The identity of the ‘beloved disciple’ in John’s gospel

  • The previous post on freelance theology caused a response in the comments about the identity of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, a cryptic reference that appears fairly regularly in the Gospel of John.

    There have been many attempts to identify this ‘beloved disciple’ over the years, although their true identity will probably never be known. Here, though, is a short run-down of the main possible contenders for the title that have been suggested.

    Before the run-down starts, it’s worth noting that the Fourth Gospel was not always traditionally ascribed to the apostle John, the brother of James and one of the three disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. Irenaeus (140-210CE) is one of the first to identify the author of the gospel as John the Disciple, and supplies the personal data that John lived in Ephesus until the time of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled between 98-117CE.

    Doubts have been cast on this, as it would have meant the disciple would have lived an inordinately long life even if he had only been in his early twenties during Jesus’ ministry. It’s not impossible, but it seems unlikely.

    The general scholarly consensus is that there may be personal recollections of the apostle/disciple John in the gospel, but that these have been edited by a group of Christians who knew him (the ‘Johannine Community’). This could have happened in Ephesus, the first Christians having fled Judea because of the Jewish War of 64-74CE.

    The ‘beloved disciple’ is mentioned as the ‘author’ of the gospel in John chapter 21, verse 24, although this section does read like an epilogue attached to the gospel by someone else. Whether ‘author’ really means ‘author’ here, or should mean ‘source of material’, is open to discussion.

    What can be said about the beloved disciple is that they were a person known to the other disciples, they interacted with Jesus, and they were accredited in some way with the creation of the Fourth Gospel. But who were they?

    Contender 1: John the disciple
    Pros: Tradition casts him as the author. Humility may have made him seek anonymity. There is a reference to the ‘Sons of Zebedee’, but no reference in the gospel to John by name. There is the link between the ‘beloved disciple’ and the author of the gospel, as mentioned above. The gospel uses ‘semitic’ language, which supports the idea that the writer was Jewish. The gospel writer displays knowledge of Galileean and Judean geography. The gospel ‘corrects’ some details found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic gospels) – a fairly bold thing to do if the author was not an apostle.

    Cons: The age issue calls Irenaeus’ testimony into question. Another early extra-Biblical tradition says that John was martyred alongside his brother James (see Acts chapter 12, verse 2). The ‘corrections’ to the Synoptic gospels show notable differences – if the Synoptics are based on other Apostolic traditions, could they differ so much, for example, over the timing of the ‘Cleansing of the Temple, which John places at the start of Jesus’ ministry rather than in Holy Week. The language used has semitic traces, but much of it sounds more Hellenistic, and even Gnostic – would John the disciple be so au fait with this language, he would be willing to use it? Finally, rather than sounding humble, it seems rather grandiose to refer to yourself in the third person as ‘the one Jesus loved’ (although if the gospel was ‘written up’ or edited later, this may have been a title bestowed upon John the disciple by one of his circle).

    Contender 2: Clopas (or Cleopas)
    Pros: Cleopas appears as a witness to the resurrection in Luke’s Gospel (see Luke chapter 24, verse 18). His wife, Mary, was present at the cross (John, chapter 19, verse 25) where she is described as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making Cleopas Jesus’ uncle. Very little is known about him, so Cleopas could have been versed enough in Hellenistic thought to begin shaping the prototype of John’s Gospel. He was in Jerusalem during Holy Week, so may have been an observer of what went on, which explains why so much of John’s Gospel narrative is unique.

    Cons: Very little is known about him. John’s Gospel came to prominence after the Synoptics, but Cleopas is presumably of the generation of Jesus’ mother. Where was his gospel material hidden all that time?

    Contender 3: Lazarus
    Pros: The only person described as a person Jesus loved in the gospel (John chapter 11, verse 3). [Edit: this is a description given by Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha.] If he was raised from the dead, as recounted in John, then a rumour that he was not going to die would make sense (see John chapter 21, verse 23).

    Cons: The beloved disciple was present at the Last Supper. None of the other gospels have Lazarus present there, or mention him at all. He does not appear in Acts either. If he was so close to Jesus as to write a gospel anonymously, then why is he anonymous in the gospels he did not write? [Edit: Jesus declares his love for all the disciples present at the Last Supper in John chapter 15, verse 9, meaning any of them could have claimed to have been a disciple whom Jesus loved.]

    Contender 4: Mary Magdalene
    Mary Magdalene seemed to have a close relationship with Jesus, although, unfortunately she has been consistently confused with a prostitute that washed Jesus’ feet. There is no inter-textual evidence that Mary was a prostitute. In fact, she was listed as one of the financial supporters of Jesus and the disciples, so she was presumably a woman of substance, and possibly well-educated. John’s gospel places her as the first person ‘sent’ by the risen Christ, making her technically the first ‘apostle’ – a position of high honour.

