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.