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.

  • Steven Carr

    Why hide the ‘beloved disciples’ name in the book?

    Because there was a deception, and the author did not want people to be able to say that X was known not to have written a book, so did not name who X was?

    • Jakeithus

      As a deception, it’s pretty bad, because a reading of John makes it pretty clear who is being referred to in a literal way by the term.

      Some of the theories of why it uses “the disciple who Jesus loved” rather than John are more for literary or theological reasons. For example, while the term is understood to be John within the story, it can also be used symbolically as a stand in for all future believers or the church as a whole.

      • Steven Carr

        ‘As a deception, it’s pretty bad, because a reading of John makes it pretty clear who is being referred to in a literal way by the term.’

        Who? Where? I don’t understand.

        There is nobody called ‘John’ mentioned in the book.

        • Jakeithus

          Which itself is evidence, given the importance of John in the other gospel accounts. I’ve possible overstated the clarity to which the phrase is applied to John the Evangelist/the Apostle/the Son of Zebedee, although I think the evidence certainly points that way.

          Perhaps I’m just misunderstanding the question you are asking and the point you are trying to make. I don’t see deception in the use of the phrase, so it possibly adds to misunderstanding.

          • Steven Carr

            I thought the author of ‘John’ was not supposed to know about the other Gospel texts. He was meant to be independent.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

            He didn’t copy from them the way Matthew and Luke copied from Q. Whether he might have known about them is debatable.

          • Greg G.

            Mark 6:45-52 is about Jesus walking on the water. Dennis MacDonald makes a good case that Mark took the story from the Iliad where Priam goes to retrieve Hector’s body from Achilles. The gods take pity and send Hermes who can travel across water.

            John 6:16-21 tells the same story. It is more likely that Mark used mimesis to construct the story and John got it from that book than John used mimesis to construct the same story.

            See the parallels in Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:15-18; John 1:24-28. There are many others.

            Christians need for there to be two independent sources for the life of Jesus, but calling John independent of Mark does not make it so.

          • JohnH2

            Why do you think that John was not supposed to know about the other Gospel texts? All accounts have John being written last and much later then the other Gospels. John also appears to have access to some of the gnostic gospels as he turns some of the stories on their head and directly contradicts others in what can only be a purposeful way, in particular the Gospel of Thomas when compared to the Gospel of John is quite interesting, and having Thomas doubt the resurrection (as in the Gospel of Thomas) only happens in John suggesting that the story was meant as a contradiction of the view of the Gospel of Thomas.

          • Pofarmer

            Where in the world is John mentioned in the other Gospel accounts?

  • autolukos

    “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.”
    The natural reading seems to me to be that the “we” in this passage refers to the audience, not the author. “We know that his testimony is true,” then, serves as an affirmation of the community’s belief in the authority of the account. There is some support for this in the fact that the next sentence has the author speaking in the first person singular: “But there are many other things which Jesus did, so many that if they were recorded in one, I think the universe itself could not contain the written books.”

  • busterggi

    I suspect Secret Mark to be closer to the truth than believers can stand.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      FWIW, I think a fairly strong case has been made that “Secret Mark” (or rather, the supposed letter of Clement that quotes it) was a forgery made by Morton Smith himself.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    One theory on the gospel goes like this:

    There was a pre-synoptic “Signs Source” either used by Mark and proto-John, or perhaps just known to Mark, but definitely as the earliest core of John as we know it. The text-critical evidence for this includes the enumerations of two miracles, the water into wine at Cana and the healing of the official’s son, in Chapters 1 and 4, as “the first sign” and “the second sign”. But then the miracles aren’t counted as signs after that, though miracles are often still referred to as “signs”.

    Proto-John was a more or less straight incorporation of Synoptic material into the Signs gospel.

    The final redaction includes the entirety of Chapter 21, several of the lengthy discourses, some re-ordering of material, and, crucially, the beloved disciple passages. Since the previously-redacted Signs gospel I’m calling proto-John seems to have used Synoptic material relatively uncritically, the final redactor introduced the BD figure to repudiate Petrine doctrine. Incorrectly, as it happens, there was an early association of Mark with Peter, and so the redactor felt the need to distance the text from this association and from the implication that Peter was the greatest of the disciples.

    This function is pretty explicit, for example where the proto-John stratum seems to have included a straight retelling of Peter’s denials after the arrest of Jesus, John 18:15 has this bit:

    Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in.

  • Ryan

    I believe the author of Mark may have done the same thing. Many people believe that the “young man” stripped naked in Mark 14:51-52 is a veiled reference to the author himself. Who is at Jesus’ tomb in the gospel of Mark? Again: a young man. As such, the author would have been implying that he was a witness to Jesus’ resurrection, which I think lends this theory a great deal of plausibility. Furthermore, it also removes the difficulty of women being witnesses to the tomb, which is often taken as an oddity by scholars or as an indicator of truth by Christian apologists. It’s a speculation, certainly, but a very plausible one.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Good point.

    • Greg G.

      Remember that the women were afraid and never tell in the ending of the oldest versions of Mark, which end at verse 8. It only seems strange if you assume that Matthew’s or Luke’s endings are more accurate.

