Is it reasonable to reject the Gospels as eyewitness accounts? Part 5

This is part five of a 6 part series. PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 6

Objection: John was illiterate as reported in Acts 4:13, so there was no way he could have written the Gospel which bears his name.  It is possible, some say, that he could have dictated it.  However that is doubted by some literary analysts due to the literary and writing styles in Greek of both the Gospel of John and the epistles of John which vary considerably.  They read as though they were composed by someone of medium to high writing skills, not that of a peasant farmer/fisherman.

This objection is usually offered as a generalization against all the Gospel authors.  It is presumed that because the Apostles were poor peasants — more or less — and the Gospels are written with a stylistic quality we wouldn’t likely find among them.  This objection to John, specifically, might be more appealing since we have four New Testament documents bearing the same author’s name.  Having multiple written works by the same alleged author gives us the benefit of being able to compare them for internal linguistic consistency.

Let’s begin with the citation from Acts 4:13. Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.  The basis for the objection seems to be founded on what uneducated and untrained means to Luke, the author of Acts.  It should be kept in mind that he was recording the perception of Peter and John as the Sanhedrin saw them.  Luke was a doctor and historian, both professions requiring an education.   I’m not convinced uneducated and untrained necessarily means illiterate. It could be inferred without a stretch to mean that they were not what we consider formally educated in a university, like Luke. There were universities at the time where higher training in philosophies, medicines and whatnot were available.  I think we can also reasonably conclude that Peter and John were probably literate, but not to the degree of scholars of the day given that their profession likely required some degree of written communication.

However, it certainly could be the case that John was illiterate at the time Acts 4:13 was written, I could grant that.  What’s important to keep in mind though is that the Gospel according to John and his epistles were written some decades after the events in Acts.  Given that John played a substantial role in the early Christian church, it’s well within reason to presume that he would have learned to read and write in the 40-60 years between the events in Acts and his Gospel being put to paper.  This objection fails to take into account that there was passage of time between John being described as uneducated and untrained (or illiterate) and when the Gospel according to John was written.

But even if he, John, were illiterate, I still think it is not out of the realm of reasonable possibility to have the Gospel and epistles penned for him. Some might hold this against the supposed authors of the New Testament.  That if the attributed author didn’t actually set pen to paper this somehow diminishes its authenticity or authority.  I, however, don’t think it’s any liability if it were to turn out that they were written by someone who was highly educated and dictated by the Apostle.  Transcribers could be hired, and given the weight of the document and the growth of the church, I think that it is certainly reasonable to believe that an educated convert to Christianity could have taken John’s dictation for the good of the movement, so to speak.  It has been my experience within the church that members often do favors for one another.  People barter. There are favors done for good friends, especially if you have a skill they don’t. I have a friend who’s expertise is in computer engineering, I also have a mechanic friend. Both of them do very expensive work for me at a fraction of the cost, many times at no cost at all.

What about the differences in styles?  Many critics of New Testament authorship build their critique on what they consider to be significant variation in writing styles between works by the same author.  Bart Ehrman makes this the crux of his argument in his book  Forged.  And while I agree there might be differences in writing styles and vocabulary, and even broad differences, this is only a liability of we posit the corpus of works were completed in one sitting by John himself, or a scribe. But they weren’t. They were written over a span of time.  In fact, my writing style (vocab, structure, content type, and flow) here on this blog has changed drastically over the last 3 years.  I would bet all the money I could borrow that if we gave my earliest posts and some of my last to an analyst, they’d conclude they were different authors. Same could easily be true with John’s (or Paul’s) writings.

I am unconvinced that John (or the other Gospel authors for that matter) were illiterate.  This notion trades on a rigid understanding of agrammatoi meaning illiterate without accounting for the fact that plenty of time had passed between the events in Acts and the authorship of John’s Gospel account in which he could have learned to write.  The objection also fails to take into account that the Gospel and epistles were not written in one sitting, and would be the only situation with which literary styles varying as they do makes any substantial difference.  It then stands to reason that John’s alleged illiteracy at the time Acts 4:13 was recorded offers no reasonable obstacle to accepting John’s Gospel as authentic.  Given John’s position in the church it is very reasonable that he would have learned to read and write well in time to have penned the Gospel and epistles which bear his name.


