Authenticating the Fourth Gospel (Part 2)
Is the Gospel of John a worthless forgery or a priceless treasure?
Names in the Four Gospels
In part one of this article we looked at various temporal and geographical indicators referenced within the Fourth Gospel which served to corroborate the author’s claim that he really could have been an eyewitness of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of John does indeed bear the marks of an authentic early first century text written by someone with accurate knowledge of Jerusalem before it was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. But there is another test we can use to further establish John’s credibility, and that is by considering the names that appear throughout his Gospel.
An Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan compiled a database of ancient Palestinian Jewish individuals who are named in various inscriptions, texts coins, etc., and currently her database contains over 3,000 male individuals. Richard Bauckham analyzed this data and discovered that when one compares the top ten most popular names of Jewish Palestinian males who lived around the time of Jesus, that list ends up looking remarkably similar to the list of the most frequently occurring names that appear collectively in the Gospels and Acts. This fact led Bauckham to conclude back in his book Jesus & The Eyewitnesses (2006) that, “These features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine. All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels” (p. 84).
In 2008, a New Testament scholar by the name of Jens Schroeder pushed back at this particular claim. Schroeder wrote that this “simply shows that the Gospel authors gave their narratives a ‘realistic effect’ by choosing names that were common in the Jewish context of ancient Palestine…” But in the second edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2017), Bauckham specifically responded to Schroeder’s objection:
Even supposing that a Gospel writer would try to make the range of his names realistic...he was only responsible for one Gospel. Nobody planned the [name] data we get from putting all four Gospels together…We should also note that, while contemporaries would realize that some names were common and others rare, they are unlikely to have known...the relative proportions of name usage...The evidence is therefore much more precise than that ‘persons mentioned in the Gospel stories bear common Jewish names,’ and strongly suggests that in most cases the names are those of historic individuals” (p. 542-544).
So when you combine all the male names from the four Gospels and Acts into a single database, these names appear to be the right kinds of names for early first century Palestine, and appear in just the right proportion, which is a fact that would be essentially impossible to fake. In short, these names appear to be those of real historical individuals rather than fictional characters who were invented for purposes of religious propaganda. In contrast, when additional names are found in the Gnostic Gospels that are not mentioned in the canonical Gospels, those names typically do not appear anywhere on Tal Ilan’s database of ancient Palestinian names.
Unnamed Persons in the Gospels
Though the analysis of named individuals is compelling in its own right, it’s also worthwhile to consider various unnamed or anonymous individuals who appear in one or more of the Gospels. For example, in Mt 26:51 we read, “And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” We find this same story recounted in Mk 14:47 and Lk 22:50, as an unnamed assailant injures the high priest’s servant. Readers familiar with John’s Gospel, however, already know the identity of both the assailant and the victim: “Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus” (Jn 18:10). But we should stop to ask the question, why it is that the first three Gospels omitted Peter’s name from this narrative? After reflecting on this question, New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen concluded that,
It seems to me that the motive for this anonymity is not hard to guess: both of them [had] run foul of the ‘police.’ The one who draws his sword commits no minor offense when he cuts off someone’s ear…As long as the high priest’s slave was alive…it would have been inopportune to mention names…Their anonymity is for their protection…Only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus who had endangered themselves by their actions (The Gospels in Context, p. 186-189)
As far back as 1874, F.W. Farrar came to nearly the same conclusion when he wrote, “the name of Peter may have been purposefully kept in the background in the earliest cycle of Christian records” (Life of Christ, Vol. 2, p. 323). In 1965, C.H. Dodd similarly observed,
If we are to take account of the general probabilities of the situation, we should reflect that if there were two swords among the Twelve, as Luke says there were (22:38), it is more than likely that Peter had one of them, and if he had, he was (so far as we know of him) not the man to let it rest in its sheath…it is not difficult to see why it might have been covered over at a time when Peter was a marked man (cf. Acts 12:3, 17) and it was not politic to let him be represented as a man of violence—above all, as one who deliberately affronted the High Priest in the person of his servant” (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, p. 80).
This idea of “protective anonymity,” is actually quite intriguing, for if it really is the best explanation for the anonymity we find here in the Synoptic accounts of the attack on the high priest’s servant, then it also suggests that those versions were written at a time when Peter was still alive and in need of protection. Since most scholars conclude that Peter was martyred around 64-65 AD, one would need to push the date of the Synoptic Gospels to a time before this period. On the other hand, since John does identify Malchus and his assailant, some scholars have argued that this is evidence of a later date for the Fourth Gospel. But there may actually be a clue in chapter 21 that the Peter was still alive at the time when this Gospel was written.
