If you want to cause Biblical scholars to get their knickers in a knot there are two sure fire ways to accomplish that end: 1) you can skewer a sacred cow whether a liberal or conservative one; 2) you can propose a theory that requires one to believe in the possibility of the miraculous to even entertain the thesis. If you can accomplish both with one theory, well, you’ve created a Mallox moment! I seem to accomplished this at the last SBL meeting in November when I gave the following lecture. I’ll let you decide whether you find it illuminating or inflammatory. Flame On!
THE HISTORICAL FIGURE OF THE BELOVED DISCIPLE IN THE 4TH GOSPEL
I. The problem with the traditional ascription of this Gospel to John Zebedee
Martin Hengel and Graham Stanton among other scholars have reminded us in recent discussions of the Fourth Gospel that the superscripts to all four of the canonical Gospels were in all likelihood added after the fact to the documents, indeed they may originally have been added as document tags to the papyrus rolls. Even more tellingly they were likely added only after there were several familiar Gospels for the phrase ‘according to….’ is used to distinguish this particular Gospel from other well known ones.
This means of course that all four Gospels are formally anonymous and the question then becomes how much weight one should place on internal evidence of authorship (the so-called inscribed author) and how much on external evidence. In my view, the internal evidence should certainly take precedence in the case of the Gospel of John, not least because the external evidence is hardly unequivocal. This does not alleviate the necessity of explaining how the Gospel came to be ascribed to someone named John, but we will leave that question to the end of our discussion.
As far as the external evidence goes it is true enough that there were various church fathers in the second century that though John son of Zebedee was the author. There was an increasing urgency about this conclusion for the mainstream church after the middle of the second century because the Fourth Gospel seems to have been a favorite amongst the Gnostics, and therefore, apostolic authorship was deemed important if this Gospel was to be rescued from the heterodox. Irenaeus, the great heresiarch, in particular around A.D. 180 stressed that this Gospel was written in Ephesus by one of the Twelve— John. It is therefore telling that this seems not to have been the conclusion of perhaps our very earliest witness—Papias of Hierapolis who was surely in a location and in a position to know something about Christianity in the provenance of Asia at the beginning of the second century A.D. Papias ascribes this Gospel to one elder John, whom he distinguishes presumably from another John and it is only the former that he claims to have had personal contact with. Eusebius in referring to the Preface to Papias’ five volume work stresses that Papias only had contact with an elder John and one Aristion, not with John of Zebedee (Hist. Eccl. 3.39-3-7) who is distinguished by Eusebius himself from the John in question. It is notable as well that Eusebius reminds us that Papias reflects the same chiliastic eschatology as is found in the book of Revelation, something which Eusebius looks askance at. Eusebius is clear that Papias only knew the ‘elders’ who had had contact with the ‘holy apostles’ not the ‘holy apostles’ themselves. Papias had heard personally what Aristion and the elder John were saying, but had only heard about what the earlier apostles had said.
As most scholars have now concluded, Papias was an adult during the reign of Trajan and perhaps also Hadrian and his work that Eusebius cites should probably be dated to about A.D. 100 (see the ABD article on Papias), which is to say only shortly after the Fourth Gospel is traditionally dated. All of this is interesting in several respects. In the first place Papias does not attempt to claim too much, even though he has great interest in what all the apostles and the Twelve have said. His claim is a limited one of having heard those who had been in contact with such eyewitnesses. In the second place, he is writing at a time and in a place where he ought to have known who it was that was responsible for putting together the Fourth Gospel, and equally clearly he reflects the influence of the millennial theology we find only clearly in the Book of Revelation in the NT and not for example in the Fourth Gospel. This suggests that the John he knew and had talked with was John of Patmos, and this was the same John who had something to do with the production of the Fourth Gospel. It is significant that Hengel after a detailed discussion in his The Johannine Question concludes that this Gospel must be associated with the elder John who was not the same as John son of Zebedee. More on this in due course. As I have stressed, while Papias’ testimony is significant and early we must also give due weight to the internal evidence in the Fourth Gospel itself, to which we will turn shortly. One more thing. Papias Fragment 10.17 has now been subjected to detailed analysis by M. Oberweis (NovT 38 1996), and Oberweis, rightly in my judgment draws the conclusion that Papias claimed that John son of Zebedee died early as a martyr like his brother (Acts 12.2). This counts against both the theory that John of Patmos was John of Zebedee and the theory that the latter wrote the Fourth Gospel. But I defer to my friend and colleague Richard Bauckham whose new book is a wealth of information about Papias and his conclusion is right— we should take very seriously what Papias says. He knew what he was talking about in regard to both the earliest and latest of the Gospels.
