Church Fathers and John’s Gospel

The Fathers quoted here lived in the first to third centuries. They are unanimous that John wrote the fourth Gospel.

They lived before the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, so they are called the Ante-Nicene Fathers (“ante” means “before.”)

They are not modern historians, but their opinions are still interesting. They were unanimous in their belief that Luke wrote the third Gospel.

In this article, early church leaders and one rival to orthodox Christianity affirm not only the fourth Gospel’s authority, but also that John the Apostle wrote it. These passages to the early church leaders should be used critically, but they clearly affirm the Apostle John’s authorship. Often they assume it matter-of-factly, as if there is no need for further discussion.

All dates in the list are AD, d stands for died, and c stands for circa, which means about or around.

These early church leaders, among others, quote or use the Gospel of John as an authoritative source:

Ignatius (d. 117, but see link) 

He was the bishop of Antioch (on the left side of the map, under Syria). While journeying to his place of martyrdom under armed guard, he wrote seven letters, six to churches, and one to Polycarp (see Irenaeus, below).

Ignatius duplicates a clause in Greek that occurs in John 3:8. The Gospel reads: to pneuma . . . pnei . . . all’ ouk oidas pothen erchetai kai pou hupagei (“The wind . . . blows . . . but you do not know where [it] comes from and where [it] goes”).

In his letter to the Philadelphians (7.1) he writes: to pneuma . . . oiden pothen erchetai kai pou hupagei (“The Spirit . . . knows where [he] comes from or where [he] goes”).

Ignatius’s letters come in the Long Version and the Short Version. I have used only the latter, with this specialist as my guide.

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)

He was a Christian apologist (defender of the faith) unambiguously quotes from John (First Apology [Defense] 1.61).

Tatian (c. 110-172)

He was a student of Justin Martyr, put together a harmony of the four Gospels, called the Diatessaron. It is a continuous narrative and used the Gospel of John as the framework. has been translated from Arabic, though this is not the original language.

In his Address to the Greeks, assuming the Gospel’s authority, he quotes from it (13 and 19).

Claudius Apollinarius or Apollinaris (d. before 180?)

He was the bishop of Hierapolis and alludes to John’s Gospel: the blood and water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side, the Passover Lamb (cf. John 1:35 and 19:34).

Athenagoras (second half of the second century)

He was an apologist (defender of the faith) from Athens.

He alludes to the Logos and the unity of the Father and Son (Plea for Christians 10). Specifically, he says that through the Logos all things were made (cf. John 1:3); the Father and the Son are one (cf. John 10:30); and the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father (cf. John 10:38 and 14:10-11).

The Muratorian Canon (c. 170-180, but see link)

It is a write up of New Testament books (and others). It affirms that John the disciple of the Lord wrote the fourth Gospel. The fragment discusses John and Luke, particularly.

The following church leaders say that John wrote the fourth Gospel:

Theophilus (d. post-180?)

He was the bishop of Antioch (see Ignatius, above, for a map).

In his apology (defense) to his friend Autolycus, he says that John was inspired and an author of “the holy writings” (e.g. Holy Scriptures). Then Theophilus immediately quotes John 1:1, 3 (Autolycus 2.22).

Theophilus to Autolycus, Book II, chapter XXII

And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing [inspired] men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God ….”

He often quotes from John’s Gospel.

Irenaeus (c. 115-c. 202)

He is a rich source of Christian traditions. He was the bishop of Lyons, France. As a boy he knew Polycarp personally. (Polycarp [c. 69-155] was a disciple of John the Apostle and other apostles, became the bishop of Smyrna [look under Asia on the map], and was martyred when he was eighty-six years old).

Possibly drawing from sources in addition to Polycarp and his community, Irenaeus affirms that John, the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ chest during the Last Supper, published a Gospel (Against Heresies 3.1.1; see also Eusebius, History of the Church, 5.8.4).

Irenaeus matter-of-factly names John, disciple of the Lord, or just John, and then quotes from the Gospel in Against Heresies 2.2.5; 2.23.3, 5; 3.8.3; 3.11.1, 2, 9; 3.16.2, 5; 3.17.2; 4.2.3; 4.10.1; 5.19.2.

Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter I:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XI.8

  1. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,”—an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church.

And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Also, “all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.” For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham;” and also, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.” This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias [Isaiah] the prophet,”—pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character.

Irenaeus may have used a fanciful method to limit the Gospels to four, but he was (rightly) motivated to protect the church from the Gnostic heresy. These Gnostic “gospels” were too far afield–wacky and wild.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215)

He was the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria, Egypt.

He says matter-of-factly “the Gospel according to John” and then quotes from John 6:34 (Instructor 1.6).

In the same work, he says “Scriptures” and quotes from John’s Gospel (Instructor 1.5).

Wherefore also the Scripture says, “The law was given through Moses,” not by Moses, but by the Word, and through Moses His servant. Wherefore it was only temporary; but eternal grace and truth were by Jesus Christ.

