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The Apostle Thomas as the Beloved Disciple

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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.

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