Introduction to John

Authorship and Date of Composition

In one of his letters, the early church father Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200) refers to his acquaintance with Polycarp (A.D. 69-156) and the latter’s reminiscences of his conversations with the Apostle John and others who had seen the Lord. There can be no doubt that Irenaeus accepted John the apostle as the author of the Gospel and believed it to have been published at Ephesus on the basis of Polycarp’s testimony (D. Guthrie, p. 258.) Indeed, all the testimony of the church fathers from the time of Irenaeus is overwhelmingly in favor of attributing this Gospel to the Apostle John.

In the opinion of A.J. Macleod (p. 865), and many other scholars, the internal evidence points decisively in favor of the identification of the author of this Gospel with the Apostle John. For instance, from the Gospel itself it may be deduced that the author was a Jew who was accustomed to thinking in Aramaic, (although the Gospel was written in Greek): not infrequently Hebrew and Aramaic words are inserted in the text. Also, the author was familiar with Jewish expectations (1:19-28), Jewish feelings toward the Samaritans (4:9), and the Jewish feasts. Furthermore, the author gives evidence of being a Palestinian Jew who had personal acquaintance with the land and especially with Jerusalem and its environs (9:7; 11:18; 18:1.) He was familiar with the cities of Galilee (1:44; 2:1) and with the territory of Samaria (4:5-6,21.) Then, too, he claims to have been an eyewitness of the events he records: speaking of the Christ, he writes, “we beheld his glory” (1:14); describing the crucifixion, he testifies, “he that has seen has borne witness” (19:35) (M.C. Tenney, pp. 186-187.)

A very significant piece of evidence with regard to identifying the author is found in the final chapter of the book. Chapter 21:24 states, “This is the disciple who bore witness to these things and who wrote these things.” It is most natural to interpret the designation, “This is the disciple,” as referring to the person of whom the Lord and Peter are speaking in the preceding verses (21:20-23), namely, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The occurrences of this designation (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) found within the Gospel record seem to indicate that this individual was a close associate of Peter (18:15-16; 20:2; 21:2,7), as well as testifying to the fact that he had been very near to Jesus at the Last Supper (13:23), had been present at the trial (18:15-16), and was there at the foot of the cross (19:26-27.)

The obvious choice as to who this individual might be is John, the son of Zebedee. He and Peter belonged to the inner circle of disciples. They were present, together with James, on three occasions when the other disciples were not (Mk. 5:37; 9:2; 14:33.) Moreover, they were still closely associated with one another after the resurrection (Acts 3:1,11; 4:13.) Together with James, Peter (Cephas) and John are identified by Paul as being “esteemed as pillars of the church” (Gal. 2:9.) Since James was martyred early in the history of the church (Acts 12:2), all this evidence suggests that “the beloved disciple,” (who is also the author of this Gospel), is none other than the Apostle John. This supposition is strengthened by the fact that nowhere in this Gospel is the Apostle John mentioned by name; although he is mentioned twenty times (counting the parallel accounts) in the Synoptic Gospels (D. Guthrie, pp. 245-246.)

Another piece of supporting evidence found within this Gospel that would suggest that the author is, indeed, the Apostle John is the way in which he refers to John the Baptist. In this Gospel we do not read of “John the Baptist” as in the three Synoptic Gospels; in this Gospel the Baptist is simply referred to as “John.” It is difficult to see why any informed early Christian writing this Gospel would have risked confusion by failing to adequately identify John the Baptist in distinction from the Apostle John. But, if the other John (John the apostle) were the author of this Gospel it would have been quite natural for him to speak of his namesake simply as “John.” This point is all the more significant in light of the fact that in this Gospel people are, with consistency, carefully identified (the other Judas in distinction from Judas Iscariot, 14:22; Thomas, 11:16, 20:24, 21:2; Judas Iscariot, 6:71, 13:2, 26) (L. Morris, pp. 11-12.)

Since Ignatius (A.D. 67-110) knew of this Gospel, it must have been written earlier than A.D. 110. If the Gospels of Mark and Luke were used in its composition, the date must be later than A.D. 85 (A.J. Macleod, p. 865.) (Note: It may be disputed whether John has made use of either of those two Synoptic Gospels.)

Archaeological evidence requires that this Gospel be dated no later than around the end of the first century. The Roberts Fragment, discovered in Egypt and published in 1935 by the Rylands Library, contains a few verses from chapter 18. Paleographers have assigned this fragment to the first half of the second century. Some years must be allowed between the time of the writing of this papyrus fragment and the original work, especially if the Gospel was composed at Ephesus, the site traditionally designated as the place of composition (E. Harrison, p. 205.) Based on such information, many scholars have concluded that the Gospel of John was probably written between A.D. 90-110.

