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The Beloved Disciple: Summary

Over the last month, I have reviewed various suggestions regarding the identity of the mysterious disciple “whom Jesus loved” in the Fourth Gospel. There are a number of creative theories I have not yet explored on the blog and I may return to this series at a future date. For now, I will move on to new subjects on the blog, but here is a review of all the options that have been covered.


The Beloved Disciple as a Symbol

The proposal that the beloved disciple is a fictional or purely symbolic literary creation has been championed by a minority of scholars (A. F. Loisy, Rudolf Bultmann, A. Kragerud, J. Kügler, Maurice Casey, Ismo Dunderberg). Here is some of the evidence:

  • There is not much information about the beloved disciple to reconstruct much of a portrait and the figure abruptly appears at a few select points. The varied attempts of scholars to get behind the anonymity of this character have not proven successful.
  • In the scenes where John’s Gospel parallels one or more of the Synoptic Gospels, such as the last supper, the denials of Peter, the crucifixion, or Peter’s discovery of the empty tomb (see also the text critical issues around Luke 24:12), the beloved disciple does not appear in the other three Gospels. Some scholars argue that the beloved disciple is a later addition to the finished text of John.
  • John 13:1 testifies that Jesus loved his own, so perhaps the “disciple whom Jesus loved” represents the entire community.
  • Most scholars accept that the beloved disciple serves symbolic functions. Perhaps the beloved disciple is a cipher for the community that produced the Fourth Gospel, the “Gentile Church” as superseding the Peter-led Jerusalem Church, or itinerant Christian prophets. Perhaps the beloved disciple is a model for believers: the character possesses as intimate a relationship with Jesus as Jesus does with the Father (13:23; see 1:18), follows Jesus to the cross, recognizes the meaning of the betrayal or the symbolism of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side (13:25; 19:25), inherits a new family of faith (19:25-27), and believes in the resurrection without seeing (20:8; 20:29). Perhaps the beloved disciple is a literary device to grant legitimacy to the distinctive content of the text, affirming the truth of its testimony (see John 19:35; 21:24).
  • Although the beloved disciple dies in John 21:23, fictional characters in stories sometimes die too. Does this verse actually say what many scholars construe it as saying, namely that the beloved disciple was the founder of a community whose death completely shocked them?
  • Since 19:35 and 21:23-24 may be taken to suggest that the beloved disciple is a historical figure who witnessed the crucifixion and wrote the Gospel, one could follow Bultmann’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel and see chapter 21 along with 19:35 as later additions to the Gospel and part of the process of re-interpreting the beloved disciple as an ecclesiastical symbol to a historical individual.

The issue with this view is that the beloved disciple does not seem any less real than Peter with whom he is often contrasted. Both Peter and the beloved disciple have symbolic functions in the narrative, Peter as the well-intentioned but repeatedly failing spokesperson of the Twelve and the beloved as the spiritually insightful witness. There is no question that the character is idealized, serving as an ideal witness and a model to aspire to, and that the beloved disciple is highlighted at crucial scenes where the other Gospels completely pass over him in silence. Does this make the beloved disciple a complete fiction?

The Beloved Disciple as an Elite Judean Follower

Several scholars have identified the beloved disciple as an upper-class Judean disciple who was not a member of the “twelve” apostles (see the Twelve in John 6:67, 70, 71; 20:24). Off the top of my head, this includes J. N. Sanders, Pierson Parker, Raymond Brown, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Oscar Cullmann, G. R. Beasley Murray, Ben Witherington III, Martin Hengel, Kevin Quast, Joseph Grassi, R. Alan Culpepper, Adele Reinhartz, Richard Bauckham, Jonathan Bernier, and Marianne Meye Thompson. Some prefer to identify this Judean disciple with a named figure like John the Elder (Hengel, Bauckham, Thompson), John Mark (Sanders, Parker), or Lazarus (Witherington III). Others are not as confident that we can peer behind the veil of anonymity. Here is some evidence that the beloved disciple was an elite Judean figure:

  • The Gospel’s detailed knowledge of the topography of Judea and concentration on Jesus’ ministry in the south rather than in Galilee.
  • The beloved disciple explicitly appears in scenes in Jerusalem (John 13:23-25; 19:25-27, 35; 20:2-10; perhaps 18:15-16). The only exceptions are John 21:7, 20-24 and, if the anonymous person in the first pair of followers called by Jesus is the beloved disciple, John 1:35-40 as well.
  • The “other disciple” (=beloved disciple?) seems to have a close relationship with the high priest in order to get Peter into the courtyard (18:15-16) and only Peter is identified as a Galilean in the story of the denials.
  • The beloved disciple seems to have a house in or near Jerusalem and takes Jesus’ mother into his home (19:25-27).
  • One theory for why the beloved disciple was kept anonymous is that it was well-known that this individual (=the founder of the “community” behind the Fourth Gospel and 1, 2 and 3 John?) was not a renowned figure such as an apostle of Jesus. Instead, the Gospel emphasizes the beloved disciple’s credentials and that his spiritual insight surpassed Peter, the chief spokesperson of the Twelve and representative of apostolic Christians, while John’s epilogue may have been added to affirm the valuable ministries of both the beloved disciple and Peter.

