This month I have been showcasing how apologetics is fundamentally bankrupt methodologically. It depends on fallacious reasoning, held up as sound and professional, yet which adheres to the methods of no actual legitimate academic field—except those very fields dominated by apologetics, whose practitioners, even once leaving the faith, often remain convinced the apologetic methods they were taught are still legitimate, and continue to use them! I teach an online course on Counter-Apologetics every month (one of ten courses on history and philosophy in all), beginning again next week (so check that out if this interests you). And I have written on this subject many times before, not just this month’s array (Thomism: The Bogus Science, The Blondé-Jansen Argument from Consciousness, and How We Know Daniel Is a Forgery), but also in previous studies of the methods of Christian apologists, from the dishonest (e.g. William Lane Craig’s Duplicitous Denial That Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence and Oh No! Biogenesis Is Impossible?? A Case Study in Creationist Lies) to the incompetent (e.g. Formalized Gullibility as a Modern Christian Methodology and Crank Bayesians: Swinburne & Unwin) and everything in between (e.g. Bayesian Counter-Apologetics: Ten Arguments for God Destroyed and N.T. Wright Demonstrates the Bankruptcy of Christian Apologetics in Under Nine Minutes).
One of the most popular Christian apologetics websites today, with over half a million readers, is Reasons for Jesus. So as a random paradigmatic case exemplifying everything I have been saying this month, I am today going to use their latest article, “Why Everyone Should Believe the Apostle John Wrote the Last Gospel,” written by amateur apologist Erik Manning, a Reasonable Faith chapter leader, which Reasons published this March 13 (2021), thereby choosing to feature this work from its original publication on Manning’s own well-produced website in September of 2020. One more time we’ll see apologetics has no logically sound or valid method of establishing the truth about anything. All it is, really, is a method for rationalizing what its adherents want to believe. It is an engine for reinforcing desire against the truth; not an engine for getting to the truth.
We can presume that, if there is any good reason to believe “the Apostle John” actually wrote “The Gospel According to John” then the world’s top apologetics website surely will have included it, especially when selecting across the entire internet which article to feature on this topic, written by a heavily-invested apologetics community leader. After all, how could this author have overlooked any good argument out there? And how could this website have overlooked any better article than his? Maybe there is some chance. Maybe this is a “shoot-self-in-foot” choice made by Reasons. But we can test that: if there is any argument for John the Apostle actually having written the Gospel of John that is (a) any good and (b) not covered here, please post it in comments (per my site comments policy), and link to or cite your source: we need to see it’s an argument Christians have already been making that’s already available, and not something just made up ad hoc to rescue a now-shown-to-be-failed case.
Meanwhile, I will operate as if this is the best they’ve got. It’s certainly, evidently, the best Reasons has got. I checked it against their only other two articles singly dedicated to pushing the same conclusion: “Who Wrote The Gospel Of John?” by Clark Bates (July 7, 2017) and “5 Reasons To Believe Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John Wrote The Gospels” by Brian Chilton (March 7, 2017). They make, essentially, the same case as Manning.
Of course the main problem with the Christian faith-belief that “the Apostle” John wrote the Gospel John is that the Gospel now named John never once says any such person wrote it. The title line (“according to John”) was added by the later editor who assembled this Gospel with the three Synoptics into a new “foursquare” edition to combat Marcion’s canon (whose was the first actual canon assembled, which does not survive). Worse, the Gospel itself says no Apostle wrote it—of any name. This is often disguised by specious translating, but the actual Greek text of John 21:24, referring to the anonymous “disciple” whom Christians now identify as John the Apostle (even though the Gospel of John never does), says “that” (whoever that is) is “the disciple who testifies regarding these things and who wrote them down, and we know that his testimony is true.” Likewise in John 19:35, which in the Greek says (referring to Jesus being stabbed by a spear), “And the one who saw this has borne witness, and his testimony is true, and that man knows that he speaks the truth, so that you [plural] may believe.”
These are all references to a source, not an author. An anonymous “we” are the actual authors of this book, and they claim to have consulted something this unnamed disciple wrote—meaning, not what they are writing, but something else. The implication is that these authors were using some now lost Gospel or testimonium. But Christians routinely fabricated sources like this: see Element 44 in Chapter 5 of On the Historicity of Jesus, as well as the fake Abgar correspondence, the fake Pilate correspondence, the fake correspondence of Paul and Seneca, Eusebius’s ready fabrication of history, or that of Apollinaris, and so on. Fabricating sources was a common tactic in ancient hagiography generally (Alan Cameron devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon in Greek Mythography in the Roman World). And that is not the only reason to conclude no such person or source really existed (I’ll summarize the full case below) or that if it did, that it was itself fake—whether that fact was known or unknown to John’s actual authors claiming to have used this now-lost written “source.”
As I document in Chapters 7, 13, and 17 of Not the Impossible Faith, ancient Christians were even bigger dupes than modern ones—they believed almost anything on little or no evidence, no matter how absurd, so long as they wanted to. So rarely can we trust anything they said. And really, not a whole lot has changed. Even today Christian apologetics is founded on a principle of Formalized Gullibility (you can see this on wide display in both my debates with Anglican apologist Jonathan Sheffield, for example). So when a book feeds you obviously questionable lines like “Trust us. We know who witnessed this. We saw it written somewhere. And even though we can’t say where or who we mean or even who ‘we’ are, we’re writing this to convince you to believe in Jesus, and blessed are you if you believe without any evidence that anything we are telling you is true!” Christians still buy this, hook-line-and-sinker. Yet they’d laugh this straight off if they found this in the Koran. Then they wise up. But when it’s their book, then for sure it’s reliable—totally on the up and up. “How dare you doubt it!” Anyone who thinks like this is easily conned. And this is the first lesson about Christian apologists: they are super gullible when it comes to what they want to believe, and super skeptical when it comes to anything else. They choose what to believe therefore based on desire, not on any objective standard of evidence. And this was even more the case back then. So when one gullible person starts citing someone even more gullible than them as an authority, you know you are no longer in a serious argument. You have entered Apologetics Land.
