What’s the deal with the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John?

Recently, I picked up Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a book I’ve seen heavily touted recently by some Christian apologists. Part of my reason for picking it up was just because I had trouble telling, from the apologists’ description, what exactly Bauckham was arguing. It turns out that much of the book devoted to defending traditional claims about the Gospels of Mark and John, that Mark was written by a companion of Peter and contains Peter’s teachings about Jesus, while John was actually written by a disciple of Jesus. (The book is oddly short on discussion of Matthew and Luke.)

It the claim about John that most interests me, since it involves a passage at the end of the gospel that’s long puzzled me. Throughout the gospel, there are a handful of unexplained references to a “disciple whom Jesus loved” or “beloved disciple.” Then at the end of the last chapter, we’re told (in reference to the beloved disciple), “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”

Many scholars, including Bart Ehrman, have denied that the author was claiming to be the beloved disciple with that sentence. Ehrman, in his book Jesus, Interrupted, points out that there seems to be a contrast between “the disciple” and the “we” who “know that his testimony is true,” but Ehrman doesn’t explain why the author says the disciple is the one who “has written” the things.

According to Bauckham, one argument that scholars have made is that “written” can mean “caused to be written,” in this case referring to the supposed ultimate source of the traditions in the gospel. But, Bauckam argues, the Greek word in question was never actually used that way – at most, it referred to dictation. (Bauckmam doesn’t point this out, but in English the word “write” can be used the same way, to refer to dictating to a secretary.)

I think Bauckham is probably right on the narrow issue – whoever wrote the final lines of John is claiming the beloved disciple is the author of the gospel. But the arguments put forward by other scholars seem pretty decisive against the author actually being one of Jesus disciples. One big problem is that Jesus’ disciples would have been illiterate, Aramaic-speaking Palestinian peasants. And as Ehrman explains (Jesus, Interrupted p. 106):

That they were highly educated Greek speakers goes virtually without saying. Although there have been scholars from time to time who thought that the Gospels may originally have been written in Aramaic, the overwhelming consensus today, for lots of technical linguistic reasons, is that the Gospels were all written in Greek. As I’ve indicated, only about 10 percent of the people in the Roman Empire, at best, could read, even fewer could write out sentences, far fewer still could actually compose narratives on a rudimentary level, and very few indeed could compose extended literary works like the Gospels. To be sure, the Gospels are not the most refined books to appear in the empire—far from it. Still, they are coherent narratives written by highly trained authors who knew how to construct a story and carry out their literary aims with finesse.

Whoever these authors were, they were unusually gifted Christians of a later generation. Scholars debate where they lived and worked, but their ignorance of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs suggests they composed their works somewhere else in the empire—presumably in a large urban area where they could have received a decent education and where there would have been a relatively large community of Christians.

The various obviously legendary bits in all the gospels also stand out; the birth narratives and Matthew’s additions to Mark’s passion & resurrection narrative are especially blatant, but John is generally agreed to be even later than Matthew and Luke, and probably in some ways drifted even farther from history.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the author of John simply lied. A major wrinkle comes in here because it’s thought that the last chapter of John is a later addition to the text. That’s because the final verses of John chapter 20 seem like a perfectly good conclusion to the book on their own.

Bauckham is aware of this, but argues (against what he acknowledges is a “large majority” of scholars) that, while John 21 is clearly set apart from the main text, it nevertheless should be viewed as an epilogue by the same author as the main text. Bauckham makes his case on largely stylistic grounds that I have trouble evaluating, but it seems to me like many of the stylistic things Bauckham points to could be the result of the later author being conscious of the stylistic choices of the original author. So on this issue, I have to side with the majority against Bauckham.

This suggests an interesting possibility for how claims about the beloved disciple developed. Originally, he may have been understood as merely an important disciple who was the ultimate source for some of the traditions in the book (perhaps including the piercing of Jesus’ side in 19:31-37). It only mutated into a claim that the beloved disciple wrote the entire book later, but that still happened before chapter 21 was written so the claim ended up in chapter 21 (perhaps only intended to apply to the main body of the work).

I admit, I’m not very confident in this view. Like many things in Biblical scholarship, there’s just too little data here to reach a definite conclusion.

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