Reasonable Faith in the Beloved Disciple’s Testimony
I was asked to speak at an event hosted by Reasonable Faith Perth, so here is a handout summarizing my presentation about the beloved disciple in the Fourth Gospel. Note that I put question marks around the passages that do not explicitly identify the anonymous figure mentioned as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” I have argued against identifying the disciple of John the Baptist who is not named in John 1:35-42 as the beloved disciple, judging that the beloved disciple is instead first introduced in 13:23-25, while I consider it likely that the “other disciple” in the high priest’s courtyard in 18:15-16 is the beloved disciple (cf. 20:2). What I try to emphasize in churches when I present on this topic is that the beloved disciple does not just witness the crucifixion or the empty tomb, but he perceptively recognizes and believes in the theological significance of these events. For instance, he interprets the cleansing blood and the water of life that flows from the crucified one’s side. Moreover, the beloved disciple remains loyal to Jesus to the point of Jesus’s death and thus models for all would-be disciples of Jesus what it means to take up one’s cross and follow. On that note, I hope this post may be useful as you reflect on the meaning of Good Friday today.
The RBL Review of my Book
Recently, my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist was reviewed by Deolito Vender Vistar Jr. for the Review of Biblical Literature. Unfortunately, if you are not a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the reviews are behind a paywall, but the reviewer has made the review available on his academia.edu page. I am pleased whenever a fellow scholar engages with my work, whether he or she agrees with it or critically pushes back against the theses that I put forward, and I appreciate the reviewer’s conclusion that “[m]y criticisms notwithstanding, I recommend The Beloved Apostle? to readers wanting a summary of the emergence of the early church’s view equating the Beloved Disciple with John the apostle and identified him as the writer of the Fourth Gospel.” This post will enter into grateful dialogue with some of the criticisms raised in the review.
The reviewer contends that, in offering my own theories about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel or the origins of the Johannine epilogue, I deviated from my stated aim to “not to swap the older Patristic edifice with one more innovative and provisional hypothesis about the source(s) or evolutionary history of the Fourth Gospel. Rather, the claims and counterclaims about the apostolicity of the Fourth Gospel will be contextualized in light of the pressing concerns facing second-century Christians” (xvii). However, I would respond that I did not speculate about the actual writer(s) of the Fourth Gospel, the history of the so-called Johannine community, or the stages of composition of the text beyond the widely-held verdict about the secondary nature of the Johannine epilogue (more on that below). Rather, I sought to explain, step by step, how the “disciple whom Jesus loved” became identified as the fourth evangelist and as the Apostle John. Thus, chapters one and two were central to the aims of the book. For instance, if the internal evidence of the Fourth Gospel supports the identification of the beloved disciple as the Apostle John, no further explanation is needed for why church authorities such as Irenaeus and Polycrates reached the same conclusion. And if John 21 is a redactional addition to the Fourth Gospel, it is as much a part of the reception history on the beloved disciple as any of the other witnesses who commented on this figure in the Patristic period.
In chapter one, I evaluated the case for equating the beloved disciple with the Galilean fisherman John, the son of Zebedee, concluding that it is only by reading the Fourth Gospel in light of the Synoptic Gospels that this identification can be affirmed (e.g., the assumptions that only the Twelve were present at the last supper or that the beloved disciple had to be among the trio of Peter, James, and John, even though the Synoptic scenes that feature this trio are not found in John 1-20). Instead, from the few clues that we have from within John 13-20, we might say that the beloved disciple’s appearances were restricted to the key events of the Passion Narrative that took place in Jerusalem (cf. 13:23-25; 18:15-16; 19:26-27, 35; 20:2-10), that he owned his own residence (19:27; did he host the meal in 13:23-25?), and that he was on personal terms with the aristocratic Jerusalem high priest (18:15-16). For reasons such as these, I joined a number of commentators (e.g., Parker, Brown, Schnackenburg, Culpepper, Quast, Grassi, Witherington III, Hengel, Bauckham, Reinhartz, Thompson, Bernier, etc.) in viewing the beloved disciple as an idealized and elite Judean follower of Jesus, though I find it more productive to focus on the narrative function of this character rather than try to determine his precise identity.
My hypothesis in chapter two is that the Johannine epilogue was attached after the original conclusion in John 20:30-31 to attribute the whole of the Fourth Gospel to the beloved disciple since he was regarded as a principal witness in the text (cf. 21:24), in line with the Jewish precedent of attributing certain types of literature to those venerated as the fount of the tradition (e.g. the law of Moses, the psalms of David, the wisdom literature of Solomon), and to commend the Fourth Gospel to non-Johannine Christians who were developing traditions about Peter’s ecclesiastical leadership and crucifixion (21:15-19). The reviewer fairly objects that “experts are divided” on the status of John 21 and the debate cannot be definitively resolved by appealing to external evidence (cf. the recent article and blog posts by Brent Nongbri here, here, here, here, here, here, and here as well as by P.J. Williams, Larry Hurtado, and Ryan A. Kaufman) or to the internal criteria of language or style. One thing that tipped the scales for me is that 21:24 credits the beloved disciple with writing “these things” (John 1-20?), but this may exclude the epilogue since 21:22-23 implies that the beloved disciple had died rather than remaining until Jesus returned and 21:24 distinguishes the redactors behind this chapter from the beloved disciple with the remark that “we know that his testimony is true.” I find it more plausible to read the “we” as the voice of the community who received the Fourth Gospel as the beloved disciple’s testimony, as opposed to the arguments of Köstenberger and Bauckham that the beloved disciple wrote John 1-21 and used both the first-person plural and the third-person singular in the same sentence to refer to himself. A problem with Westcott’s view that 21:1-23 was original to the evangelist and 21:24-25 was an editorial insertion by the presbyters in Ephesus is that it would leave 21:1-23 without a proper conclusion (cf. p. 47). The entirety of chapter 21 may have been an editorial addition nicely wrapping up the loose ends about Peter and the beloved disciple in the previous narrative.
The review judges the main contribution of the book to lie in the summary of the Patristic data in chapter 3. It offers a great summary of my position that the beloved disciple was identified with the Apostle John when the Fourth Gospel was read alongside the Synoptic Gospels in the fourfold Gospel canon and that Irenaeus further conflated the Apostle John with John of Patmos (Revelation 1:1; cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4) and Papias’s Elder John (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3-4, 15). I deem it likely that the Elder John was the one who ministered in Ephesus, confronted the “heretic” Cerinthus in a public bathhouse, was known to Papias of Hierapolis and Polycarp of Smyrna, and died during the reign of Trajan. I would add that chapter four does not just look at the theological reasons for why apostolic authorship became an important issue, but also explores the competing authorial traditions about the Fourth Gospel in the Patristic era. For instance, while Irenaeus presumes that the evangelist John wrote the Fourth Gospel to refute Cerinthus’s heretical Christology, Gaius of Rome, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Epiphanius of Salamis note that the detractors of Revelation or the Fourth Gospel dared to claim that either the former or the latter text was forged by Cerinthus!
I would like to close the post by expressing my gratitude to the reviewer for selecting my book for RBL. I hope my book shed some new light on the historical questions about how and why the Apostle John came to be associated with the Fourth Gospel and whether apostolic authorship is still a necessary criterion for Christian believers who hold this Gospel to be inspired, sacred Scripture.