James McGrath on Ancient Christians named John

Over at the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, James McGrath has a post introducing laypersons to John the Apostle, John the Elder, and John of Patmos. I agree with James that these were three distinct individuals; I find his additional suggestion that Revelation might have been pseudonymous ascribed to John the son of Zebedee unlikely since this seer “John” never claims to be an Apostle and the “twelve Apostles” seem to be figures of the past (Rev 21:14). James rightly points out that the Fourth Gospel is technically anonymous, though he notes that the Apostle John was traditionally identified as the beloved disciple while Lazarus is one of the more recent suggestions, and he repeats the thesis recently championed by Hengel and Bauckham that the Elder John may be the author of the Gospel and Epistles. Check out the post if you are interested.

Other Bibliobloggers Defend John as the Beloved Disciple

In continuing my research about the identity of the beloved disciple, I came across posts by Michael Barber and Philip J. Long defending the traditional identification of the beloved disciple with the Apostle John. The cases outlined are similar to what was advanced by scholars such as Westcott and Köstenberger (and many other commentators). Of course, these posts were from 2007 and 2012 so one would have to ask them whether they hold the same position today.

The Apostle Thomas as the Beloved Disciple

James Charlesworth’s monograph The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John is huge and includes exegetical engagement with all the passages about the beloved disciple, a list of scholarly suggestions about the identity of the character, and an analysis of Christian traditions and literature attributed to Thomas. I will summarize his conclusions to keep this blog post manageable. Charlesworth believes that the beloved disciple is kept partially anonymous because it encourages deeper contemplation of the themes of the whole Gospel and separates insiders in the know (i.e. they personally remembered him) from outsiders who lack this knowledge (433-434). Nevertheless, for the discerning reader, Charlesworth lays out the following criteria for discovering the beloved disciple’s identity (xiv-xviii, 428-432):

  1. Love: Thomas is willing to lay down his life for Jesus (John 11:16) and the true mark of love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends (15:12-13) (428-29, 238).
  2. Anonymity: the anonymity  turns the beloved disciple into a universal symbol – this was the one whose testimony enabled those who had not seen the earthly Jesus to believe (20:29) – yet the beloved disciple’s identity is gradually disclosed until the final chapter where he is revealed to be Thomas (429).
  3. Closeness/authority: Thomas’ name appears 7 times in John and his importance shown when he questions Jesus (14:5). An inclusio from Thomas’ first mention (11:16) to his climatic confession (20:28) frames the narrative of the beloved disciple (429-30, 243-48).
  4. Lateness: he appears as the anonymous follower of the Baptizer in John 1:35-40, while Thomas is introduced by name and the beloved disciple by his epithet around the same point in the drama after Jesus demonstrates a concrete act of love and before Jesus defines the love commandment (430).
  5. Cross: the beloved disciple sees Jesus die, just as Thomas was willing to die with Jesus, and his anonymity encourages Christians to identify with him (430).
  6. Commendation: John 19:35 and 21:24 (cf. 5:32) validates the beloved disciple’s witness, perhaps to counterbalance some of the negative aspects about Thomas in the narrative (430).
  7. Fear and Death: the community was shaken by the beloved disciples’ death (21:23) because Thomas was the one who was to spread the blessing though those who believed in his testimony (20:29) (431).
  8. Peter: while Peter was seen as the head of the Roman church, Thomas was ascendant in many eastern churches, which explains why Thomas is portrayed as beloved and superior to Peter and why the John 21 epilogue was added to soften the rivalry (431).

A few extra hints: of all the male disciples, the beloved disciple alone saw the spear stabbed into Jesus (only in John 19:34-37) and Thomas accepted the resurrection when he saw that same wound in Jesus’ side (227-233, 422-23). The reason that Thomas missed out on the first resurrection appearance to the disciples as a group is that he was undergoing purification rites for seven days after being at Jesus’ empty tomb (cf. 20:26) (283-85). Charlesworth has to explain away the beloved disciple’s belief at the sight of Jesus’ tomb in 20:8 as falling short of Easter faith, perhaps believing Mary’s report about the empty tomb but not conceiving of a resurrection as he did not yet understand the scriptures (20:9), in order to account for “doubting Thomas” in the following narrative (72-118, 296).

