Foundations: No.67 Autumn 2014

The Historical Reliability of the Gospel of John

A majority of biblical scholars are sceptical about the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. After delineating the problem and defining key terms, this article presents a cumulative case to the contrary by looking at issues such as ancient history writing, oral tradition, authorship, genre, the historical quality of John’s Gospel, social memory, chronology, archaeology and names. The argument is that the Gospel of John is the accurate and reliable eyewitness account of John of Zebedee about the life and ministry of Jesus.

I. Introduction

Many Christians, mostly Evangelicals (though this term means different things to different people), regard the Bible as the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God (though these terms need clarification too). They may therefore not question or probe the issue of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. The majority of scholars, however, do wrestle with this issue and are sceptical about the historical value of John’s account of Jesus. This article does not present a new case. Instead, I draw on existing arguments in order to present a cumulative case in defence of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. Specifically, I seek to argue that the Gospel of John is the accurate and reliable eyewitness account of the Beloved Disciple about the life and ministry of Jesus. The Beloved Disciple is most probably John of Zebedee and claims that his eyewitness account is a trustworthy basis for a life-giving belief in Jesus.

II. An Elaboration of the Problem

Since the rise of historical criticism, a majority of biblical scholars have been sceptical to varying degrees about the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. This is due to the many differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics, coupled with the presupposition that the Synoptics are more historically reliable than the Gospel of John. Among the most sceptical, we find scholars such as Maurice Casey and Louis Ruprecht. Casey argues that John’s Gospel is profoundly untrue, both historically and theologically, because it provides an inaccurate account of the life and ministry of Jesus, and adopts an anti-Jewish stance.[1] Differently, Ruprecht proposes that John intentionally and radically reinterpreted the story of Jesus’ life in order to subvert and replace Mark’s Gospel (and the other Synoptics) – and his Gospel won out in later Christianity.[2] Ruprecht seems to have an ideological axe to grind because he holds that John’s Gospel has (negatively) fuelled the fundamentalist evangelical movement in the United States today.[3]

While Casey and Ruprecht are perhaps on the most sceptical end of the spectrum, others are not far removed. Louis Martyn, for example, sees two historical stages in the Gospel of John, in which the later history of the so-called “Johannine community” takes priority over the earlier history of Jesus’ life and ministry.[4] His case in point is John 9, where the story of the blind man being thrown out by the Pharisees is used to accommodate the story of Johannine Christians being expelled from the Jewish synagogue. While Martyn does not deny the historicity of the blind man’s story in itself, the fusion of two time periods leads to historical distortions. So, according to Martyn, the term aposynagōgos (“expelled from the synagogue”) in 9:22 is used anachronistically in the story since it reflects the historical reality of the Johannine community in the late first century rather than the time of Jesus.[5] Similarly, according to Martyn, the alignment of chief priests and Pharisees in 7:32 and 11:47 is historically awkward and reflects either the setting of the Jewish war (AD 66–70) or the post-war situation.[6] While scholars have always had difficulties with the specifics of Martyn’s case, the majority have accepted the general thrust of his argument. However, we will see that reading the Gospel of John as the story of the Johannine church rather than the story of Jesus defies the Gospel’s genre.

More recently, Bart Ehrman argues that “faith documents” such as the Gospels are not reliable historical sources because the Gospel writers were “not interested in providing the brute facts of history for impartial observers” but in promoting faith in Jesus.[7] In his historical study of the origins of Christianity, Dale Martin asserts that “the New Testament is simply not a reliable source for the history of Jesus or early Christianity when taken at face value”.[8] Ehrman and Martin seem to arrive at these conclusions because they use modern standards of history to assess a first-century document rather than considering how history-writing occurred in antiquity. In addition, Martin, but also Ehrman to an extent, play off theology and history. From the outset, Martin clarifies that he approaches the New Testament as a historical rather than a theological text.[9] I will say more about this later, but for now I suggest that faith/theology and history are not necessarily incompatible. All stories, including historical accounts, have an inbuilt bias or point of view in that every author seeks to communicate a particular message to their audiences through their written accounts. The author of the Gospel of John is observably biased – he states explicitly that he writes in order to promote a life-giving faith in Jesus among his audience (20:31) – but this does not necessarily negate the historical accuracy of his account of Jesus.

Notwithstanding my critique of these sceptical scholars, we cannot naïvely assume that the Gospel of John is a straightforward factual record of historical events. It is, to some extent, understandable why many scholars question the historical reliability of John’s Gospel. When we read the canonical Gospels, we soon realise that while they are all accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospel of John is very different from the three so-called Synoptic Gospels. For one, many accounts in the Gospel of John have no counterpart in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the royal official, the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, the man born blind, and the Lazarus family are not found anywhere else. Since these encounters constitute the bulk of John’s record of Jesus’ public ministry, we could ask whether these events ever happened or whether John “invented” them in order to communicate theological truth.

