Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Gospel of John - an introduction to the defense of Johannine authorship and historical integrity

For about a year now, I have participated in a number of threads at Paul Williams' (a Muslim apologist) blog: Blogging Theology. During this period, Paul, and a few other BT Muslim contributors, have displayed a penchant for attacking the Gospel of John. These attacks utilize works produced by modern, liberal, higher critical, scholars. If memory serves me correctly, my first interaction with Paul's use of critical/liberal scholarship concerning the Gospel of John was back in June, 2016 (see THIS THREAD). Since then, at least a half-dozen subsequent threads have been published at BT that focus on the denigration of the Gospel via the use of liberal scholarship—the most recent example was posted on May 12, 2017 (LINK).

Missing from all these critical BT threads on the Gospel of John is ANY reference to the dozens of works that have been published which provide solid support for both the Johannine authorship and historical reliability of John's Gospel. The purpose of this post is to address that conspicuous void.

The seeds that were planted which would later give rise to full assaults on the Gospel of John took place during the growth of rationalism in the mid-17th thru early 18th centuries. The rationalism of which I speak is that form which rejects any religious claim as an epistemological basis for truth. Deism was one form of this rationalism, and it was the English deist, Edward Evanson, who became the first individual to openly challenge the authenticity of the Gospel of John since the 2nd century A.D. when a small sect—later termed the Alogi by Epiphanius—attributed the Gospel of John to the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus. So until 1792—when Evanson published his, The Dissonance of the Four Generally Received Evangelists: And the Evidence of Their Respective Authenticity, Examined—for nearly 1,600 years, the authenticity of John's Gospel remained universally unchallenged. Since 1792, the attacks on John's Gospel have multiplied like weeds, to the point that in our day, the defenders of the authenticity of John's Gospel are now in the minority. The assessment of one of the ablest defenders of John's Gospel, Joseph Barber Lightfoot—which was part of a lecture first delivered in 1867—sets the tone for our topic at hand, and is as relevant today, as it was back in the 19th century:

The genuineness of St John's Gospel is the centre of the position of those who uphold the historical truth of the record of our Lord Jesus Christ given us in the New Testament. Hence the attacks of the opponents of revealed religion are concentrated upon it. So long however as it holds its ground, these assaults must inevitably prove ineffective. The assailants are of two kinds : (1) those who deny the miraculous element in ChristianityRationalists, (2) those who deny the distinctive character of Christian doctrineUnitarians. The Gospel confronts both. (J. B. Lightfoot, "External Evidence for the Authenticity and Genuineness of St. John's Gospel", Biblical Essays, Hendrickson Publishers 1994 reprint of the Macmillan 1893, 1904 edition, page 47- PDF copy available online HERE.)

Joseph Barber Lightfoot was a scholar of the highest rank. A concise, yet informative biography by Fenton J.A. Hort is found in the 33rd volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, pages 232-240 (LINK). From that entry, we read:

What impression Lightfoot made on an eminently competent foreign critic and theologian, not personally known to him, may be learned from a tribute paid by Adolf Harnack, professor of church history at Berlin, in the ‘Theologische Literaturzeitung’ of 14 June 1890. ‘His editions and commentaries … as well as his critical dissertations have an imperishable value, and even where it is impossible to agree with his results, his grounds are never to be neglected. The respect for his opponent which distinguished him … has brought him the highest respect of all parties. … There never has been an apologist who was less of an advocate than Lightfoot. … Not only measured by the standard of the official theology of the English church was he an independent free scholar, but he was this likewise in the absolute sense of the words. He has never defended a tradition for the tradition's sake.’ (Pages 239, 240)

Now, as noted, the above referenced lecture was first delivered in 1867, but was not published until 1893. It was the first of three extended contributions on the Gospel of John by Dr. Lightfoot. As suggested by the title, the focus of this first treatment was the, "External Evidence for the Authenticity and Genuineness of St. John's Gospel". Just prior to presenting a virtual mountain of early, external evidence for Johannine authorship, Lightfoot provides the following background information:

