I’ve always considered the Fourth Gospel to have been written by John from Ephesus in the late first century, circa 94CE, though the notion that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple (not a new idea) has intrigued me. Ben Witherington is reviving the idea with a paper at the last SBL meeting in November.

I’m not quite convinced to give up my preconceived notions just yet, but I’m getting very close. Before I get to that, I begin by disagreeing, then by coming around somewhat. As for disagreeing with Ben Witherington on a scholarly matter concerning the Fourth Gospel, I am easily out of my element. The 40-48″ of bookshelf space I have dedicated to 4G studies in my library doesn’t match up with his expertise in the field. Nevertheless…

Early in the presentation suggesting John Zebedee is not the author of the Fourth Gospel, Witherington argues in part from silence, on the basis of what’s not included in 4G. Now, I wouldn’t fault him too greatly on this… the nature of the beast has a lot to do with interpreting the silence. I don’t think, however, that we should draw too many conclusions from it, merely let the conclusions we reach through other means inform our interpretation of the silence. In part, such an approach is a test of the validity of the conclusion or assumption being tested. To illustrate, one of the arguments used by Witherington is that the author can’t be John Zebedee because none of the notable accounts of the Zebedee brothers from the Synoptics appear… but I’ve also heard the argument that the author is John Zebedee beause of the absence of these same accounts. What we’re left with is the fact that we cannot infer much about authorship from the silence, though we can interpret the silence on the basis of authorship. For example, we can assume that the author was or was not John Zebedee, ask why the gospel was written, and then draw an inference about the absence of Zebedee Brothers narratives. I would suggest that the narratives are absent simply because they don’t support the author’s thesis, thus nothing about authorship can be inferred either way.

Now, when Witherington argues on the basis of “beloved disciple” possibly equating to “the one whom you love”, the case is much stronger. The notion of the BD hosting the Passover meal and reclining next to Jesus is I think quite plausible.

After this discussion, with the supposition of Lazarus as BD, he looks at some of the difficulties and silences in the Gospel and considers the interpretation based on this assumption. The Gethsemane prayer for example is a troublesome omission, since one could easily suggest that it would have supported the story line and theme of the Gospel, yet it isn’t there… which is obviously understandable if the author of the Gospel was not present in the garden.

I’m intrigued by Witerington’s speculation about the reconciling of the annointing accounts in the home of Lazarus and “Simon the Leper” (Mark 14) and the reasoning for why these three adults would have lived together and not married. The line of reasoning is plausible and alleviates several thorny questions. If Lazarus was the author, it would explain a lot about the limited number of miracles and the smaller number of accounts or encounters that 4G describes as compared to the Synoptics.

Finally, John of Patmos as final redactor (from Ephesus) was an unexpected twist on this for me, and I must say I’m further intrigued. I would always have gone the other way, with the gospel not having been named for the final redactor, but for the composer of the bulk of the material.

Witherington’s followup post on The Martyrdom of the Zebedee Brothers indicates what he thinks happened to the John normally associated with the Gospel… martyrdom, possibly at the hands of Saul. The followup does put a few extra bits in order to help argue for a 4G author other than John Zebedee.

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