This Blind Spot will indeed be a companion piece of sorts with the last piece on the Man in the Iron Mask, for again we will be examining a historically unidentified person, someone whose identity has been much debated, with assorted likely suspects having been put forward by scholars. But additionally it will serve as a clarification of sorts to a statement I made more than once in my series on the Priory of Sion and Rennes-le-Château. In that series, I suggested that Mary Magdalene was considered a “beloved disciple.” In truth, there is a figure who only appears in the Gospel of John who is known by that moniker and is described in every appearance as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” but is never overtly identified by name. The notion that Mary Magdalene was the beloved disciple is a common and an intriguing one, but it is by no means widely accepted. For one thing, a key passage in the Gospel of John featuring the Beloved Disciple appears to indicate that they are two different people: Mary Magdalene sees the stone has been rolled away from Christ’s tomb and goes to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, who then race to the tomb and enter. But those in the Magdelene camp feel the text itself cannot be relied upon, pointing out there appears to have been a campaign to besmirch the reputation of the Magdalene, portraying her as a prostitute when there is no evidence for this present in the Gospels. They suggest that her name may have been redacted, calling her instead “the disciple whom Jesus loved” so as not to admit Jesus’s relationship with her. You may recall this theory in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which makes much of the fact that apocryphal texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, mention how much Jesus loved her. Now some believe this text actually refers to his mother Mary, but there are further mentions in the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi, for example the Gospel of Phillip, that indicate Christ’s love for Mary Magdalene more specifically, and how he loved her more than the other disciples and would “kiss her often on her mouth.” But contrary to what Brown claims in his novel, these texts are not the oldest known sources of information on the subject; rather they have been shown to be far less reliable as they are centuries older than the canonical gospels, being composed hundreds of years later even than John, which at around 120 CE was written at the greatest historical distance from the events it describes. So let us consider further the evidence in the Gospel of John as well as the most widely held theories on the Beloved Disciple’s identity in order to reach a fuller understanding.
There are actually a number of places in the Gospel of John in which an unnamed disciple appears. Although not explicitly identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved, many still take these as further appearances of the Beloved Disciple. The first is in Chapter 1, verse 35, which mentions two disciples of John the Baptist who become the disciples of Jesus. If this is indeed the first mention of the Beloved Disciple, then it makes him (or her) one of the first to follow Jesus. Then much later in the book, Chapter 18, verse 15, after Jesus is arrested, the narrator relates that Simon Peter and “another disciple” followed. This other, unnamed disciple knows the high priest and gains admittance to his court, and afterwards is able to get Simon Peter in as well. Speculation that this also is the Beloved Disciple, mainly because of this conspicuous anonymity, has led to much theorizing regarding his or her identity and connection to the high priest. Those on Team Magdelene might suggest that, rather than a poor prostitute, she was actually a woman of wealth, for as it indicates in Luke 8, she appeared to be funding Christ’s ministry with her own money. Therefore, as a woman of means, perhaps high-born, the high priest may have recognized her. Others have taken this passage to suggest that the Beloved Disciple was himself a priest, but more on that later.
The first time the Gospel of John refers to the Beloved Disciple overtly is in Chapter 13, verse 23, when during the Last Supper, he or she is laying his or her head lovingly upon his chest. Clearly this sounds affectionate, almost approaching intimacy, so many have looked at it as further proof for Mary Magdalene’s candidacy, while others have even suggested that there is some homoeroticism present in Christ’s relationship with this disciple. Without endorsing either theory, for the sake of clarity and brevity, I will be using male pronouns when referring to the unknown disciple from here on, as most scholarship and theories hold the character to be a man. In this scene, we again find Simon Peter present. Jesus has announced that one of his followers will betray him, and Simon Peter, seemingly in deference to the intimacy of the Beloved Disciple’s position with Jesus, suggests with a beckoning motion that he ask Christ who this betrayer will be, whereupon Jesus identifies Judas Iscariot. After this encounter, and Simon Peter’s following Jesus to the court of the high priest, where a disciple who may be the same man manages to gain them entrance, we find the Beloved Disciple present at the crucifixion, in Chapter 19, verse 26, when Jesus commends his mother into the Beloved Disciple’s care. And finally, after the problematic detail of the Magdalene seeing the tomb had been opened and fetching the Beloved Disciple, indicating they were different people, we have the moment with this Disciple whom Jesus loved, in the company of Simon Peter yet again, runs to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple outruns Peter, arriving first to see the discarded linens, but does not enter, leaving Simon Peter to investigate further.
Now there is one final mention of the Beloved Disciple, and it is a doozy. In the final chapter of the book as we have received it, a further encounter with Christ is described. Out on Peter’s boat, fishing, the Beloved Disciple sees and recognizes Christ on shore. In this scene, on shore, Christ tasks Simon Peter with caring for his flock, essentially raising him up as the chief disciple. Peter asks about the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus asks what it would matter to him if he had the Beloved Disciple live until the Second Coming. This causes the disciples to suspect that Jesus has granted the Beloved Disciple immortality, but the narrator of the Gospel dispels this notion, indicating that it had been more of a rhetorical question. Then, in the very next verse, he identifies himself, saying it is this Beloved Disciple who testifies to these things…essentially saying “That’s me! I’m the Disciple whom Jesus loved!” So the question of the identity of the Beloved Disciple has long been tied up with questions of the authorship of the Gospel of John.
