Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 15, 1971

"Coincidence — — Or Providence"


One of the heated questions of revelation of a past age had to do with the authorship and age of the Gospel of John. With considerable skill and logic critics of a hundred years ago argued that this gospel could not possibly have been written by the Apostle; its doctrinal and philosophical foundations simply could NOT have come out of the first century, but clearly were products of the latter half of the second century. Some even assigned it to the third or fourth! One of their favorite expressions was "all competent scholars agree." So, if one did not "agree," he was, forsooth!, not a competent scholar.

Adolph Harnack comments concerning John's gospel: "The gospel itself contains no Logos-idea; it did not develop out of a Logos-idea, such as flourished at Alexandria...The fourth gospel, which does not proceed from the Apostle John and does not so claim, cannot be used as a historical source in the ordinary sense of that word. The author has managed with sovereign freedom; has transposed occurrences and has put them in a light that is foreign to them; has of his own accord composed the discourses, and has illustrated lofty thoughts by inventing situations for them...For the history of Jesus, it can hardly anywhere be taken into account; only little can be taken from it, and that with caution."

And so the battle raged for many years, the traditional and conservative claim that John had authored the work being under merciless attack from those who contended that the style of the writing, the ideas developed in it, and the whole movement of the thought was far too advanced for any first century authorship! "All competent scholars agree," so they said, "that it must belong to the latter part of the second century, or even later."

In the light of this heated controversy it is a very interesting thing to observe that the oldest scrap of New Testament manuscript yet found is unanimously dated "by all competent scholars" from the reign of Trajan (98 - 117 A.D.), and is (you guessed it!) a scrap from the Gospel of John. Known as the "John Rylands Fragment" (the technical designation is P52) this is a tiny bit of papyrus only 31/2 by 21/2 inches, written on both sides. On one side is John 18:31-33 and on the obverse side is John 18:37-38. This bit of papyrus came to light in Egypt in 1920, but it was some years later before it was positively identified and dated. It was acquired by the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England, where it remains. This gives undeniable evidence that John's gospel was known and being circulated in Egypt within fifteen or twenty years of the apostle's death.

Time and history have a way of writing both "finis" and "futility" to many of earth's great controversies. What endless hours of argument and debate, what logic, what reasoning, what analysis went into the fight to prove the late authorship of John's gospel! And all for nothing. One tiny scrap of papyrus has been sufficient to destroy the most erudite and learned dissertation of some of the most learned theologians of the last century. Reputations built by a lifetime of research and study have been destroyed by one torn and dirty scrap of papyrus! The arguments were so profound, backed up by logic so convincing, reasoning so clear and compelling...and all so false.

It would be pointless to speculate, of course, whether the discovery of that tiny scrap of papyrus was merely coincidental, or whether it was providential. But it does seem ironical, to say the least, that the oldest bit of manuscript to come to light just happens to be from the very book the critics have attacked most vigorously, and to which they have most confidently assigned a late, late date! Could this be another instance in which God "hath made foolish the wisdom of the world?" But whether by coincidence or by providence, all controversy over the date of John's Gospel can now be forever settled---and the critics can go on to other problems.

F. Y. T.