some (often clumsy) bridges; an example is how he filled a transitional gap at 4:46a.

This redactor may have been responsible for some or all of various glosses that provide Greek translations of Aramaic or Hebrew words. It is unlikely that they were added by the amanuensis, since often they are incorrect, calling Aramaic “Hebrew” and providing not-quite-correct translations into Greek. The amanuensis seems to have been at least acquainted with Aramaic, and in any case had the fluent Beloved Disciple to consult with; there is no reason to suppose this redactor knew any Aramaic.

The redactor certainly also added several “This was to fulfill” verses referring to passages in the Tanakh (Old Testament) – the kind of clumsy technique used in the Synoptic gospels; these additions are quite unlike the work of the amanuensis, who seamlessly and intricately integrated his references to the Tanakh into the text.

Probably soon after the redactor had done his work some copyist inserted the Lucan narrative at 7:53-8:11, since many early manuscripts of the gospel lack it altogether. Though an interesting episode, it clearly does not belong in this gospel.

The intention of this book is to peel away, layer by layer as it were, these post-Beloved-Disciple distortions of his gospel, until we reach something as close to his Ur-text, the original version, as possible – and then with considerable and conservative care, as much as is possible, completing the refinement of the original gospel that the Beloved Disciple did not do himself.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

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