None of the four gospels explicitly states who the author(s) is/are, and the names given to them reflect the understanding of the early christians. So scholars are left to determine as best they can whether the names we have were indeed the authors.
Knowing the author probably doesn’t change all that much, but I have always found it an interesting question, especially regarding John.
The current state of play
Christians tend to accept the traditional authors. Critical scholars tend to doubt most of them (though Luke isn’t in that much doubt). But the consensus of historical scholars seems to be slowly moving back a little towards the traditional view in some cases.
- Matthew appears to have been based on several sources, including a collection of Jesus’ sayings written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. Some say we cannot know the final author. Maurice Casey has no problems believing the apostle Matthew wrote the original sayings, if not necessarily the final gospel.
- Mark was probably the author of the gospel named after him (who would make up an unknown author?) but it is hard to know which Mark.
- Luke was almost certainly the writer of both Luke and Acts.
- But John remains problematic. Few believe John son of Zebedee was the author, but that is about as far as the consensus goes.
The elder, John?
Perhaps the most frequent choice for authorship is John the elder, a christian leader around the end of the first century who apparently knew some of Jesus’ disciples but not Jesus himself. He may have compiled the gospel, adding the addendum in John 21:24-25:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
But even if this is true, who was the eyewitness, the “beloved disciple”, whose testimony is true? Was this John the Elder also? It seems unlikely – he wasn’t an eyewitness and it seems somewhat proud to give himself the title of “the disciple Jesus loved”.
Someone in Jerusalem?
There is good reason to believe that the original author of John (as opposed to the compiler or editor) lived in Jerusalem:
- He is very familiar with the geography and locations around Jerusalem – see Archaeology and the truth of the gospels.
- Most of his stories of Jesus take place in Jerusalem, whereas most of the other gospels, apart from the last week of Jesus’ life, take place in Galilee.
- The beloved disciple was known to the High Priest (John 18:15).
These factors are among those that make it less likely that John, son of Zebedee, was the beloved disciple and original author. Some say the author cannot be known, others that it was John Mark, others that the gospel was not written by an eyewitness at all.
But I have only recently come across what is now an old (2007) suggestion by Ben Witherington – that Lazarus was the original author. Witherington argues:
- Lazarus lived close to Jerusalem, satisfying the requirements above.
- Lazarus is introduced in the gospel as “the one you [Jesus] love” (John 11:1-3).
- This would help explain why the raising of Lazarus is included in John whereas it is not in any of the others – they tell other raising from the dead stories.
- The title of “beloved disciple” was not given to himself by Lazarus, but by John when he compiled and edited the gospel.
Witherington’s suggestion hasn’t gained much acceptance among other scholars – many (e.g. Maurice Casey) disregard John as eyewitness reporting, and many doubt the truth of the story of the raising of Lazarus. But those who have no difficulties on these matters may well accept Witherington’s suggestion.
Like I said, it probably isn’t all that important, but it is intriguing.