Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ben Witherington on the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel

Ben Witherington's post, "Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?" is an interesting essay, although I must say I remain unconvinced. Dr. Witherington argues, largely from internal evidence, that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus raised from the dead, was the "beloved disciple" in the Fourth Gospel and was responsible for writing what would amount to the "first draft" of the book. Unfortunately, there's a bit too much "Oxford wrote Shakespeare" here for me.

Dr. Witherington's argument involves first questioning the external evidence of authorship--the attribution of the Gospel of John to the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. According to Dr. Witherington, the first person to attribute the gospel unambiguously to John the Apostle was Irenaus, around AD 180 (although he refers to "various church fathers in the second century" who thought the same thing). He brings up the argument that Papias, the first to attribute the gospel to a "John" in the early second century calls this "John" an "elder," not an apostle. He ignores, however, the arguments of those who hold to the traditional ascription that identify this "elder" with the Apostle. Moreover, Dr. Witherington continues by identifying this "John the elder" with the John who wrote Revelation from the island of Patmos (whom he continues to distinguish from the Apostle John), based on nothing more than Papias's millennial theology. So essentially, Dr. Witherington brushes aside all of the external evidence, in order to secure a hearing for his argument from internal evidence.

The Internal Evidence

Dr. Witherington makes much of the fact that none of the "Zebedee" stories and few of the Galilean ministry narratives from the Synoptics are found in John. However, if John knew the Synoptics and wrote his gospel consciously to supplement them (which is the historic view), it wouldn't be surprising that he leaves out stories that had already been told and retold by the Synoptic authors. It is true that John focuses much more on Jesus' Judean ministry, largely ignored by the Synoptic authors, and Lazarus was a Judean (Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem, and Jesus went back and forth from Jerusalem to Bethany each day during Passion week). But this is hardly conclusive, and some events to which Dr. Witherington draws attention (e.g., the night visit by Nicodemus) wouldn't have been observed by Lazarus in any event.

The "disciple whom Jesus loved" is first mentioned by that title in John 13:23. Dr. Witherington draws attention to Lazarus being described by his sisters as "the one you love" in John 11:3; then when referring to 13:23, Dr. Witherington makes a series of linked hypothoses: first, that the meal was not necessarily a Passover meal or the Last Supper; then, that it may have not been eaten in Jerusalem; then, that it may have been eaten in Bethany; then, that Jesus would have been seated by the host; and then, that since Lazarus had a home at which Jesus often stayed, he was the host and would have reclined by Jesus. Let's assume that each of these hypotheses have an 80% probability of being true (which I think improbable of some of them); the entire string has less than a 1/3 chance of being correct. But Dr. Witherington argues that someone who heard John being read would have remembered Lazarus being described as being "loved" by Jesus, and assumed that the "disciple whom Jesus loved" would necessarily have been Lazarus, despite the fact that two chapters have intervened, a different word for "loved" is used, John 13:1 makes a point of Jesus demonstrating his love to all his followers who were there at the time, and to my knowledge there is no external evidence of an ancient interpreter recognizing the "beloved disciple" in this manner.

Further Evidence?

Having thus identified the beloved disciple, Dr. Witherington continues by demonstrating how nicely such an identification would fit into John's narrative. (Once again, this reminds me of how well the Earl of Oxford's domestic situation is thought by some to mirror the narrative of Hamlet.) His first example, surprisingly, is the fact that the beloved disciple has access to the High Priest's house. Dr. Witherington speculates that Lazarus was a "high status person" who may have had a relationship to people in Caiaphas's house; this despite the fact that Lasarus's resurrection had caused consternation in the Sanhedrin and had even provoked Caiaphas to suggest that Jesus be killed (John 11:47-53). During this same time frame, the chief priests were making plans to kill Lazarus as well, since people were coming over to Jesus as a result of his resurrection. Yet he was supposedly well-connected and had unrestricted access to Caiaphas's house?

Dr. Witherington makes a number of other such speculations, either through linked hypotheses or simply fitting Lazarus into situations that he thinks would make more sense if Lazarus were the author of the narrative. He discusses the tradition that the beloved disciple would not die as depending on Jesus having raised him from the dead, even though John 21:23 clearly relates the tradition to Jesus' response to Peter and makes no mention of the resurrection of Lazarus. Dr. Witherington also thinks that the high Christology of the fourth gospel derives from its author's having been resurrected; this does not explain why Paul, for example, has an equally high Christology, at probably as early or earlier a date.

Dr. Witherington finally ascribes the final version of John (he sees at least chapter 21 as an editorial addition) to the John of Patmos who wrote Revelation and who is Papias's "John the elder," thus explaining how the Fourth Gospel got associated with the name John. What he is arguing for is the proposition that Lazarus wrote most of John as an eyewitness, John the elder (of whom we know nothing else) finished the manuscript, Lazarus's contribution was completely forgotten, and John's contribution was not only attributed to the whole but also misattributed to the Apostle. (Incidentally, there is also a problem in that Dr. Witherington thinks that John of Patmos wrote 2 and 3 John as well as Revelation; however, 1 John has many affinities with the gospel of John--presumably, this would have been written by Lazarus as well, whose authorship would once again have been completely forgotten and misattributed to John the Apostle.)