See also: The circumstantial case for John’s authorship


  1. All Jewish boys were taught by a Rabbi. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, they received an education by the local Rabbi. Was it a university education? Of course not. It was something close to our middle school, but how many of you left middle school without being able to read?

    This objection is asinine. John may not have received a “university” education, like JB said, but that doesn’t mean he was illiterate.

    The objection is asinine.

    • T

      Yeah, I think it makes too many unsubstantiated presumptions and doesn’t take into account many reasonable variables which make it within reason to conclude John could have written his Gospel

  2. Your argument is that it is plausible that John wrote the New Testament sections. The title of your post is “Is it reasonable to reject…”. It is both plausible that John wrote the sections, and reasonable to reject that he did. To be faithful to the title of your post, you need to prove he wrote them. Once that proof is offered, it becomes unreasonable to reject. So the debate will continue.

    • Anthony

      You’re taking the guilty until proven innocent approach. Basically you’re saying it is reasonable to reject the authenticity of authorship until proven otherwise. The post offers reasonable and plausible defeaters to the hasty objection.

      When someone makes a claim, in this case that John’s works are not his, it is the claimant who bears the responsibility to make their case. We don’t get to hurl speculative objections for people to have to refute and presume the speculation until thoroughly refuted. There is a body of evidence throughout church history as well as internal evidence that the apostle John is the author.

      • I think you are making the case that it is reasonable to believe that the Gospels are eye-witness accounts. On the other hand, I am not too aware of why that is refuted. Perhaps the refuter’s evidence is poor.

    • Speculative accusation is not reasonable, which the post demonstrates, and therefore the post content is consistent with its title.

  3. Anthony, what do you think of the evidence presented at this link? (pasted below)

    Here it is in a nutshell:
    *The author identified himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:20, 24), a prominent figure in the Johannine narrative (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).
    *The author used the first person in 1:14, “we have seen his glory,” revealing that he was an eyewitness to the accounts contained in his Gospel.
    *The “we” of 1:14 refers to the same people as does 2:11, Jesus’ disciples. Thus the writer was an apostle, an eyewitness, and a disciple of Jesus.
    *Since the author never referred to himself by name, he cannot be any of the named disciples at the Last Supper: Judas Iscariot (13:2, 26–27), Peter (13:6–9), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8–9), or Judas the son of James (14:22).
    *The disciple that Jesus loved is also one of the seven mentioned in the last chapter: “Simon Peter, Thomas (called ‘Twin’), Nathanael from Cana of Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other of his disciples” (21:2; see 21:7).
    *Peter and Thomas have already been eliminated. Nathanael is also ruled out as a possible author since the author remains unnamed in John’s Gospel.
    *The author must be either one of “Zebedee’s [two] sons” or one of the “two other of [Jesus’] disciples.”
    *Of the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, James can safely be ruled out since he was martyred in the year 42 (see Acts 12:2).
    *This leaves John the son of Zebedee as the probably author of the Gospel.
    *Irenaeus (c. 130–200): “John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the Gospel while he was a resident at Ephesus in Asia” (Against Heresies 3.1.2).
    *Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215): “John, last of all … composed a spiritual Gospel” (quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.7).
    [and finally, a point I’ll add]
    *In every other gospel (Matthew/Mark/Luke), John the Baptist is introduced with a “descriptor” or “disambiguater” like “John the Baptist” or “John son of Zechariah”. (See Matthew 3:1, Mark 1:4, and Luke 3:2) Why? Obviously because there are two major characters in the gospels named “John”. The author needs to distinguish “John the Baptist” from “John the disciple”. But notice the usage throughout the book of John. John the Baptist is mentioned ~20 times – but ALWAYS is referred to simply as “John”. This only makes sense of the author was named John – therefore he had no need to disambiguate the names.