There are two main problems that Charlesworth strives valiantly to overcome, though the reader has to judge how successfully he has done so. The first is why the beloved disciple is kept anonymous at points and named as Thomas at points. The second is why the passages that name Thomas are read by so many other interpreters (Riley, Pagels, DeConick, Skinner, Dunderberg) as a negative portrayal if he is really to be identified as the ideal disciple whom Jesus loved.

John Mark as the Beloved Disciple

A key proponent of the suggestion that John Mark was the beloved disciple is Pierson Parker, “John and John Mark” JBL 79 (1960): 97-110. He makes the following points:

  1. John Mark lived in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) where the Fourth Gospel concentrates most of the activity of Jesus and the beloved disciple (97).
  2. John Mark was related to a Levite named Barnabas (Colossians 4:10; Acts 4:36) and may have mutilated his fingers to get out of his priestly duties (Mark’s Latin prologue in codex Toletanus). The Fourth Gospel is interested in the temple cult, the beloved disciple knows the high priest in John 18:15, and there is the tradition of Polycrates that “John” wore the priestly vestment (98).
  3. John Mark was a figure of means, befitting a Gospel that does not take as much interest in the poor and the elite circles of the beloved disciple (98).
  4. John Mark could be host of the last supper (98).
  5. John Mark was a companion of Paul and there is Pauline influence in the Fourth Gospel, though in the author’s distinct terminology (98-99).
  6. John Mark was a co-worker of Luke. The distinct agreements between the Gospels of John and Luke, as well as their differing wording and literary contexts, are due to two authors sharing oral traditions when they worked together (99-100).
  7. Just as Paul reconciled with Barnabas and John Mark after their dispute over Gentile “Judaizing” (cf. Acts 15:37-39; Gal 2:7; Col 4:10), the Fourth Gospel sides with the Gentile view of the controversy (100).
  8. John Mark ministered among the diaspora and the Fourth Gospel is the sole one to mention Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora (John 7:35; cf. 12:20) (101).
  9. John Mark was a companion of Peter (Acts 12:12). The Fourth Gospel goes into the most detail about Peter and the beloved disciple is his constant companion (101).
  10. There is no reason to suppose (John) Mark waited to be Peter’s “interpreter” until late in Peter’s life (cf. Papias) and the Fourth Gospel aligns with Peter’s preaching in Acts (102).
  11. The discrepancy over whether (John) Mark wrote a Gospel after Peter’s death (cf. Irenaeus) or during Peter’s lifetime (cf. Clement of Alexandria) is due to the evangelist adding an addendum (John 21) after Peter died (102-3).
  12. The tradition that John Mark went to Alexandria accords with the Alexandrian theology of the Fourth Gospel (103).
  13. John Mark visited Ephesus, explaining the tradition of the evangelist John in Ephesus (103).

Parker turns to Papias where he points out that (John) Mark’s substandard order may reflect the Fourth Gospel’s departures from the Synoptic tradition based on his personal recollections (104). Against Papias’s statement that (John) Mark was not a witness of Jesus, Parker cites a line from the Muratorian Canon that “he was present at some events” and argues that Papias defended the Fourth Gospel against its detractors (105). Since Papias ascribes the observation about (John) Mark’s lack of order to the Elder John of Ephesus (note: Parker leans towards seeing the tradition that the Apostle John was in Ephesus as mistaken), John Mark and the Elder John must be separate individuals (110). He closes with one more list about the evangelist:

  1. He had a home near Jerusalem in John 19:27 (106).
  2. He was a young man cared for or “loved” by Jesus (106).
  3. His date for Easter was supported by Christians in Ephesus (106).
  4. He stresses eyewitness testimony and could be one of the eyewitness “ministers” of the word (cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 13:5) (106).
  5. He did not rely on written sources besides his memory (106).
  6. The Fourth Gospel took shape after Peter’s death when John Mark was old (106).
  7. The Fourth Gospel has a good grasp of Jewish and Pagan though (106-7).
  8. The Fourth Gospel is similar to Colossians in combating Gnostic ideas.

It could also explain the unanimous tradition that the author of the Gospel was John, even as the various figures named John became confused in the early church (107-8).

This theory coheres with the beloved disciple being an elite Jerusalem follower, but major flaws remain. There is no evidence in the New Testament that John Mark knew Jesus during his lifetime or that the house in Acts 12 was the locale of the last supper and it seems problematic to discern the identity of a character in one text from an entirely separate book (Acts). Papias clearly states that (John) Mark was not a witness like the beloved disciple but a second-hand reporter of Peter, which is why he was not able to get the “order” correct, while the fragmentary line in the Muratorian canon could refer to Peter as the subject. The early church followed Papias in linking Mark or Peter with the second canonical Gospel: Parker is not persuasive in dismissing Justin Martyr (Dialogue 106:3) and, while he notes that Jerome hesitatingly related John Mark of Acts to the second canonical Gospel (Commentary in Philemon 24) (109n.36), 1 Peter 5:13 was the more common proof-text in defending that Gospel’s authorship.