Meanwhile, objective, mainstream experts—who more prefer to eschew apologetical methods and adopt instead actual legitimate historical methods (in other words, people with relevant doctorates and on-point peer reviewed publications who aren’t such gullible dupes)—conclude we simply cannot know who actually wrote the Gospel of John. Because, quite frankly, its author doesn’t say. And no other extant author of that era we do know ever had any reliable source to cite on the matter—so they didn’t really know either. A lifetime later, legends abounded. But an unsourced legend is an unsourced legend; you can’t cite a legend as evidence for itself. Only apologetics adopts the bankrupt principle that you can. Real history discarded that fallacy a century ago. (For an example of a real expert case, see Matthew Ferguson’s “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”.)
…Which Source Is Obviously Fictional
As I wrote in On the Historicity of Jesus (see there for abundantly cited scholarship):
That John is responding to Luke is actually a growing consensus in Johannine studies; likewise that John has been multiply redacted, such that our version is not the one originally written. … External evidence placing the Gospel of John’s appearance in history is also the scarcest [relative to the previous three Gospels]. It could have been written as late as the 140s (some argue even later) or as early as the 100s (provided Luke was written in the 90s [which a growing consensus now considers its earliest likely date]). I will arbitrarily side with the earlier of those dates. John was redacted multiple times and thus had multiple authors. (This is already the consensus of Johannine experts.) Nothing is known of them. John’s authors (plural) claim to have used a written source composed by an anonymous eyewitness (21.20-25), but that witness does not exist in any prior Gospel, yet is conspicuously inserted into John’s rewrites of their narratives (e.g. compare Jn 20.2 with Lk. 24.12 [likewise his insertion into the fishing story and last supper story and crucifixion story and his replacement of the resurrections at Nain and Gerasa]) and so is almost certainly a fabrication (as I show in Chapter 10, §7).OHJ, pp. 268-69
I cover the evidence and scholarship on all this in the most detail in Chapter 10.7 (Ibid., pp. 487-506). But one of the most important points I develop there is that the original authors of John clearly intended their unnamed “beloved disciple,” the one they claim as their source, to be none other than Lazarus. Who is most definitely a made-up person, invented by the authors of John to reify and reverse the teaching of Luke’s Parable of Lazarus (pp. 500-05), which Luke designed as an argument for why people should believe without direct evidence of any resurrection (thus, Luke knew of no Lazarus or Doubting Thomas tale to cite instead; to the contrary, his Parable was in fact an attempt to explain why there wasn’t any). Well, that argument the authors of John despised (pp. 489-90), and thus replaced by fabricating evidence for resurrections, not only through John’s ridiculously trumped up narrative of Jesus’s resurrection—complete with a Doubting Thomas fondling the open wounds in Jesus’s risen body, a story found nowhere in any prior Gospel or the Epistles of Paul, despite it being the most powerful and informative tale one could ever have attested and thus could never have been omitted by four prior authors (it also lies at the end of a long process of gradually exaggerated fabrication, starting with a merely missing body in Mark, then moving to the feet the women touch in Matthew, to the hands and feet grabbed by the Apostles in Luke, to the wounds fondled in John)—but also in John’s completely fabricated resurrection of Lazarus, which John depicts as so incredibly famous it was the reason the Sanhedrin started plotting to kill Jesus (and even Lazarus), another detail no previous author could have overlooked. Thus the authors of John converted a fictional person who wasn’t raised from the dead to prove the faith into a real person actually raised from the dead to prove the faith. This is so obviously fiction that it is astonishing anyone would be so foolish as to believe it.
I adduce quite a lot of evidence for this, enough to honestly leave no dispute. But as just a sample: the Gospel John outright says Lazarus is the one whom Jesus loved (11:3, 5, 36), and that its source (the “disciple” whose written “testimony” was purportedly used) was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:19-24; cf. 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20); Lazarus is the only person the other disciples would ever wonder whether he would never die: because he had been raised from the dead already (hence 21:19-24); Lazarus is the only person Jesus resurrects from a tomb and who cast off his own burial cloths (11:43-44), and thus would understand the implications of finding Jesus’s burial cloths cast off in his tomb now empty, explaining why he then believed (20:2-8); and while we are told this “Beloved Disciple” was resting on “the bosom of Jesus” at the Last Supper (13:23), Lazarus is the only person granted that privilege at previous suppers (12:2). When you put all this data together, no objective historian would believe John was actually written by the “disciple whom Jesus loved” or even based on any such person’s testimony—as there clearly was never really any such person. Without real external evidence proving otherwise (of which there is none), this is obviously all made-up. Only a stalwart devotion to Formalized Gullibility would ever lead anyone to be so easily duped as to fall for any of this.
That’s all pretty damning. Needless to say, literally all of it is completely ignored by Manning in “Why Everyone Should Believe the Apostle John Wrote the Last Gospel.” Which is Apologetics Rule Number One: you can only make a case for your belief by leaving out all the best evidence against it (as I demonstrate for apologetics rather pervasively in Bayesian Counter-Apologetics). And when someone catches you at this trick, and points to the evidence that was left out and how it actually supports the opposite conclusion, we get Apologetics Rule Number Two: always deny the relevance of any piece of uncomfortable evidence; you may use any specious rationalization you can think of to accomplish this. This is similar to Donald Trump’s persistent rhetorical strategy of just bold-facedly lying and never admitting it’s a lie. Just keep insisting some piece of evidence is irrelevant. You don’t need a valid reason to conclude it is. Argument by Assertion will get you to shore. It’s thus all you need.
Meanwhile, Apologetics Rule Number Three is: rely on fallacies everywhere you can.