      If you read Mark as a mimesis of the Homeric epics, the Old Testament, and a couple of epistles from Paul that was written to explain the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, Mark’s ending makes perfect sense.

      • http://ladyatheist.blogspot.com/ LadyAtheist

        Not to mention, if the women told nobody about what they saw, then how did “Mark” know it?

  • John Hodges

    IMHO these disputes are trivial and irrelevant. I would ask instead why John deletes all of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings of an imminent Judgement Day, and almost all of his ethical teachings. Why it makes no mention of Hell and Eternal Punishment, why no mention is made of his “casting out demons”. It seems to me rather obvious that John is a revisionist theology written AFTER Jesus’ generation had passed away, because the existing gospels had become embarrassing. See

    http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/the-ethics-of-jesus

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Very good points.

    • Joseph O Polanco

      “John [] was selective in the events he chose to chronicle, because, as he says: “To be sure, Jesus performed many other signs also before the disciples, which are not written down in this scroll,” and, “There are, in fact, many other things also which Jesus did, which, if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose, the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.”—Joh 20:30; 21:25.

      With these things in mind, John states his purpose for writing the account he was led by inspiration to write, in which he repeated little that had been written before: “But these have been written down that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that, because of believing, you may have life by means of his name.”—Joh 20:31.” (Bracket mine.)

      Rather than merely reproducing the content of the already extant Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark, “his Gospel is a valuable addition to the Bible canon as the actual eyewitness evidence from the last living apostle of Jesus Christ.”

  • Mick

    The bible tells a lot of nonsense about the disciples and/or apostles. Check out the following texts and you will find twenty named apostles. Two of them became apostles after Jesus died but the only way to whittle the other eighteen down to the traditional twelve is to simply declare (with no evidence) that some of the characters were known by more than one name.

    Mark 3:13-18
    Matthew 10:2-4
    Acts 1:13-26
    John 1:40-50, 6:71, 20:24, and 21:2
    2 Corinthians 1:1

  • Denis Robert

    The fundamental assumption of all apologists is that the Bible’s authors would/could never lie. But that is so contrary to fact: religious texts around the world all contain lies, omissions, distortions, and simple errors. They certainly would admit that for all non-biblical texts. They are left with two problems: they have to explain away all evidence of fraud in the text (and there is plenty), and they have to explain why, of all the books out there, the Bible, and by extension all biblical authors, is uniquely immune to fraud. That’s one whopping of an extraordinary claim right there, my friends…

  • Michael Carrell

    Since the gospels are written in an invariable, teaching, literary form which describe how Jesus Christ fulfilled the expectations of the Law, Prophets and Psalms for the coming of the Messiah, they had to have been written by a scholarly group of very wise, inspired old testament scholars using the written sayings and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    I have discovered within the original Greek texts of the Septuagint and New Testament what had remained hidden from Jews and Christians alike for almost two millennia; that for our benefit, all of the inspired writers of the OT and NT
    Scripture texts used an identical, teaching, literary form when they
    constructed their books, gospels, and letters.

    The Scriptures are to be read and understood as parableStories written in the
    literary form of the parable!

    A tutorial on this amazing literary form, which Biblical scholars should have
    recognized long ago, is given by the author within INPARABLES Volumes I-IV and at his blog onlyinparables.wordpress.com/

    Michael Carrell, http://www.INPARABLES.com mail@INPARABLES.com

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    Chapt. 21 of John was added in order to tie up various Gospel questions into a neat little bow:

    1) It repeats the miracle of the calling of the apostles via a miraculous catch of fish that is found in the beginning of Luke

    2) It reverses Peter’s three denials with three affirmations.

    3) It offers an explanation as to how even supposedly long lived disciples like John could die before the parousia, so it offers an explanation for the delay of the world’s final judgment.

    Neat little bow.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    John weeds out all the parables and exorcisms, but still comes out longer than Mark because of new dialogues, long ones, as well as new miracles and tales added to the Jesus story. John probably eschewed exorcisms and talk of a temptation or struggle or binding of Satan because his Jesus was viewed as incomparable with no possible rival entities and the Logos is above temptation, regally in control even during his garden prayer before his execution, and during his arrest where he simply says “I am” and the soldiers fall down. Neither does this Jesus need to speak in parables, since the message by John’s time is believe who we say Jesus is, or you are “condemned already.” It’s the “believe such and such about Jesus” or be damned Gospel. He who does not acknowledge Jesus is “the vine” will be cut off and burned. Neither does the fourth Gospel’s Jesus command love of neighbor or enemy compared with the earlier synoptics. See this essay that include insights from a social science examination of the fourth Gospel…

    The Gospel of John consists of “anti-language” say Social Scientists

    There is no command in the fourth Gospel [the Gospel of John] to love neighbors or enemies. Instead, it states, “He who believes not is condemned already” (John 3). The fourth Gospel more so than the earlier three teaches that one is either God’s friend or God’s enemy, one must “believe” rightly, or, be “damned.” “Eat the flesh and drink the blood,” or you “have no life within you.” It does not say people will be judged according to their “works” as in Matthew. Additional passages in the fourth Gospel state…