    Cons: The beloved disciple is referred to as ‘him’. The recent interest in Mary Magdalene owes more to feminist Biblical scholarship (and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown), than anything else.

    Contender 5 – John Mark
    Pros: He has the right name – John. He lived in Jerusalem, was of a priestly family, and would have possessed a good knowledge of the Temple. It may be that the Last Supper was held in his family home, a venue for early Christian meetings (Acts chapter 12, verse 12). He may be the ‘young man’ referred to in the gospel of Mark who was present at Jesus’ arrest (Mark chapter 14, verses 51-52) – if he was 13 (when Jewish boys became young men) at that point, he could have lived until the time of Trajan. Later he worked with Paul and Luke, and was aware of the controversy with the Jewish religious leaders, which may be why there are so many references in the Fourth Gospel. He was well-travelled and would have been acquainted with Hellenistic and Gnostic thought. If he was a young teenager, he may well have sleepily curled up next to Jesus at the Last Supper while Jesus talked to his disciples (John chapter 13, verse 23-25).

    Cons: Like many of the above contenders, not enough is really known about John-Mark to say for certain that he was even present at many of the events described in the gospel. Tradition has associated John-Mark with the authorship of the Gospel of Mark – a very different account of Jesus’ life.

    Contender 6 – the literary construct
    Pros: If the Fourth Gospel was produced by a relatively small Christian group working together, then the ‘beloved disciple’ could have been a literary construct designed to illustrate the way disciples should behave. Similar ‘perfect pupils’ appear in other contemporary literature.

    Cons: The ‘beloved disciple’ in the Fourth Gospel is too human a character – interacting with Jesus and the other disciples – so it does not feel like an artificial construct. There has been a long history of allegorical and metaphorical Biblical interpretation, stretching back to Augustine and earlier and yet non one before the twentieth century interpreted the ‘beloved disciple’ as a fictional character.

    Contender 7: A. N. Other Disciple (possibly even a female author)
    Pros: There are several possibilities. A woman would have hid her identity in those patriarchal times. Alternatively, Nicodemus plays a part in John’s Gospel and was present in the Sanhedrin that sat in judgement on Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea is another Gospel character who has had several different legends associated with him.

    Cons: It could be anyone, but there are no real strong possibilities. Again, the ‘beloved disciple’ is referred to using masculine pronouns, so it probably was not a woman. Other persons featured in the Gospel do not seem to have the closeness of relationship that the ‘beloved disciple’ is said to have.

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    1. allan Jun 13

      Yeah you are right about that. It could be anybody and definitely there are no real strong possibilities

    2. littlewitness Oct 21

      The greatest measure by which the greatest degree of scriptural certainty might be achieved in discerning the true identity of him whose testimony we know by faith is true is…BELIEF IN CHRIST RESURRECTED…without which Jesus beloved disciple could not have had any good reason to testify thereby much less whereby to write. Eliminate all those who did not believe Jesus was risen from the dead after he was risen, and the one who believed is Jesus beloved disciple.

    3. Bible student Mar 15


      When offered biblical evidence that refuted comments in your earlier “call of the first disciples” post on this topic, you chose to cut off further discussion of by saying you did not want to “risk of perpetuating this discussion further”.

      Given your choice to revisit this topic, your preference for ‘ambiguity’ on this topic (which turns a blind eye to the fact that the John idea is wholly unbiblical) makes me suspect that you give the same weight to the biblical evidence today as you did then. Even though the man-made John tradition is contrary to the facts in the plain text of scripture, you are still willing to treat that idea as if it was biblical — evidence your comments that were supposed to present the “pro” position on the John Mark. You say “Pros: He has the right name – John” without every realizing that the logical fallacy of circular reasoning is the only thing that could lead someone to say such a thing – because absolutely not one word that was written by one of the God-inspired writers of scripture would justify anyone asserting that “John” was the name of the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” who wrote the forth gospel.

      But since you obviously are still willing to assert that “the right name” of the gospel author is John, then it is clear you are still a blind follower of the blind on this issue and have failed to recognize (or do not care) that there is no biblical justification for assuming that John is “the right name”, i.e. that an error in reasoning founded on the traditions of men is the foundation of your thinking.

      That said, I trust you will not want to “risk of perpetuating this discussion further” since that could show how a number of your other statements also cannot stand up to biblical scrutiny, so I will leave it at that and let you brush-aside my comments with whatever change of subject you see fit to use this time.

