Q&A: Was the Bible’s Gospel of John author fake?

The anonymous author of the Bible’s Gospel of John and 1 John, 2 John and 3 John is described in those texts as an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. Historically, researchers studying the works have not found evidence of the author’s identity or the existence of the community the author seems to address in his works.

In a paper published on March 2 in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, UNC-Chapel Hill religious studies Assistant Professor Hugo Mendez explains for the first time that the texts were likely written by multiple authors falsely claiming to be a single person close to Jesus. Mendez’s findings also call into question the existence of the so-called “Johannine community.”

Question: Why is there doubt about authorship of John, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John?

Mendez’s answer: Traditionally, these four texts were credited to a single person—the apostle John, one of the three closest disciples to Jesus. The explanation made some sense; the four texts are strikingly similar in their language and ideas. But the texts themselves don’t tell us who their authors are. They are more or less anonymous. The Gospel of John, the largest of the four, presents itself as the work of an eyewitness—a “disciple whom Jesus loved” (chapter 21 verse 24)—but we never get the name of that disciple. 1 John is strictly anonymous, but also claims to be the work of an eyewitness (chapter 1, verse 1). 2 and 3 John present themselves as letters by a nameless “elder.”

About a century ago, however, scholars looked more closely at the language of these texts and realized that for all their similarities, they couldn’t have been written by the same author. The texts were written in Greek, and the Greek used is a bit different between them. So instead, scholars have speculated that these texts might be so similar because they were written by members of the same community: the “Johannine community”—a kind of lost breakaway Christian sect or movement. And they’ve imagined the authors of these texts as real members of that community.

So it’s been a mystery, a riddle. For a century, we’ve been trying to get into these texts, and put together clues as to who the real author or authors of these texts may have been.

In my research, I argue that the “disciple” is unlikely to be historical. He appears in the Gospel of John several times—standing under Jesus’ cross with several women (chapter 19, verses 25–27) running with Peter to Jesus’ tomb (chapter 20, verses 3–10). But when you look at all those same scenes in other gospels, there’s no trace of the character. In Luke, only women stand under Jesus’ cross (chapter 21, verse 49); and in Luke, Peter runs to the tomb alone (chapter 24, verse 12). It’s as if the character has been invented and inserted into those scenes to give the book the air of eyewitness credibility.

I also show that 1, 2 and 3 John participate in the same ruse. As scholars, we’ve been so certain that the texts have different authors that we’ve overlooked something very basic about them: they all seem to construct a common implied author. They all state or imply that they were written by an “eyewitness”—the same eyewitness—and they show extensive signs of copying, as we would expect in ancient forgeries.

Q: Why is there doubt about the existence of the community?

A: For one thing, we’ve never found a trace of this Johannine community—no mentions in ancient texts, no archeological evidence. In my research, I suggest a reason for this. I assemble evidence that the texts in question are ancient forgeries.

Consider an analogy to today’s fake news. People invent stories and post them online. It’s hard to tell that the story is fake because the website may look like a real news site. You’d also have a difficult time identifying the real author of the story, since the author may have gone to great lengths to hide his or her identity and background behind so much misdirection. In a similar way, I think these texts were written by authors who were obscuring their actual identities and backgrounds. The reason we have trouble finding the “disciple” or “elder” these texts mention—or the community we reconstruct around them—is that they never existed.

Q: What benefit would there have been for forging the texts?

A: Like today’s fake news, it’s about capturing an audience—getting attention for your work. We think that the Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels in the New Testament to be written. This text was entering into a crowded field of competitors. The Gospel of Mark was published around the year 70 CE, and within only a few years or decades, Matthew and Luke made it on the scene. So later authors might have wondered how to get their text, their distinctive vision of Jesus and Jesus’s message, into the hands of readers. Saying that a text was written by an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus, albeit a nameless one, was one way of getting people to take that text seriously.

Q: What is your take on culturally important biblical texts – John 3:16, for example – being fraudulent?

A: The author might have used a problematic technique, but the text can still be meaningful. Personally, these four books are my favorites. They are deeply important to how I understand my own faith. But I also approach them as a scholar, with scientific rigor.

In my teaching, I explain to my students that whatever you feel for these texts, they are still ancient texts. They come from a cultural context that is far removed from our own. We have to take seriously the world, culture and time that created them. Forgery was rampant. People wrote under false guises. These processes might have produced even the religious texts that inspire us today.