Jonathan Bernier on the Socio-economic Status of Zebedee

I plan to continue this tour through the range of suggestions about the identity of the beloved disciple, but I came across a blog post that may be quite relevant to the traditional authorship of the Gospel. In Pierson Parker’s list of objections against the authorship of John, the son of Zebedee, he points out that it is impractical that a Galilean fisherman could have written this Greek text (cf. Acts 4:13) or had a close relationship with the Jewish high priest (cf. John 18:15-16). Yet Jonathan Bernier has a blog post entitled “Zebedean Economics” that challenges these assumptions and is worth consideration. I still lean towards seeing these points as evidence against the authorship of the Galilean Apostle John, but I will have to compare this post to K. C. Hanson’s assessment of “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.”

The Beloved Disciple as Mary Magdalene

The idea that Mary Magdalene was the beloved disciple was another option not included in Charlesworth’s survey. Yet she plays an important role in the Gospel Easter narratives and was remembered as a privileged disciple in some of the Gospels in the Nag Hammadi collection (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip). The major obstacles are the use of masculine pronouns for the beloved disciple, the reference to the beloved disciple as “son” in John 19:26-27, and the distinction between the beloved disciple and Mary in John 20:2-9. In Ramon K. Jusino’s thesis online, he argues that Mary Magdalene was the original leader and hero of the Johannine community, but that an editor concealed this fact and inserted new references to make it appear that the beloved disciple and Mary were distinct characters (cf. 19:25-27; 20:1-11). I am hesitant to appeal to editing unless there is strong external (i.e. manuscript evidence) or internal support for it. However, I ran across another defense for the identification of Mary as the beloved disciple in Esther A. de Boer, The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 157-190. Here is a summary of her case on pages 178-190:

  • The Gospel should be treated as a unified theological composition without appealing to editorial layers (p. 184)
  • The masculine grammar may conceal the gender of the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” (note this is not a title but a description) (p. 180, 184) and anonymity encourages the reader’s identification with the character (p. 182).
  • Women can fulfill the function of sonship (Ruth 4:15) and there are Christian texts that treat pious women as honorary males (Gospel of Thomas 114; Acts of Philip 95) (184-185).
  • Despite the previous point, Jesus may have been referring to himself when he told his mother “behold your son” in 19:26 and only addressing the beloved disciple to take care of her as a mother in 19:27 (p. 185).
  • John 20:2 speaks about the “other” disciple whom Jesus loved and uses the Greek term phileo rather than agapaō (13:23; 19:26; 21:20) for love, so perhaps there is more than one anonymous disciple who was loved by Jesus. Thus, the beloved disciple Mary (cf. 13:23-25, 19:25-27, 35) finds another disciple that Jesus’ also loved (pp. 182-183).
  • Mary was loved by Jesus and hears his voice (cf. John 20:16) (p.186), was an authoritative witness to the resurrection and its meaning (p. 187), was an authoritative bearer of the tradition or even kin in 13:23 (187-188), and was at the scene of the cross (pp. 188-189). In spite of the patriarchal culture, her testimony was validated (21:24) and her death caused consternation (p. 189). As in other non-canonical Gospels, John 21:15-19 remembers her as Peter’s equal.

I have to admit that I am not persuaded that Mary Magdalene is the beloved disciple. However, that should not take away from her importance as someone who financially supported Jesus (cf. Luke 8:2-3) and who was the first minister of the good news of the risen Lord (John 20:18), which should be an encouragement to embrace full egalitarianism in the church today.


The Beloved Disciple as James

James Tabor wrote an extensive blog post advancing the novel proposal (i.e. it was not included in Charlesworth’s survey) that James, the brother of Jesus and the early leader of the Jerusalem Church, was the beloved disciple. Tabor’s view is supported by the fact that James’ name is not included in the Gospel, linking it with the consistent anonymity of the beloved disciple, and it makes sense for a family member to care for Jesus’ mother in his absence (19:25-27; cf. Acts 1:14). The difficulty with the thesis is how it accounts for the unbelief of Jesus’ brothers (7:5), in which case there may also have been a subtle polemic against the natural brothers of Jesus in that the beloved disciple fulfills their responsibility in caring for Jesus’ mother and a new family of faith is formed at the cross, and some of the textual evidence that he uses to fill in the gaps (cf. Hegessipus, Jerome, the Gospel of Thomas) may reflect later hagiographic embellishment. Thus, it seems questionable to me whether James really was at Jesus’ final meal (13:23-30) or had a prior friendship with the high priest (18:15-16). Take a look at his post and see what you think.