Poisoning the Well. Manning leads by choosing to quote John Shelby Spong (not a Johannine expert) correctly summarizing the mainstream consensus (yet we are never told this is what he is doing), and thus we are led to believe this is some “radical” position only held by people like the much-despised Spong, and so “our” belief (because Christian apologetics is always actually written for Christians; it is not really aimed at us) that Spong is a hack and a radical causes us to associate what is actually the mainstream consensus of leading experts in Johannine studies with the position only of a “hack” and a “radical.” This is a classic Well Poisoning fallacy. And true to form, it opens Manning’s piece (precisely the position where such a fallacy is most effectively deployed). By contrast, when you consult my section on this in On the Historicity of Jesus, you’ll see a large list of recent top scholars who have published peer reviewed studies on the authorship and redaction-history of John. These are not hacks or radicals. These are the leading mainstream experts in the field.
Bait and Switch. Manning’s very next argument is that “there’s no recorded challenge to the traditional authorship of the Gospels until around the early 5th-century,” which itself is a fallacy of non sequitur: Gospels published without a name would never have been known under any other than the ones later assigned to them (so that they weren’t, cannot be evidence they were ever assigned other names); and that Christians adopting the foursquare Gospel edition (the only authors Manning could find to cite on this point) all fanatically believed that the authors then invented for those Gospels were as declared is a fully expected state of affairs and thus also cannot be evidence that their belief was sound or based on any reliable evidence. You can’t keep citing an unsourced legend as evidence for itself.
But here is where Manning deploys a rhetorical trick: he cites Augustine declaring that we can trust the authenticity of other works (by Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro) because there “is a succession of testimonies to the books…an unbroken chain of evidence,” which isn’t true (there actually were not such unbroken chains of evidence for any of these, and forgeries in the name of these authors abounded and could only be detected by stylistic evidence) but also isn’t relevant, because we have these men themselves identifying who they are and what they wrote (this is not the case for “John,” as I just noted) and we have contemporaries of these men verifying it (which is not the case for “John”), and internal evidence corroborating both (e.g. unlike the Gospel of “John,” there is no intelligible reason for anyone to have forged the entire corpus of Cicero, nor any internal evidence of such a thing). In point of fact no one appears to have even heard of the Gospel of John until it appeared in the fousquare Gospel in which it was assigned that name, and we have no one who knew the author or book prior to that telling us anything at all about who wrote it. Thus citing other cases of verified authorship (where the required evidential conditions are met) and then “implying” the Gospel of John is another such case (where the required evidential conditions are not met) is a Bait and Switch fallacy.
Masked Man. In the Masked Man Fallacy, when Lois Lane does not know Clark Kent is Superman but does know Superman flew to Italy, it would also be true (we know) that “Clark Kent flew to Italy,” but it would not be true that Lois Lane knows this. Manning commits this fallacy when the first “external source” he can find attesting to John the Apostle writing the Gospel of John is Justin Martyr, even though that’s decades (possibly what was then an average human lifetime) after John was written, and for whom we have no evidence (not even a claim from Justin himself) that he knew the names of any of the authors of the Gospels, or that even if he did, that he had that information from any other source than the foursquare Gospel itself whose editor appears to be the first to have invented those names (and possibly as well the associated legends that went with them).
It would already be fallacious to cite as a source someone merely repeating an unsourced legend (you can’t keep citing unsourced legends as evidence for themselves), but Justin does not even do that: he never once connects the Gospel of John with any “John.” So when Manning cites evidence Justin knew that Gospel, he pretends he has just shown us evidence that Justin attests to the author of that Gospel, and that it was John. Sorry. Lois Lane does not know Superman is Clark Kent. This is therefore not evidence of anything. Even Justin’s off-hand remark that he knew Gospels written “by Apostles” is of little use, as the Beloved Disciple is simply “portrayed” as an Apostle in the Gospel John, and Justin just gullibly believed whatever he was told; there is no evidence Justin had any reliable source for this information. Indeed, when Justin “quotes” these Gospels, he actually references fake Gospels (as Justin believes they report Jesus was born in a cave, in Dialogue §78—which is only a fabrication of the Gospel of James, §18). So clearly Justin is not a reliable source here. But he doesn’t say anything of use to proving Manning’s thesis anyway. Manning pulls this same stunt with Basilides, whom he says quoted the Gospel John—but Manning can produce no evidence Basilides even thought that Gospel was authored by John (much less that he had that information from any other source than the same foursquare edition that invented it).
Hand-Waving. We get another kind of Bait and Switch when Manning cites Irenaeus (now definitely an average lifetime or two removed from the writing of the Gospel John, so again hardly the continuous “chain of custody” we were led to believe we’d be shown, yet never are) who does repeat the sectarian line promulgated by the foursquare Gospel and its associated legends, thus giving us our first clear attestation to the belief that “John” wrote that Gospel. But by now we are already at a time after we know that legend was invented and in an author whose entire mission is to legitimize and defend that legend—yet he can muster no source whatever with which to do that. Literally. As his source for his belief that the foursquare edition’s declaration that John was that Gospel’s author is true, Irenaeus cites…nothing. You can’t keep citing an unsourced legend as evidence for itself.
So instead of evidence, which he does not have, Manning returns to his favorite fallacy: he baits us with the report that Irenaeus claimed he had studied under Polycarp and then tells us Polycarp studied under the Apostle John (even though that is all but impossible chronologically—and is itself a dubious legend; it is never attested in Polycarp himself; indeed, even Irenaeus never cites Polycarp as ever having said this, and it thus appears to be a fabrication of Irenaeus, or another unsourced “legend” he is just gullibly repeating, as he often did). But…why does Manning mention this? Polycarp never says this Apostle John wrote any Gospel. Even Irenaeus could not find anything Polycarp ever said or wrote claiming such a thing. So we have been hoodwinked here with meaningless handwaving. No evidence has been presented of Manning’s thesis. (Never mind that it has been seriously proposed in the field that Polycarp is himself the one who invented the authors’ names in the foursquare Gospel edition. So…even if we had him testifying to it, that would be citing a liar’s own claim they weren’t lying.)