    4. Bible student Mar 15


      A bit of biblical wisdom for you to consider: “wisdom is justified of her children” (Mt 11:19, Lu 7:35).

      You apparently thought it was wise to write the words that you wrote: “”It could be anybody and definitely there are no real strong possibilities” in spite of the fact those words are about as far from biblical truth as one could get. Anybody? Really? How about: Peter? Mary Magdalene? Judas Iscariot? John the Baptist? While the fans of the Mary Magdalene and Judas ideas outnumber those who are willing to side with Peter or John the Baptist, scripture disproves all of these ideas – just as it disproves the tradition that says the Apostle John was the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”.

      You do err, not knowing the scriptures. Respect for the authortity of God’s word deserves better.

    5. Jon the freelance theologian Mar 20

      Bible Student,

      I hope this response indicates I’m happy to continue discussing this. However, I’m not sure what that discussion will achieve. You’ve made your opinion quite clear: you believe the beloved disciple in John’s gospel refers to Lazarus. I think that’s possible, but unlikely for the reasons outlined in the post.

      It seems we are at an impasse in the discussion and must agree to disagree.

      I’d also add another issue with citing Lazarus as the only person Jesus is said to have loved. In John chapter 15 verse 9, Jesus tells his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” This seems to indicate any of the disciples present there could have called himself ‘one whom Jesus loved’.

      Finally, I’d point out that there are pros and cons listed for all the theories, including the traditional one. In fact, there are more cons listed for the traditional theory than pros.

    6. Bible Student Jan 23

      Jon, You said, “I’m happy to continue discussing this” and I apologize for not having responded sooner. But the problem is that you want to frame the argument as if it is all about my opinion (“You’ve made your opinion quite clear”) vs. yours. That lets you avoid having to deal with the biblical evidence that proves WHOEVER the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” was that person could not have been John — because the facts in the plain text of scripture rule out that possibility (because scripture cannot contradict itself, but the John idea is in direct contradiction to the facts in scripture).
      If that last statement is true, and it is, then everyone (no matter when they lived) who has been promoting the false idea that the author was John has done so IN SPITE OF the biblical evidence, not because of it (i.e., they have put their trust in non-Bible sources and the traditions of men, against the counsel of God’s word that is laid out in passages like Psalm 118:8).
      We do not get to agree to disagree with scripture yet, sadly, people who hold positions that are contrary to the biblical evidence will often find ways to avoid the FACTS (not opinion) in the word of God that prove them wrong.
      On this issue, people can cite the traditions of men till the cows come home. But what they can NEVER do is cite biblical evidence that proves John was the unnamed author of the fourth gospel, because what that author wrote about himself is in direct contradiction to what scripture tells us about John — and those are the facts that the promoters of the John tradition always have to turn a blind eye to, because to deal with what is actually said in scripture on this issue would be fatal to the man-made “John” tradition.
      Those who love the truth will be willing to honestly deal with the fact that John cannot be both known and not known to the high priest at the same time, along with all of the other points of biblical evidence (not “opinion”) that disprove the “John” idea. Those who refuse to subject the traditions of men to the scrutiny of the whole counsel of God’s word have NOT done the due diligence that is required to “speak the word of God faithfully” and to “rightly divide the word of truth” — and that is true no matter what topic is being discussed.

    7. Jon the freelance theologian Jan 29

      However much you want to claim to be representing Biblical truth, you haven’t addressed the issues raised in my former comment.

      Was Lazarus present at the Last Supper? – There is no other Biblical evidence for that. So, if you think he was there then what are you basing that on?

      Was Lazarus the only disciple that Jesus was said to have loved? – No. Jesus told all his disciples that he loved them.

      Those are your two arguments. However much you want to have a go about due diligence or faithfully speaking the word or whatever, you haven’t answered those questions. So it remains your opinion.

      Incidentally, you also say “people can cite the traditions of men till the cows come home. But what they can NEVER do is cite biblical evidence that proves John was the unnamed author of the fourth gospel” – well, I agree with that. That’s why the original post puts forward six possible contenders for the identity of the Beloved Disciple. It could be Lazarus, but you don’t have conclusive proof.

    8. Bible Student Mar 17

      Since the biblical evidence PROVES the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” cannot have been John, the question is what is the flaw in the Bible study method of all of those who teach that this anonymous author of the forth gospel was John?

      While that Bible proves he was not John you refuse to consider that evidence, as shown by the fact that you list him as your #1 contender, and that sets aside the authority of God’s word in favor of the traditions of men — since there has never been a single verse that would justify teaching that idea.

