There are at least 23 possible candidates. Even today, Fran and I have different ideas and arguments about who it could be and who it probably wasn’t. So let’s dive in.
In the Fourth Gospel the author claims to have witnessed the events he is recording. In John 19:35 he records that he was an eye witness and in John 21:24, as the editor, John witnesses for the character of the author. This witnessing idea was very important in 1st Century Palestine. Different weights were given to men who saw something themselves or had talked to someone who had personally seen.
John is saying explicitly that he was at the cross, in the crowd, unlike the other disciples who had taken to the hills leaving the women behind. For this claim to have survived the author’s contemporaries must have agreed with that assessment.
Some say the author was John the brother of Jesus, but others argue it couldn’t have been since the “Woman behold your son” statement would have been unnecessary, him already being the son. The popular candidate for being the actual John is John son of Zebedee, brother of James. Unfortunately the brothers are mentioned in the same passage as the beloved disciple – John 21:1, Sons of Zebedee; 21:7, disciple whom Jesus loved.
The author shows a detailed knowledge of Jerusalem before the destruction in AD70. Early church historians challenged this since many of the places he described had disappeared from the physical world by the 2nd Century. For example, John describes two miracles associated with pools, Siloam and Bethesda, with Bethesda described as having five porticos. Early scholars claimed that these were literary embellishments made up by the author. However in 2005 the Siloam pool was identified and the recent study into the Bethesda pool showed that it would have had 5 doors as described in the gospel. Both pools were likely Jewish ritual bathing or purification places. The Fourth Gospel is firmly grounded in the Jerusalem before the destruction of AD70.
This level of detail does not sit comfortably with the Galilean background of the disciples but does fit with John being a close relative of Caiaphas the High Priest – a possible reason why the author was a witness at the trial of Jesus and had access to a room in the centre of the city during the busiest festival of the year.
But does it really matter who wrote this book? All theories build their cases from the same material within broadly the same tradition and then reach significantly different conclusions about the author. Any one of the 23 candidates could have been the author.
The identification of the author is secondary to the message running through the Gospel and we risk too much by searching for something that was consciously omitted from the text by the author. I feel that the author, through his deliberate anonymity, shows that every man, woman and even you and I could be and can be the Beloved Disciple.