But, before commencing the investigation, let us first see what is the nature of the antagonism with which we have to deal. The history of the controversy may be seen in Bleek. Briefly stated, the position of affairs is this. The universal reception of the Gospel as the work of St John (with the exception of an obscure sect) up to the close of the last century has been assailed in the early years of the present century by a series of writers, who unite in denying the Johannine authorship, and place the date somewhere in the middle or latter half of the second century. (pp. 49, 50)

He then references the names of seven liberal scholars, whose attacks on John's Gospel were published between 1820 and 1867, and subsequently writes:

In reviewing this list of writers, we cannot fail to be struck with two facts : (1) the variety of their opinions ; (2) their gradual retrogression from the extreme position taken up at first. The pressure of facts has compelled them to abandon one position after another, and to approximate more and more closely to the traditional view. (pp. 50, 51)

Interestingly enough, "the nature of the antagonism with which we have to deal" from today's deniers of Johannine authorship, is pretty much the same, for "the variety of their opinions" has not diminished. I would also add that the variety of new theories advanced since Lightfoot's day have offered nothing which would give cause for genuine concern after one has objectively examined Lightfoot's external evidences.

Shortly after presenting his external evidences, Lightfoot then delivered a lecture in 1871 which focused on the internal evidences. That lecture was first published in 1890 in three installments, and is included in the above referenced book, Biblical Essays (pages 3-44). Also included in the same book are additional lecture-notes concerning further internal evidences (pages 123-198). One important internal evidence, is that the author of John's Gospel had to have been a Jew. On this issue Lightfoot stated:

First of all then, the writer was a Jew. This might be inferred with a very high degree of probability from his Greek style alone. It is not ungrammatical Greek, but it is distinctly Greek of one long accustomed to think and speak through the medium of another language. The Greek language is singularly rich in its capabilities of syntactic construction, and it is also well furnished with various connecting particles. The two languages with which a Jew of Palestine would be most familiarthe Hebrew, which was the language of the sacred Scriptures, and the Aramaic, which was the medium of communication in daily lifebeing closely allied to each other, stand in direct contrast to the Greek in this respect. There is comparative poverty of inflexions, and there is an extreme paucity of connecting and relative particles. Hence in Hebrew and Aramaic there is little or no syntax, properly so called.

Tested by his style then, the writer was a Jew. Of all the New Testament writings the Fourth Gospel is the most distinctly Hebraic in this respect. The Hebrew simplicity of diction will at once strike the reader. There is an entire absence of periods, for which the Greek language affords such facility. The sentences are co-ordinated, not subordinated. The clauses are strung together, like beads on a string. The very monotony of arrangement, though singularly impressive, is wholly unlike the Greek style of the age. (Pages 16, 17)


The Hebrew character of the diction moreover shows itself in other ways : by the parallelism of the sentences, by the repetition of the same words in different clauses, by the order of the words, by the syntactical constructions, and by individual expressions. Indeed so completely is this character maintained throughout, that there is hardly a sentence which might not be translated literally into Hebrew or Aramaic, without any violence to the language or to the sense.

I might point also to the interpretation of Aramaic words, as Cephas, Gabbatha, Golgotha, Messias, Rabboni, Siloam,  Thomas, as indicating knowledge of this language. On such isolated phenomena however no great stress can fairly be laid, because such interpretations do not necessarily require an extensive acquaintance with the language ; and when the whole cast and colouring of the diction can be put in evidence, an individual word here and there is valueless in comparison. (Pages 17, 18)

After providing a number of other evidences that the writer was a Hebrew, he states:

Having thus established the fact that the writer was neither a Gentile nor a Hellenist, but a Hebrew of the Hebrews, we will proceed to inquire further whether he evinces an acquaintance with the manners and feelings, and also with the geography and history (more especially the contemporary history) of Palestine, which so far as our knowledge goes (and in dealing with such questions we must not advance one step beyond our knowledge) would be morally impossible with even a Hebrew Christian at the supposed date, long after the political existence of the nation had been obliterated, and when the disorganization of Jewish society was complete. (Page 22)

