Authenticating the Fourth Gospel (Part 1)
Do you think this portrait is an authentic Da Vinci? Would it help if I told you that I know it's the real McCoy because I feel it in my gut?
Imagine a scene in which a man claims to be in possession of a lost painting of Leonardo Da Vinci. Upon hearing this claim, the curator of a prestigious museum inquires about the painting, and asks whether it has ever been appraised. “No,” the man replies, “No one has ever examined the portrait, but I know for sure it’s the real McCoy!” “How do you know this?,” the curator inquires. “Well, that’s difficult to explain. It’s basically an internal gut-feeling, not something cognitive that I can explain rationally.”
Though this story may sound a little far-fetched, it’s actually the approach that many Christians take when it comes to trusting the picture of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels. As I’ve been airing on recent episodes of The Humble Skeptic podcast, when I asked Christians why they trust the Bible in contrast to other holy books, most ended up pointing to their own subjective feelings or experiences, rather than to any objective considerations. Some even described faith as a kind of “gut-feeling” or “spiritual sixth sense” (see episodes 2-4: Is Faith Irrational?, Is Faith Blind?, and Is Faith a Feeling?).
Of course, the problem with this approach is that it’s basically the same method used to authenticate Mormonism and countless other religions. You’ll know it’s true if you experience a “burning in your bosom,” or if your life begins to change for the better. Though the use of counterfeit bills may end up changing my life (at least in the short term), that doesn’t make it either good or worthwhile. As the case of the Da Vinci painting demonstrates, there’s a huge difference between the subjective appreciation of a work of art, and its objective evaluation. This can regularly be witnessed on a program such as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, where people bring in their favorite family treasure to be appraised by the experts. So whether a person brings in a painting that has been passed down through the family for centuries, or an antique desk recently acquired at a garage sale, the appraiser doesn’t take into consideration how much the item is loved by the owner, or the kinds of feelings it generates, but simply begins the process of analyzing the artifact by looking for objective clues that point to its origin, age and provenance.
Let’s face it, those whose job it is to authenticate various kinds of artifacts have taken the time—usually a lifetime—to study all those small little details that few of us ever notice. This particular notch or engraving indicates that the desk was made in Boston in the late 1700s by a particular manufacturer; the composition of the oils and the style of the signature reveals that the painting that has been passed down through the family for decades is actually a fake reproduction. This is the approach I’d like us to consider using as we evaluate the Fourth Gospel. You might treasure this book, but if you’re anything like me, you probably have friends or family members who think it’s a load of bunk.
But of course, all of this is completely subjective. The only thing that’s being taken into consideration here is our subjective preferences. But if we took the time to examine the Gospel of John like we would evaluate a painting that someone claimed was a lost Da Vinci, then perhaps we could begin to move away from our own individual evaluations of this text, to more objective considerations.
If it can be shown that various internal clues point to the fact that this document was not actually written by an eyewitness who was close to Jesus, but that this text is actually a kind of ancient fan-fiction written at a much later time, then its historical value would essentially be worthless, no matter how much we personally treasure its words and phrases. On the other hand, if it can be demonstrated that the Fourth Gospel is actually the product of an eyewitness who presents reliable historical information about first century Palestine (facts that can be verified by a variety of other sources), this would give us a solid reason to trust this author as a potential witness of the life of Jesus.
The first thing that needs to be said as we evaluate this text, is that though most scholars argue that it’s the latest of all the four Gospels, it claims to have been written by an eyewitness who was with Jesus “from the beginning” (15:27). Notice for example the words of the narrator at the time and place of Jesus’ crucifixion: “[O]ne of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe” (19:34-35). Then at the conclusion of the book, the author makes a similar claim, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). So at this point, we really have two options to consider. The Gospel of John was either written by an actual eyewitness, or is an ancient version of what we in our day refer to as “fan-fiction.”
Historical & Geographical Clues
So how are we to tell whether the writer of this text is actually telling the truth when he claims to be an eyewitness? Some years ago I had the opportunity to interview Cambridge New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, and during that conversation he said that the word testimony “implies that we can’t independently verify everything a witness says. The whole point of a witness is that they tell you something you don’t know yourself. But what you can do is assess witnesses as either trustworthy or untrustworthy. And if you decide that a witness is trustworthy, then you trust them.” So how exactly does one go about doing this? How are we to verify whether or not the author of this ancient text is a trustworthy and reliable witness? Bauckham went on to say that when you study the four Gospels closely, you find that they are actually full of “all kinds of little detail about people and places…and the controversies [of the period], all kinds of stuff about the historical context in which the stories take place. So that’s one way of verifying that the gospels are credible from that geographical, historical context that they claim to be about.”
