Who Was the Beloved Disciple? by Christopher W. Skinner

Anonymous figures have a way of piquing our curiosity and compelling us to learn more. Think of Watergate’s Deep Throat or the notorious Unabomber. Now that we know that Deep Throat was really FBI agent Mark Felt and that the Unabomber was a schizophrenic mathematician named Ted Kaczynski, those figures somehow cease to be as interesting as they once were.

The same goes for anonymous figures in the Bible. Perhaps the most well known in the New Testament is the so-called beloved disciple. Apart from Jesus, this character—whose identity is never revealed—should be regarded as one of the most intriguing figures in the Gospel of John. However, since many assume they already know this figure’s identity, he often fails to inspire the sense of mystery that the story intends to evoke.

The most common identification of this character is drawn from an early tradition, which holds that the beloved disciple was an actual individual known as John, the son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus. This theory also identifies the son of Zebedee as the author of the Gospel of John. This idea remains an important view among contemporary Christians, though there is little evidence to support it. Other scholars have variously identified the beloved disciple as Lazarus (John 11:38-44), Thomas (John 20:24-28), or even Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18). However, these theories ultimately miss the point.

The shadowy figure known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” appears in five scenes in the Gospel of John (John 13:21-30, John 18:15-18, John 19:26-27, John 21:7 with John 21:20), though some also regard the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-39 as the beloved disciple. In these scenes the beloved disciple stands in contrast to Simon Peter, who is characterized less positively. In each instance the beloved disciple responds to Jesus in a way that the narrator considers praiseworthy, while Peter expresses confusion, doubt, and misunderstanding before he denies that he knows Jesus. In a sense, the beloved disciple gets everything right: twice he is found in a location that indicates his loyalty to Jesus (John 18:15-18, John 19:26-27); he responds appropriately by believing at the empty tomb, even when he does not understand (John 20:3-8); he also recognizes the risen Jesus from afar while the other disciples do not (John 21:7). In what is probably the most important comment about the beloved disciple, the narrator depicts him as “leaning back on the chest of Jesus” (author’s translation, John 13:25)—an English rendering of the same Greek phrase used to describe the relationship between Jesus and God the Father (“close to the Father’s heart,” John 1:18). Each of these depictions reinforces the idea that the beloved disciple should be seen as an ideal follower of Jesus—one with whom any faithful reader can and should identify.

Perhaps a historical individual actually stood behind the figure of the beloved disciple. Nevertheless, the beloved disciple is anonymous in the text and must remain so to fulfill the role given him in the story. The point John’s Gospel makes is that any reader who wishes to follow Jesus can become a beloved disciple by following his lead. From the pages of the story the beloved disciple beckons the reader: “Follow Jesus as I have followed him, and you too can become a disciple whom Jesus loves.”

Christopher W. Skinner, "Who Was the Beloved Disciple?", n.p. [cited 16 Oct 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/who-was-the-beloved-disciple

Contributors

Christopher W. Skinner

Christopher W. Skinner
Associate Professor, Mount Olive College

Christopher W. Skinner is associate professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina. He has authored numerous articles and written or edited seven books, including What Are They Saying about the Gospel of Thomas? (Paulist, 2011), Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Bloomsbury/T & T Clark, 2013), and (with Kelly R. Iverson) Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). He blogs, along with Nijay Gupta, at cruxsolablog.com.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

John 11:38-44

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.39Jesus said, “Take away t ... View more

John 20:24-28

Jesus and Thomas
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen t ... View more

John 20:11-18

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;12and she saw two angels in white, s ... View more

John 13:21-30

Jesus Foretells His Betrayal
21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”22The disciples ... View more

John 18:15-18

Peter Denies Jesus
15Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of ... View more

John 19:26-27

26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”27Then he said to the disciple, ... View more

John 21:7

7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jump ... View more

John 21:20

Jesus and the Beloved Disciple
20Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper ... View more

John 1:35-39

The First Disciples of Jesus
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is th ... View more

John 18:15-18

Peter Denies Jesus
15Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of ... View more

John 19:26-27

26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”27Then he said to the disciple, ... View more

John 20:3-8

3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb fir ... View more

John 21:7

7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jump ... View more

John 13:25

25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

John 1:18

18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.