However, there is something to be said for an earlier date of composition. As noted above, there is no compelling reason to assume that John made use of Mark and Luke in writing his Gospel, since the small amount of detail in which it runs parallel to the two Synoptic Gospels is so slight that it may well be accounted for by the fact that all three may have had access to the same oral traditions. To be sure, not many scholars have ventured to date this Gospel as early as pre-A.D. 70, yet there are considerations in support of such a dating.

In favor of an early date are such factors as the following: John refers to the immediate followers of Jesus not as “apostles” but as “disciples.” Furthermore, he normally uses the expression, “his disciples,” rather than “the disciples.” In the days of His ministry Jesus’ disciples would be distinguished from those of other teachers by some such expression as “his disciples.” But when Christianity had begun to develop, there would be no question about whose disciples were being referred to and “the disciples” became the standard expression. Secondly, speaking about the pool of Bethesda (5:2), John uses the present tense (“there is”) rather than the past tense (“there was.”) This pool would have been destroyed with the Roman demolition of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It is possible that John was using the present tense while referring to something in the past; however, it is more natural for it to be taken as a reference to something still existent at the time of writing.

A possible solution to the debate as to whether to assign an early pre-A.D. 70 date to this Gospel or a later date may be found in the suggestion that John wrote portions of what would become his Gospel long before the finished composition. According to D. Guthrie (p. 286), there is something to be said for the view that John made notes of our Lord’s discourses shortly after hearing them. Then, at a later date, he compiled all his material into the final form in which we now have his Gospel.

Purpose and Characteristics of This Gospel

The Apostle John explicitly states his purpose when he testifies: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples that are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31.)

John’s purpose is to convince his readers that Jesus is, indeed, “the Christ.” “The Christ” means “the anointed One” (“the Messiah”); it is an ascription that could have its fullest relevance only to the Jewish people, since the concept was not familiar to the Gentile world. (Note: E. Harrison [p.215] contends that John’s Gospel was primarily directed towards the Jews of the Dispersion, with the same objective as Paul’s preaching in the synagogues of the Dispersion, cp. Acts 9:22.) John presents Jesus as the promised Messiah at the very outset of his Gospel: John the Baptist, the one foretold in the Old Testament as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, points Him out (1:19-34.) Even at this earliest encounter, those who become Jesus’ disciples hail Him as the Messiah (1:41.) At the climax of our Lord’s ministry this messianic theme is still dominant, for, as Guthrie states it (p. 272), the messianic character of the entry into Jerusalem can hardly be disputed (12:12-19.)

John furthermore wants his readers to appreciate the fact that the Christ is none other than “the Son of God.” Thus, the Prologue to this Gospel definitively presents the absolute deity of the Messiah. Using the title “the Word,” (indicating that He is the very revelation of the person and mind of God, cp. 14:9), it is revealed that not only was He “with God” before the creation, but from all eternity He “was God.” In His discourses Jesus testifies to the truth that He is the eternal Son of God who shares in the Father’s glory (17:5), who has come forth from the Father (8:42) and who now returns to that state of divine intimacy that He ever had with the Father (16:28.) Again, our Lord proclaims His absolute deity when He proclaims, “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (8:58.) Both this declaration as well as His seven “I AM” proclamations (see more on this below) testify to His identity as the LORD (Jehovah), the great I AM (Ex. 3:14; Mal. 3:1.) This was a claim that the Jews recognized, but rejected, as evidenced by their attempt to stone Him for allegedly uttering blasphemy (8:59; see also 10:31-33.)

In writing his Gospel John is urging his readers not to be like the unbelieving Jews. (The ominous note of the rejection of the Christ is sounded at the very outset of the Gospel, cp. 1:10-11.) Throughout this Gospel we find men failing (and refusing) to recognize Jesus’ true identity, viewing Him merely as a teacher (3:2) or a Sabbath-breaker and blasphemer (5:18); viewing Him as a good man or a false teacher (8:12); or even viewing Him as one who was demon-possessed (8:48.) To assist his readers in coming to faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, John has singled out for inclusion in his Gospel seven of Jesus’ miracles which he describes as “signs” (see more on this below.) John designates Jesus’ mighty works as “signs” in order to emphasize their chief function, namely, to substantiate His messianic claim and thereby illicit faith in Him. John’s intention is for his readers to become like those initial disciples who, upon seeing Jesus’ divine glory manifested by the signs He performed, believed in Him (2:11.) As Jesus on one occasion said to the Jews, “I have shown you many good works from the Father … If I do not do the works of my Father, do not believe me. 38But if I am doing those works, even though you do not believe me, believe the works; so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:32, 37-38.)