After this all Manning has are later repetitions of the legend itself (like the Muratorian Canon)—none of which based on any sources. This is just more circular argumentation: citing the legend as evidence of itself. There is no evidence in this text that this information predated even the Marcionite canon, much less the subsequent anti-Marcionite canon the Beloved Disciple’s Gospel was incorporated into and then assigned John as its author. So we have nothing here. Just evidence that the legend that originated with the anti-Marcionite foursquare edition was circulating at the end of the second century. Which no one doubts. But that the legend was then extant is not evidence it existed a lifetime before, when the Gospel was originally published (when it was almost certainly intended to have been written on the basis of a fictional “written testimony” of the Apostle Lazarus, not John). Manning then moves to Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, who are both writing after even Irenaeus, and are self-confessedly defenders of the foursquare edition and its accompanying legends—and yet, again, these men cite no sources whatever for any of those legends (much less reliable sources). Indeed, Manning hilariously doesn’t even hide the fact that Tertullian outright identifies this claim as a dogma (an unquestionable “first principle”) and that Clement’s only sourcing consists of saying “it is said” that it was so written. In other words, they have no sources for this information. They are just repeating anonymous legends. When real historians encounter this “they say” nonsense, they well know what comes after is a mere urban legend; rumor, not fact. Often invented as “just so” stories to explain the unexplained (like why the Gospel John deviates from and contradicts all the others). Only Formalized Gullibility allows treating that as if it were reliable information. Thus apologetics is only designed to make excuses to believe things; rather than testing whether those beliefs are even likely to be true.
After all that, Manning claims that “when we put all [six] statements together, the testimony of the early church fathers presented here is unanimous: the apostle John, an eyewitness, and disciple of Jesus wrote a Gospel.” This is false (two of these six sources he cited never say this) and a non sequitur: all he has done is find late authors attesting to a late legend that we already know had been promulgated by then. Not a single one of his remaining four sources cites any source for this legend being true. To the contrary, they simply assert it as a dogma (e.g. Tertullian) or an anonymous rumor (e.g. Clement; Irenaeus, both; and on the Muratorian fragment, see below). This is not evidence for Manning’s position. In real historical logic, a fact is only evidence for a conclusion if that conclusion’s being true makes that evidence more likely to exist than the alternative conclusion (and ideally, substantially more likely; otherwise what you have is weak evidence, not strong). But as David Trobisch documents in The First Edition of the New Testament, so far as we can tell, the Gospels appear to have been assigned their names when they were assembled into the anti-Marcionite foursquare edition sometime in the middle of the second century. It is therefore no use to find evidence of what that edition did: inspire supporters of it decades later to endorse the myths it originated. The probability that that evidence would exist is 100% likely on the theory that that information was invented for that edition. That evidence therefore cannot be “more” likely on the theory that those names were original to those Gospels (as you can’t get more likely than 100%!). It therefore cannot be evidence for that conclusion. That’s a logical impossibility.
What Manning actually needs—actual evidence that John really wrote that Gospel, that the later legend that he did was not a mere legend—simply does not exist. Which gets us to Apologetics Rule Number Four: when you can’t find any evidence for your position, invent some.
Oh No. Not 19th Century Scholars.
Apologetics Rule Number Five is this: when you can’t find any current, quality, objective, peer-reviewed literature to support your position, dig back fifty to a hundred years or more until you find someone, anyone, who agrees with you—and then cite them as an authority. This is exactly the reverse of real historical methodology, which is to not trust such obsolete and outdated scholarship unless you can find it well-supported by more current scholarship, which we know employs much more reliable methods and has access to much more pertinent evidence and a long pedigree of overturning mistaken conclusions and assumptions (see History Before 1950).
Manning deploys this tactic when he digs up B.F. Westcott’s embarrasingly incompetent argument for John being “really” written by John “because” we can deduce that:
- The author of John “was Jewish” (fallaciously mistaking an author very familiar with Judaism with “being a Jew,” but regardless, there were millions of Jews in every generation—therefore “being a Jew” does not by-Masked-Man-Fallacy get you to “the Apostle John”);
- And that he was “from Palestine” (fallaciously mistaking knowledge of Palestine with “being a Palestinian,” in an era full of detailed reference works and Diaspora pilgrims and Gentile travelers with extensive knowledge of Palestine, but regardless, there were still countless Jews in and from Palestine even after the Jewish War—therefore “being a Palestinian” still does not by-Masked-Man-Fallacy get you to “the Apostle John”);
- The Apostle John was a fisherman (according to the Synoptic mythology; no such man is mentioned in the Gospel John) and the Gospel mentions several bodies of water (such a non sequitur requires no reply);
- The Gospel claims to be an eyewitness in Jesus’s inner circle (this is both false—as I already noted, the Gospel actually claims to have had an eyewitness source, not that the authors themselves were that source—and a circular argument: you can’t cite a legend as evidence for itself; we are trying to determine if that story is fiction, and we can’t do that if we just circularly presume that it is not—and I already gave you a peak at the evidence indicating, rather, that it is a fiction—Manning has no evidence the other way around);
- The Gospel names all kinds of people never heard of before (this is actually evidence of fiction, particularly when the new names added are self-evidently fictional, e.g. Nicodemus is not a Jewish name, but conveniently in Greek describes what he as a character does in the story: stand up for and represent the regular folk, a solid red flag for mythmaking—the more so when combined with the fact that he is inserted into stories he never appeared in before, even in three different iterations of those stories across several decades, and given “John’s” demonstrated proclivity for inventing people, e.g. Lazarus, per above, and Thomas, whose own fake name means Twin, a pun on the Greek word for “of two minds” used in Matthew to claim there were disciples who “doubted” the resurrection, another instance of John riffing on his source material to create new stories);
- Gives a lot of weird numerological and chronological data (ditto);
- And writes vividly detailed stories (ditto).
No modern historian credits any of these kinds of arguments as at all logical (see my discussion, for example, of the “Criterion of Vividness,” with citation of scholarship, in Proving History, as you can find listed there in the index). Modern historians know these things are actually common in myths, fictions, and legends (in fact often more typical of them), and that the authors of John being familiar with Palestine and Judaism in no way connects to their ever being or even knowing any Apostle (much less “John,” a person whom, remember, the Gospel never mentions, much less as the source for or author of any of it). This is just one enormous non sequitur, a list of “facts” that in no way even connect as evidence to the conclusion that “the Apostle John” wrote the Gospel “of John.” Welcome to Christian apologetics. And for this they had to dig back into the sad era of the 19th century, a period in historical scholarship well known for its ignorant and really bad argumentation and near total lack of credible methodologies. This is a paradigmatic example.
