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The Beloved Disciple

beloved disciple

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

    Christopher W. Skinner is Professor of New Testament & Early Christianity at Loyola University Chicago. He has authored nearly three dozen articles and book chapters and written or edited nine books, including Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect (with Kelly R. Iverson; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), What Are They Saying about the Gospel of Thomas? (Paulist, 2011), Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (Bloomsbury/T & T Clark, 2013), Reading John (Cascade, 2015), and Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (Fortress, 2017).