The identity of the Beloved Disciple is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the New Testament. No date, no satisfying answer has come forward. Traditionally the Beloved Disciple was identified with the apostle John, the supposed author of the gospel. But this solution has gained little to no traction among modern scholars. Other suggestions have ranged from an anonymous historical character, an idealized figure, or an idealized historical figure.
How do we sort this out? My proposal is straight forward: examine what the Fourth Gospel has to say about the Beloved Disciple without any presuppositions. What does the Fourth Gospel tell us about the Beloved Disciple?
‘Beloved Disciple’ is an abbreviated form of “the disciple that Jesus loved.” This phrase appears five times, four in Jerusalem contexts and once in Galilee in chapter 21.
Traditionally the Greek mathētēs has been translated “disciple,” but its ordinary meaning is “student.” Disciple, an ecclesiastical meaning, gives the word a special religious meaning which it lacks in Greek. Student is the correct translation. Since mathētēs is by far the most common name for Jesus’ followers in the Fourth Gospel, it reminds us that the group represented in the Fourth Gospel is a school, not a church, which is a Pauline term. Jesus’ students are learning the way of the father through the son. The-student-whom-Jesus-loved is the favored student, the model, teacher’s pet. And just as that phrase implies jealousy on the part of the other students, that also comes into play in the narrative.
The Fourth Gospel elaborates the last meal well beyond the Synoptics. The meal extends over five chapters, chapters 13-17. Interestingly, the words of institution are missing. The beloved student first appears in chapter 13 at the last meal in the context of discussing who will betray Jesus.
One of them, the student Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. So Simon Peter leans over to ask that student who it was Jesus was talking about. He, in turn, leans back on Jesus’ breast and asks him, “Master, who is it?” (13:23-25. Unless noted otherwise, the following are my revisions of the Complete Gospels.)
In this introduction the-student-whom-Jesus-loved is in a favored position compared to Simon. He is closer to Jesus, Jesus loves him (more?), and Simon must go through him to Jesus. The student is also described as leaning back on Jesus’ breast. This exact phrase is used to describe Jesus’ relation to the father in 1:18. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (KJ). The student whom Jesus loved is in the bosom of Jesus just as Jesus is in the bosom of father.
What counts about the student is not his name but that he is loved by Jesus, is in his bosom. That is how he is to be known.
The Family of Jesus
His next appearance is at the foot of the cross with the women (19:25-27). He is the only male student of Jesus present. The women are named, the student is not.
When Jesus saw his mother, and the student he loved standing nearby, he says to his mother, “Lady, here is your son.” Then he says to the student, “Here is your mother.” And from that moment the student made her part of his family (19:26-27).
Given the understanding of family in the Greco-Roman world, this is an adoption scene, although who is adopting who is not clear. The family of Jesus and the family of the student become one and the same. This adoption has implications for the students of the-student-whom-Jesus-loved.
The Fourth Gospel knows the empty tomb narrative but has its own distinct take on it. Instead of the women coming to the tomb, Mary Magdalene alone discovers the tomb empty and reports to Simon Peter and the-student-whom-Jesus-loved, “They’ve taken the master from the tomb” (20:2).
Peter and the other student run to the tomb, but the other student is faster and gets there first. This subordinates Peter to the student. Upon entering the tomb,
then the other student, who had been the first to reach the tomb, came in. He saw all this, and he believed. But since neither of them yet understood the prophecy that he was destined to rise from the dead, these students went back home (20:8-10).
These verses are puzzling, although their intent is clear—to establish the priority of the student over Peter. The student sees and believes. But what does he believe? That is not evident. But the primary meaning of the Greek word pisteuō, traditionally translated “to believe,” is “to trust.” By translating “saw and trusted” it makes more sense. Seeing the tomb’s emptiness does not destroy his trust or confidence in Jesus. Seeing and trusting are contrasted with not yet understanding, which indicates that resurrection is a matter of understanding the interpretation of scripture. Seeing, trusting, and understanding lay out the steps of a process and indicate the school nature of this event.