By relying on obsolete 19th century bunkum, Manning never bothers looking into actual contemporary scholarship on the composition of fiction, myth, and legend in the Roman era. Thus he ignorantly insists “the writers of John’s Gospel” must have been “literary geniuses far ahead of their time” to make something sound like an eyewitness report. There is no basis for that assertion. Ancient myth, legend, and fiction was quite colorful with invented detail, and John is not unusual in that category. In fact, in studies of legendary development, the accumulation of vivid and seemingly authentic details is the norm for urban legends and ancient redactional fiction (see, again, my article on Formalized Gullibility as a Modern Christian Methodology). This is why the Gospels get more detailed and colorful over time, when in fact we should expect the reverse: the earliest records being the more detailed and personal, and becoming more abbreviated, summarized, and impersonal over time—as actual history then proceeded (I discuss examples of this in Ch. 7 of Not the Impossible Faith and Ch. 6 of Jesus from Outer Space; see also my discussion of the progression in the Gospels over time from mythic to historical formats).
Manning instead deploys another handwaving fallacy by declaring “the historical novel wasn’t invented until the Renaissance,” as if to impress us with his ignorance, evidently never having heard of all the historical novels in antiquity. Honestly, even the Bible is really a collection of historical novels, only the most famous being the book of Daniel, which even grew in adding yet more historical fiction to it over time; and certainly the Bible’s “sequel” collection is just such a contrivance, the first century Biblical Antiquities, a whole series of “historical fiction” riffing on the Bible. And beyond. See Lawrence Mills’ collection of Ancient Jewish Novels, Reardon & Morgan’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels, the Oxford Bibliography on “The Roman Novel,” the Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, with additional insight in Bowersock’s Fiction as History, and Vines’s The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel, and Pinheiro’s The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, and the work of Burridge on ancient fictional biography (also pertinent is Cameron’s book on Mythography I cited earlier). Indeed, much of ancient biography was historical fiction: see Ava Chitwood’s Death by Philosophy, Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer, and Mary Lefkowitz’s The Lives of the Greek Poets. I’ve covered all this before in my refutation of a similar argument deployed by Christian apologist Timothy Keller. Needless to say, when Manning cites C.S. Lewis being totally ignorant of all this, we are seeing just one more example of one incompetent apologist citing another, rather than doing the work of a competent historian and actually finding out what the latest scholarship on ancient myth and fiction actually says. That’s Apologetics Rule Number Six: avoid checking or mentioning the current state of a field if you can; because that won’t go well for you. (I recently showed how this rule pervades the apologetics of Edward Feser, for example.)
And then Apologetics Rule Number Seven is the converse of Rule Number Two: instead of conjuring just any made-up reason to insist all the evidence against you is irrelevant, you can just keep insisting something is true that’s exactly the opposite of the truth, hoping everyone mistakes your confidence as evidence. Such as when Manning quotes Blomberg declaring that “if the original addressees knew that John the Apostle was the author” of the Gospel “and that he never referred to himself by name, then they would know that all the references to John [in that Gospel] would have to refer to the Baptist,” thus explaining why John the Baptist is never so specified in the Gospel of John. But the opposite is actually the case. If the author were known to be named John, he would need to distinguish between himself and that other John; instead, no other John but the Baptist is ever mentioned in the Gospel (apart from Peter’s father, who is thereby so distinguished), so no need ever arises for the author to specify which John is meant. Of course, the real reason he doesn’t have to do that is that he is responding to the Synoptic Gospels, for audiences already familiar with them; thus, the authors of John already know their readers know who John the Baptist is: the one who performed baptisms, and endorsed Jesus as his successor.
Failing to account for things like this is a pitfall of so-called “Undesigned Coincidences” apologetics. In actual historical reality, none of the conversations about John the Baptist in the Gospel of John could have occurred as written—John was an extremely common name, yet every character in the Gospel assumes no one else in Judea was named John! Moreover, remember the apologetic notice that this Gospel has more names in it? Um…why, then, aren’t there more Johns in it? Or indeed, any of the most popular names in Judea? The six most popular names of that time were Simon, Joseph, Lazarus, Judas, John, and and Jesus, accounting for almost half of all men in Judea, yet but for Judas (and even that might be a later scribal emendation) we encounter none but the heroes so-named, besides just three isolated patronymics (Simon Peter, we are also told, is Simon Johnson, and Judas, we are also told, is Judas Simonson, and Jesus, of course, is Jesus Josephson, but we never meet any of these fathers). This is unlikely for a real history; but exactly what we expect for fiction.
There are many other elements of the Gospel of “John” that are not at all plausible historically: Jesus frequently delivering long uninterrupted rants, instead of engaging in lengthy mutual conversations; the near total absence of moral instruction coming from Jesus; the unintelligible wedding story at Cana; the fantastical events throughout the Gospel that typify fable rather than history, including a ghastly teleporting revenant; being able to tell the difference between water and blood gushing from a wound; the bizarre inability of the Jewish elite to simply assassinate Jesus; and so on. Indeed, the Gospel of John actually reads like literary fiction. And the only reason Christian apologists cannot see this, is because they cannot allow themselves to see this. The Gospel has to be an eyewitness’s memoir; therefore, it can never be seen as anything else. Yet were this not their sacred book, they’d readily see it for what it is. As all the other actual evidence conduces to.
For more on this point see: Kasper Larsen, Gospel of John as Genre Mosaic (2015); Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (1989); M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History (2019); and my survey of evidence and examples for John in Chapter 10.7 of On the Historicity of Jesus (2014). Indeed, even if you disagree with the thesis of Dennis MacDonald’s Dionysian Gospel (2017), it still documents a lot of the techniques of fiction in John. Likewise see “Did the Johannine Community Exist?” by Hugo Méndez (2020) and “The Authentication of the Past: Narrative Representations of History in the Gospel of John” by Susanne Luther (2020), and the scholarship they cite. This is what up-to-date, reliable-method scholarship looks like; and it completely crushes the barely competent flotsam promulgated during the 19th century.