After commanding Peter to feed and tend his sheep, Jesus went on to say, “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” But at this point, the narrator steps in and explains, “This he said to show by what kind of death he will glorify God” (21:18-19). What’s really curious is the fact that this saying follows a similar structure that we find both in Jn 12:33 and 18:32 in which the narrator speaks of the kind of death Jesus “was going to die.” But here in Jn 21:19, as Peter is called to follow in his master’s footsteps, the narrator for some reason changes the grammatical structure of this repeated phrase and uses a verb in the future tense (though unfortunately this is not easy to notice in most English translations) when he speaks of Peter’s coming death. Thus, it seems to be a reasonable inference that Peter’s martyrdom, from the perspective of the narrator’s position in time, was still yet future.
But if Peter was still alive at the time the Fourth Gospel was written, then why did the author fail to shroud his identity when he narrated the scene about his taking up the sword and assaulting high priest’s servant? Recall for a moment Theissen’s comment that “Only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus who had endangered themselves by their actions.” If this is the case, then it’s quite possible that The Gospel of John could have been written sometime after Peter’s departure from Jerusalem during the persecution of Herod Agrippa as recorded in Acts 12. As Luke records it, once Peter was rescued by an angel and released from prison, he departed from Jerusalem and “went to another place” (Acts 12:17). The fact that Peter’s whereabouts were left unidentified I believe should be seen as additional evidence that Peter was still being protected by Luke, and is good evidence that Acts too was written before his death in the mid sixties.
There are numerous additional examples of this idea of protective anonymity, which unfortunately space does not allow us to consider. Yet, before we conclude this brief survey, I’d like to explore one final intriguing possibility. If you have done any reading at all into issues related to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, you know that there is a big debate concerning the identity of the “beloved disciple.” Is he to be equated with the Apostle John, or is he a different disciple known as “John the Elder.” Wherever you come down on that debate, one thing seems to be clear. The author of this Gospel does not make his identity obvious (if you’d like to explore this question further, click here). Whatever your particular view, it must be arrived at by an evaluation of various clues left for us in texts such as Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20-24.
One such clue that I think is particularly illuminating is the fact that in the last scene described in chapter 21, five named disciples are gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, along with two unnamed disciples. The sons of Zebedee (i.e. James and John) are included among the named disciples, but as the chapter unfolds, the identity of the beloved disciple is never revealed or connected with any of the named disciples. Though he is clearly revealed as the author of the Gospel (21:24), his identity continues to be shrouded in mystery. According to Richard Bauckham, the clear implication is that the beloved disciple is actually one of the two anonymous disciples mentioned at the opening of the chapter, rather than one of the sons of Zebedee.
But even if one rejects Bauckham’s conclusion on this particular point, it’s clear that the beloved disciple is never specifically named or identified. And in my estimation, this ends up being one of the strongest arguments for the Gospel’s authenticity. As the liberal Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann pointed out back in 1975, “the very fact that the beloved disciple is anonymous does suggest that he was a historical figure. The apocryphal Gospels tend to connect their legendary accounts with a known disciple rather than with an anonymous person” (The Johannine Circle, p. 77). I think this point is worth considering. All the inauthentic “fan-fiction” Gospels that were written much later, generally claim to have been written by a well known disciple, which helped them to achieve a certain level of credibility. And yet, as Richard Bauckham asks, “why should a pseudepigraphal author in search of a suitable pseudonym choose such a character [as the beloved disciple]?” (Jesus & The Eyewitnesses, p. 409). In order to gain trust, the forger would need to make his identity as an authoritative apostle explicit, but for some curious reason, the author of the Fourth Gospel didn’t feel the need to do this. This should be seen as an indication that the author already had sufficient authority from within the Christian community during the period in which this text was first written and began to circulate.
As we have seen throughout this brief evaluation, The Gospel of John appears to have been penned by someone who had accurate knowledge of the topography of both Galilee and Judea from the time before the Jewish War of 70 AD. The author of this text was familiar with the town “Bethsaida,” which was a name that was in use during the days of Jesus’ ministry, yet which had changed by 34 AD. He correctly identified the location of the pool by the Sheep Gate (of the Temple) with five porticoes, though it had been covered over for centuries. His text appears to have been written in such a way that implies these landmarks still standing at the time of his writing. The names that we find throughout this Gospel, when combined with names from the other Gospels and Acts, appear to be the kind we would expect to find in use among Jewish Palestinian males at this time, and in just the right proportion. And finally, the author of this text did not attempt to secure credibility by what he wrote, but appears to have already had sufficient authority in the earliest days of the Christian church.
As with a witness in a court of law, we can’t actually see for ourselves what a person claims to have observed. All we can do is assess whether a witness is trustworthy or untrustworthy. And in the case of the Fourth Gospel, the author of this ancient text left behind numerous clues that give us solid reasons to trust that he was indeed a reliable and trustworthy eyewitness of the events in the life of Jesus. In short, this Gospel is not a fake reproduction, but is an authentic historical artifact with objective value. This is not a worthless forgery — it’s a priceless treasure!
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.
• Read to How to Detect Deception, by Shane Rosenthal
• Listen to An Early Date for John’s Gospel, featuring Shane’s interview with New Testament scholar, Daniel Wallace.
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