A few things that will hopefully help us as we prayerfully seek to invite people to study John's Gospel with us.
Can we trust John's Gospel?
A person you're reading John's Gospel with may have questions about the authenticity and historical reliability of John's Gospel. Below are two short documents from our resource library you could download and give people if they were really interested and also a sketch of some things you could say if appropriate:
Who was John?
John was a disciple and a close friend of Jesus, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved'. John was brother of James, son of Zebedee, a fisherman and one of Jesus' inner apostolic circle. He was, therefore, a first-hand eye-witness. He also wrote the New Testament letters 1, 2 & 3 John and Revelation. He lived longer than the other gospel writers and probably wrote his gospel later than the others at around 80–90AD. It is true there has been some debate over this in recent years among various scholars but the internal evidence of the Bible and external sources seem pretty clear.
Is it historical?
We can be confident that John's Gospel is solid historical and credible evidence about what Jesus said and did. In fact, we can be confident that as we come to John's Gospel we can hear the voice of God. It's a great question to ask and I can give you lots of resources/books, etc that will help you research this issue further if you'd like. (See recommended resources below.) But the best way to find out whether John's Gospel is true is to read it and study it for yourself.
Remembering the 4 ‘T's of Translation, Transmission, Trustworthiness and Truth might help deal with a number of questions that might come up.
Translation? This is in English, how do I know it is the same as the original Greek?
Yes, this is an English translation of the Greek text that John wrote. Translations like the ESV and NIV are very good and the preface to most Bibles will give you a good overview of how the translation team has gone about their work to ensure they have produced a translation from the source manuscripts that is as accurate as possible.
Transmission? What about Chinese whispers? Hasn't the Bible/the gospel been tinkered with down through the centuries?
No, we can be very confident that what we have in our hands now is what was actually written by the original authors. We don't have the originals as they were written on papyrus or leather which have since rotted. But these originals were copied by conscientious scribes who knew they were handling the word of God and took great care not to make mistakes. We have thousands of these copies that are dated very early that have been found all over the world. (The earliest part of a copy still in existence dates back to 125AD and is held in the John Ryland Library in Manchester.) By placing these copies next to each other the literary experts can easily spot if any particular manuscripts have any errors. Most serious historians would agree that the case for the historical reliability of the gospels is very strong. Indeed it is much better than comparable ancient documents.
Also, writings from members of the early church show us both that 1) the early church was very rigorous in satisfying themselves that the gospels were authentic eye-witness testimony and 2) that they were indeed convinced that the gospels were authentic. For example, Ireneaus' writings support the identification of John the disciple as the author of John's Gospel.
Trustworthy? Ok, we might have what John and the other gospel writers wrote but why should we trust them?
The gospel writers claim to be giving us eye-witness testimony. For example, John says, "This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true" and in one of his letters he says, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."
It's good to ask ourselves do we have any reason not to trust them? What reason might they have had for making it up? The New Testament writers didn't benefit materially or politically from what they wrote; instead, they were severely persecuted and most died for their beliefs. The gospel writers put great emphasis on integrity. John, for example, makes a great deal in his gospel about there being dependable witnesses to Jesus, himself included. It would be very deceitful and hypocritical to say this and knowingly ‘make it up'. The early explosion in the growth of the Christian church shows that many people who were alive at the time of the events recorded believed. These same people could easily have discredited the gospels if the public events recorded in the Gospels were untrue. Thousands of Christians in the first century AD, including those who publicly preached and then wrote down the message, were willing to give their lives as martyrs for the resurrected Jesus Christ. People will die for what they believe to be true, but no one will die for what they know to be a lie.
CS Lewis made the point that he had spent his life reading myth and fable but the gospels do not read like that. The gospel writers describe events, locations, names, geography that only an eye-witness of the time would know about. Archaeology and historical study of names and places back up what the gospel writers recorded—for example in John 5, John mentions five colonnades, which at one time historians thought couldn't have existed until archaeologists found them.
Is it true?
Read it, think about it and make your own mind up. The fact that the claims of John and the other gospel writers are so big and significant—Jesus is God, he rose from the dead, he can give us life—coupled with the lack of credible reasons to dismiss the gospels as historical means it is surely worth investigating John's Gospel for yourself.
For more details you could recommend the following pamphlets and books to your friends and colleagues:
John Dickson, 'The Christ Files' (Blue bottle books, 2006)
Lee Strobel, 'The Case for Christ' (Zondervan, 1998)
Lee Strobel, 'The Case for the Real Jesus' (Zondervan, 2007)
Craig Blomberg, 'The Historical Reliability of the Gospels' (IVP, 1987)
Paul Barnett, 'The truth about Jesus: the challenge of evidence' (Aquila, 1994)
Paul Barnett, 'Jesus and the Logic of History' (IVP, 1997)