      PS Is the best you can do against the Lazarus hypothesis to claim that it is wrong because the Bible does not provide a full list by name of everyone who attended the last supper? Are you seriously meaning to imply that Jesus and “the twelve” were the only ones who were present at the supper on that night — NONE of his other disciples were permitted to come, none of the women who accompanied him from Jerusalem were permitted to come, none of the 70 who he sent out were permitted, the young man who stayed with him at Gethsemane when even the apostles had fled was not permitted to come, and even his dinner hosts were not permitted to be present? Are you trying to say that because NONE of those people are mentioned by name as being there that that is proof they were NOT there? Or did you just mean to apply that standard to Lazarus alone?

      The truth requires a CONSISTENT standard and that is what you are lacking.

    9. Bible Student Mar 17

      To make it easy here is a true or false question. True or false? (re: two paragraphs)

      The first three gospels all mention these three notable events of Jesus’ ministry, his transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-9, Mk. 9:2-9, Lu. 9:28-36), his Gethsemane prayers (Mt. 26:36-46, Mk. 14:32-42, Lu. 22:39-46), and his raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mt. 9:18-26, Mk. 5:22-43, Lu. 8:41-56). Only three disciples were present at these events, and the Apostle John was one of them (Mt. 17:1 & 26:37, Mk. 5:37, 9:2 & 14:33, Lu. 8:51 & 9:28). Although John was an eyewitness to all of these events there is no mention of these key events in the gospel that today bears John’s name! These events would surely have been extremely profound moments in John’s life. So what can explain their omission from the fourth gospel, a book tradition has said was written by John?

      Many teachers will refer to the fourth gospel as ‘John’s eyewitness testimony’, but does the Bible support this claim? A closer look shows the idea of John being the author of the fourth gospel is not consistent with the facts found in scripture and the author’s omission of the three events noted above is merely the tip of the iceberg. It turns out every event where John is referred to by name in the first three gospels is missing from the fourth gospel – every one of them!

      Those are just the first two paragraphs of the free eBook “The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved” and that is just the tip of the iceberg of biblical evidence against the John idea. So your #1 idea (pushing the false John idea) will not survive the test of biblical evidence and no unbiased jury that weighed the BIBLICAL evidence on this topic would concluded otherwise — or else you would have already cited scripture to support that idea and you would not have ignored all of the evidence that is contrary to it.

    10. Jon the freelance theologian Mar 28

      The point is more that the disciple whom Jesus loved was there, sat right next to Jesus. In Matthew 26.20 it says Jesus was reclining with the Twelve. Therefore the disciple Jesus loved must have been one of the Twelve. Unless the gospels contradict each other. In which case, tell me which one is wrong.

      As none of the other gospels refer to anyone as the beloved disciple it would be feasible to expect them to mention Lazarus if he was there.

    11. Jon the freelance theologian Mar 28

      As a Bible Student you will know that Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic gospels, meaning ‘same eyes’. They contain large chunks of practically identical material. The general assumption is the gospel writers used common sources for their gospels. So it’s not surprising that all three contain the same stories. They are not three different accounts, rather retelling the same account.

      John’s gospel concludes with an admission that a great many events were left out of the gospel (John 21.25). This implies some kind of editorial decision-making process. John’s approach to miracles is very different to the Synoptic gospels. For one thing he uses the word ‘Semiea’ (signs) rather than ‘dunameis’ (mighty works), which is the word used in the other gospels. John’s gospel uses ‘signs’ linked closely with particular chunks of teaching. The general miracle-working is left out. So maybe the Jairus daughter account would be one of them – whoever wrote the gospel left it out for some reason, even though it’s a great story. We don’t know why it was left out, or why the transfiguration was left out.

      I’m not sure who among serious Bible teachers would call the gospel “John’s eyewitness testimony”. Certainly it has not been called that on this site, which is the whole point of the article. The only reason John is listed first in the list is because historically that has been the most popular idea.

      I haven’t read your e-book, but do you give a reason why the gospel we call John was not called the Gospel of Lazarus? Neither Mark nor Luke were members of the original Twelve, yet their names are linked to gospels.

    12. Andrew Dec 19

      I think the beloved disciple is a character and not a person. The writers of the gospel of John is not John the son of zebedee, it can’t be him since all the miracles performed by Jesus in mark Matthew and Luke are not mentioned in the gospel of John, how can that be since John was a formidable witness from day one in the ministry of Jesus. The gospel of John was not the memoir of an old fisherman son of zebedee writing in polish Greek at his retirement home. But in fact it’s the invention of a church that was enforcing its dogmas and enjoying earthly reward. The beloved disciple is a character the same like the other disciple are characters in the fable of Jesus

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