John’s ultimate purpose in writing is to illicit faith in Jesus, the Christ. He makes clear that how his readers respond to Jesus is no small matter; it is rather, a matter of life or death. It is only by believing that they may have life in His name (20:31.) John quotes Jesus as saying, “I came that they may have life” (10:10); “I AM the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (11:25-26); and, in addressing His Father in prayer, “This is life eternal, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3.) Early on in this Gospel the urgency for faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is set forth. John the Baptist concludes his ministry by identifying Jesus as the One who came from heaven (3:31) and John closes the discourse with this editorial comment: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (3:36.) John earnestly desires that his readers not imitate those who reject Jesus, despite the abundant and irrefutable evidence; but rather that they be numbered among those who receive Him, committing themselves to Him, and thus by Him are granted the right to become children of God (1:12.)

As noted above, one of the unique characteristics of this Gospel is the seven “I AM” declarations by which Jesus identifies Himself and His ministry. Again, as previously noted, these declarations are emphatic and unmistakable claims to His absolute deity. Those seven declarations along with where they are found in the Gospel record are listed below:

The Divine Declaration

I am the Bread of Life.

I am the Light of the World.

I am the Door of the Sheep.

I am the Good Shepherd.

I am the Resurrection and the Life.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I am the True Vine.

The Passage

John 6:35

John 8:12

John 10:7

John 10:11

John 11:25

John 14:6

John 15:1

At this point a word may be in order concerning John’s use of the title “the Word” as it occurs in the Prologue. As A.J. Macleod asserts, “While the ancestry of the terminology may be thought to show the influence of Hellenistic [Greek] thought, its main inspiration comes from the Old Testament.” Note, for instance, Genesis 15:1, where we read, “the word of Jehovah came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Fear not, Abram.’” It seems that in such a passage as Genesis 15:1 (note, also, 1 Samuel 15:10) “the word of Jehovah” is an Old Testament manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity who would eventually manifest Himself in His incarnation (Jn. 1:14) as Jesus of Nazareth. As Macleod goes on to say, “The idea of ‘the Word’ being made ‘flesh’ was really completely alien to Greek thought” (p. 866.)

Even though John’s usage of the title “the Word” is rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures rather than in Greek philosophy, this does not mean that he may not also have had a Greek audience at least partially in mind when he wrote. As L. Morris points out (p. 61), it is plain from his habit of explaining Jewish terms, even common ones like “Rabbi” (1:38), that John had in mind a broader audience than only the Jews. After all, it is only John who mentions the fact that “certain Greeks” sought an audience with Jesus at the time of the Passover celebration (12:20-21.)

Another one of the unique characteristics of this Gospel is the fact that John has selected only seven of the many miracles Jesus’ performed. As mentioned previously, they are designated by John as “signs” because their primary purpose is to bear testimony to the fact that Jesus is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God. These seven signs together with their location in the Gospel record are as follows:

The Sign

The Changing of Water into Wine

The Healing of the Nobleman’s Son

The Healing of the Helpless Paralytic

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

The Walking on the Water

The Healing of the Blind Man

The Raising of Lazarus

The Passage

John 2:1-11

John 4:46-54

John 5:1-9

John 6:1-14

John 6:16-21

John 9:1-12

John 11:1-46

One other characteristic of the Gospel of John that should be noted is its emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There is more of our Lord’s teaching about the Spirit in this Gospel than in any other (D. Guthrie, pp. 238-239.) In the Nicodemus discourse, the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is clearly presented (3:5-8.) In speaking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus emphasizes the spiritual nature of God and the necessity for worship to be “in Spirit and in truth” if it is to be acceptable (4:24.) (Note: Jesus’ reference to worship “in the Spirit” seems to be a reference to the true worshiper gaining access to the Father by means of the Spirit, cp. Eph. 2:18.) On the occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus promises that after His glorification He will give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in Him and the Spirit will gush forth from within them like rivers of living water (7:37-39.) It is in the farewell discourses (chapters 14-16) that the fullest exposition of the Holy Spirit’s work is found. In answer to Jesus’ prayer, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who will minister to the disciples in His capacity as Comforter and Counselor (14:16-17.) Indeed, Jesus assures His disciples that it is by means of the Holy Spirit that He will be present with them (14:18.)


Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Third Edition, December 1970.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third Printing, October 1968.)

Macleod, A.J.; “The Gospel According to John,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.