A quick evaluation of the Gnostic Gospels is instructive at this point. Most New Testament Scholars freely admit that texts such as The Gospel of Thomas contain almost no temporal or geographical indicators, and therefore fail to provide any internal evidence that they were actually written by Jewish residents of early first century Palestine. Instead, they claim to record secret teachings that Jesus revealed privately to one of his disciples, ideas which have numerous affinities with second or third century gnosticism, rather than with first century Jewish expectations about the messiah. In short, the Gnostic Gospels show clear evidence of being ancient forgeries, and provide us with no reason to trust that they are authentic artifacts from the time of Jesus.
By contrast, however, the Fourth Gospel contains numerous temporal and geographical references that place it squarely in early first century Palestine. For example in John 2:11-12, Jesus leaves Cana and goes “down to Capernaum.” Whoever wrote this text was clearly familiar with the topography of the region, for as travelers follow this route from Cana to Capernaum, they would be forced to make their way down the hills to the basin of the Sea of Galilee. Then during the narration of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11, we’re specifically told that the village of Bethany “was near Jerusalem, about two miles off” (fifteen stadia), which is a very precise measurement that has been externally verified. Finally, in two places the author refers to a town by the name of “Bethsaida” (1:44, 12:21), yet according to Josephus, Philip the Tetrarch completely renovated this town sometime before his death in 34 AD, and renamed it in honor of Tiberius’ mother “Julius.” Writing between 73-95 AD, Josephus refers to the newer town name “Julias” some 16 times, and only once refers to the older name “Bethsaida,” which happened to be during his account of the name change. In other words, John (along with the writers of the other Gospels) referred to the city by the name that would have been in use during the specific window of time during Jesus’ three year ministry.
We discover something curious, however, when we consider another town renovated by Philip the Tetrarch. According to Josephus and other sources, sometime between 14-28 AD, this ruler rebuilt a town called “Paneas,” and renamed it in honor of both Caesar and himself, thus it became “Caesarea Philippi.” Yet when both Matthew and Mark refer events that took place here, most likely between 28-29 AD, they refer to the town by its updated name (cf. Mt 16:13, Mk 8:27). In other words, once the town was renovated, the updated name seemed to catch on rather quickly. Yet, in the case of Bethsaida, for some strange reason all four Gospel writers, unlike Josephus, continued to use the older name without any additional comments. Why is this? One explanation, it seems reasonable to suggest, is that all four Gospels were written significantly earlier than the period in which Josephus wrote his histories.
In the case of the Fourth Gospel, there may actually be internal evidence of a pre-70 AD date. In Jn 5:2-3 we read, “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids…” Once again John reveals that he is intimately familiar with the location in which his Gospel is set, for here he not only refers to a specific pool in Jerusalem but he also indicates to his readers that he’s thinking in particular of the one “by the Sheep Gate” of the Temple, the one with “five roofed colonnades.” Yet, according to Josephus, during the Jewish War of 70 AD “Caesar ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground…as to leave future visitors no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited.” In an essay titled “Archaeology and John’s Gospel,” Urban von Wahlde notes that, “Until the nineteen century there was no evidence of this pool which caused some scholars to doubt whether John had actual first hand knowledge of what he was reporting, but archeologists later uncovered the pool which with the five colonnades just as John had described” (Jesus & Archaeology, p. 560-566). This finding is significant, for it is strong proof that John’s Gospel was written by someone who lived during the eyewitness period, since he appears to have accurate first hand information about this particular pool which had been buried for centuries.
Many scholars have also noted that there are actually three present tense verbs found in this passage, and this is taken as evidence that the city of Jerusalem, the Sheep Gate, and this particular pool with five porticoes, were all still in existence at the time John narrated this scene (i.e., before 70 AD when all these things were destroyed). A good analogy here might be to finding a reference to “a place in New York called the World Trade Center with amazing twin towers.” After 2001, the present tense language just doesn’t make any sense. Therefore, it’s likely that the sentence was crafted well before the tragic events of 9/11.
Some late date advocates respond to this argument by saying that John simply used a literary device known as the “historical present.” New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace did some extensive research into this claim and he discovered 415 examples of the historical present in the Gospels and Acts and concluded that, “All are in the third person, in narrative, surrounded by secondary tenses, and eimi (i.e., the Greek verb “to be”) is not on the list.” In his book Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (p. 531), Wallace observes that, “Since eimi is nowhere else clearly used as a historical present, the present tense should be taken as indicating present time from the viewpoint of the speaker.” In other words, Wallace is claiming that this passage should be taken as strong evidence that John wrote his Gospel at a time when the Temple, Sheep Gate, and the pool with the five porticoes were all still standing—which means that it was written sometime during the crucial eyewitness period before 70 AD.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California. An earlier edition of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 edition of Modern Reformation magazine.
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