Neither Peter nor the-student-whom-Jesus-loved, but Mary Magdalene is the hero of the resurrection narrative of the Fourth Gospel, even though the tradition has done everything in its power to strip her of this privilege. Jesus appears first to her, calls her by name, and she is the first to confess Jesus, to see and understand that he is alive. She is the true model of faith. She then goes to the students and “announces” to them, “I have seen the master and he said these things to me” (20:18). She proclaims the resurrection to the students hiding in the upper room.
Mary Magdalene and the-student-whom-Jesus-loved are set in parallel. Both are ideal models. But she, a woman, is named, very unusual in the ancient world, while he, a male, is unnamed. Naming the woman but not the man challenges conventional expectations, thereby helping the reader to accept what these two characters model without the normal standards of proof.
Who’s on First?
The last mention of the student whom Jesus loved is in chapter 21, a chapter added to the Fourth Gospel around 125 CE . In the first two centuries Christian unity is an illusion. Rather various groups divided along lines associated with different apostles or students. Each grouping had its own hero who is the source of its tradition. Groups claim Paul, Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, or the-student-whom-Jesus-loved. They are jockeying for position. This is apparent in the resurrection stories of chapter 20, with the contrast between Peter and the beloved student on the one hand, and Mary Magdalene and Thomas on the other. In chapter 21 the contest between groups associated with Peter and those with the student are front and center.
Peter in this scenario represents the growing edge of Jesus groups in the early second century which are contesting the claim of the students of the-student-whom-Jesus-loved that they have a superior revelation/insight into who Jesus is.
This scene is set in Galilee, where, according to the Gospel of Mark, Peter was instructed to return. As in the resurrection story in chapter 21, the student sees Jesus first and announces to Peter “It’s the master!” (21:7) The student-whom-Jesus-loved is identified by the markers at his first appearance in the Gospel: “Peter turns and sees the disciple Jesus loved following them, the one who had leaned back on Jesus’ chest at supper and asked, ‘Master, who’s going to turn you in?’” (21:20). When Peter asks the master about this student, Jesus replies in effect, “It’s none of your business.”
This chapter ends with a confession of the students: “This is the student who is testifying to all this and has written it down, and we know that his testimony is truthful” (21:24). While this has been used to indicate an eyewitness claim for the whole, such is not the case. Rather it is a claim that the-student-whom-Jesus-loved is the source of this tradition.
The-student-whom-Jesus-loved appears only in the last part of the Gospel: the last meal, Jesus’ death, the discovery of empty tomb, and the Galilean resurrection story. He is not present in the rest of the Gospel. In all the scenes but Jesus’ death, the beloved student is a foil for Peter. His priority over Peter is the point in chapter 21. That Jesus loves the student points his superiority or preeminence over the others, especially Peter. Actually, from a historical point of view, the Fourth Gospel won this contest. The tradition much preferred the high Christology of the Fourth Gospel to the lower Christology of the Synoptics. It made Christianity much more about Christology than ethics.
The Gospel of Mary employs a similar strategy. When Peter challenges the revelation to Mary, Levi says, “For if the Savior made her worthy, just who do you think you are to reject her? For he knew her completely and loved her steadfastly” (10:9-10).
The-student-whom-Jesus-loved is the model student, reclines in the bosom of Jesus, adopts his mother into his own family, and at the empty tomb sees and trusts. But Mary Magdalene is also a model. At the resurrection she is the first to see Jesus, recognize him when he calls her by name, and announce the resurrection to his disciples.
Is the student whom Jesus loved an historical character, as well as an ideal of the model student? The Gospel does not offer sufficient evidence to answer that question. It has no interest in such a question. Its concern is to enable a reader to experience the revelation/insight of the-student-whom-Jesus-loved: “these are written down so you will come to trust that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God—and by trusting this have life in his name” (20:31).