It’s often interesting to be in between the worlds of academic theology and church. Often assumptions are made in one that are not made in the other. For example, most in the church would assume that the author of the fourth Gospel is John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples. However, most in scholarship would assume he definitely isn’t. To be honest, this is mostly because scholars don’t like the idea of eyewitness testimony in the Gospels.
However, I came accross this fascinating theory by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III yesterday. Ben argues that the beloved disciple (commonly known as John) is actually Lazarus and that the fourth Gospel is his eyewitness testimony. You can read the whole paper here but here are a few of his major points:
The earliest patristic witness to the authorship of the fourth Gospel we have is Papias (2nd century). Papias claims that it was not John the son of Zebedee who authored the fourth Gospel, but rather John the Elder who is the same as John of Patmos (the author of Revelation). Subsequently, the other church fathers argued for apostolic authorship, but this is very likely due to the fact that the gnostics were beginning to use John’s Gospel for their own purposes. Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has rightly argued that we need to take the evidence of Papias more seriously. Negatively, Papias’ evidence suggests that John the apostle was not the author of the fourth Gospel.
There is quite significant internal evidence in the fourth Gospel to support the idea that John, the son of Zebedee was not the beloved disciple and the source of the fourth Gospel. Firstly, the beloved disciple is never equated with John the son of Zebedee in the fourth Gospel. Instead, the sons of Zebedee are mentioned in John 21.2 do not seem to be equated with the beloved disciple.
Secondly, the apostle John was, like Jesus’ other disciples, a Galilean. However, the fourth Gospel includes only one of the major Galilean miracles which the synoptics include (the feeding of the 5000 in John 6). If the beloved disciple was an eyewitness from Galilee, we would expect more of Jesus’ Galilean miracles to be included.
Thirdly, in the synoptic gospels, all of the twelve abandon Jesus at his crucifixion. However, in John, we are told that the beloved disciple was present at the crucifixion. If John (one of the twelve) and the beloved disciple are the same, then we have to solve the discrepancy. If, however, the beloved disciple was Lazarus, not one of the twelve, then the discrepancy disappears.
Fourthly, the first appearance of an expression similar to “the disciple that Jesus loved” appears in John 11 when Jesus is told: “he whom you love is ill” (Jn. 11.2). This is a reference not to the apostle John, but to Lazarus. If this is a precursor to “the disciple that Jesus loved” then it would suggest that this beloved disciple is in fact Lazarus, and not John.
Fifthly, in John 18, it seems that the beloved disciple is known by the high priest. This would be highly unlikely if the beloved disciple was a Galilean. Rather, this suggests that this disciples was well known in the Jerusalem area. Lazarus lived in Bethany, which was just by Jerusalem. It would make more sense for this disciple to be Lazarus if the high priest knew him.
Sixthly, Lazarus as the beloved disciple could help to explain the incredibly high christology of John. If you had been dead for 4 days and then raised by Jesus, that would change your worldview in a very dramatic way. This could account for the boldness with which the fourth Gospel proclaims Jesus as God, as opposed to the more cryptic way the synoptics suggest it.
There are more strong reasons put forth by Witherington in the paper I have linked. Give it a read! I find his case quite compelling and it definitely solves a lot of problems which John the apostle as author creates. See what you think!