II. The growing recognition of the Judean provenance and character of this Gospel
Andrew Lincoln in his new commentary on the Gospel of John has concluded that the Beloved Disciple was a real person and “a minor follower of Jesus during his Jerusalem ministry” (p. 22). While Lincoln sees the BD traditions as added to the Gospel as small snippets of historical tradition added to a larger core that did not come from this person, he draws this conclusion about the Beloved Disciple’s provenance for a very good reason—he does not show up at all in this Gospel in the telling of the Galilean ministry stories, and on the other hand he seems to be involved with and know personally about Jesus’ ministry in and around Jerusalem.
One of the things which is probably fatal to the theory that John son of Zebedee is the Beloved Disciple and also the author of this entire document is that none, and I do mean none, of the special Zebedee stories are included in the Fourth Gospel (e.g. the calling of the Zebedees by Jesus, their presence with Jesus in the house where Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, the story of the Transfiguration, and also of the special request for special seats in Jesus’ kingdom when it comes, and we could go on). In view of the fact that this Gospel places some stress on the role of eyewitness testimony (see especially Jn. 19-21) it is passing strange that these stories would be omitted if this Gospel was by John of Zebedee, or even if he was its primary source. It is equally strange that the Zebedees are so briefly mentioned in this Gospel as such (see Jn. 21.2) and John is never equated with the Beloved Disciple even in the appendix in John 21 (cf. vs. 2 and 7– the Beloved Disciple could certainly be one of the two unnamed disciples mentioned in vs. 2).
Also telling is the fact that this Gospel includes none or almost none of the special Galilean miracle stories found in the Synoptics with the exception of the feeding of the 5,000/walking on water tandem. The author of this document rather includes stories like the meeting with Nicodemus, the encounter with the Samaritan woman, the healing of the blind man, the healing of the cripple by the pool, and the raising of Lazarus and what all these even
ts have in common is that none of them transpired in Galilee. When we couple this with the fact that our author seems to have some detailed knowledge about the topography in and around Jerusalem and the historical particulars about the last week or so of Jesus’ life (e.g. compare the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany in John to the more generic Markan account), it is not a surprise that Lincoln and others reflect a growing trend recognizing the Judean provenance of this Gospel. Recognition of this provenance clears up various difficulties not the least of which is the lack of Galilean stories in general in this Gospel and more particularly the lack of exorcism tales, none of which, according to the Synoptics, are said to have occurred in Jerusalem or Judea. Furthermore, there is absolutely no emphasis or real interest in this Gospel in the Twelve as Twelve or as Galileans. If the author is a Judean follower of Jesus and is not one of the Twelve, and in turn is sticking to the things he knows personally or has heard directly from eyewitnesses this is understandable. This brings us to the question of whom this Beloved Disciple might have been.
III. The “one whom Jesus loved”— the first mention— Jn 11 or Jn 13?
It has been common in Johannine commentaries to suggest that the Beloved Disciple as a figure in the narrative does not show up under that title before John 13. While this case has been argued thoroughly, it overlooks something very important. This Gospel was written in an oral culture for use with non-Christians as a sort of teaching tool to lead them to faith. It was not intended to be handed out as a tract to the non-believer but nevertheless its stories were meant to be used orally for evangelism. In an oral document of this sort, the ordering of things is especially important. Figures once introduced into the narrative by name and title or name and identifying phrase may thereafter be only identified by one or the other since economy of words is at a premium when one is writing a document of this size on a piece of papyrus (Jn. 20.30-31). This brings us to John 11.3 and the phrase hon phileis . It is perfectly clear from a comparison of 11. 1 and 3 that the sick person in question first called Lazarus of Bethany and then called ‘the one whom you love’ is the same person as in the context the mention of sickness in each verse makes this identification certain. This is the first time in this entire Gospel that any particular person is said to have been loved by Jesus. Indeed one could argue that this is the only named person in the whole Gospel about whom this is specifically said directly. This brings us to Jn. 13.23.
