The Beloved Disciple
Categories: Gospel of John, The Gospels
I have always believed that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, was the "beloved disciple," who wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John, and who was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Now I understand none of that might be true. How can this be?
While scholars have always been somewhat circumspect about who wrote these books, the issue really heated up in the 6th century. The first separation occurred with regard to the letters when a papal document decreed that a different author had written them.
Today, however, few scholars think that the apostle John wrote any of these books, nor was he the "beloved disciple". Yet, it would be incorrect to say that this is universally held to be true. The consensus, however, is that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, and John the Revelator are three distinct individuals or groups of people. This is based on differences in vocabulary, style of writing, theological points of view, and even proficiency in the Greek language.
Nor do scholars all agree on the dating of these various books. Most think the Gospel of John was written by a Johannine school of disciples close to the end of the 1st century. The school might have been in Ephesus. They have also raised the question as to the historicity of the work. Many think the book was written as an apologetic treatise and was never meant to be historical (though it describes some historical events). Few would argue that it was an eyewitness account.
The epistles, on the other hand, are quite similar in style, vocabulary, and setting. There are connections between these writings and the Gospel, especially in the First Letter. Several phrases are identical with the Gospel and similar issues are addressed. Some think the writer of this text might have edited the Gospel, but this, of course, cannot be proven. Others think the author(s) of the epistles again derived from a Johannine community writing early in the 2nd century. The Second and Third epistles mention an Elder, a title usually referring to an older man, but it might refer to someone in a position of authority or oversight. It could just mean that this was a person whom many respected. Some people claim that this person was, in fact, a disciple of the apostle John, but there is no way to confirm this either. The latter books deal with issues relating to the hierarchy of the church, but mention nothing about persecution, and were probably also written early in the 2nd century.
Last, but hardly least, is the Book of Revelation, whose author calls himself "John." It is likely that he was so well-known at the time that there was no need for any additional identification. What is noteworthy is that this author never claimed to be an apostle; he identified himself as a prophet. He made no claim to have known Jesus personally. There are huge differences in this book in terms of content, eschatology, and tone. Plus, the Greek language is filled with grammatical errors and irregularities, suggesting he was not a native speaker. (Such mistakes are not found in either the Gospel or the Letters.) There is even a difference in the way he spells Jerusalem. But there are also some similarities. Jesus is called the "Word of God" and the "Lamb of God" in both documents. This might suggest that the author of Revelation was at least familiar with the Gospel. Also, the Book of Revelation is written in an apocalyptic genre, which is absent in the other writings. People believe this Book was written around 95-96 CE, near the end of Domitian's reign, though some scholars, of course, argue for vastly earlier (or later) dates.
Regardless of the way in which the issues relating to authorship turn out, scholars have no doubt that the early tradition claiming John the Apostle wrote all of them was highly influential in their gaining canonical status. People believed these were apostolic writings – authoritative and true. While the message from each of these books remains authoritative and true, the identity of each author remains shrouded in mystery.