    No one is able to come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me attracts and draws him and gives him the desire to come to Me, and [then] I will raise him up [from the dead] at the last day.
    John 6:44

    You do not believe because you are not of my sheep.
    John 10:26

    My command is this [spoken to his sheep, not spoken to "the world"]: Love EACH OTHER as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [not for one's neighbor or enemy]… You are my friends if you do what I command [love EACH OTHER]… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you… This is my command: Love EACH OTHER.
    John 15:14,16-17

    This is “in-group” speech as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out in their Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Love other members of one’s in-group. The discourse even states it is being spoken to the in-group, not to a crowd, since it explains in John 13: “[Now] before the Passover Feast began, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to leave this world and return to the Father. And as He had loved THOSE WHO WERE HIS OWN in the world, He loved them to the last and to the highest degree.” The in-group speech begins there and runs several chapters. God gives certain people to Jesus, even before Jesus has died on the cross: “To all whom Thou [God] has given him (Jesus), He may give eternal life” (John 17:2). Those are the ones Jesus loves, the true believers, and they are commanded to love one another. Nonbelievers are “already condemned,” or they do not abide in the True Vine and their “branches will be cut off and thrown into the fire.”

    Jesus’ discourse to his true-believing followers winds down with John 17:22-23 where Jesus prays, “That they may be one [even] as We are one: I in them and You in Me, in order that they may become one and perfectly united, that the world may know and [definitely] recognize that You sent Me.” (But if it takes Christians loving one another in “perfect unity,” so that the world can “know” that “God sent Jesus,” then doesn’t that mean the world has little chance of “knowing” for sure that “God sent Jesus,” because churches, sects, denominations have continued to splinter ever since Jesus’ day just as they have in other major religions?)

    A passage in the fourth Gospel that universalists cite is John 12:32, “And I, if and when I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross], will draw and attract all men [Gentiles as well as Jews] to Myself.” The Amplified Bible editors added the statement in brackets, suggesting that this passage is not about universalism. Whether the bracketed interpretation is correct or not, it does appear like the author of the fourth Gospel has made it clear that God has only given Jesus “some” but not all of “man”kind. The rest are “damned already” because they “do not believe” (John 3) or, “You do not believe because you are not of my sheep” (John 10).

    Malina and Rohrbaugh in their Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John “show that the Christian community of John’s Gospel was an ‘anti-society,’ which in social science speak is a consciously alternative society consisting of exiles, rebels, or ostracized deviants. They note parallels between different anti-societies, such as reform-school students in Poland, members of the underworld in India, and vagabonds in Elizabethan England. Like other anti-societies, the folks who penned the fourth Gospel had acquired their own unique ‘anti-language,’, that is, a resistance language used to maintain their anti-society’s highly sectarian religious reality. This accounts for many of the strange expressions found in the fourth gospel. For instance, the Christians refer to outsiders as people of ‘this world,’ or, ‘the world.’ They believed that members of wider society — especially ‘the Jews’ — lay outside the scope of redemption and were completely beyond the pale if they didn’t “believe” rightly. Like all anti-societies, they overlexicalized their language, which basically means that they used redundant euphemisms. Thus, ‘believing into Jesus,’, ‘abiding in him,’ ‘loving him,’ ‘keeping his word,’ ‘receiving him,’ ‘having him,’ and ‘seeing him’ all meant the same thing. Likewise, ‘bread,’ ‘light,’ ‘door,’ ‘life,’ ‘way,’ and ‘vine’ were all redundant metaphors for Jesus himself. These redundant euphemisms formed an anti-language outside of “the world’s,” and served to maintain inner solidarity in the face of pressures (or perhaps even persecutions) from society. Unlike the religious language found in the Synoptic Gospels or Paul’s letters, John’s language would have been meaningless in the context of wider Judeo-Christian society (‘this world’). Understanding this social background is crucial for interpreting the gospel as a whole and controversial passages in particular.” In short, the fourth Gospel a greater number of specialized theological terms not seen in any of the earlier Gospels, all terms that would be meaningful particularly to an in-group seeking to maintain a strong cohesion including condemnation of outsiders, like members of an exclusive gang with loads of code words, shibboleths, etc.

    So the reason the fourth Gospel does not include Jesus’ teaching that one must love one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy) and that loving one’s neighbor is “the law and the prophets” (as in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount) is that your neighbor might not share your “beliefs” about Jesus, and the most important thing according to the author(s) of the fourth Gospel is to “believe” the right things about who Jesus was… or else. It is a lesson the author of the fourth Gospel repeats ad nauseum, “Anyone who does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” (a verse that came in handy during the Inquisition). “Those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” You must even believe the right liturgical things concerning the Lord’s Supper, because “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Speaking of right belief, the Gospel says it was composed “that ye may believe,” and starts off telling everyone what to believe about Jesus, and has the disciples call Jesus the messiah and much more the instant they meet him, and even has John the Baptist declare what one must believe about Jesus right from the start (a line of the Baptists’ found in no other Gospel), namely that Jesus is “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” something one “must” believe per John 3.


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