A couple weeks back I posted about the conceptual difficulty entailed in any argument from deduction, using specifically the case of Zebedean authorship of John’s Gospel as an example. I observed that the argument “John, son of Zebedee, could not have written the Fourth Gospel because he was a Galilean fisherman” contains an unspoken major: namely, that no one who is a Galilee fisherman c. 30 C.E. could have written something like the Fourth Gospel. Only to the extent that that premise is true could the argument be considered valid and sound, and the empirical work of establishing its truth would be more than a little difficult.
I would to flesh out that argument with additional considerations that in my mind make Zebedean authorship seem significantly less implausible than is often assumed. Specifically, I want to point at the growing body of evidence related to the ancient Galilean economy. This evidence is driving a general shift from the substantivist and primitivist historical economics associated with Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley, and for some time assumed in the treatment of the ancient Galilean economy, towards a formalist and modernist historical economics such as those associated with the work of Michael Roztovzeff. Given this shift, archaeologists are increasingly interpreting the ancient Galilean economy as a place of relative affluence; at the very least there is a recognition that one cannot characterize all Galileans are peasants just barely getting by fiscally. In fact, the very idea of a Galilean peasantry is in the dock; after all, absent either a primarily agricultural economy or a feudal politics “peasantry” might well be nought but a mischievous anachronism in discussions of first-century Galilee.
Enough however of theory. It appears that fishing was a potentially quite lucrative career path in the ancient Galilee. The salted fish from Magdala were renowned throughout the empire. The data en toto would suggest that not every fisherman, perhaps not even most, was operating at a subsistence level. Many, perhaps most, were selling their wares for distribution and consumption within a lively international market (the shift towards formalist historical economics has made archaeologists and others familiar with studies on the ancient Galilean economy more amenable to the language of market than those still operating within a substantivist framework). Some, such as Zebedee, could afford to hire other fishermen to work their boats. And if Zebedee could afford to hire fishermen to work his boats then it is hardly inconceivable that he could afford to give his sons a decent education. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that Zebedee would have considered such an education, inculcating a fluency and literary in Koine, to be a significant advantage for sons who would one day take over the business.
If John is to be identified with the Beloved Disciple then there is the question of how a Galilean fisherman was known to the chief priest. It is of course altogether conceivable that John had business dealings of some sort with the household of the chief priest. Again, however, recent advances in Galilean studies might help furnish another hypothesis. The growing consensus is that the first-century Galileans were descendants of Jewish colonists who came to the region during the Maccabean era. It is hardly inconceivable and indeed virtually certain that among them were priestly families. Zebedee and his sons might very well belong to such a family, thus raising the possibility of familial or cultic ties with Caiaphas. That is all to say, the idea that a Galilean fisherman, and quite possibly an affluent fisherman at that, could also be moving in the same circles as the chief priest can hardly be ruled out.
In the final analysis however there will be no knock-down argument for Zebedean authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, all I have done above is sketch the outlines of a world in which such authorship is possible; I’ve hardly made an argument. What the above discussion does suggest however is that already during Jesus’s lifetime we see a phenomenon that would be present not too much later among the Paleo-Christians based in Jerusalem and elsewhere: socio-economic heterogeneity. Jesus’s followers from the off appear to have come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Those romantic treatments of the movement that want to valorize his followers as the noble poor would thus seem to suffer a disconnection from reality.