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B. F. Westcott’s Defense of the Traditional Authorship of John

The most famous argument in defense of the tradition that John, the son of Zebedee, was the beloved disciple and the author of the fourth New Testament Gospel is found in Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (Thornapple Commentaries: Grand Rapids, 1908). He narrows down the list of candidates for the author of the Gospel until the Apostle John is left as the only option of pages x-lii:

  1. A Jew (x-xx): based on the familiarity with popular Jewish opinions and messianic expectations, Jewish factions, scriptural imagery, and legal argumentation.
  2. A Jew from Palestine (xx-xxxix): based on the detailed descriptions of political or religious controversies that ceased after 70 CE, the local topography reflected in the Gospel, and some influence from the Hebrew version of the Scriptures.
  3. An eyewitness (xxxix-xliv): based on the many vivid touches about the names of characters, the timing of events (e.g. festivals, the day or hour), the specific numbers or measurements, and the descriptive details about settings or actions that often do not appear to exhibit literary or symbolic significance. Moreover, many sayings or deeds that seem in conflict with the Synoptic Gospels may actually complement them when one takes a broader look at the whole picture.
  4. An Apostle (xliv-xlv): not only was the author an eyewitness, he or she knows the span of events from the first calling of the disciples to the Passion Narrative and has insight into the disciples’ impressions, thoughts, motives, private conversations, and actions.
  5. The Apostle John (xlv-lii): the beloved disciple is consistently placed alongside Peter (John 13:24; 20:2; 21:7; cf. 18:15) and seems part of the inner core of disciples (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33), so John is the most likely candidate since the beloved disciple cannot be Peter and James was executed by Herod Agrippa I around 41-42 CE (Acts 12:1-2). Further, the striking absence of John the son of Zebedee with the exception of 21:2, as the only “named” John is the one performing the baptizing ritual, accords with the anonymity of the beloved disciple.

These arguments were primarily made on the basis on the internal evidence. Westcott’s position is also supported by most of the external testimony of the ancient church. In the next few posts, I thought we could look at a few key passages by Papias of Hierapolis and Irenaeus of Lyons that had a significant impact in shaping the traditional consensus about the authorship of the Gospels.

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