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Today’s question, Is Craig Evans’ view of the Gospel of John correct?
Excellent question. Bart Ehrman is the professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Craig Evans is the professor of religious studies at Houston Baptist University. One of you raised this issue from a debate that happened between Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans. I gave the link to the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueRIdrlZsvs). Watch this video from time 1:34:12 to understand the views of Mr.Craig. In this debate, Bart Ehrman asks Mr.Craig, “In the gospel of John, Jesus says a lot of ‘I AM’ sayings, very famous sayings,
‘Before Abraham was, I am’
‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to me but by me’
‘I am the bread of life’
‘I am the light of the world’ etc
At one point, of course, he says, the father and I are one. My question to you is,
Do you think the historical Jesus really said these things?”
Dr.Craig Evans responds: “I think most of these things were not uttered as we find them by the historical Jesus. I suspect we don’t have too much of a difference on John. My view is that the Gospel of John is a horse of another color all together. It is a different genre. John is often compared to wisdom literature. It is like wisdom is personified. Hochma. Lady wisdom or in Greek sophia. She wanders the streets. She calls out to the people. She does things. Nobody would read that and think, did you see wisdom going down the street the other day? Nobody would think that it is a literal person. What is mysterious to me about John is once you say that perhaps we should interpret the I am statements as, ‘He is confessions’, He is the light of the world, He is the truth, He is the bread of life, confession of the Johannine community that likely generated that version of the gospel. John is a gigantic parable. …that makes John so tricky”. At that point, Bart Ehrman gets to smile and say, ‘So, now we can toss out John’.
What Mr.Craig Evans says is very troubling and dangerous. Before I talk about his views, let us take a brief look at the Gospel of John.
There are 4 gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called Synoptics because of their similarities to each other. They have similar content. But the Gospel of John is different. There is something grandeur about its content and style. The theme itself is mind-boggling: God himself came to us in Jesus.
Who is the author of this gospel? When was this gospel written? To answer these two questions, let us see the internal evidence and external evidence.
Let us start with internal evidence.
John was one of the twelve disciples of Lord Jesus Christ. He was the younger of the two sons of Zebedee. Mark 1:20 says that John and his brother James were preparing their nets when Jesus called them. Their father Zebedee and their hired servants were in the boat. They were rich enough to hire servants. Their mother’s name was Salome (Mark 15:40, Matt 27:56). Matthew 27:55 informs us that Salome was supporting Jesus’s needs during his ministry. She was a rich woman who provided financial support to Jesus. John was born in a rich family. At the time of Jesus, as it is now, Jews would put a lot of emphasis on education, especially the rich Jews. They were sending their children for higher education as far as Alexandria and Rome. John was probably helping his family’s fishing industry on the sea of Galilee and was also learning from the best teachers of his time.
Bart Ehrman says, ‘no way’. According to Bart Ehrman, the glorious Greek language in the Gospel of John and its philosophical framework cannot be ascribed to a simple fisherman like John. He cites Acts 4:13. In Acts chapter 4, we see John and Peter boldly preaching the gospel of Christ in Jerusalem. They were summoned before the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious council of the Jews. They were warned not to preach about Jesus of Nazareth. They reply, ‘We cannot be silent. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’. Note these words. What we have seen and heard. John was preaching about the things he had seen and heard. He was not preaching from somebody else’s experiences. He was testifying about his own experiences with Christ. His gospel came out of his sermons. It is easy to write a book when you are a preacher. You preach 10 sermons and it will become a book. John first preached about Christ and later his preaching material went into his Gospel and epistles. Evangelists love preaching sermons and writing books. There is no reason to assume that John, the passionate preacher in Acts 4, did not sit down to write a gospel.
Acts 4:13 informs us that the members of the Sanhedrin were astonished to witness the courage of Peter and John, because they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. In the Greek, it says, they were ‘agrammatoi’. They were unschooled in rabbinical tradition. Today, anyone can talk like a theologian. We don’t find it surprising. But in ancient times, only theologians would give speeches on theological matters. John and Peter were giving passionate speeches on theological subjects. That does not mean they were illiterate. It means they were not trained in theological subjects like rabbis and priests. That is why the council members of Sanhedrin were shocked at their wisdom because they were not trained like Apostle Paul.
Bart Ehrman’s views are highly presumptuous. I call it ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. ‘You are a fisherman. Right? You wrote the Gospel of John? You must be kidding me. You are too dumb to write such a glorious Greek prose’. Modern religious scholars like Bart Ehrman look at the disciples with such prejudicial views. It is illogical.