Also in the Instructor 3.11 (see Love and Kiss of Charity), he names John and quotes from the Gospel.

Assuming its authority, Clement also matter-of-factly quotes from the Gospel without naming John (Exhortation 10; Instructor 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, 1.11; Miscellanies 1.5, 6, 9, 17, 26; 2.5).

His fuller affirmation of John’s authorship is summarized in Eusebius (History of the Church, 6.14.7).

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225)

He was an apologist who wrote in Latin. He is known as the founder of Latin Christianity, specifically the North African Latin Christianity.

He says in the context of discussing apostles that John wrote the Gospel (Against Marcion 4.2).

Three chapters later, he says that the “Gospel of John” (and the other three) was recognized by the apostolic church (4.5).

In the same work he matter-of-factly says “the Gospel of John” and then quotes from it (4.35)

See also Against Praxeas 21-26, which names John and analyzes the Gospel.

He also says, in a discussion on the apostles (Prescriptions against Heretics 22), that John was the disciple whom Jesus loved, who leaned on Jesus’ chest (cf. John 13:22-25), and to whom Jesus commended his mother (cf. John 19:25-27).

In the same work, he quotes from John in context of Old Testament Scriptures, equating the two (3 and 8). See also Against Hermogenes 45; and Against Praxeas 7, 9, 12, 13, 17, 19; and On the Resurrection of the Flesh 18.

Against Marcion, Book IV, Chapter V

The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.

Origen (c. 185-c. 254)

He was a front-ranking Bible scholar and theologian in Alexandria, Egypt. He was a student of Clement (see above).

Origen matter-of-factly affirms in his writings that John wrote the Gospel that bears his name: e.g. On Principles 1.1.1 and 1.1.7; 1.2.3; 1.7.1; 2.9.4; Against Celsus 2.2, 16; 5.12;

In 2:69 he matter-of-factly names all four Gospels (who was Celsus?). He assumes John’s authorship, of course, in his commentary on the fourth Gospel: e.g. 1.6, 1.9, and 1.11.

Origen’s fuller view on John’s authorship is summarized by Eusebius (History of the Church, 6.25.7 and 9).

Eusebius (c. 265-c. 339, but see link) 

He was a church historian who had access to many sources no longer extant (existing).

He says that John wrote the fourth Gospel and is unambiguously authentic (History of the Church, 3.24.7). In the next chapter he says the four Gospels, which includes John, are the undisputed books in the canon (authoritative books, in this case the New Testament) (3.25.1).

Rivals to traditional Christianity:

Marcion (c. 84/85-c. 160)

He seems to assume that John the Apostle wrote the fourth Gospel. That is a fair deduction from the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John, despite factual errors in that brief text. The link has a translation of the text from Westcott, a very prominent scholar of an earlier generation, but I cannot vouch for the web writer’s comments.

Heracleon (flourished 175)

He was a disciple of Valentinus. Valentinians

At the end of the second century or into the third, he wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. In a few places in his own commentary on John, Origen wrote a refutation of it. It is true that Heracleon found in the Gospel some concepts that suited his needs; nevertheless, his commentary tacitly testifies to the influence and authority of John.

Origen, Commentary on John 2.8, 15; 6.2, 8, 12, 13, 15, 23, 24, 38 (Libronix shows 5 in bar);

10.9, 14, 19, 21, 22 (Libronix 6)

Tertullian Against the Valentinians

Against Heresies 1.8 and 1.9

The Valentinians twist John

Basilides

Against Heresies 2.2.3 (Logos); 2.35 refers to Basilides by name 2.28.6 (Logos)

What’s the bottom line to all of this?

Summing up the evidence, one scholar writes that in the early church . . . “No other name than John has been suggested as [the Gospel’s] author . . . (Leon Morris, the Gospel According to John, Eerdman’s, 1971, p. 25). And Carson and Moo write: “Most historians of antiquity, other than New Testament scholars, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful and as uniform” (p. 233).

Articles in the Series:

  1. Church Fathers and Matthew’s Gospel
  2. Church Fathers and Mark’s Gospel
  3. Church Fathers and Luke’s Gospel
  4. Church Fathers and John’s Gospel

Related Series

  1. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
  2. Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels
  3. Archaeology and John’s Gospel
  4. Did Jesus Even Exist?
  5. The Gospel Traditions
  6. Reliable Gospel Transmissions
  7. What is the Q ‘Gospel’?
  8. Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry?
  9. Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel
  10. Eyewitness Testimony in Mark’s Gospel
  11. Eyewitness Testimony in Luke’s Gospel
  12. Eyewitness Testimony in John’s Gospel
  13. Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
  14. Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels
  15. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Conclusion
  1. New Testament Manuscripts: Preliminary Questions and Answers
  2. Basic Facts on Producing New Testament Manuscripts
  3. Discovering and Classifying New Testament Manuscripts
  4. The Manuscripts Tell the Story: The New Testament Is Reliable

SOURCE

Roberts, Alexander; James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe: The Ante-Nicene Fathers vols.1-10: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

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