Let’s Take a Closer Look at the Mystery of the Beloved Disciple

Regardless of who you think the beloved disciple was, it’s worth taking a closer look...

Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint John the Evangelist,” ca. 1611
Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint John the Evangelist,” ca. 1611 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Something very strange happens in John’s Gospel.

Unlike any of the other Gospels, it indicates — directly — who its author is.

And yet it also doesn’t tell us who he is.

At the very end of the Gospel, we are told that it was written by a figure who has become known as “the beloved disciple.”

But he never names himself. That’s something everyone agrees on: The text of the Gospel never directly tells us the name of this disciple.

The author chose to remain anonymous or “not named” (Greek, a(n)- “not” + onoma “name”).

That creates a mystery around him — and it’s a mystery that he chose to create, for whatever reason he had.

Most people, for most of Church history, have thought it was the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.

There is, however, a vigorous debate about this in some quarters.

Regardless of who you think the beloved disciple was, it’s worth looking at how he handles the issue of his identity and what light this may shed on the question.

So let’s look at the appearances of the beloved disciple in the Gospel ...


Before We Begin

We should say a word about how we should look at these passages.

To fully appreciate their significance, to avoid coloring them with other ideas we may have, we should put ourselves in the position of an early reader who didn’t know anything else about this Gospel.

Treat it like a document that just fell into your hands — without “The Gospel of John” written at the front, the way it appears in modern Bibles.

Ancient documents didn’t have titles at the front like that. They just started with the text.

Also, forget that you know that the beloved disciple will eventually be revealed as the author.

Imagine mentally reading the document from the beginning — without knowing anything else — and watch the clues that accumulate.

Let’s get started ...


A Man “Whose Name Was John”

In the first chapter of the Gospel, we learn about John the Baptist, only he isn’t called “the Baptist.” He’s just called “John”:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (John 1:6).

We are expected to already know about this figure. For example, we are expected to know that he was eventually sent to prison — a fact that the author drops on us without any further explanation, at one point simply saying, “John had not yet been put in prison” (John 3:24).

From one perspective, this is not surprising since the Fourth Gospel appears to have been written as a way of supplementing the information found in other Gospels, such as Mark’s (see here).

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell the story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, so the Fourth Gospel can assume that we know about it.

But early Christian tradition contained multiple figures named “John,” which was one of the most common Palestinian Jewish male names in the first century. Individuals who bore it included John the Baptist, John son of Zebedee, and John Mark, the author of the second Gospel.

It’s thus surprising that the Fourth Gospel simply refers to the Baptist as “John,” without adding “the Baptist” the way the Synoptics do.

In fact, this John is the only person called “John” in the entire Fourth Gospel.

This is potentially significant, and it suggests that the author — for some reason — wanted to keep the name “John” focused exclusively on the Baptist.


1. Meeting Jesus

A bit later in the first chapter of the Gospel, we learn that John had disciples:

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus (John 1:35-37).

We thus encounter two anonymous disciples who begin following Jesus and presumably become Jesus’ disciples.

We also learn one of their names. One is “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (John 1:40). But the other disciple remains unnamed.

Why is that?

If Andrew isn’t the only one who has a future with Jesus, why isn’t the other one named? This is a mystery later passages may shed light on.


2. At the Last Supper

Another very strange thing happens in the final third of the Fourth Gospel.

We’ve been reading about Jesus and what he did and said for more than two thirds of the book in our hands. After Jesus announces, at the Last Supper, that one of his disciples will betray him, we suddenly read:

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks” (John 13:23-24).

Wait. What? A disciple “whom Jesus loved”? Who is that?

If Jesus loved him in a special way, that suggests he’s important. But if he’s important, why hasn’t he been mentioned before in this Gospel?

Or has he?

In this passage, we see Jesus interacting with an anonymous disciple — just like he did back in Chapter 1. Could the two anonymous disciples be one and the same?

We’ll have to see ...


3. In the High Priest’s Courtyard

We encounter another anonymous disciple after Jesus has been arrested:

Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door.
So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in (John 18:15-16).