Let us be clear, invention or fiction need not have connotations of being untrue or erroneous. Fictional stories such as parables, for example, can be vehicles for truth. While no serious scholar would argue that the parable of the good Samaritan describes actual events (it is a fictional story), neither would they deny its truth dimension (it is a moral story). In analogy, just as Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan to teach about the need to be a good neighbour, John could have told the parable of Jesus and Nicodemus to explain the theological truth that a person needs a spiritual birth in order to enter the kingdom of God. Perhaps Jesus taught such truth on a particular occasion and John couched it in a fictitious story. After all, a fictitious Nicodemus does not negate the truth of Jesus’ teaching. The fact that Nicodemus features elsewhere in the narrative (7:52; 19:39) does not “prove” the historicity of Nicodemus. On the contrary, while John has Nicodemus accompany Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels only mention Joseph, which appears to be an argument for Nicodemus being a fictitious character. According to John, Nicodemus was a wealthy, leading Pharisaic scholar and a member of the Sanhedrin, so it is unlikely that the Synoptic writers would have “forgotten” to mention him if he had existed. Something similar occurs in the Lazarus story. While Luke mentions Martha and Mary in 10:38-42, there is no mention of Lazarus. It is very unlike Luke, who claims to have investigated everything carefully, to have left out an extraordinary event like the death and raising of a close friend of Jesus. And who witnessed the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (for the disciples had gone to the village)? Should we assume that Jesus verbally repeated the conversation later to his disciples? Is it possible that John has presented Jesus’ teaching on “living water” in an imaginative story form? If so, would this negate its theological thrust that Jesus is the life-giver who can quench people’s spiritual thirst?

In addition to accounts not found in the Synoptics, John’s Gospel also appears to be at odds with the Synoptics on significant occasions. Take for example Jesus’ so-called “cleansing” of the temple. Most scholars agree that Jesus did this only once, towards the end of his ministry, as the Synoptics have recorded, and John brought it forward to 2:13-22, presumably for theological reasons.[10] But is this violation of chronology not deceptive or at least “fictitious” in that it most likely did not happen early on in Jesus’ ministry? More importantly, while the cleansing of the temple in the Synoptics precipitates Jesus’ arrest and execution, in John’s Gospel it is Jesus’ raising of Lazarus (an account absent from the Synoptics) that triggers the plot to kill Jesus.

Finally, there are the so-called Johannine aporias or “bumps in the text”, which may indicate the insertion of other material by a later editor. Let me provide a few examples. According to the textual evidence, the account of the woman caught in adultery (7:53–8:11) is almost certainly not part of the original Gospel. Jesus’ first farewell speech to the disciples ends abruptly, “Get up, let us go from here” (14:31), and it seems that the narrative logically resumes in 18:1, “After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden.” As a result, many scholars view John 15–17 as later material, inserted into the story by another author/editor. Most also consider John 21 a later addition because John 20 describes Jesus’ resurrection appearances, his imparting the Spirit to the disciples and the reminder of their future mission. What more is there to tell? In fact, stating the purpose of the Gospel in 20:30-31 seems a very appropriate way to finish this Gospel.

These examples underscore the obvious questions about the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. Unless we want to put our minds in the dogmatic sand, we must face these issues with integrity and courage. I suggest we must navigate between the Scylla of being naïvely or rigidly dogmatic and the Charybdis of yielding too easily to the pressure of relinquishing the historical reliability of John’s Gospel.[11] In 2002, in an excursus that was swiftly formulated to prepare my doctoral dissertation for publication, I stated that “the Fourth Gospel moves along a spectrum of a mixture of (what we would call) ‘history’ and ‘fiction’”.[12] What I meant was that the author did not produce a strict historical record of the bare facts but employed a legitimate degree of freedom to select, arrange and present his material in order to bring out the theological significance of Jesus’ life and ministry – and this literary creativity I called “fiction”. I intentionally used “fiction” as the opposite of “history” in order to position John’s Gospel somewhere on that spectrum. If we faithfully retell a sermon heard earlier, in our own words rather than verbatim, would there not arguably be a fictitious element to it? If we accurately summarise three teaching sessions by the same person held on different occasions, would this not contain a fictitious dimension? My dissertation was not a historical-critical study of John’s Gospel but a theological interpretation of the role of the Spirit in salvation in John’s Gospel, and hence historical issues were not immediately pertinent to my argument. Nevertheless, I ended the excursus saying that I shall “attempt to reconstruct what, according to the Evangelist, ‘happened’ during Jesus’ earthly ministry”, which implicitly affirmed my commitment to the historicity of the Johannine narrative.[13] Even so, my understanding has since developed and, in hindsight, I now consider the terms “fiction” and “fictitious” unhelpful.[14] I concede that back in 2002 I sailed, unintentionally, too closely to the Charybdis of the argument. Hence, in this article I seek to adjust my argument in order to navigate a better course.

III. Defining the Terms “History” and “Historical Reliability”

It is crucial to clarify my understanding of the key terms “history” and “historical reliability.” While “history” may refer to the bare account of events of the past, the result would merely be a timeline of unrelated events. I suggest that “history” is more than this and includes the interpretation of these past events. That is, history includes the description of past events in terms of their causes, effects and correlations. This implies that when a historian interprets the events of the past, the historical account will have an inbuilt bias or point of view. One only needs to read, for example, a historical account of colonial India by a British historian and one by an Indian historian to realise this.

