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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?

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