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Let John Be John and Let Jesus Be Jesus

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Recently The Huffington Post and other publications have explored two new books relating to the person of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of John. Both books dismiss the possibility that the Apostle John actually wrote the Fourth Gospel or that Jesus of Nazareth is accurately portrayed in its contents. These are not innovative assertions. Both new books follow old lines of scholarship and skepticism that reject the divine claims of Christ, the historicity of his miracles, and the active theism that permeates the New Testament record. But many others scholars -- the ones less often interviewed in the media -- hold a valid countering view: Both internally and externally there is strong evidence the Apostle John was behind the writing of the Fourth Gospel and that he composed his account with the accuracy of an eyewitness and the pen of a brilliant thinker.

Though the first two centuries of Christianity were years of persecution and dispersion, wreaking havoc on record keeping, we have clear indications the early Christians were confident of the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel. For example, John had a disciple named Polycarp (AD 69-155), a young man who heard the apostle's sermons in Ephesus, absorbed his teaching and became a bishop and martyr in nearby Smyrna. Polycarp had a follower named Irenaeus (AD 130-200), who became Bishop of Lyons and who wrote: "John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on him, himself also published the Gospel in Ephesus, when he was living in Asia." Thus we have a direct chain of early evidence and personal testimony linking John to Polycarp to Irenaeus and avowing John's authorship of the Fourth Gospel.

We additionally have the writings of Theophilus of Antioch, who died in AD 181. Quoting word-for-word from John 1:1, Theophilus said: "And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says, 'In the beginning was the Word.'"

Then there's the Muratorian Fragment, an early list of New Testament books giving short accounts of the origin and contents of the canonical books. According to this document, the author of the Fourth Gospel was the apostle John.

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), an educator in Egypt, made a similar assertion: "But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the [first three] Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel." In other words, after the other three Gospels appeared, John was urged by friends to write an account explaining the theological and spiritual aspects of the person of Christ.

Moreover we have the record of Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260-340), the "Father of Church History," who had access to early documents some of which are now lost to us, and who lived in Palestine where the Gospel events took place. He wrote that after the outbreak of persecution in Jerusalem the apostles were scattered across the world, and John went to modern-day Turkey and lived in the city of Ephesus. According to Eusebius, there was no debate about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Eusebius said: "Now let me indicate the undisputed writings of this apostle (John). His Gospel, read by all the churches under heaven, must be recognized first of all." According to Eusebuis, John lived in Ephesus, read the synoptic Gospels, welcomed them and affirmed their accuracy; but wanting to make some additional points, he composed his account.

Even in Roman times amid growing pains and persecution, we have testimony from Europe (Lyons), the Middle East (Caesarea), Africa (Alexandria), and Asia (Antioch), all attesting to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Biblical scholar William Hendrickson said: "Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Theophilus show us that in the last quarter of the second century the Fourth Gospel was known and read throughout Christendom: in Africa, Asia Minor, Italy, Gaul, and Syria, and that it was ascribed to the well-known John."

We also have an interesting discovery now exhibited at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, called the Ryland Fragment. It was excavated about a hundred years ago, just as scholars were convinced the Fourth Gospel couldn't have been written in the first century, its philosophy and theology being so developed. This small scrap of papyrus was found in Egypt and dated to the time of Hadrian, perhaps about AD 125. It contained lines from John 18, which demonstrates the Gospel of John was in wide circulation with copies being read in Egypt on papyri within a few years of John's death. Since John is widely accepted as the last of the four Gospels, this discovery supports the conclusion all four Gospels were first century documents that spread across the Roman world within a generation.

If any other ancient text were affirmed by this kind of evidence, its authorship would be virtually unquestioned. What if these early witnesses had better understanding of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel than today's well-meaning writers whose agendas are sometimes influenced by anti-supernatural presuppositions? I have no hesitation accepting the view that the Apostle John wrote this book, and in fact, I can't imagine anyone else who could have done it. Admittedly, Christianity doesn't stand or fall on the precise identity of the author of the Fourth Gospel -- the author identifies himself only as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." But it does stand or fall on the identity of Jesus Christ, and on whether he was a legend, a liar, a lunatic, or the person John presents him to be -- the Lord of all.

Letting John be John and Jesus be Jesus is a solution that leaves me intellectually satisfied and spiritual enriched. As John said near the end of his Gospel: "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."