Responding to “Objections”
Finally, Apologetics Rule Number Eight: never confront real evidence or arguments if you can help it; line up straw men and beat them down instead. Manning concludes his piece with “9 Common Objections to Johannine Authorship,” which are mostly straw men or incoherently answered. Only one of them is a steel man of a real objection that Manning has a credible answer to: his reasons for rejecting Bart Ehrman’s argument about a possible “anachronism” in the Gospel (regarding when Rabbinical authorities started declaring certain forms of messianism heretical) is entirely correct, and I agree with Manning’s conclusion on that point, not least because we do not have such complete knowledge of the incidentals of early first century of Jewish history to make the assertions Ehrman does on this point (a mistake Ehrman often makes). Otherwise, it’s all downhill from there.
Some of the nine objections Manning “tackles” are not even real objections found in contemporary Johannine experts. For example, “Wouldn’t John sound like the Synoptics” makes no sense as an argument (writers distinguish themselves by differences of style, not emulations of it—the fact that the Synoptics are so similar to each other is actually a weird fact that requires particular explanation). Although John’s Jesus ought to sound more like the Jesus in the Synoptics—so Manning would have to admit someone is taking license with the style and thoughts of Jesus. But regardless, writing a Gospel in one’s own words and style does not connect logically with the writer even being an Apostle, much less “John” specifically. So this is a handwave, not a serious objection Manning ever really had to deal with. Likewise, “How could a fisherman write high literature in Greek,” is not that substantive an objection either, as this requires assuming the Apostles even really were fishermen (and the Gospel of John never says the Apostle John was, and we have no particular reason to believe the Synoptics weren’t just making that up), but more importantly, that a fisherman couldn’t also be an educated Rabbi. As I explain in Chapter 2 of Not the Impossible Faith, Rabbis were all required to ply a trade (and most were known by such monikers, from sandalmaker to builder), so “fisherman” would not exclude one from the category “Rabbi,” and all Rabbis were well educated. Similarly, the argument that John seems limited in his geographical knowledge isn’t even true; I am not aware of any expert today who makes such an argument.
A more substantive objection Manning tries to answer is why the Gospel never says it’s written by John—in fact it bizarrely avoids ever doing so, thus strangely having to constantly resort to mysterious coded pleonasms like “the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.” Likewise by its titulature using kata (“according to”), in Greek a term indicating source not author, we know whoever assigned it the name of John was the same person who assigned the names Luke, Matthew, and Mark to the other three Gospels. Because they chose the same unusual designator, and these four names only appear in editions of the Gospels that post-date their having been brought together in an Anti-Marcionite foursquare edition. The corresponding legends also do not match the Gospels’ content, e.g. Mark never writes like someone taking notes for Peter and in fact is an anti-Petrine Gospel and thus can’t have been authored by any such person (he’s actually just mythologizing the teachings of Paul); Matthew is not writing his own account but redacting Mark’s Greek almost verbatim and using the Greek Bible as his base text and thus can’t have been authored by any Palestinian, much less Apostle (and, like Mark, never claims to be); when Luke describes his sources and why he should be trusted in his first chapter, “actually being there” or knowing any of the people involved is conspicuous for its absence; and John, as I already noted, was clearly originally written by a group of people expecting us to believe they were narrating the eyewitness account of Lazarus, a patently fictional person.
Yet Manning’s only response to this objection is a series of non sequiturs: that people could narrate their own experiences in the third person does not mean they didn’t identify who they were and when they were present and why their accounts should be trusted—in actual fact only ancient fiction was ever anonymous in the way the Gospels are found to be; and the evident reason all manuscripts have these names is that (as Trobisch has shown) all the manuscripts we have derive from the same foursquare Anti-Marcionite edition that assigned them those names. So these simply aren’t responses to the objection. They are excuses that have no actual logical connection to the point: who the authors of John originally meant their lead character to be. Which is Apologetics Rule Number Nine: if you can invent a just-so story that explains why the evidence does not match expectation, then you get to pretend you just proved your just-so story true, and therefore have successfully avoided the consequences of that uncomfortable evidence. “It’s possible, therefore it’s probable.” Fallacy. The simple fact is, outside fiction, real books in antiquity typically identified their authors; “John’s” Gospel does not. And you can’t get from “never says who wrote it” to “was therefore written by an Apostle named John.”
Likewise to the question of why John is written in Hellenized Greek, Manning never gives a coherent reply. He claims John “wasn’t writing from a Hellenistic perspective but a Hebrew one,” but that’s simply not true. The Gospel is not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in fact in highly practiced literary Greek. Manning obsesses over the “objection” that the Logos doctrine seems quite Greek to many interpreters (it looks more like a Diaspora concept as found in Philo, for example), and then abuses some quotations (some from obsolete scholarship, some taken out of context, others not even relating to the question) to “insist” it’s not, though again here he mainly relies on long-refuted claims by the 19th century Westcott, rather than doing what a historian would do, which is check the latest literature on this issue. I won’t trouble with that, as I don’t think this is a strong objection. Hebrew Judaism had long been affected by Hellenistic influence, and any Palestinian writing for the Diaspora as “John” clearly is may have acquired or learned of this doctrine over time (as they became acquainted with the Greek literature they are emulating), so one cannot really draw these kinds of distinctions.
