John Gayford considers the disciple closest to Jesus
The Beloved Disciple is portrayed in the gospel as the one Jesus loved and who is close to him at the Last Supper. He is depicted as a real person; who may be idealised, who is a trustworthy eye witness, the first to grasp the reality of the resurrection. He is a key figure anchored in the Johannine community, linking it with Our Blessed Lord, and a witness to the work of the Holy Spirit. He gives authority to the distinctive teaching of the Gospel of St John. He is a model of faith and discipline. All this gives us an inspiring account but does not give a name to the Beloved Disciple. Does this really matter? His example brings us closer in our own relationship with Our Blessed Lord.
The traditional view of the Beloved Disciple is of an unnamed disciple of Jesus who appears in the latter part of the Gospel of St John, and one who must have had an especially close relationship with Jesus. We can lists the appearances of the Beloved Disciple in St John’s Gospel as follows:
- We first hear of him at the Last Supper. One of his disciples – the one Whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him. [John 13.23–25]
- At the foot of the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing, beside her, he said to his mother, here is your son. Then he said to the disciple here is your mother. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. [John 19.26–27]
- At the empty tomb of Jesus. Early on the ﬁrst day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [John 20.2–10]
- When some of the disciples had returned to fishing. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ [John 21.7]
- Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved. [John 21.20]
- The implication is that the whole Gospel is written on the testimony of the disciple who Jesus loved. This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. [John 21.24–25]
There is also a more controversial passage in John 18.15–16 where the disciple who had a link with the high priest gained admission for himself and Peter to the trial of Jesus.
Thus it seems at first sight that there is quite conclusive evidence that the disciple whom Jesus loved was St John the Evangelist and the author of the fourth gospel. This has been the standard teaching of the Church and was not seriously challenged until the nineteenth century.
The Beloved Disciple appearing in the second half of the gospel (the Book of Glory) is as a witness to the Last Supper, trial of Jesus, crucifixion, empty tomb and resurrection appearance. He is projected as a key witness to these events, offering the Johannine community a guaranteed testimony. As such he is a medium of revelation between Jesus and the disciples which was important to the Johannine community as a literary or theological symbol. His behaviour contrasts with that of the other disciples and he is projected as the perfect disciple. This underlines the gospel’s claim that the believer has the power to become a child of God.
We can ask the question of how the Beloved Disciple fits into the composition of St John’s Gospel. This seems to have been a title that was conferred on him possibly posthumously and as such was written into the gospel. He may have had the role as senior figure and collector of material for the gospel. His contribution could have been inserted at any time in the formation of the gospel. Some scholars see him as a redactor, others see him as the implied author of a pseudonymous New Testament work.
The question remains is the Beloved Disciple the same person as the anonymous disciple who came with Andrew from John the Baptist in John 1.35–42?
The construction of a Johannine community has proved a fascination among a number of biblical scholars who believe the community to include the authors of the gospel. As such they have devised schemes of its formation and composition. Into this, the Beloved Disciple is fitted in various ways. Further attempts have been made to identify the Beloved Disciple with authorship of at least some of the Johannine letters and to see him as John the Presbyter.
It might be asked whether the Beloved Disciple was a fictional character, or was he similar to the Righteous Teacher of the Qumran community, a powerful leading figure who became a symbol? If a literary fiction is postulated, he is the ideal bearer of apostolic witness who connects the heart of the reader with the heart of Jesus. If that is so it makes him a narrative fiction, symbol or type.
Nevertheless, most see him as a real person who may have been the editor of chapter 21 of St John’s Gospel (as an appendix). This still leaves the question open as to whether he was an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus or did he mirror a real historical disciple? We do not have a written portrait of the Beloved Disciple if he was not St John the Evangelist. The assumption is made in any case that he was a senior and much respected figure in the Johannine community of the late first century. Thus we see the Beloved Disciple as a mysterious figure who appears only in the second half of the Gospel of St John. He was clearly a hero of the Johannine community.