“Historical reliability” does not necessarily imply an objective factual recording of the events as they really happened but has to do with whether a historical account is trustworthy, and presents a faithful, reliable and accurate interpretation of the significance and correlation of past events. Historical reliability has more to do with the ipsissima vox (“the exact voice”) than the ipsissima verba (“the exact words”) of the protagonist. Hence, the Gospel of John is historically reliable to the extent that it faithfully testifies to the things Jesus said and did, and their significance. We must bear in mind, as Tom Thatcher explains, that John did not write his Gospel for recording or archiving purposes but for rhetorical purposes, namely to persuade his audience to believe (i.e. to accept as true) certain things about Jesus and to commit themselves in relationship to him in order to partake in the divine life.[15] A “loose” understanding of historical reliability, as Stephen Evans suggests, may simply mean that any statement attributed to Jesus should not lead to a false belief about the character and identity of Jesus.[16] Besides, rather than employing modern standards of historiography, “first-century understandings of what counts as a truthful historical account provide the relevant standards” for assessing the Johannine text.[17]

IV. Ancient History Writing

In order to gauge the historical reliability of John’s Gospel, we must consider how history writing occurred in the first century. Joel Green explains that the aim of history writing in antiquity was to persuade readers to a particular reading of the past. In addition, “all history writing (whether by the NT evangelists or modern historians) is partial – that is, incomplete and per-spectival” because (i) historians make choices about what to include and exclude, and (ii) they order the past events in a causal sequence that draws out the significance of the past.[18] Craig Keener states that writing history in antiquity was a serious issue – history was supposed to be truthful and based on proper research. However, redacting or paraphrasing the words of characters was a normal rhetorical practice. While good historians would not fabricate historical events, they could enhance their narratives for literary, moralistic and political purposes, or alter or add explanatory details. Good historians also tried to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate sources, and eyewitness accounts were the best.[19]

Based on Samuel Byrskog’s work, Richard Bauckham explains that ancient historians were convinced that true history could only be written while events were still within living memory, based on the oral reports of eyewitnesses (preferably including themselves). Ancient historiography ideally required eyewitness testimony, that is, oral testimony was preferable to written sources. Besides, the ideal eyewitness was not a dispassionate observer but an active participant in the events, who was able to understand and interpret the significance of what he had witnessed, i.e., the eyewitness was able to provide an insider perspective. Instead of cold, objective truth, ancient historians preferred firsthand insider testimony for the sake of unique access to the truth of the events, although this did not mean that they were uncritical.[20]

V. From Jesus to the Gospel of John

In this section, I will examine how we got from Jesus to the Gospel of John. How were Jesus’ oral teachings transmitted to the Johannine text? There are four major models of how the oral tradition worked.[21] The prevalent model, the “informal, uncontrolled tradition”, is the legacy of traditional form criticism advocated by Rudolf Bultmann. According to this view, “a long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists. No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many retellings, reformulations, and expansions before the Evangelists themselves did their own editorial work on it.”[22] Ehrman and Martin, perhaps unsurprisingly, represent this position.[23]

The second model, the “formal, teacher-controlled tradition”, was first proposed by Harald Riesenfeld, developed by his pupil Birger Gerhardsson and finds contemporary support from Paul Barnett.[24] According to this view, the early Christian oral tradition, like the transmission of Jewish rabbinic tradition, was a rigidly controlled transmission where the disciples mem-orised Jesus’ words and deeds.

The third model is the “informal, community-controlled tradition”, developed by Kenneth Bailey and expanded by James Dunn.[25] In this model, the community exercises control to ensure that the traditions are preserved faithfully, and the degree of flexibility depends on the type of tradition. Dunn argues that Bultmann’s model of a Jesus tradition composed of a series of layers is wrong because an oral retelling of a tradition is not like a new literary edition. In oral transmission a tradition is performed, not edited. Each oral retelling “performs” the original, and includes both stability (of subject, theme and key details) and variability (in supporting details and particular emphases to be drawn out). The variabilities of the retellings were subject to sufficient control for the substance of the tradition.[26]

The final model of oral transmission, the “formal, eyewitness-controlled tradition”, is rooted in the work of Samuel Byrskog (a pupil of Gerhardsson) and developed by Richard Bauckham.[27] Bauckham’s thesis is that:

the Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship… They [the Gospels] embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.[28]

Even though form criticism has faded out, its legacy is still influential in that many scholars assume that the Jesus traditions passed through a long process of anonymous oral tradition in the early Christian communities and reached the Evangelists only at a late stage in this process. Some even propose that the Evangelists augmented the traditions in such a way that they reflect the Sitz im Leben of the communities they lived in (e.g. Louis Martyn).[29] Bauckham points out that this scenario is unlikely, not least because the original disciples or eyewitnesses were around for at least a generation among the earliest churches in Palestine so that the Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. The oral traditions reached the Evangelists much earlier than form criticism has us believe. Bauckham argues that “the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths”. Thus, eyewitness testimony, not oral tradition, should be our principal model to discover how the Jesus traditions reached the Gospel writers.[30] This would make sense of the claim of John’s Gospel that it is a testimony of Jesus written by an eyewitness (19:35; 20:31; 21:24). We now turn to the issue of authorship.

