Formally, like all the Gospels, John’s Gospel is anonymous. Unlike the New Testament letters, it doesn’t start out by saying, for example, “I, the apostle John, wrote this Gospel.” That’s because a Gospel is not person-to-person or person-to-group communication like an epistle is. Rather, as Richard Bauckham and others have argued in The Gospels for All Christians, a Gospel is a universal document that sets forth the story of Jesus more broadly to a wide-reading public.
The “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved”
While the Gospel of John does not explicitly identify its author, when we investigate it for clues regarding its authorship, we find several important internal pieces of information. To begin with, we notice several references to a person called “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is first mentioned in the account of the upper room, where we read that “one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’s side” (13:23). Later, the same disciple reappears at the high priest’s courtyard after Jesus’ arrest (18:15–16), at the scene of the crucifixion (19:35), and at the empty tomb (20:2, 8–9). In these passages this disciple is referred to as “another disciple” (18:15), “he who saw this” (19:35), “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (20:2), and “the other disciple” (20:8).
So, the internal evidence from the Gospel itself indicates that it was written by a disciple (1) who was at Jesus’ side at the Last Supper (and hence was one of the Twelve); (2) who was at the scene of Jesus’ arrest and trial; and (3) who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and saw Jesus following his resurrection. What an incredible claim the Gospel stakes regarding its author! The seats on either side of Jesus at the Last Supper would have been places of high honor reserved for Jesus’ two closest associates—and the author of this Gospel was seated in one of them.
If we were to compare the Gospel of John to a biography of a U.S. president, it wouldn’t be something written by a journalist who knows about events in the figure’s life only through secondhand accounts or hearsay; it would be written by the president’s chief of staff, closest confidant, or another trusted advisor—someone who was by his side at all the major junctures of his presidency.
The “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved” and Peter
There are a few other interesting pieces of information we can gain from the internal evidence. One fascinating datum relates to the numerous passages in John’s Gospel where the “disciple whom Jesus loved” appears in close conjunction with Peter. Virtually every time where the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is mentioned in the second half of John’s Gospel, Peter is mentioned as well.
- Both are present in the upper room when Peter asks the “disciple whom Jesus loved” to ask about the identity of the betrayer (13:23–24).
- Both are there in the high priest’s courtyard; in fact, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” gives Peter access to this courtyard because he is acquainted with the high priest (18:15–16).
- Both visit the empty tomb following Jesus’ resurrection; in fact, they run there together. The “disciple whom Jesus loved” (who apparently was the younger of the two) outruns Peter but then respectfully waits for Peter and allows him to peer into the tomb first before he, too, looks inside and sees that the tomb is empty (20:2–9).
- Both are there at the Sea of Galilee, where they see the risen Jesus at the shore. It is only when the “disciple whom Jesus loved” exclaims, “It is the Lord!” that Peter jumps into the lake and swims excitedly toward Jesus (21:7).
- Finally, Jesus speaks with Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” at the very end of the Gospel (21:20–23).
Why do we see this consistent parallel characterization of Peter and the “disciple Jesus loved”? And who is the person who best fits this description historically? According to the witness of the other Gospels, the book of Acts, and even Paul’s writings, the person who is most closely connected to Peter is the apostle John.
John and Peter, together with John’s brother James, make up the inner circle of three who alone witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), accompany Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), and are taken with him to the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:37; Mark 14:33).
Why “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved”?
But why does the apostle John use the unusual phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” to identify himself in the Gospel? There are probably multiple reasons. It is likely that he does so to avoid confusion, since there is another person named John featured in this Gospel: John the Baptist. By calling himself simply “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the author reserves the name John for John the Baptist. Thus, when the author first introduces John the Baptist in the Gospel, he simply writes, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light …” (1:6).
In addition, the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” expresses the important truth that John knew himself to be deeply loved by Jesus. This aligns with his theology and ethic of love, which we can see not only at the footwashing (13:1–20) but also in John’s signature verse, John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The most important truth John believed was that he was an undeserving recipient of Jesus’ redeeming love.
This post was adapted from Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel by Andreas J. Köstenberger (Lexham Press, 2021).