Although the gospels don’t name their authors, they received their names through tradition, as their original audiences were familiar with their origin. Therefore, it has always been assumed that John’s gospel was written by someone named John. The traditional view is that the author of the Gospel of John is John the Apostle, sometimes referred to with his brother as a son of Zebedee. In truth, however, the name translated first in Greek and eventually into English as John was an extremely common Palestinian name, such that the authorship of this gospel is a matter of debate. And it has been pointed out that the Sons of Zebedee were present in the boat on the Sea of Tiberius in Chapter 21 and appear to be separate people from the unnamed Beloved Disciple, whose anonymity had been so carefully cultivated throughout the book. This would therefore rule out John the Apostle. But there is no shortage of Johns to choose from. There is John Mark, but he is usually credited with writing the Gospel of Mark. There is John the Baptist, but he is referred to explicitly by the narrator rather than coyly, as the Beloved Disciple always is. Other candidates include John of Patmos and the more obscure John the Presbyter, all of whom vie for credit not only for the composition of the this gospel, but also the Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation—the so-called Johannine works. Then there is the notion, as previously stated, that this John was some unknown priest, for if he is the same unnamed disciple who entered the high priest’s court, he appears to have had connections, and this background would jibe well with the literary quality of the gospel, which does not seem to have been composed by an uneducated common man. But there is another theory that casts a wrench into the workings of any theory identifying these men with the Beloved Disciple. This being that Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was a later addition to the book, and that its identification of the author with the Beloved Disciple is inaccurate. Many scholars point to the end of the previous chapter as evidence that this was the true original end of the book, for it concludes with a literary embellishment indicating that Jesus had performed many other works that the book had not mentioned, a flourish that is repeated again at the end of the next chapter which it is argued was appended to clarify certain doctrinal points—such as that Peter was the true head of the church, or perhaps that the Beloved Disciple certainly wasn’t a woman with whom Jesus was romantically involved.
So the search for the Beloved Disciple continues. If his identity is not tied up with the John who wrote the book, then who was he? There have been manifold further theories. It has been pointed out that we have names for all Twelve Apostles, and even from the Book of Acts for disciples who were recommended to replace Judas, Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias, because they had followed Jesus from the beginning. Indeed, beyond the Twelve, there were at least 72 other followers during Jesus’s lifetime who might have been referred to as disciples, according to Luke 10:1. There was Nicodemus, who had asked Pilate for Christ’s body, and Joseph of Arimathea, who had donated his own tomb for his burial. Either of these figures might easily be considered candidates.
Then there is the intriguing idea supported by James Tabor that the Beloved Disciple was loved by Jesus as a brother. Some traditions, supported by scriptural passages suggest that Mary had multiple sons after Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Jude. These would in effect be Jesus’s half-brothers, and of them, James is the most well-known. Again, we have some confusion among characters with similar names, as James the brother of Christ is often identified with another character, James the Less (as in the younger brother?) and confused with two Apostles named James, one a son of Zebedee like John, the other a son of Alphaeus. Tabor’s theory looks at the crucifixion scene, when Jesus tells his mother to look at the Beloved Disciple and says “behold your son,” telling the Beloved Disciple likewise, “behold your mother,” and he see a literal statement that the Beloved Disciple is another son of Mary.
Another candidate with a strong case is a follower of Christ not traditionally considered a disciple: Lazarus. Scholars in the 20th century have developed his candidacy quite convincingly. Floyd Filson, in a 1949 paper for the Journal of Biblical Literature, outlines this theory with powerful clarity. Earlier in the Gospel of John, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that Jesus loved Lazarus, including no less than three indications of his love for him (Filson 85). This adds weight and pathos to Jesus’s grief and the subsequent miracle he performs. Then, when the Beloved Disciple sees the discarded linens at the tomb, he is the first to believe Christ is resurrected, which is a far less dramatic assumption coming from one who has himself been resurrected (Filson 86). And finally, this theory does not shrink from the last chapter that identifies the author as the Beloved Disciple, suggesting that the events of the gospel all take place near Bethany, where Lazarus lived, making him a natural candidate for authorship as well (Filson 86-87). And the principal scene in the final chapter, in which the other disciples believe that Jesus is suggesting the Beloved Disciple might live forever, is further illuminated by the idea that the Beloved Disciple had already been raised from the dead (Filson 86).
Among all of these competing theories is yet another, that the Beloved Disciple is not a real person whose identity can be uncovered, but rather a literary trope, a figure in more than one sense. Perhaps, some scholars have suggested, the Beloved Disciple is not named because he is not a man as much as he is an idea. By this reading, he is almost always presented as a contrast to Simon Peter, a character famous for his ambivalence and failings. At the Last Supper, The Beloved Disciple asks Christ directly what Simon Peter is too timid to ask. While they both follow Christ after his arrest, the Beloved Disciple resourcefully enters the high priest’s court while Simon Peter waits at the gate and later denies his devotion to Christ. While Peter is too afraid to witness Christ’s death, the Beloved Disciple bravely attends the crucifixion. In the race to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first and is first to believe in the resurrection. And at the Sea of Tiberius, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the risen Christ. If one were to read this character as symbolic, then he might represent a model for devotion and faith, juxtaposed by Simon Peter’s weaknesses. But several of the ideas we have discussed—that the gospels have been redacted, that a new ending may have been tacked onto John to rewrite the origins of the book, and that major passages may be rather more symbolic than literal—lead to some big questions. If this gospel might be doctored, and if we are meant to read it as allegorical, with fictional characters representing ideals and abstractions, what does this mean for scriptural literalists? What does this say about the literal interpretation of other books in the bible? Perhaps the lesson here is that we should not be analyzing them as primary historical sources, searching for verifiable facts in them. Perhaps, as has been suggested of other portions of scripture, it is more useful to think of them as mythology and folklore.
Filson, Floyd V. “Who Was the Beloved Disciple?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 68, no. 2, 1949, pp. 83–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3261994.