VI. Authorship

Many scholars contend that this Gospel came to us anonymously because the Greek text originally did not have the inscription [euangelion] kata Iōannēn (“[the gospel] according to John”) and there is no indication in the Gospel who the author is. Since there is no space for the whole argument, I will summarizse the case made elsewhere that the Beloved Disciple was John of Zebedee.[31] Contra Andrew Lincoln’s argument that the Beloved Disciple is simply the authoritative source for this Gospel, I contend that Richard Bauckham has the better argument that the Beloved Disciple is the real author of this Gospel.[32] After all, it is difficult to ignore the thrust of 21:24 that this disciple – the Beloved Disciple mentioned in 21:20-23 – has written his truthful eyewitness testimony of Jesus.

The Beloved Disciple is an ideal eyewitness because he is present at key moments in Jesus’ ministry. Although “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is introduced only in 13:23, a good case can be made that he is the unnamed disciple in 1:35-40 and hence present at the start of Jesus’ ministry.[33] Having been a follower of John (the Baptist), the Beloved Disciple becomes one of the first followers of Jesus (at least in the Johannine narrative) and remains with him (1:37, 39). Indeed, he is present at the final meal and hence a recipient of Jesus’ private instructions in John 14–17; he witnesses Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion (18:15-16; 19:26-27, 19:35);[34] is the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb on resurrection day (20:2-10) and receives the Spirit later that day (20:22); and he witnesses the miraculous catch of fish, Peter’s restoration and commission, and continues to remain with Jesus (21:7, 15, 20-22). In sum, the Beloved Disciple is a unique eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry because he remains with Jesus from the start in 1:29 to the end in 21:22.[35]

If we can accept that the Beloved Disciple is the author of this Gospel, the next issue is to decide on his identity. The variety of candidates that scholars have proposed for his identity (e.g., John of Zebedee, John the Elder, Lazarus, Thomas, Nathanael) should warn us to tread carefully and modestly. It seems that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is deliberately kept anonymous in the Gospel, which implies that he cannot be one of the named disciples in the Gospel and hence we can rule out the identification with Lazarus, Thomas or Nathanael. Nonetheless, Bauckham argues that while the Gospel uses the literary device of anonymity, it does not want to conceal the identity of the Beloved Disciple and it is highly likely that the original readers knew who the Beloved Disciple was. Besides, the title “according to John” was probably included in the Gospel from the outset, thus strengthening the argument that some of the first audience knew this John.[36] We must therefore probe further by looking at the internal and external evidence.

From the internal evidence, the appearance of the Beloved Disciple in 21:7 strongly suggests that he is one of the disciples mentioned in 21:2. Therefore, he must be either one of the two unnamed disciples or one of the sons of Zebedee. I suggested elsewhere that the two unnamed disciples are Andrew and Philip,[37] which means that the Beloved Disciple could well be John of Zebedee. Alternatively, Richard Bauckham supports Martin Hengel’s case that the Beloved Disciple is John the Elder, a Jerusalem disciple of Jesus but not one of the Twelve.[38] Bauckham’s case is attractive because it would clarify the author’s extensive knowledge of Jerusalem and the assertion in 18:15 that the “other disciple” (most likely the Beloved Disciple, as the same phrase is used in 20:2) had a connection with the high priest. It is difficult to imagine that the Galilean fisherman John of Zebedee had such connections in Jerusalem (unless he had a retail outlet in Jerusalem that supplied fish to the high priest). However, it is equally difficult to imagine that John the Elder was present at the private Farewell Discourses and even had a closer relationship with Jesus than any of the Twelve (13:23).

Although external evidence of the second century identifies John, a disciple of Jesus, as the author of the Gospel, it is unclear which John is in view – John of Zebedee or John the Elder. The apostolic father Papias (AD 70–155) refers to two Johns – John (of Zebedee) and John the Elder – both of whom were the Lord’s disciples (Fragments of Papias 1 and 6; cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4), leading to some confusion.[39] Although Papias’s first John – the son of Zebedee – could be the Beloved Disciple, as Eusebius himself claims (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.5-7), this view has not won much support. Nevertheless, when Irenaeus (e.g., Against Heresies 3.1.1) and Eusebius speak of John the disciple/apostle of the Lord, often in a context where others from among the Twelve are mentioned, it seems natural to think of John son of Zebedee. In addition, Paul Anderson suggests that there may even be a first-century clue to the author being John of Zebedee – in Acts 4:19-20. While the assertion in v. 19 that they should obey God rather than humans seems to have come from Peter’s lips (cf. Acts 5:29; 11:17), the saying in v. 20 that they cannot help but speak about “what we have seen and heard” is Johannine (cf. John 3:32; 1 John 1:3). Hence, it is perhaps Luke, rather than Irenaeus, who first connected the apostle John with the Johannine tradition.[40]