I have great respect for Dr. Witherington, but here I fear that he falls prey to the speculation that is all-but-endemic to gospel studies. If he wanted to argue that we can't know for sure who the beloved disciple is, who wrote the Fourth Gospel, or even if the two are the same, I could be persuaded. I am not wedded to the idea that John wrote the Fourth Gospel, since the scripture itself doesn't say so. But putting another person in that position, on such speculative evidence, I find entirely unpersuasive.

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  1. I was so hoping you would comment on this. I should have known you would make the connection to the Shakespeare controversy. :-)

  2. I was under the impression that Dr. Witherington believed 1,2, and 3 John were likely written by the same author--Lazarus.

  3. On rereading, I'm not sure. Dr. Witherington writes: The author of those little letters calls himself either the ‘elder’ or ‘the old man’ depending on how you want to render presbyteros. He nowhere calls himself the Beloved Disciple, not even in the sermon we call 1 John where he claims to have personally seen and touched the Word of Life.I took this to mean that Dr. Witherington saw John the Elder, the writer of Revelation, as the author of 2 and 3 John--evidently you are correct that he sees the same author as the writer of the "sermon" 1 John. It seems to me that Dr. Witherington leaves it unclear whether he meant that the Johannine Epistles were written by Lazarus (who would have called himself an "elder") or by John the Elder.

  4. Now I see, Peter. In the comments section, Dr. Witherington clearly states, "My position is indeed that the Beloved Disciple wrote the epistles, which explains the similarities with the Gospel." There was some confusion among other commenters, so at least I'm not alone in misunderstanding the main text! Thanks for the call-out.

  5. Hi, first I want to apologize for my english.
    I also think Mr. Witherington's way of thinking is interesting at the first sight. But the problem is, the chapter 21 shows the disciple whom Jesus loved is a fisherman. Whether he was John or not, this alone means Lazarus cannot be the author. Unless he was a fisherman and the gospel didn't say...people who support the Lazarus theory claims the gospel says the disciple said to Peter they went with him, not fishing...
    The first miraculous catch of fish is in Luke 5:1-11. I believe the beloved disciple recognized the lord because he was in the same catch of fish before.
    Just my two cents.

    1. I tend to agree with you, Laura. It's possible that Lazarus was a fisherman, or that he simply went along with Peter on this particular occasion. But it makes more sense if he were a fellow fisherman, which John was.

  6. Hi, it's Laura again.

    For some reason the more I read the gospel the more I believe it was written by an apostle.
    Do you think there were more people at the last supper? Many argue that there were more because of this:

    He said, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who eats with me out of the same bowl." (Mark 14:20)

    Some think if there were only the twelve at the supper, Jesus wouldn't have to point "one of the twelve". But I was reading the gospel of John and noticed this:

    "So Jesus said to the twelve, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. "We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God."
    Jesus answered them, "Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?" (John 6:67-70)

    This verse says explicitly Jesus was talking with the twelve, yet he says "the twelve".

    I noticed also that when the twelve/eleven were with more people, scripture records it. But the records on the last supper only talk about the twelve.

    Also, his last apparition in Galilee according to Matthew, Mark and John. (Though in Luke it was in Jerusalem.)

    What do you think?

    1. I agree with you, Laura. I think that that one verse is very slim evidence that there were more than the Twelve at the Last Supper. I've seen other people argue, on the basis of other verses, that definitely only the Twelve were there. I don't know the verses off hand. I suspect that there's very little strong evidence one way or the other.

      I think the fact that the apostle John is never named in the Fourth Gospel, along with the fact that only in this Gospel is John the Baptist merely named "John," without any other qualifiers to distinguish him from another John, is strong evidence that the Apostle John wrote the gospel attributed to him. Any other writer would certainly have mentioned the Apostle John by name, and only the Apostle John would have been able to refer to "John" without confusion between himself and the Baptist.

      If a person were able to prove definitively that John the Apostle didn't write the gospel, then I think you'd have to say it was simply anonymous. I don't think there's enough evidence to name any other particular writer.

  7. You're right.
    Even his brother isn't mentioned. And we know he's frequently with James. Another coincidence.
    Somer also argue the things he witnessed with only Peter and James aren't mentioned in his gospel therefore he couldn't be the author. But the funny thing this is the reason I think he would be the author. How could he talk about events with such a strict group without people perceiving it was him? We already know the beloved disciple isn't Peter because both are together.It would be too easy. Like "Jesus took Simon Peter and another two disciples" or "Jesus took with him Simon Peter, the disciple whom he loved and other disciple".

    But there's a possibility this verse is about the transfiguration:

    "We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

    Compare with the words they heard:

    "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17)

    Another argument: the eleven didn't believe him but the beloved disciple "saw and believed". But did he believed in the resurrection? What about this verse after that?

    "For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead." (John 20:8)

    More people interprets this like me. Sounds like he believed Magdalene's report about the body having disappeared. If he had believed in the resurrection, the verse about the scriptures doesn't make sense. But this is what I feel.