    • I guess I’ll go back to my basic logic argument: if it is unreasonable to reject the authorship, then I am 100% confident that no-one can come up with a believable alternative. Alternatives have been proposed. What are these alternative explanations and why are you 100% confident none of them is correct? That is what you need to focus on.

      Let me take another example: “Is it reasonable to reject the idea that the Earth is younger than 4200 years?” I am quite confident, for a number of reasons, that this is reasonable. I anticipate that every argument used to prove the Earth is younger than 4200 years will have a problem and will not be a proof. So, it is not reasonable to reject.

      Regarding the gospels, I am nowhere near 100% confident that an argument cannot be found that the Book of John is not an eyewitness account. Arguing how reasonable that assertion is is not the point. I need to be 100% confident that there is no way to refute the assertion. Given all the possible histories of the gospels and other documents, I am nowhere near 100% confident. The above arguments suggest it is reasonable to believe the gospel is a first-hand account. However, the title is “unreasonable to not believe”. I am still not sure that someone won’t be able to plant a seed of doubt about the account.

      • Anthony

        Here’s the thing. There are an infinite number of alternate explanations for anything. Its not enough to have an alternate explanation, you also need good reason to believe it. There needs to be plausible evidence which goes above the explanation we have without being too ad hoc. So for what we have that points toward John being the author, having other explanations, even kinda reasonable ones, isn’t enough to abandon the conclusion that John is the author.

  4. Moreover, the Gospels have NEVER had anyone else’s name attached to them. Considering we have copies of mutiple fragments of John from 150-250 AD, it seems reasonable that John’s name was attached to the earliest manuscripts.

    In my mind, there are only two possibilities:
    1) John actually wrote the gospel
    2) Someone deliberately forged the gospel making it APPEAR to have been written by John.

    The problem with theory #2 is this: If someone were deliberately forging the gospel, why not make the authorship more clear? Why not come right out and say “I, John the apostle, wrote this account with my own hand.” Perhaps he is just a VERY clever forger? Sure, that’s POSSIBLE. But is it REASONABLE?

    Maybe you want to lay out your case that rejecting John’s account is reasonable. I’d be very interested to hear it.

  5. Guys, It’s classic God to use the very unlikely humans to make the most profound impacts. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” -1 Cor 1:26, NIV 1984.Since our premise is that we are a theistic religion that claims exclusively that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the 1 true deity then why couldn’t He have supernaturally imparted the equivalent of years of theological training as it states: “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. ” – Luke 24:45 , NIV 1984.Moreover, they also had supernatural power to perform signs wonders and miracles. They had knowledge and power from God. I know the topic of continuationism vs cessationism is debated in the Church but this is what the Church needs today, both knowledge and power.

  6. Another scripture that came to mind that keeps with my former comment which can be summed up as ‘ Yes they weren’t the brightest but God gave them everything they needed to show his power’: ” But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” -Matt 10:19-20, NKJV

  7. Anthony,
    Are you 100% certain that the antibiotics given by your doctor are effective, well-tested, and not tainted with poison?
    Are you 100% certain that the building you are sitting in is structurally sound and will not collapse at any moment?
    Are you 100% certain that 9/11 was not a conspiracy of the Bush administration?

    We could go on. We don’t live in 100% certainty. Even if we felt as if we were 100% certain about something, we could easily question our own sanity and reasoning capacity.

    So, in one sense, I agree with you. There may be reasonable grounds out there to reject John’s authorship. But so far you (and others I’ve searched online) haven’t provided any.

  8. Hello John Barron.

    I have to give you much respect for answering and responding to my comments about the gospels. I have been too many Christian sights and blogs, and many after I leave a comment won’t even approve it. and for those do approve it. many delete my links. You have gone above and beyond my expectation. In that not only did you let my challenging comment go through but you actually took the time to respond. And that is not something that should be taken for granted in the christian blogging community. because many times, my comments never get approved.

    In fact in one experience about two weeks ago, instead of approving my comment, the guy sent me an email insulting my intelligence, than saying if I try to email him back, he won’t read any of my comments. So I just wanted to drop a comment saying thank you.

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