In conclusion, the identity of the Beloved Disciple remains a debatable (and perhaps irresolvable) issue. Yet, even if we cannot ascertain beyond doubt the identity of the Beloved Disciple, what is relevant is that he was an eyewitness from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry to the end and present at key moments. John’s Gospel emphasises the function of the Beloved Disciple within the Johannine narrative (as the reliable eyewitness to Jesus) rather than his identity. The most important contribution of the Beloved Disciple has been the writing of this Gospel where his testimony has been carefully preserved.[41] Although the Beloved Disciple was not necessarily one of the Twelve, if we consider his privileged and intimate relationship with Jesus (13:23) and his “rivalry” with Peter, it seems likely that he was. Though John’s Gospel reveals a circle of disciples beyond the Twelve (cf. 6:60-67), in John 13–17 only the Twelve seem to be present as there is no indication that other disciples are included.[42] All things considered, I propose that John of Zebedee is the most likely candidate, but John the Elder is a serious contender.[43] Yet, we should not exaggerate the issue of authorship with regard to the historical reliability of the Gospel of John because an account from John of Zebedee is not necessarily more reliable than one from John the Elder. Nor is an account written by an eyewitness (e.g., John’s Gospel) necessarily more reliable than one written by someone else but based on an eyewitness account (e.g., Luke’s Gospel).[44]

VII. Genre

When picking up a book, we would like to know what kind of book it is as this shapes our expectation and determines how we read it. For example, a dictionary provides commonly agreed definitions of words; a novel is a fictional story to enjoy; a book on history recounts past events and their correlations; and a book of poetry has figurative language to evoke the imagination. We read these books differently – each according to its genre. It is crucial to identify the literary genre of a text because each genre has rules of interpretation and misunderstanding the genre often leads to odd results. Imagine trying to read poetry literalistically or a phonebook like a novel. So, how do we read the Gospel of John? Does this Gospel belong to a particular kind of literature of its time?

Richard Burridge has made a compelling case for viewing the Gospels as ancient biographies or bioi (“lives”). Examining ten Graeco-Roman bio-graphies written before the four Gospels and ten after the Gospels, he concludes that the Gospels fit the pattern of the Graeco-Roman bios.[45] Dale Martin claims that the Gospels are not biographies (there is nothing about Jesus’ childhood, psychological development, and so on) but historical narratives and hence we should approach the Gospels as modern historians.[46] While Martin correctly claims that the Gospels are not modern biographies, he has not considered that they might be ancient biographies. Unlike modern biographies, ancient biographies do not focus on the psychological and personal development of the protagonist or chronicle life events from cradle to grave. Instead, the ancient biography focuses on the most significant actions and words of the protagonist, especially his death. There is, in fact, a growing consensus amongst scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of the ancient Graeco-Roman biography.

By viewing the Gospels as ancient biography, we are saying that their subject matter is Jesus. Thus, the Gospel of John primarily tells the story of Jesus rather than the story of the Johannine community (contra Louis Martyn and the majority of scholarship). In addition, the main aim of the ancient biography was that its account of the protagonist be convincing/believable. Its purpose was to draw out the significance and interpretation of certain historical events rather than to give an objective, factual historical account. Hence, words of characters would often be paraphrases rather than the literal words, and even some embellishment or “literary creativity” was allowed. To put it differently, an ancient biography would be expected to represent accurately the ipsissima vox (“the exact voice”) of the protagonist, but not always the ipsissima verba (“the exact words”).

Ancient biographies were a flexible and relatively broad genre when it comes to historical accuracy.[47] Seeking to hone Burridge’s proposal, Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospels belong to a particular subset of the ancient biography – the historiography, which contains a greater amount of history.[48] Ancient biography and historiography are related genres, Bauckham explains, since some historiographies developed a biographical interest and some biographies had historiographical features. Bauckham makes a convincing case that as an ancient biography, the Gospel of John closely resembles a historiography – more so than even the Synoptics. In essence, therefore, the Gospel of John is an ancient Graeco-Roman biography with strong historiographical features.

How then does the genre of John’s Gospel have a bearing on its historical reliability? Ancient biographers and historians would not invent events or characters if they wished to remain credible, but they were allowed varying degrees of literary freedom.[49] If Bauckham is correct that the Gospel of John is a historiographical biography, it would be on the higher end of the historical reliability spectrum. Besides, as Bauckham points out, the historiographical ideal is to record history that was still within living memory, so that the historian’s account is based on eyewitness testimony – his own and/or that of others to whom he had access.[50] This coheres with the claim of the Gospel of John that it is based on the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple, the real author of this Gospel. Craig Blomberg, who has extensively argued for the historical reliability of John’s Gospel,[51] is worth quoting at length:

Ancient biographers and historians did not feel constrained to write from detached and so-called objective viewpoints. They did not give equal treatment to all periods of an individual’s life. They felt free to write in topical as well as chronological sequence. They were highly selective in the material they included, choosing that which reinforced the morals they wished to inculcate. In an era which knew neither quotation marks nor plagiarism, speakers’ words were abbreviated, explained, paraphrased and contemporized in whatever ways individual authors deemed beneficial for their audiences. All of these features occur in the Gospels, and none of them detracts from the Evangelists’ integrity. At the same time, little if any material was recorded solely out of historical interest; interpreters must recognize theological motives as central to each text.[52]

VIII. The Historical Quality of John’s Eyewitness Testimony

If the Gospel of John is a historiographical biography based on John’s eyewitness testimony, we must inquire about the quality of this testimony because any testimony can be accurate or inaccurate, true or false, reliable or unreliable. John himself claims that his eyewitness testimony is trustworthy in that it provides a reliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus that can function as a basis for an informed belief about the identity of Jesus, which, in turn, gives access to divine life. But how trustworthy is that self-attestation? We can pursue two lines of reasoning. First, a non-evidentialistapproach to the historical reliability of the Gospel of John as eyewitness testimony. Stephen Evans explains that, epistemologically, testimony is one of the basic sources of human knowledge, and it is reasonable to form a basic belief on the basis of testimony.[53] John does precisely that. John claims that his testimony is true and can be believed, urging his readers to accept his testimony about Jesus and develop a saving belief about Jesus. We do not necessarily need conclusive evidence in order to be able to form beliefs about Jesus based on John’s testimony. Nevertheless, where there is evidence, we must consider it and test our beliefs.

Hence, a second line of reasoning is anevidentialistapproach to the historical reliability of the Gospel of John as testimony. Regarding this approach, Richard Bauckham concludes, “In all four Gospels we have the history of Jesus only in the form of testimony, the testimony of involved participants who responded in faith to the disclosure of God in these events… As with all testimony, even that of the law court, there is a point beyond which corroboration cannot go, and only the witness can vouch for the truth of his own witness.”[54] This line of reasoning coincides with Blomberg’s question on where we should place the burden of proof:

Notwithstanding all of the evidence in favor of the general trustworthiness of the Gospels, many critics find little they can confidently endorse because they adopt a skeptical stance on the issue of the burden of proof. That is to say, they assume that each portion of the Gospels is suspect, and reverse that verdict only when overwhelming evidence points to historical reliability. But this method inverts standard procedures of historical investigation; it applies more rigorous criteria to the biblical material than students of ancient history ever apply elsewhere. Once a historian has proved reliable where verifiable, once apparent errors or contradictions receive plausible solutions, the appropriate approach is to give that writer the benefit of the doubt in areas where verification is not possible. Neither external nor internal testimony can prove the accuracy of most of the details of the Gospels; the necessary comparative data simply are lacking. But the coherence and consistency of material which cannot be tested with that which can be tested goes a long way toward inspiring confidence in the remaining portions of the texts.[55]

To put it differently, we must decide to adopt either a “hermeneutic of suspicion” or a “hermeneutic of faith/trust”. Dale Martin, for example, appears a “minimalist” historian operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion (he seeks to determine what happened by what can be verifiably determined through historical criticism), whereas I consider myself a historical-theological interpreter of the New Testament operating with a hermeneutic of trust (I seek to determine not only what happened but also how early Christians understood the theological significance of the Christ event – both past event and past interpretation of the events belong to history proper). Martin gives the impression that the historical-critical approach is a critical-realist and objective one, over against a more naïve or subjective theological reading. The problem is that Martin approaches the New Testament as a historical rather than a theological text. But there is no need to dichotomise or oppose history and theology since they are not mutually exclusive categories. The Gospel of John is both a historical and theological document, in which theology is rooted in history, and history informs and serves theology. The task of a reputable historian is not simply to assess the historical accuracy of John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry but also to uncover John’s theology, that is, his interpretation of the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus. The claim that history is all too often sacrificed on the altar of theology is a misconception. Yet, trust need not be naïve; we must use critical tools such as historical criticism to arrive at an informed understanding of the New Testament.

Having considered all this, what can we now say about the historical quality of John’s Gospel? It claims to be a non-fictional narrative by a reliable eyewitness to the events recorded (19:35; 21:24). By implication, the dramatis personae are composites of historical people and must be viewed within the socio-historical context of first-century Judaism and not just on the basis of the text itself. In comparing fictional and non-fictional narratives, Petri Merenlahti and Raimo Hakola state that in case of the latter, (i) the author vouches for the veracity of the narrative and assumes that the reader believes it; and (ii) the narrator represents the author and his point of view and therefore there is continuity between “reality” and the narrative world.[56] Indeed, John explicitly states that his story is true and therefore can be believed (19:35; 21:24). At the same time, in presenting his characters, John may have left out, changed, or added certain details from his sources – as historians and biographers often do. For example, John (the Baptist) appears in this Gospel as an eloquent witness to Jesus while the Synoptics present him as a rough-hewn figure preaching a baptism of repentance. The Beloved Disciple could well have been as perfect as this Gospel portrays him or may have been somewhat “idealised.” If the Gospels belong to the genre of the ancient Graeco-Roman biography, as many scholars would contend, they need not be viewed as “objective, factual” accounts akin to courtroom transcripts.