Our attention is drawn to the fact that the Beloved Disciple was close to Jesus at the Last Supper, at the foot of the cross, and being the first to accept the resurrection of our Lord. The inference is that we are to model ourselves on this by being close to Jesus in the Eucharist, in our devotion at the foot of the cross and in receiving Mary into our lives, and finally to be eager to proclaim the resurrection of our Blessed Lord. Thus we are all called to this role. Preachers have found this a useful hermeneutic peg for a homily.
Biblical scholars have displayed their skills of imaginative creation, based on limited facts, in the identification of the Beloved Disciple. At times it seems like an academic exercise without real merit except perhaps to enlarge the literature on the subject. A number of people have been suggested to be beloved disciples but do not meet the criteria as The Beloved Disciple of St John’s Gospel. Those explored are Matthias, Apollos, Thomas the twin, Lazarus (Mary the sister of Martha comes to Jesus, in John 11.3, and says: ‘Lord, he (Lazarus) whom you love is ill.’), the rich young man who appears in Mark 10.17–31, whom Jesus looked at and loved, but who turned away because of his many possessions. Mary Magdalene was the first to find the risen Jesus but she ran to Peter and the other (Beloved) Disciple to tell them. Notably the Beloved Disciple is always referred as masculine. So unless there was a change of gender to cover the identity of the Beloved Disciple he cannot be Mary Magdalene; James the brother of John, or Mark, or a Jewish priest or even someone standing in for the high priest have been explored. Finally John the Elder or John the Presbyter is a shadowy figure who appears in the New Testament and the Johannine community. He is certainly identified as the author of the Second and Third Letter of St John. There are historic accounts that link him with John the Apostle. In Asia the term Apostle had a wider meaning and was not confined to the twelve and certainly included the 70 who were sent out in mission by Jesus.
The fourth gospel was never anonymous, the early Church knew who the author was and as such it was known as the Gospel of John. Papias at the beginning of the second century is said to have heard the preaching of St John the Evangelist and possibly his disciple. There are two graves at Ephesus attributed to John (John the Apostle and John the Presbyter). Was there confusion as to who was the Beloved Disciple or could there have been two Beloved Disciples?
The results of some of the above speculation have been enough to convince accredited catholic biblical exegesis that there are weaknesses in the sole argument for the Beloved Disciple being John, son of Zebedee. There is no doubt that St John’s Gospel developed more slowly than the synoptic Gospels and it was the end of the first century before it was widely circulated, when John was a very old man. It went through a number of redactions (editing) in which John probably needed help. Were John the Evangelist and the redactor the same person or is there room for John the Elder?
The allegorical interpretations of the concept of the Beloved Disciple can be related to the transfer of the Church’s allegiance from the Jewish Christians to the Hellenistic Christians. Jesus gives his mother to the Beloved Disciple inferring a transfer from Jewish Christians to the Hellenistic Christians. Also the Gospel tells us the Beloved Disciple outran Peter on the race to the empty tomb as Hellenistic Christianity became quicker in accepting the resurrection of Jesus than the Jewish Christianity. Although not strictly correct, the Beloved disciple is seen as symbolic of Gentile Christianity while Peter is seen as symbolic of Jewish Christianity. This was discussed as far back as St Gregory the Great who had seen this as a transfer from the Synagogue to the Church.
In spite of much biblical research and discussion, especially since the Enlightenment by eminent scholars, we are no nearer finding the real identity of the Beloved Disciple referred to in the latter part of the fourth gospel. It remains an enigma, another fascinating mystery of St John’s Gospel.
Suggested further reading:
– Baltz, F.W. The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple Infinity Publishing, West Conshohocken 2013.
– Bauckham, R. The testimony of the Beloved Disciple Baker Academic, Grand Rapids Michigan 2007
– Charlesworth, J.H. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Trinity Press International, Pennsylvania 1995.
Fr John Gayford is a retired priest
who writes to encourage us to deepen our faith.