At John 13.23 we have the by now very familiar reference to a disciple whom Jesus loved (hon agapa this time) as reclining on the bosom of Jesus, by which is meant he is reclining on the same couch as Jesus. The disciple is not named here, and notice that nowhere in John 13 is it said that this meal transpired in Jerusalem. It could just as well have transpired in the nearby town of Bethany and this need not even be an account of the Passover meal. Jn. 13.1 in fact says it was a meal that transpired before the Passover meal. This brings us to a crucial juncture in this discussion. In Jn. 11 there was a reference to a beloved disciple named Lazarus. In Jn. 12 there was a mention of a meal at the house of Lazarus. If someone was hearing these tales in this order without access to the Synoptic Gospels it would be natural to conclude that the person reclining with Jesus in Jn. 13 was Lazarus. There is another good reason to do so as well. It was the custom in this sort of dining that the host would recline with or next to the chief guest. The story as we have it told in Jn. 13 likely implies that the Beloved Disciple is the host then. But this in turn means he must have a house in the vicinity of Jerusalem. This in turn probably eliminates all the Galilean disciples.
This identification of BD= Lazarus in fact not only clears up some conundrums about this story, it also neatly clears up a series of other conundrums in the Johannine Passion narrative as well. For example: 1) it was always problematic that the BD had ready access to the High Priest’s house. Who could he have been to have such access? Surely not a Galilean fisherman. Jn. 11.36-47 suggests that some of the Jewish officials who reported to the high priest had known Lazarus, and had attended his mourning period in Bethany. This in turn means that Lazarus likely had some relationship with them. He could have had access to Caiphas’ house, being a high status person known to Caiphas’ entourage. ; 2) If Lazarus of Bethany is the Beloved Disciple this too explains the omission of the Garden of Gethsemane prayer story in this Gospel. Peter, James and John were present on that occasion, but the Beloved Disciple was not; 3) It also explains Jn. 19.27. If the Beloved Disciple took Jesus’ mother ‘unto his own’ home (it is implied) this surely suggests some locale much nearer than Galilee, for the Beloved Disciple will show up in Jerusalem in John 20 immediately there after, and of course Mary is still there, according to Acts 1.14 well after the crucifixion and resurrection of her son. 4) How is it that the Beloved Disciple gets to the tomb of Jesus in Jn. 20 before Peter? Perhaps because he knows the locale, indeed knows Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, being one who lived near and spent much time in Jerusalem. One more thing about John 20.2 which Tom Thatcher kindly reminded me of—here the designation of our man is a double one—he is called both ‘the other disciple’ and also the one ‘whom Jesus loved only this time it is phileō for the verb. Why has our author varied the title at this juncture, if in fact it was a pre-existing title for someone outside the narrative? We would have expected it to be in a fixed form if this were some kind of pre-existing title. Notice now the chain of things—Lazarus is identified in Jn. 11 as the one whom Jesus loves, and here ‘the other disciple’ (see Jn. 20.1-2) is identified as the one whom Jesus loves, which then allows him to be called ‘the other disciple’ in the rest of this segment of the story, but at 21.2 we return once more to his main designation—the one whom Jesus loved=Lazarus. All of this makes good sense if Jn, 11-21 is read or heard in the sequence we now find it. 5) of course the old problem of the fact that the Synoptics say all the Twelve deserted Jesus once he was taken away for execution, even Peter, and record only women being at the cross, is not contradicted by the account in Jn. 19 if in fact the Beloved Disciple, while clearly enough from Jn. 19.26 a man (– called Mary’s ‘son’, and so not Mary Magdalene!) is Lazarus rather than one of the Twelve. 6) There is the further point that if indeed the Beloved Disciple took Mary into his own home, then we know where the BD got the story of the wedding feast at Cana—he got it from Mary herself. I could continue mounting up small particulars of the text which are best explained by the theory of Lazarus being the BD but this must suffice. I want to deal with some larger issues in regard to this Gospel that are explained by this theory, in particular its appendix in Jn. 21 But one more conjecture is in order here.