The Gospels would be expected to represent accurately the ipsissima vox Jesu rather than the ipsissima verba Jesu, and the speech of characters would often be paraphrases rather than the literal words.[57] While the Gospel authors may have exercised this literary freedom, what matters is that the reader need not doubt their credibility; they would not have created fictitious characters.[58] As Merenlahti and Hakola explain, while not everything in non-fictional narratives is necessarily historical, it does not make them fictional narratives since they do claim to describe the real world; what matters is that the reader not doubt the author’s explicit or implicit truth claims.[59] Thus, the historicity of the characters in John’s Gospel is not compromised because John may have used a legitimate degree of artistic freedom to portray them. Besides, the Gospel authors were theologians (rather than historians in a strict sense of the word). They wrote from a post-Easter perspective and interpreted the pre-Easter events through that lens, that is, they reflected on the Christ event and articulated its significance and implications for the early church. John’s primary concern is to assure his readers that his account of Jesus is a true and reliable testimony (cf. 19:35; 21:24).

I return to some of the issues I raised in section 2. The possibility of John 3 being a parable of Jesus and Nicodemus is highly unlikely because there is no parable formula or other linguistic indicators that a fictional story or figurative speech is to follow. Besides, if this were viewed as a parable then so could Jesus’ dialogues with the Samaritan woman, the invalid, the blind man, and so on, and a large portion of John’s Gospel would hence be fictitious. This is an unlikely scenario given the fact that an ancient biography/historiography would not invent events or characters lest its credibility be put in jeopardy. Besides, there is evidence for the historicity of Nicodemus. Some rabbinic sources mention a wealthy Jerusalem aristocrat called Naqdimon ben Gurion who was around during the Jewish War in AD 66-70, and while he cannot have been the Nicodemus in Jesus’ time (cf. the information in 3:4), Bauckham presents a convincing case that Nicodemusmay have been his uncle.[60]

Regarding the omission of Lazarus’s death and raising in Luke, Bauckham suggests that when Luke wrote his Gospel, Lazarus would still have needed “protective anonymity”, whereas this was no longer needed when John wrote his account towards the end of the first century.[61] Regarding the issue of how the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman came to be recorded when there were no witnesses around, a simple and plausible explanation is that while Jesus stayed in Sychar for two days (4:40), the disciples heard the whole story. Regarding the positioning of the cleansing of the temple in the John 2, I contend that, historically, this event occurred at the end of Jesus’ ministry (as the Synoptics have recorded it), but that John brought it forward for theological purposes. I would consider this a legitimate degree of freedom. John did not claim to have organised his account in chronological order.[62] Regarding the insertion of John 15–17 between 14:31 and 18:1, it seems rather clumsy that a later editor would choose to leave in the three Greek words that translate “Get up, let us go from here.” I would have expected the editor to create a smooth transition to 15:1. Instead, I suggest an alternative explanation, that Jesus and his disciples left the house after 14:31, and on the way Jesus taught his disciples the material that is recorded in chapters 15-16 and prayed the prayer that is recorded in chapter 17, before his arrest in chapter 18.

IX. Social Memory

The postmodern exposure of the assumption that historical criticism has objective access to the past has caused scholars to examine how past events are stored in and recalled from memory. Joel Green writes, “the central claim of social memory studies is that memory is never a simple act of recall, but rather a complex process whereby the past is reconstructed in light of present interests that are defined and shaped socially” and “all memory is an indissoluble mixture of past and present, of ‘event’ and ‘interpretation’”.[63] Using social memory theory to explain the existence of John’s Gospel, Tom Thatcher argues similarly: “For John, the memory of Jesus is not a simple act of recall, but rather a complex reconfiguration of past experience”, that is, “a complex and dynamic entity that combines information about the past with reflection on the ultimate significance of Jesus’ death”.[64] This implies, as Richard Bauckham explains, that recollective memories (i) are both selective and interpretative, and (ii) contain both stable and variable elements.[65] Regarding the reliability of recollective memory, Bauckham draws on various psychological studies and concludes that “the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.”[66]

Recollective memory also plays a significant role in the formation of the Gospel of John and its historical reliability. In the light of his imminent departure from this world, Jesus promises his disciples the Spirit, who would, inter alia, remind the disciples of all the things he had said (14:26). It is clear from the Spirit’s teaching function in 14:26 and 16:12-15 that the Spirit’s anamnesis is less about recalling the literal words of Jesus and more about drawing out the meaning and significance of this revelation. In fact, John records a few instances where the disciples are brought to an understanding of Jesus’ revelation after the resurrection through remembrance (2:17, 22; 12:26; 16:4). This remembrance is most likely the result of the Spirit’s work because in 2:17, 22 and 12:16 the Greek uses the passive form ‘to be reminded’ rather than the active ‘to remember’, which implies that an agent is involved in the reminding. The Johannine concept of remembrance involves both recall and understanding under the supervision of the Spirit, which Thatcher appropriately calls “pneumatic memory”.[67] It would probably not be too wide of the mark to suggest that John’s written eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ life and ministry is also the result of a Spirit-enabled remembrance of past events and their significance. The Spirit’s aid in John’s task of writing sacred history arguably contributes to (perhaps even vouches for) the historical reliability of the text.

