There are four versions of the life of Jesus in the New Testament but, let’s face it, everyone has a favorite. For most people, that preferred version is the Gospel of John. Not only is the fourth Gospel the most poetic and ‘spiritual’ of Gospels, it’s also the most theologically weighty.
It’s in John that Christians find the evidence for many of the dogmatic claims that form the bedrock of Christian belief. And it’s John that supplies the pithy quotes about faith, eternal life, and love that you find on coffee mugs and laminated bookmarks.
Now new research, which claims that the Gospel of John is an ancient forgery, is poised to overturn much of what we know about everyone’s favorite biography of Jesus.
When it comes to the authorship of this story, Christian tradition attributes the Gospel to an apostle, known in the text as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” and identified by early church writers as the disciple John.
It is this beloved disciple who keeps watch with Mary the mother of Jesus at the cross. As Jesus draws close to death, he sees his already-grieving mother and devoted follower standing together and says “woman, here is your son” and, to the disciple, “here is your mother.” It’s a scene of great compassion in which Jesus encourages his mother and dearest friend to take solace in their relationship with one another. The supposed closeness of Jesus and the beloved disciple has meant that the beloved disciple (AKA John) is a central figure in Christian art. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” for example, it is the beloved disciple who sits beside Jesus.
The Gospel presents itself as the work of an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ ministry and death. It doesn’t say it was written by John but instead states that it is the work of a “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who “testifies” to what he has seen (1:14; 19:35; 21:24).
Eyewitness testimony here is an important point in the Gospel. It is because the one who wrote the Gospel had seen these things happen and written them down that “we know that his testimony is true” (21:24).
In addition to the fourth Gospel, Christian tradition maintains that John also wrote three “Johannine” letters (1, 2, and 3 John), which are also a part of the New Testament and are evidence of John’s leadership among early followers of Jesus. Like the Gospel of John these letters are anonymous: the author of 1 John claims to be an eyewitness who “testifies” to what he has “seen and heard” (1:2–3). The author of 2 and 3 John identifies himself only as “the elder” (2 Jn 1:1; 3 Jn 1:1), but also suggests that he was a witness to the Jesus story.
Since the 1960s many scholars have argued that ‘John’ (it might have been a different disciple because the text doesn’t give a name) founded his own community and wrote the Gospel. Academics, who have recognized that the Johannine letters are thematically similar but stylistically distinct from the Gospel, don’t think that they were written by the author of the fourth Gospel but that they were nevertheless the product of the same “Johannine Community.” The picture painted here is one in which a community of followers of Jesus, led and founded by someone who knew Jesus personally, produced all of these texts. There are numerous academic books and articles out there that try to chart the history of this community, its literary output, its social structure, location, and origins.
A provocative and well-argued article published this week in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament threatens to turn this argument on its head. Hugo Mendez, an assistant professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that the so-called “Johannine community” never existed and that the Johannine literature are forgeries that claim to be written by a disciple even though they were not.
Mendez told The Daily Beast, “I find it telling that we’ve never found a trace of anything like a ‘Johannine Christianity’—no mentions in other ancient writings and no archeological traces. I think there’s a reason for that; I think the community never existed.”
Instead, Mendez told me, “the Gospel of John, and the letters of 1 2, and 3 John are a chain of ancient literary forgeries.” Forgeries like this were, as Bart Ehrman showed in his Forgery and Counterforgery, very common among early Christians. Two second-century early Christian texts—the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter—claim to have been written by disciples of Jesus but were actually written by others.
In his article Mendez argues that the author of the Gospel of John used the same strategy in order to endow his work with greater credibility. The “beloved disciple” and “elder” referred to in the Johannine corpus are what he calls “literary masks.” There’s no point trying to reconstruct a community of followers around them “because they never existed.”
The article is sure to elicit some disagreement, but it also has supporters who welcome the introduction of new perspectives to the study of John and appreciate the way in which he dismantles the idea of a “Johannine community.”
Harold Attridge, the Sterling professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School told The Daily Beast, “Mendez has offered a vigorous challenge to the scholarly impulse to infer social realities from the texts of the Gospel and Epistles of John. His work will no doubt provoke a useful debate about the methods of analyzing early Christian social realities and literary practices.”
Adele Reinhartz, a professor at the University of Ottowa and current president of the Society of Literature, agrees. She called Mendez’s arguments “important contributions to the ongoing discussion about the aims and historical contexts of Johannine literature.”
Reading the New Testament closely reveals that Mendez has some textual support for his argument. The famous scene at the cross, when the disciple whom Jesus loved stands with Mary and the women (19:25-27) never appears in any of the other gospels. In Mark and Luke, only women keep vigil at the cross. And while in John the disciple runs on ahead to Jesus’ tomb, in Luke Peter goes there alone. Mendez calls this the “Forrest Gump effect”: this character has been inserted into the narrative events in order to give them a first-person eyewitness flavor.
The fact that this character is so idealized—he always does the right thing, behaves appropriately and serves almost as a model for the audience—gives him a very artificial feel. In the Gospel of Mark, by contrast, the disciples have an almost pathological ability to disappoint their leader. Jesus’ favorites—Peter, James, and John—habitually say the wrong thing, fall asleep when they are supposed to be awake and, in the case of Peter, even deny knowing him.
According to Mendez, the same kinds of false authorial claims made by the author of the Gospel of John are also being made in the Johannine epistles. The texts present themselves as the words and work of an eyewitness who “saw” the miraculous presence of Jesus and “testifies” about it. But, of course, whomever wrote these letters never knew Jesus directly.
The author of these letters uses the same rhetorical apparatus as the Gospel in order to claim the same enigmatic authority for his writing. Mendez shows that the authors of the letters were trying to “cash in” on the popularity of the Fourth Gospel by deliberately copying its style. Even the famous opening to the Gospel of John—“In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1)—is mimicked by the author of 1 John 1:1-4. Both texts describe Jesus as “the Word,” attest to his existence “in the beginning,” claim that he was “with the Father,” and that he has “life.”
None of this is accidental, said Mendez. “One text is clearly imitating the other.” What we have here is a chain of forgeries that build upon one another in order to claim the religious authority of an eyewitness and disciple. One forger copies the strategy of another. Mark Goodacre, a professor of religious studies at Duke University described Mendez’s article as “destined to become a classic.”
All of this would mean that America’s most popular Bible quote—John 3:16 “But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—wasn’t written by someone who knew Jesus.
But does it matter? This statement isn’t something that the author claims Jesus told him; it’s a theological statement by the author. In fact, much of what makes John distinctive and historically influential is its philosophical pronouncements on the nature of God. These don’t rest on a personal acquaintance with Jesus and you don’t have to have been an eyewitness to the crucifixion to have insights like this.
By contrast, the Gospel of John’s most disturbing and anti-Semitic statements are placed on the lips of Jesus. When Jesus calls “the Jews” the “sons of their father the Devil” modern readers should recoil in horror (John 8:40-48). Verses like this one nurtured, if not spawned, violence and anti-Semitism from the medieval period until the present. Perhaps it’s better for everyone if Jesus never said this.
Nevertheless, for some Christians, the news that their favorite Gospel is a forgery will be disturbing. Mendez admits as much: “It’s hard to confront the idea that the biblical authors might have been lying or misrepresenting themselves. It’s all the more troubling when those misrepresentations frame a book as religiously and culturally significant as the Gospel of John.”
He added, “As a Catholic, I’m sensitive to these concerns, but I also think that some of these concerns are misplaced. Christianity has always taught that the Bible was written by imperfect human beings, living in messy human circumstances.”