John, who was born in a rich Jewish family, could have easily obtained education in a classical Greek institution. Or he would have taken the assistance of a highly educated person when he sat down to write his gospel.
Bart also should not relegate these disciples to perennial ignorance. John and Peter witnessed the resurrection of Christ. They became leaders in the early church. They probably thought, ‘Now we are no longer fishermen. We are leaders of a new religious movement. Let us go to a Jewish seminary and educate ourselves. It helps us to reach our Jewish brethren with the gospel. Let us also go to a Greek seminary and study Greek philosophies. It helps us to reach the Gentiles’. Many Christians do that today. ‘I just became a Christian. I want to work in the ministry. I will go to a seminary and study theology for a few years’. After medical school, I took a break and went to a Bible seminary to study theology. The disciples probably did something like that. After witnessing the resurrection of Jesus, they probably put their occupations aside, went to a Jewish seminary and became proficient in Jewish scriptures and Greek philosophy. Definitely we have no evidence that they never did. So, we should not say, ‘In Acts 4:13, you are illiterate. So, you must be illiterate for the rest of your life’. There is no logical connection. Bart Ehrman was just throwing his presumptions at the disciples.
He also says, We don’t find John’s name in the Gospel of John. That is true. That adds weight to the view that John actually wrote this gospel. A person producing a forgery in the name of John would make sure John’s name appears all over the gospel. But that is not the case. My mum wrote two books. You don’t find her name in those two books. I asked her, ‘Mum, why didn’t you write your name in the books you authored. I don’t see your name even on the cover page’. She told me, ‘Son, when people read these books, only Jesus should be glorified. My name should not draw their attention away from Jesus’. She was so humble that she would not even put her name in her books about Jesus. St.John took a similar approach. ‘I don’t want to put my name in this gospel, because only Jesus should be glorified in every page of my gospel’. John was too humble to put his own name in his gospel. John is mentioned twenty times in the other three gospels, and not even once in the gospel of John. He described himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John 21:20), and one ‘reclining on Jesus’ bosom (13:23). Out of the 12 disciples, only three disciples were in the inner circle – Peter, James and John. Peter is named in this gospel several times. So, he is not the author. James was martyred too early at the beginning of the church (Acts 12:2). So, he is not the author. That leaves us only John.
We read in John 21:24, ‘This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.’ This author is testifying to the trustworthiness of his gospel. After the death of Jesus, John took care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She moved with John’s family to Ephesus in Turkey. John can rely on Mary as the source of information on Jesus’ birth, childhood and adult life. He has Mary, mother of our Lord, as one of the best sources on the life of Jesus right in his home. The internal evidence clearly points us to John the disciple as the author of this gospel.
Then we should also consider the external evidence.
If you look at the available sources from the first 3 centuries of Christianity, how many people did say that John wrote this gospel? Many. How many people rejected the view that John wrote this gospel? None. I challenge both Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans to give me one source that rejected the view that John wrote this gospel.
Let us start with Irenaeus. His life was between 120 – 140. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who was a disciple of Jesus. John, who walked with Jesus, mentored Polycarp and Polycarp mentored Irenaeus. Around 180 AD, he wrote a 5 volume work called Against Heresies. You can still get this book today. It was a refutation of Gnosticism. Modern scholars relied on the writings of Irenaeus to understand Gnosticism. His reputation grew after 1940s, because In 1945, archeologists discovered a magnificent collection of gnostic literaturer near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. After studying this gnostic library, scholars realized the accuracy of Irenaues’ portrayal of Gnostics. Irenaeus has such a great reputation. In his book, he accurately described his Gnostic opponents. This Irenaeus explicitly names John as the author of the gospel.
He described the four gospels as four pillars of the Church. “It is not possible that the Gospels can be more or fewer in number than (the four) they are. For there are four zones of the world in which we live, four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that should have four pillars’ (3.11.8).
Many other church fathers also named John as the author of the fourth gospel. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, Eusebius, the writer of Muratorian Canon. These church fathers were scattered all over the world from Europe to Asia to Africa. That means the Gospel of John was widely read in the second century. I ask Bart Ehrman to name one Christian or non-Christian author from that period who questioned John’s authorship of the fourth gospel. Just name one. He is throwing out his own speculations and assumptions as facts of history. The internal evidence and the external evidence are strongly in favor of John as the author of the fourth gospel.