X. Chronology, Archaeology, Names

It is impossible to be exhaustive in an article like this, but I end by mentioning briefly a few more aspects that contribute to the historical reliability of the Gospel of John – in the areas of chronology, archaeology and names.

Chronology. While John has been accused of anachronism on various occasions (the use of aposynagōgos, the alignment of the chief priests and Pharisees, the cleansing of the temple), ironically the chronology of the Johannine narrative has actually supported the view that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three years, whereas if we have to go by the Synoptics we would have to conclude that Jesus’ ministry lasted about a year. John’s chronology is based on the mentioned festivals in the Jewish calendar. The Passover is mentioned a few times, the Feast of Tabernacles forms the background for John 7–8, the Feast of Dedication of the Temple is referred to in 10:22, and 5:1 records an unnamed festival. John mentions three Passover celebrations (2:23; 6:4; 11:55 [12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14 refer to the same Passover as 11:55]). Since I assume that John deliberately brought Jesus’ action in the temple in 2:13-22 forward for theological reasons, 2:13 and 11:55 refer to the same Passover and 2:23 thus records the first Passover in Jesus’ ministry. Since John does not record many events of Jesus’ life before the first Passover in 2:23, and given that Jesus’ passion coincides with the third Passover recorded by John, Jesus’ ministry may, at first sight, have lasted just over two years. However, this is not the complete picture. If the Passover occurred in March/April, and if 5:1 refers to the Feast of Weeks (around May/June), then the period between 2:23 and 5:1 is only two months. But this calculation does not correspond to what Jesus says in 4:35. This verse mentions that there are four more months till the summer harvest, celebrated at the Feast of Weeks, which then puts the context of 4:35 around January/February. Therefore, there must have been another, unrecorded Passover between 4:35 and 5:1, and we must add one year to our first estimation. Thus, I conclude that Jesus’ ministry covered just over three years.

Archaeology. In an extensive study, Paul Anderson not only demonstrates that the Gospel of John contains more archaeological, topographical, spatial and chronological data than the Synoptic Gospels but also suggests that much of John’s tradition appears authentic and even superior to the Jesus tradition in the Synoptics.[68] Anderson concludes:

the Johannine narrator draws on knowledge of Galilean and Judean topography in ways that could not possibly have been concocted without some degree of familiarity. It is also true that familiarity could have originated from other sources or reports, but as the evidence for such hypotheses is lacking, a more plausible inference is that the Johannine tradition did have a considerable degree of origination in at least some sort of firsthand Palestinian experience.[69]

Names. In a public lecture titled “New Evidences the Gospels Were Based on Eyewitness Accounts”, Peter Williams argues that although the Gospels were written probably outside Palestine, they accurately reflect the naming patterns in Palestine, which suggests that the Gospels were based on high-quality eyewitness accounts because it is not only difficult to get the names of people in another country right but also to get them in the right frequency.[70] Williams concludes that the Gospels have the pattern of names we would expect them to have if they are reporting what real people actually said and did. The pattern would be too complex for an ancient forger to produce. Similarly, the four canonical Gospels mention about 12-14 towns each (including obscure places such as Aenon, Arimathea, Bethpage, Chorazin, Nain and Sychar), whereas sixteen apocryphal Gospels only mention 0-2 towns each, suggesting that the Evangelists had first-hand knowledge of the geography in Palestine. Williams provide an example from the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6. While John does not explain why Jesus asks Philip where they can buy bread for the multitude and why Andrew also gets involved, Luke mentions that this event took place near Bethsaida (9:10). We know from 1:44 that Philip and Andrew are from Bethsaida and suddenly it makes sense why Jesus poses the question to these disciples – they have local knowledge. In addition, the information in 6:4 that it was around Passover fits the information in 6:9 about the barley loaves because the barley harvest has just happened, and in 6:10 about the abundance of grass in that place because at that time the region would have had about six months of the greatest precipitation of the year. The point is that all these details are not only correct and contribute towards a credible story but they seem to suggest that John has actually been there.

XI. Conclusion

In this article, I have presented a cumulative argument for the historical reliability of the Gospel of John. While my case may not win over any sceptics, I suggest it is fair to say that a good case can be made that the Gospel of John is trustworthy account of Jesus’ life and ministry according to the literary conventions of that time. The Beloved Disciple was a unique eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus, who monitored the oral tradition and at one point decided to write down his eyewitness testimony in the form of the Gospel, more or less as we have it today. The most likely candidate for the identity of the Beloved Disciple is John of Zebedee, who claims that his eyewitness account is a trustworthy basis for a life-giving belief in Jesus. The Gospel of John is therefore not an anonymous creative account of various oral traditions passed on over a long time (the prevalent view) but the eyewitness account of John of Zebedee recorded within his lifetime.