But that is a mere distraction. The real problem here is why a Palestinian Rabbi would even be writing in such well-crafted Greek. It’s not impossible, sure. But it’s not probable. This is more likely the behavior of Hellenized Diaspora agents of the Christian mission, who would be the least likely to have been an original Galilean Apostle. One also faces the problem of age. There is no evidence any witness survived beyond the Jewish War, nor any evidence they were “teenagers” when Jesus called them (as Manning declares, on exactly no evidence whatever). If they were of average adult age, they’d be roughly the same age as the year, and thus in their nineties by the time Luke composed his Gospel, to which top Johannine scholars demonstrate John was written as a response. Why wait so long? And who would still be alive then? This does not seem very plausible. Yes, again, it’s possible they were teens (and thus would be in their seventies by then, still a rare age to achieve) or lived uncommonly long. But possible does not get you probable. The weight of this objection is simply that it is more likely that John was written by an early second century Hellenist. And Manning has no actual objection to that, other than possibiliter fallacies. What Manning lacks is evidence that despite this, really John wrote it. “Maybe he did” doesn’t count.
Another objection Manning has no good reply to is why, if the Gospel of John was written by John, it contains exactly zero stories about John himself. Manning tries to argue that “John was aware of other Gospels and was mostly avoiding repetition,” but even if that were true (and it’s not; John emulates several stories and details from the Synoptics), it actually does not make sense. An author would be more inclined to give his own direct narrative of events than leave it to third parties, and more able to do so, because those are his stories—he was there. Yet we get nothing. Yes, there are the stories about the Beloved Disciple, but the problem there is that (besides the fact that the evidence tells us these are stories about Lazarus, not John) these stories never connect to any story about John anywhere else. We thus have no overlap. So why are we assuming John is even in this Gospel? Manning can try to explain this away by saying John deliberately avoided correcting or expanding on any previous tales of himself, but that is just an excuse, essentially a circular argument. He is explaining away an oddity rather than actually explaining it. However you cut it, this omission of stories about John’s own experiences with Jesus, and avoidance of any overlap with any other stories about himself, is strange. Which is another word for improbable.
Again, the real objection here is not that John “could not” have done what Manning alleges; the objection is that it is not probable that he would. It’s more likely we’d get more personal reminiscences of Jesus from John’s perspective, and that some of these would overlap previously recorded tales, especially given how some of them John would surely have wanted to add his own perspective to. Instead he didn’t think it important to give his own take on his first encounter with Jesus, or his experience of the transfiguration, or the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter that he was one of the few men uniquely privileged to witness (yet somehow, in “John’s” narrative, the Jews did not get up in arms over her resurrection; “John’s” Gospel never even mentions it), or what Jesus told him about the coming apocalypse (surely of paramount importance!), or his own experience encountering the risen Jesus? What about why he and his brother were called the Sons of Thunder? In fact, why is there no mention of the equally important role of John’s brother? James and John are, after Peter, Jesus’s top men in the Synoptics, and became major heroic personages in subsequent Christian legend. Yet they are entirely absent from “John’s” Gospel. Yes, you “can” explain all this away. But it’s still not very probable. Whoever wrote the Gospel of “John” does not seem to know much about John. In fact he seems to have no interest in him at all. And that simply will always count against John having written it.
Manning also tries to incoherently dance around the fact that the authors of John identify themselves in the plural. He thinks the fact that having multiple authors “doesn’t seem to be the simplest explanation” for why a text would declare itself to have been written by multiple authors and use the first person plural in describing it, but here we are going to have to suppose Manning doesn’t know what the word “simplest” means. This is another instance of Trumpishly just “asserting” reality is exactly the opposite of what it really is and hoping no one notices. Manning doesn’t even address the fact that in the Gospel these authors in the plural declare their Gospel’s source to be the Beloved Disciple, not its author. Or that the Gospel plainly identifies this Beloved as Lazarus, not John. Much less that 1 John is clearly a community letter, derivative of the Gospel’s mode of address in summarizing exactly the same material (hence its employment of the first person plural), and actually also is not identified as written by anyone named John, much less an Apostle (in none of the Johannine epistles do the authors even claim to be disciples, much less “John” specifically). As Bart Ehrman establishes in Forgery and Counter-Forgery, most scholars now conclude these letters were not written by any such person. They are rather a polemical series of letters written after the Gospels. It is crucial to note that these letters appear to have been as anonymous when written as the Gospel was (the earliest quotations of these Epistles don’t mention their authorship by John, and they themselves lack any such internal address). They appear to have all been assigned the name “John” after the fact, likely owing to their similarity of content (whoever wrote the letters was certainly riffing on the same Gospel).
Finally, Manning burns a lot of words on apologetically trying to deal with Papias, but in the end, in reliable references, Papias never mentions the Gospel of John or any John writing any Gospel. Manning must intend his citation of the The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to John as evidence Papias did mention these things, but this does not appear to be a reliable reference; it has no quotation of Papias (it just makes an assertion about something supposedly in Papias), whereas Eusebius quotes the very same work of Papias extensively on the Apostles and Gospels, yet never found any such passage to quote or mention, despite the fact that this anonymous Prologue claims Papias himself wrote the Gospel of John (on dictation from the Apostle), an absolutely astonishing thing to declare. This remarkable fact is unknown to Irenaeus and Clement and Jerome and every other author of the first four centuries. Eusebius himself could not possibly have failed to comment on this, but for it to be unmentioned across the entirety of four hundred years of Christian literature is even harder to credit. Hence most scholars conclude now that whoever wrote the The Anti-Marcionite Prologue for John was either fibbing or confused, and that it must derive from a much later date than the others, as no one earlier knows anything about it.
The other Reasons articles on “John’s” Gospel add only two arguments to Manning, neither any good:
- First we are told that “no one is going to forget the writers of the Gospels in the early church” because “the church must have raised the funds in order to have the canonical Gospels written,” therefore John the Apostle must have written the Gospel According to John. This is a whole string of possibiliter fallacies: presuming there was a singular “church” (the evidence suggests the reverse); presuming the Gospel wasn’t commissioned to be uncredited as all other Gospels by then were (the evidence suggests it was); and presuming any reliable information about its origin even reached later authors (which is unlikely given that none have any source to cite for that information beyond the Anti-Marcionite edition that named them). In short, there is no evidence for this supposition. Consequently, it is not evidence. It’s just something Christians “wish” were true.
