Q. While studying the Bible recently, a question about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel came up; specifically, who was the actual author of St. John’s Gospel? I was schooled on the assumption that the author was St. John the Apostle, and that he is the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who appears in the Gospel (e.g., standing beneath the Cross of Calvary). Is there any Church-accepted opinion about all this?
A. This is a fascinating question. However, from the time of St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d.202), Church Tradition has, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “unanimously regarded John, the son of Zebedee, as the beloved disciple and the author of the [Fourth] Gospel.” (See Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, 2007).
This means of course, that the John who stood under the Cross of Calvary was indeed St. John the Apostle. It also means that the Apostle who leaned against the Savior’s breast (Jn 13:25) was John the Apostle. The mysterious reference here is that it parallels the close “of the beautiful prologue to the Gospel according to John wherein we learn: ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart who has made him known.’” (Ibid; cf. Jn 1:18).
An underlying problem here is that several trends in Biblical scholarship erupted in the early portions of the 20th century. One was generated by a German Lutheran scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, who died in 1976. Bultmann, who is viewed by some Protestant scholars as the century’s most influential interpreter of the New Testament, published a widely read commentary on John’s Gospel, the first edition appearing in 1941. Bultmann is perhaps most remembered for his currently questioned theories about demythologizing the Scriptures to ascertain existential religious lessons.
It is important here to say that Bultmann, although wrong in many of his suggestions, tried to be a serious scholar. I recall being introduced to his writings while in Scripture classes during the early 1950s in St. Bernard’s Seminary, Rochester. However, it was not until I completed graduate work at a Protestant theological school in the ’70s that I actually had to read from some of his volumes – in German, with lengthy references in Hebrew and Greek. Scripture study absolutely requires not only a background of Latin, but also of Greek and Hebrew – and German, since so much of modern Biblical literature is in German. Our present Holy Father, for example, himself a world-class theologian, depends largely on German works of Biblical exegesis; among the best on John’s Gospel, he suggests, is Rudolf Schnackenburg’s, which, fortunately, is in English translation. (Crossroad, N.Y., 1982).
But back to the main question. St. John, who is identified with the “beloved disciple,” is unquestionably the source of the Gospel according to John.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his awesome Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007) answers in this way:
“I entirely concur with the conclusion of Peter Stuhlmacher … [a Biblical scholar]. He holds that ‘the contents of the Gospel go back to the disciple whom Jesus (especially) loved. The presbyter [John the Presbyter, a pillar of the early Church in Ephesus, who was closely allied with John the Apostle] understood himself as his [the Apostle’s] transmitter and mouthpiece. (Some contemporary scholars refer to Presbyter John as “the literary executor of the favorite disciple.” See Jesus of Nazareth, Op.cit., pp. 226-7.)
Pope Benedict sums up the final answer thus:
“This Gospel [the Fourth Gospel] ultimately goes back to an eyewitness, and even the actual redaction of the text was substantially the work of one of his [John’s] closest followers within the living circle of his disciples.” (Ibid., p. 227).