Lightfoot goes on to provide solid evidences that the writer was not only a Hebrew, but a Hebrew of Palestine, and a Hebrew who clearly had firsthand knowledge of Jesus; was a disciple of Jesus; and an apostle of Jesus. As to which apostle, he leaves us with no doubt that it was, "John the son of Zebedee." The lecture notes published in Biblical Essays on pages 125-198 provide even greater detail—those who have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew will certainly appreciate the depth and breadth of Lightfoot's research.

These three contributions of Dr. Lightfoot comprise nearly 200 pages of apologia for the Johannine authorship and historical integrity of John's gospel. To date, of the dozens of theories advanced in an attempt to undermine the Johannine authorship and historical integrity of John's gospel, I have yet to read one that has given me cause to jettison Lightfoot's conclusions.

But Dr. Lightfoot was certainly not a lone defender of the Johannine authorship and historical integrity of John's gospel. A near equal in intellect and knowledge was Frederic Louis Godet. This Swiss theologian was a contemporary of Lightfoot's, and the professor of Biblical Exegesis and Critical Theology at the Theological School of the National Swiss Church in Neufchatel. In 1864/65, his massive Commentary on John's Gospel was published in French, and in 1886 an English translation of the French third edition was released, comprising a total 0f 1,112 pages (Links to 3 volume PDF version HERE ). The first 219 pages of the English version is a survey of the controversy, and subsequent defense, concerning the Johannine authorship and historical integrity of John's gospel.

As Lightfoot, he deals with the external and internal evidences. I found one section of the internal evidences particularly helpful, that which compared John's Gospel with the Synoptics. Many critical/liberal scholars have advanced the notion that a number of teachings presented in John's Gospel are substantially different from those within the Synoptics. After examining some alleged differences, Godet writes:

It is impossible, then, to detect an essential difference, that is to say, one bearing on the matter of the teaching, between the Synoptics and the fourth Gospel. (Page 116)

On pages 118-119, he provides a number of side-by-side parallels between John's Gospel and the Synoptics that critics tend to ignore.

In the preface, Godet provides his readers a personal assessment of all the germane data—positive and negative— that he carefully examined at length:

The result of this renewed study has been in my case the ever more firm scientific conviction of the authenticity of the writing which the Church has handed down to us under the name of John. There is a conviction of a different nature which forms itself in the heart on the simple reading of such a book. This conviction does not grow up; it is immediate, and consequently complete, from the first moment. It resembles confidence and love at first sight, that decisive impression to the integrity of which thirty years of common life and mutual devotion add nothing.

Scientific study cannot form a bond like this ; what it can do is only to remove the hostile pressure which threatens to loosen or to break it. Truly, I can say that I have never felt this scientific assurance so confirmed as after this new examination of the proofs on which it rests and the reasons recently alleged against it. (Page viii)

With Godet and Lightfoot, we have over 400 pages of scholarly defense concerning the Johannine authorship and historical integrity of John's gospel; scholarship that is a must read for both those who attack, and those who defend, the Gospel of John. But there is more, much more.

A German contemporary of Lightfoot, Christoph Ernst Luthardt, professor of Systematic Theology and New Testament Exegesis at Leipzing, produced a volume of over 300 pages under the title, St. John the Author of the Fourth Gospel. An English translation by Caspar Rene Gregory (a former student of none other than Dr. Charles Hodge), was published in 1875. This translation was also an enlargement and revision of the original German. [An online PDF copy available HERE.]

Pages 29-165 of the English translation focus on the external evidences. Pages 166-255 on the internal evidences, with pages 196-255 providing comparisons between John's Gospel and the Synoptics. Pages 256-275 compares John's Gospel with the book of Revelation. The Appendix, pages 281-360, lists all the literature related to the authorship and integrity of the Gospel of John published between 1792 and 1875—over 500 contributions!