It is very strange that “the other disciple” remains unnamed. He was obviously important — for he was personally known to the high priest, and it was this fact that allowed Peter to gain access to the high priest’s courtyard.

Yet he remains anonymous and is simply described as “another disciple” (v. 15) and as “the other disciple” (v. 16).

In Greek, these phrases are very close. “Another disciple” is allos mathētēs, but once he has been introduced, the author adds the definite article (“the”/ho) in front of the phrase: ho allos mathētēs.

Does anything else in the Gospel shed light on who he is?

Keep reading.


4. At the Foot of the Cross

The next time the beloved disciple appears is at the foot of the Cross:

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”
Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27).

Here we have another indication of the importance of the beloved disciple: Jesus entrusts the care of his mother to him.

And the disciple lives up to the commission Jesus gives him, beginning to care for Mary “from that hour.”


5. At the Tomb

The beloved disciple is also mentioned when Mary Magdalene runs to tell the disciples that Jesus’ tomb is empty:

So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb.

They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.

Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead (John 20:2-9).

Notice how the beloved disciple is first introduced: He is initially described (v. 2a) as “the other disciple,” and the Greek phrase is ho allos mathētēs (though here put in the accusative case).

We’ve heard that phrase before. It was how the disciple who got Peter into the high priest’s courtyard was described back in John 18:16.

The fact John uses this phrase first suggests that he expects us to recognize this person as “the other disciple” who was with Peter at the high priest’s house.

This impression is reinforced because John keeps referring to this figure as “the other disciple” (vv. 3, 4, and 8).

But now John further identifies him (v. 2b) as “the one whom Jesus loved” — the beloved disciple from the Last Supper and the foot of the cross.

The passage also reveals that the beloved disciple and Peter were together, and it appears that the beloved disciple is fleeter of foot than Peter (which some have suggested may mean he is younger, though Peter was not old at this time).

The beloved disciple also defers to Peter, allowing him to enter the tomb first, and he is quick to believe.


6. At the Sea of Galilee

The beloved disciple also had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus when a group of disciples decide to go fishing. Notice who is present:

Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together (John 21:2).

There were seven people present:

  • Simon Peter
  • Thomas
  • Nathanael
  • Two sons of Zebedee
  • Two unnamed disciples

Seven is a significant number in the Bible in general and in the Johannine literature in particular.

Also, we are here at the very end of the Gospel, and we are encountering two anonymous disciples — just like we did at the very beginning of the Gospel.

Could they be the same two? Andrew and one other?

The disciples spend all night fishing, and in the morning Jesus appears on the shore, but in the distance they don’t recognize him.

Jesus then asks them if they have caught anything. When they say they haven’t, he tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they miraculously get a huge catch.

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea (John 21:7).

Afterwards, they all get to shore and have breakfast with Jesus, who has Peter confess his love for him three times as a way of undoing the threefold denial Peter made in the high priest’s courtyard.

Then Jesus tells Peter about the way he will die, and we read:

Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”
Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”
The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:20-23).

Here we learn that the beloved disciple wasn’t just important when the events of the Gospel were transpiring. He continued to be well-known in the Christian community afterward, as there was a rumor he wouldn’t die.

The fact he takes the time to debunk this rumor — to assure the audience that Jesus didn’t say he wouldn’t die — indicates that the rumor still had currency.

Presumably the audience, or at least a notable number of its members, had heard the rumor and knew who the mysterious disciple was.

This makes the Gospel’s refusal to name the disciple all the more mysterious.


7. The Author Revealed

There is one more thing that the Gospel tells us about the beloved disciple: He’s its author.

Immediately after learning about the rumor concerning the beloved disciple, we read:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:24-25).

For someone reading this Gospel for the first time, not knowing anything else about it, this would be mind-blowing!

The enigmatic disciple about whom mystery has been building for chapter after chapter suddenly turns out to be the author! Wow!

The author even steps out of the shadows, dropping his previous habit of referring to himself in the third person (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” “the other disciple”) and suddenly using the first person: “I suppose the world itself could not contain the books.”

