At the SBL Conference last year, Ben Witherington gave a discussion arguing that the author of the Gospel of John was not John Zebedee (one of the Twelve), or even John the Elder, but was in fact, Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus. Witherington posits that Lazarus is the source of most of the Gospel of John, with John the Elder acting as the final compiler and editor, as suggested by John 21. Even those who were not convinced found the presentation memorable. Thankfully, Prof. Witherington has posted the presentation on his blog, here.
Witherington begins by discussing what he perceives to be the problems with the traditional ascription to John Zebedee. He concludes that the external evidence is rather late, that John Zebedee is not featured in the Gospel, and that the Judean provence and character of the Gospel of John suggests authorship by a Jerusalem-based rather than Galilean disciple.
The latter point is one made by Witherington in his book, John's Wisdom. It is a good argument, though others have responded that after Jesus' resurrection John Zebedee would have been based in Jerusalem for many years and Craig Keener even argues that "the Fourth Gospel fiercely favors Galilee over Judea could also suggest that the author was Galilean rather than Judean." The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, page 89. Still, I find it at least suggestive that the Synoptics seem to contain more Galilean material and focus much less on Jesus' ministry in and near Jerusalem.
Witherington's best evidence, in my opinion, is that Lazarus is uniquely identified as one whom Jesus loved. See the first such reference in John 11:1-3. Jesus' love for Lazarus is again highlighted in John 11:35-36: "Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, 'See how He loved him!'" According to Witherington, "one could argue that this is the only named person in the whole Gospel about whom this is specifically said directly." But what to make of John 11:5? There, the Gospel states, "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." This does not detract from the point that Lazarus is the first, arguably the most prominent, and the only male disciple about whom it is said specifically that Jesus loves. Still, it does list two other followers of Jesus as being loved by Jesus. I would like to see this passage discussed further.
Witherington further argues that it is only after Lazarus is described as one whom Jesus loved that there is any reference to the "Beloved Disciple." In Chapter 11, Lazarus is identified as one whom Jesus loved. In Chapter 12, there is a mention of a meal at the house of Lazarus. In Chapter 13, the Beloved Disciple is said to recline against Jesus at a meal. This last description is significant, because it "was the custom in this sort of dining that the host would recline with or next to the chief guest. The story as we have it told in Jn. 13 likely implies that the Beloved Disciple is the host then." This suggests that the Beloved Disciple owned a house in or near Jerusalem, just as Lazarus did. Moreover, according to Witherington, the step-by-step progression from Lazarus being loved by Jesus, to hosting him at a meal, to the Beloved Disciple reclining against Jesus during a meal he was hosting serves as a clear marker that Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple.
For Witherington's theory to be true, however, the meal described in Jn. 13 must have taken place in Bethany rather than Jerusalem (where it is traditionally held to have occurred). Since Jn. 13 is widely accepted as referring to the Last Supper, in the comments, I asked Witherington whether he still believed that Jn. 13 described the Last Supper as recounted in Matt. 26, Luke 24, and Mark 14. It seems to be the same meal, though John lacks the Eucharist. Both have Jesus speaking of his betrayal, have Judas leaving to betray Jesus, and have Jesus leaving for the Garden where the arrest occurred.
And if Jn. 13 describes a Last Supper in Bethany, does this complicate his theory? On one hand, if the Last Supper occurred in Bethany, at only two miles outside of Jerusalem it is still close enough for the events of that night to transpire in Jerusalem. On the other hand, do not the Gospels suggest that the Last Supper took place in Jerusalem? The Synoptics record that Jesus had his disciples go to "a certain man" who was "in the city" to ask about accommodations for the Last Supper. (Luke 22:10; Mark 14:3-13; Matt. 26:3-18). While it is possible that the "city" mentioned is Bethany rather than Jerusalem, is that the most natural reading? In his Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on The Gospel of Mark, Witherington envisions the meeting with "a certain man" as occurring in Jerusalem. Ibid., page 370.
Additionally, because according to Witherington Simon the Leper was Lazarus' father and they shared a home, if Jn. 13 is the location of the Last Supper then the combined narratives of Matthew, Mark, and John, appear to have Jesus sending his disciples out from Lazarus' home to find a "certain man" that ends up being Lazarus himself who then provides them a place for the Last Supper in Lazarus' home. (Mark 14:3-13; Matt. 26:3-18; John 12 and 13). Against this, I suppose, it could be argued that Jesus was no longer at Simon the Leper's (and therefore Lazarus') house when he asked his disciples to meet the man about finding a place for the Last Supper. Such locational details can be tricky, especially in the Synoptics. The commentaries I have consulted so far do not really address the issue, so I would be interested in any informed input about it. Still, even if the location is not odd, why is Lazarus/Beloved Disciple called "a certain man" rather than identified?
Setting these issues aside for the moment, Witherington wracks up a fascinating list of implications of his theory that "clears up some conundrums." For example, the omission of the Garden of Gethsemane prayer story from John would be explained by Lazarus' absence from that scene. For another example, it would explain how the Beloved Disciple witnessed Jesus' execution after the Twelve deserted him. There is a certain "aha" element to these details once one assumes that Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple.
What do I make of all of this?
It is a very thought-provoking argument and well-worth reading. The focus on Lazarus as a disciple that Jesus loved shortly before shifting to a discussion of the Beloved Disciple (or disciple whom Jesus loved) is a powerful point. It has been mentioned before, but Witherington's discussion of Jn. 13 and description of details "solved" by Lazarus' authorship add more complete and persuasive elements to the argument.
But as discussed above, I have some important questions remaining, especially about the Last Supper, its location and timing. Also, is the argument against John Zebedee really that persuasive? Craig Keener argues at length for traditional authorship by John Zebedee in his recent commentary on John. All in all, I look forward to seeing Witherington continue to interact in the comments of his blog and what other blogs have to say about the issue. Hopefully, as the wheels of scholastic inquiry grind on, we will see further academic discussion of Witherington's proposals.
Update: Professor Witherington makes it official and responds to questions about the Last Supper by stating that there is no Last Supper in John:
John 13 is a composite account just as John 14-17 is....
John does not recount the Lord's Supper at all, simply the earlier meal, but he does indeed add the end of the last supper meal story about Judas going out and betraying Jesus here which is necessary to the plot line continuing.
This is rather typical of the editing of the day, blending several accounts of similar content together.
I am going to have to do some thinking and reading about this argument.