- The second additional argument is to incredulously ask “Why assign the name John?” In fact the names assigned to the Gospels in the foursquare edition all conspicuously derive from the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul, which were being included with them in the same edition. So whoever assembled that edition is trying to create hyperlinks that can explain why the Gospels can still be authoritative even while contradicting each other. And yet when the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul were written, they had no knowledge of any of those people having written any books on the subject. That notion is thus a post hoc development. For John in particular, Paul says there were three “pillars” believed to be the greatest authorities: Peter, James, and John. Lo and behold, all three had very popular Gospels named after them, notably all bogus (no one believes “The Gospel According to Peter” was ever even read by Peter much less written by him; likewise “The Protevangelium of James”). It just so happens that when someone assembled a foursquare Gospel-set to combat Marcion, the ones named after Peter and James had been declared heretical and were thus passed over for another, to be named after the one remaining pillar, John—probably indeed to distinguish it from them. And yet even still as late as the 160s A.D., Justin Martyr was still treating the Gospel of James as authoritative (as he effectively includes it among the “Memoirs of the Apostles” when he assumes they report that Jesus was born in a cave). But as that is not likely to have really been written by the Apostle James, nor the Gospel of Peter by the Apostle Peter, the Gospel “according to John” is just as likely not by any the actual Apostle John.
So these are simply more repeated failures to adduce any evidence that John was actually the author of the Gospel. Which leads us to conclude apologetics simply does not believe in actual evidence. What we get instead are isolated, disconnected “facts” and “suppositions,” which when combined with handwaving, baiting-and-switching, well-poisoning, and possibiliter fallacies, gets “converted” into something that “sounds” like evidence has been presented for the conclusion, when in fact not a single item of actually pertinent evidence has been. We are simply told it’s “possible” the late unsourced legends about who wrote the book are true, therefore we should conclude it’s “probable” they are true. But bridging that gap between possible and probable requires evidence, which means not just any random facts, and certainly not mere declarations and suppositions, but actual, material facts whose probability is substantially higher if the legends are true than if they are merely legends. But all we get is evidence the legends existed and were believed by persons most interested to believe them, and most prone to believe them on no real evidence; which simply isn’t improbable. It’s exactly what we expect if those legends were made up by similarly interested parties who wanted to sell the Gospel as authoritative. There is no evidence that’s unlikely on mere legend. By contrast, there is a lot of evidence that is unlikely if John really did write it (as surveyed above). The balance of evidence is therefore against his having done so.
So we’ve instead encountered a method designed to avoid rather than discover the truth:
- You can only make a case for your belief by leaving out all the best evidence against it. (Manning never addresses most of the strongest arguments and evidence against Johannine authorship.)
- Always deny the relevance of any piece of uncomfortable evidence; you may use any specious rationalization you can think of to accomplish this. (Manning often just dismisses contrary evidence without any actually good reason.)
- Rely on fallacies everywhere you can. (Manning deployed several; in fact, his argument consists almost entirely of nothing but.)
- When you can’t find any evidence for your position, invent some. (Manning adduces a lot of things that he just supposes, without and often against the evidence, and then treats those suppositions as evidence.)
- When you can’t find any current, quality, objective, peer-reviewed literature to support your position, dig back fifty to a hundred years or more until you find someone, anyone, who agrees with you—and then cite them as an authority. (Manning never mentions the current state of the expert literature, and seems not to have ever even checked what it is; instead, he relies on just citing other apologists who likewise ignore the mainstream scholarship, or long-debunked arguments from the 19th century.)
- Avoid checking or mentioning the current state of a field if you can; because that won’t go well for you. (Ditto.)
- Just keep insisting something is true that’s exactly the opposite of the truth, and hope everyone mistakes the confidence of your assertions as evidence. (Manning resorted to this tactic more than once.)
- Never confront real evidence or arguments if you can help it; line up straw men and beat them down instead. (Mostly what Manning ended up doing.)
- If you can invent a just-so story that explains why the evidence does not match expectation, then you get to pretend you just proved your just-so story true, and therefore have successfully avoided the consequences of that uncomfortable evidence. (We found Manning also doing this more than once.)
I will now close out here by adding Apologetics Rule Number Ten: quote-mine anything that supports you; just be sure to ignore its every context. Lo, Manning closes by quoting Raymond Brown’s early commentary on John, in which he’d concluded, “When all is said and done, the combination of external and internal evidence associating the Fourth Gospel with John the son of Zebedee makes this the strongest hypothesis, if one is prepared to give credence to the Gospel’s claim of an eyewitness source.” Awkward. News flash: after his subsequent literary studies on that Gospel and the impact of the field’s advances over thirty years, Raymond Brown abandoned this conclusion. And his principle reason for abandoning it was realizing it is folly to simply “give credence” to the “Gospel’s claim of an eyewitness source.” That, he realized, would amount to formalized gullibility. And since his previous conclusion really hinged on that (because only “if one is prepared” to embrace that premise, he said, do any indicators point any longer to John really having written it), his conclusion went down with the premise.
This you will discover in Brown’s An Introduction to the Gospel of John, posthumously published in 2003. There he admits the Gospel was not written by any Apostle or eyewitness, but by someone purporting to record oral traditions passed down through many tradents, supposedly, ultimately, from an unnamed “disciple” who was not one of the Twelve Apostles (and thus certainly not the Apostle John); and then a later redactor came along and changed around and added stuff, including the fake section claiming to have consulted an eyewitness—indeed, by his death, Brown believed the entirety of John 21 was not in the original but added later by someone else (along with the Prologue and some other material). I don’t agree with Brown on every point, but he ended up far closer to where the evidence obviously leads, than his gullible apologetic construction in his original 1966 commentary that Manning quoted.
So Manning couldn’t even be bothered to check the latest scholarship from Brown himself. He just quote-mined an old, obsolete position Brown himself later repudiated—and thus either didn’t know about that, or didn’t want us to know about it. Methodologically, this is a classic example of Apologetics Rule Six, producing the very invalid result you’d expect it to. Real historians do the opposite of Rule Six. That is why they get closer to the truth. Apologetics, by contrast, is intelligently designed to never to get there at all.