This is carefully crafted literary artistry, and that may help us put a few additional pieces in place.


Putting It All Together

For a reason the Gospel does not tell us, the author has chosen to keep himself unnamed throughout his work.

He’s also used a careful, “slow build” literary strategy to gradually fill in our picture of who he is. It’s a strategy that fosters a sense of growing mystery about him:

  • We first have a definite indication that something is up in Chapter 13 — two thirds of the way through the Gospel—when we suddenly hear about a mysterious disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
  • Then the author reintroduces himself in Chapter 18 under the title “the other disciple,” where we learn he was personally known to the high priest and played a key role in getting Peter admitted to the courtyard.
  • In Chapter 19 we learn that the beloved disciple was at the foot of the cross and that Jesus entrusted the care of his own mother to him.
  • In Chapter 20 we learn that he was present at the empty tomb, and he was apparently the first disciple to believe in the Resurrection. We also learn that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and “the other disciple” are one in the same.
  • In Chapter 21, we learn that there was a rumor about him that he would never die.
  • Finally, we learn that he is the author of the Gospel itself.

This carefully constructed, “slow burn” pattern invites us to consider whether we may have missed anything, whether there are other pieces of the puzzle that also need to be fit in.

Earlier we noted that, given the sudden appearance of a disciple “whom Jesus loved” in Chapter 13, we would have expected an account of how such a disciple first met Jesus — and that impression is strengthened even further once we know he is the actual author of the Gospel.

How could a disciple who felt so close to Jesus, who cared for his own mother, not tell us how he met Jesus? He told us about how other people (Andrew, Peter, Nathanael, Nicodemus, etc.) met Jesus.

But maybe the deliberately unnamed author did tell us: There are those two unnamed disciples in Chapter 1, and — surprise, surprise — there are two unnamed disciples in chapter 21.

This suggests that the unnamed author was one of the two unnamed disciples in both cases. He was Andrew’s companion in Chapter 1, and that was the story of how he first met Jesus.

Quite possibly, Andrew was the unnamed disciple in Chapter 21. It would be very natural for Peter and the sons of Zebedee to be accompanied by Andrew, the fourth member of their fishing partnership. The beloved disciple simply kept Andrew unnamed on this occasion to mirror Chapter 1.

We would then have seven appearances of the beloved disciple in the Gospel:

  1. His first meeting with Jesus (John 1:35-37)
  2. His appearance at the Last Supper (John 13:23-24).
  3. His appearance at the high priest’s house (John 18:15-16)
  4. His appearance at the foot of the Cross (John 19:26-27)
  5. His appearance at the empty tomb (John 20:2-9)
  6. His appearance at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2-23)
  7. His self-revelation as the author (John 21:24-25)

This arrangement is not certain, because there are other ways one could divide the material (some of which also would add up to seven).

However, the prominence of the number seven (including the seven disciples mentioned at the Sea of Galilee) and the author’s clear literary artistry, indicate that a deliberate seven-fold pattern of appearances may be indicated.

It’s also worth noting that all but the last of these appearances occurs in Jerusalem or the vicinity of Jerusalem. (John 1:28, as well as Matt. 3:1 and Mark 1:5, place the location of John’s baptizing ministry near Jerusalem.)

This pattern of events around Jerusalem is consistent with someone who would be personally known to the high priest. Indeed, it would suggest not just a Jerusalemite but a member of the Jerusalem aristocracy and possibly a priest himself.

It is less consistent with the profile of a Galilean fisherman like John son of Zebedee.

Also pointing in this direction is the suggestion that the author is one of the two unnamed disciples at the Sea of Galilee. If that is the case then he is not one of the sons of Zebedee, who were also present.

This does not mean the beloved disciple can’t be John son of Zebedee, but it does mean there are indicators pointing in a different direction.

This only continues the mystery surrounding the author — a mystery produced by the fact that he never names himself, not even in the last verses of his Gospel when he reveals himself as author.

For more on the debate about who wrote John’s Gospel, see here.