The following conclusion of Dr. Luthardt is worth noting:

We may close these inquiries, then, with this result : That, choosing the most moderate expression, nothing has come in our way that disproved the tradition as to the Johannean origin of the gospel, but much that served to confirm it. The decision of the Tubingen criticism and its successors, with which the acts of this critical process were declared to be closed, was far from corresponding with the real contents of the subject, and from being ratified by the facts. (St. John the Author of the Fourth Gospel, Eng. trans. Caspar Rene Gregory, 1875, p. 278.)

Our next scholar is another Englishman, and "dear friend" of Lightfoot's: Dr. Henry William Watkins. He delivered the 1890 Bampton Lectures (Oxford) with the title, Modern Criticism considered in its Relation to the Fourth Gospel. The lectures were published the same year, and constituted 502 pages. [Online PDF copy HERE.] Watkins delivered a total of eight lectures in this series. In his fifith lecture, pages 223-295, Watkins delves into theories of a number of critical/liberal scholars of the 19th century. He divides this lecture into three sections: "The New Tübingen School", "The Partition Theories", and "The Negative School". The beginning of the lecture is a quote from Mark's Gospel: "And not even so did their witness agree together." (Mark xiv. 59.) He ends the lecture with the same quote. I cannot think of a better summation of that group of critical/liberal scholars which Watkins surveys in this lecture.

In addition to Watkins keen assessment, one modern day New Testament scholar, who supports Johannine authorship, adds some additional important points concerning the critical/liberal scholarship of those who reject it. Note the following from Dr. Leon Morris:

But we must bear in mind that a good deal of it [liberal scholarship] appears to be due more to the prevailing climate of opinion of our day than to any new evidence. It is interesting to notice that Westcott, who firmly held to Johannine authorship, was well aware of the three reasons A. M. Hunter gives for rejecting it...Westcott long ago took notice of these (and other) points. But he held that other considerations outweighed them, and that the best solution to the problem on the basis of the evidence available is to see John the Apostle as the author. Westcott has not so much been confuted as bypassed. Nobody seems to have dealt adequately with his massive argument. (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, 1971, pp. 8, 9 - bold emphasis mine.)

The Westcott mentioned above by Dr. Morris is none other than Brooke Foss Westcott, of Westcott and Hort fame. B. F. Westcott was yet another contemporary of Lightfoot, and a lifelong friend. Westcott succeeded Lightfoot as Bishop of Durham in 1890. His commentary on the Gospel of John, was first published in 1880 as part of The Speakers Commentary series. A year later, it was published separately under the title, The Gospel According To St. John, which, "corrected a few misprints, defined more exactly a few references, and changed two or three words and phrases which seemed liable to misapprehension." The first 35 pages of the Introduction defends the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Pages v-xxviii are devoted to the "Internal Evidence", and xxviii-xl deals with, "External evidence as to the authorship". Westcott's apologia is essentially a summation of Lightfoot's extensive defense(s). I highly recommend Westcott's concise apologia to those folk who are not inclined to read Lightfoot's much more extensive contributions. His, The Gospel According To St. John, is available online in PDF format, HERE.

Literally dozens of other scholars who support the Johannine authorship and historical reliability of the Gospel of John could be added (see Watkins' sixth Bampton Lecture for a number of examples), but I shall close with the mention of three of my favorite commentaries on John's Gospel:

R. C. H. Lenski's, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel - Google preview

William Hendriksen's, The Gospel of John - Google Books

Andreas J. Köstenberger's, John - Google preview

[Note: Köstenberger's earlier work, Encountering John, is an excellent introduction to John's Gospel - Google preview.]

Grace and peace,


Addendum: I have been quite busy over the last few days preparing this post for publication. During this time, I had not checked in on the Blogging Theology site, but did so shortly after publishing this thread. It seems that Paul Williams has decided to transfer ownership of the blog. For details on this, see THIS POST.