This is the last in a series I've done explaining the basic issues and majority positions of biblical experts on how traditions about Jesus more or less seem to have come together into the canonical texts. The previous posts were:
1. Jesus Tradition in Paul
2. Mark Came First
3. Common Sayings in Matthew and Luke
Now the final one.
It will probably come as a surprise to just about everyone reading this post that I actually think that the foundational layer of John is the only one of the four gospels likely to go back to someone who actually knew Jesus. Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses, and while I have a pet hypothesis that a core of the translated sayings behind Matthew goes back to Matthew, the strong majority of experts on Matthew think that the editor who put it into its current form was a Greek speaking Jew rather than the disciple himself.
By contrast, John 21:24 says that the "beloved disciple" is "the one witnessing concerning these things and the one who wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true." Now the Gospel of John never actually tells us who this beloved disciple was. Tradition says it was John the son of Zebedee, but Dionysius of Alexandria in the 3rd century (and others) indicated there were two Johns at this time. Interestingly, one was called John "the elder." "The elder" is the way the author of 2 and 3 John self-identifies, and they clearly have much in common with 1 John and the Gospel of John stylistically and theologically.
Dionysius says that we basically should choose between the two Johns as authors of the Gospel of John and Revelation respectively. He thus anticipated 1700 years ago the current consensus today among the experts, namely, that the author of John and the author of Revelation are not likely to have been the same person. Dionysius says we have John the son of Zebedee and John the elder. One wrote John. One wrote Revelation. You pick.
It thus seems to me that it is quite possible that the "beloved disciple" was not one of the Twelve but the one we call John the elder. Martin Hengel wondered if he was a follower of Jesus not so much in Galilee as in the area of Jerusalem. If so, it might explain the Gospel of John's preoccupation with Jesus' trips to Judea as well as its curiously different flavor with regard to Jesus' ministry in Galilee.
And let's be very up front about how different the style and presentation of John is. Mark 4:34 indicates that Jesus' teaching was permeated with parables. John doesn't have even one. One of the key features of Jesus' ministry was exorcism. John doesn't have even one. The cornerstone of Jesus' preaching was the kingdom of God and Jesus was very vague, even secretive about his role in it. Jesus' role in "eternal life" and the nature of his identity permeates John.
Of course as Christians we believe in John's characterizations of Jesus and John's understanding of Jesus' role in eternal life. But it is hard not to conclude that we are getting much more of an interpreted and paraphrased Jesus--The Message version, if you would--than what we would see on a video. The Gospel of John moves some things around and coordinates events with pithy "I am" statements to bring out who Jesus is.
One of the most famous "move arounds" is bringing the money changer event into the first year of Jesus' ministry rather than the final week. Sure, it could have happened twice, but you really won't hear many experts suggest something like that. After painstaking examination of how the gospels have edited material, this sort of thing seems pretty typical. Also, there's really no reason to worry about it. Somehow the people arguing 100 years ago got fixated on historicity rather than on whether the message was true (that includes both sides--modernists and fundamentalists).
So I personally have not found any good reason not to think that the foundational source/layer behind John is an eyewitness/follower of Jesus called the "beloved disciple." However, notice how John 21:24 put things--"he is the one... his witness is true." This sounds like someone writing about what the beloved disciple wrote and taught rather than the beloved disciple himself.
There is thus good reason to think that the Gospel of John has layers. Hard of course to determine exactly what those layers are, but there are hints of them. For example, if you look at John 2:11, turning water into wine is the first sign Jesus does. Then in John 4:54 Jesus heals a man's son, the second sign. What is interesting, though, is that John 2:23 implies that Jesus did a lot of signs in between.
Now there are no doubt many ways to explain this seeming curiosity, that Jesus does signs in between his first and second sign. But the person interested in truth is not oriented around explaining things away but with finding the most likely explanation. At least at first glance, it seems that we have a hint here of layers in John, a shadow of earlier and later material. So perhaps one source had 7 signs Jesus did. The other might have mentioned in the normal course of things that Jesus did many signs.
Again, John is not my area of expertise so I offer these sorts of things as illustrations of the kinds of issues that exist with regard to the Jesus tradition in John, not as final answers. Like the other gospels, those who were involved in John's creation wrote the story in such a way as to put things in their environment into perspective. For example, John may give hints of conflicts between followers of Jesus and followers of John the Baptist at Ephesus (cf. Acts 19). The Gospel of John, while it clearly respects John the Baptist, consistently downplays his role in things.
1 John also indicates that John's community was wrestling with incipient Gnosticism at the end of the first century, Docetism in particular. Docetism was the belief that Jesus only appeared to become human. So it is no surprise that John 1:14 emphasizes the word becoming flesh and that John 6:54 emphasizes eating Jesus' flesh. 1 John 2:19 tells of a split in John's community, where the Docetists separated. Yet John 10:16 may also hint that John's community stood somewhat apart from other, more mainstream Christians as well (e.g., Pauline Christians or Jamesian Christians).
Much of the above is educated guessing. I didn't come up with it and who knows how much of it is right. What does seem to be the case is that the Gospel of John is far more symbolic in its presentation of Jesus than the other gospels. It's teaching seems to have as much to say about the issues its community was wrestling with as about Jesus from the past. As Christians, we believe it's conclusions on those issues were correct! But you can see it can be tricky in John to distinguish the translation of Jesus from Jesus as he would have been on videotape.
Nevertheless, while many completely discarded John as a window on history in the late 1800s, the mid-1900s saw individuals like C. H. Dodd re-arguing that John cannot be discarded historically. For example, several features of its passion story may provide significant historical insight into Jesus' final hours (e.g., his somewhat private meeting with Annas).
The key, I believe, is to realize that it is wrong to assume that the primary focus of an eyewitness like the beloved disciple would be on historical precision. This, I do not believe, is how ancient interpreters and story tellers were wired. They were wired to tell the stories of things in such a way as to make a point--for example, to share who they were or to embody values. That does not mean that they did not maintain oral kernels intact. It just means that they felt much more freedom than many of us would to vary the details and to make allegories out of things.
Here endeth the series.