Scholars of course have often noted how the account of the anointing of Jesus in Bethany as recorded in Mk. 14.3-11 differs from the account in Jn. 12.1-11, while still likely being the same story or tradition. Perhaps the most salient difference is that Mark tells us that the event happens in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany, while Jn. 12 indicates it happens in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. Suppose for a moment however that Simon the Leper was in fact the father of these three siblings. Suppose that Lazarus himself, like his father, had also contracted the dread disease and succumbed to it (and by the way we now know for sure that the deadly form of H
anson’s disease did exist in the first century A.D.). Now this might well explain why it is that none of these three siblings seem to be married. Few have remarked about the oddness of this trio of adults not having families of their own, but rather still living together, but it is not at all odd if the family was plagued by a dread disease that made them unclean on an ongoing or regular basis. It also explains why these folks never travel with Jesus’ other disciples and they never get near this family until that fateful day recorded in Jn. 11 when Jesus raised and healed Lazarus. Jesus of course was not put off by the disease and so had visited the home previously alone (Lk. 10.38-42). But other early Jews would certainly not have engaged in betrothal contracts with this family if it was known to be a carrier of leprosy.
IV How seeing that eyewitness as Lazarus himself explains both the ending of the Gospel and its character
Most scholars are in agreement that John 21 makes clear that while the Beloved Disciple is said to have written down some Gospel traditions, he is no longer alive when at least the end of this chapter was written. The “we know his testimony is true” is a dead give away that someone or someones other than the Beloved Disciple put this Gospel into its final form and added this appendix, or at a minimum the story about the demise of the Beloved Disciple and the conclusion of the appendix. This line of reasoning I find compelling. And it also explains something else. We may envision that whoever put the memoirs of the Beloved Disciple together is probably the one who insisted on calling him that. In other words, the Beloved Disciple is called such by his community perhaps and by his final editor certainly, and this is not a self designation, indeed was unlikely to be a self-designation in a religious subculture where humility and following the self-sacrificial, self-effacing example of Jesus was being inculcated. This then explains one of the salient differences between 2-3 John and the Gospel of John. The author of those little letters calls himself either the ‘elder’ or ‘the old man’ depending on how you want to render presbyteros. He nowhere calls himself the Beloved Disciple, not even in the sermon we call 1 John where he claims to have personally seen and touched the Word of Life, which in my view means he saw and touched Jesus. We must conjure then with at least two persons responsible for the final form of the Fourth Gospel while only one is necessary to explain the epiphenomena of the Johannine Epistles. This brings us to the story itself in John 21.20-24.
Why is the final editor of this material in such angst about denying that Jesus predicted that the Beloved Disciple would live until Jesus returned? Is it because there had been a tradition in the BD’s church that he would, and if so, what generated such a tradition? Not, apparently the BD himself. But now he has passed away and this has caused anxiety among the faithful about what was the case with the BD and what Jesus had actually said about his future in A.D. 30. I would suggest that no solution better explains all the interesting factors in play here than the suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was someone that Jesus had raised from the dead, and so quite naturally there arose a belief that surely he would not die again, before Jesus returned. Such a line of thought makes perfectly good sense if the Beloved Disciple had already died once and the second coming was still something eagerly anticipated when he died. Thus I submit that the theory that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple and the author of most of the traditions in this Gospel is a theory which best clears up the conundrum of the end of the Appendix written after his death.
And finally there is one more thing to say. It is of course true that the Fourth Gospel takes its own approach to presenting Jesus and the Gospel tradition. I am still unconvinced by the attempts of Lincoln and others to suggest that the author drew on earlier Gospels, particularly Mark. I think he may have known of such Gospels, may even have read Mark, but is certainly not depend on the Synoptic material for his own Gospel. Rather he takes his own line of approach and has an abundance of information which he is unable to include in his Gospel, including much non-Synoptic material (see John 20.30 and 21.25) because of the constraints of writing all this down on one papyrus. He did not need to boil up his Gospel based on fragments and snippets from the Synoptics. On the contrary, he had to be constantly condensing his material, as is so often the case with an eyewitness account that is rich in detail and substance. But it is not enough to say that the author was an eyewitness to explain its independence and differences from the earlier Synoptic Gospels. There are other factors as well.
As I pointed out over a decade ago, this Gospel is written in a way that reflects an attempt to present the Jesus tradition in the light of the Jewish sapiential material (see my John’s Wisdom ). Jesus is presented as God’s Wisdom come in the flesh in this Gospel, serving up discourses like those of Wisdom in earlier Jewish Wisdom literature, rather than offering aphorisms and parables as in the Synoptics. I have suggested that this reflected Jesus’ in house modus operandi for his private teaching with his own inner circle of disciples. We need not choose between the public form of wisdom discourse found in the Synoptics (i.e. parables and aphorisms) and the private form of discourse (see e.g. Jn. 14-17) in John when trying to decide which went back to the historical Jesus— both did, but they had different Sitz im Lebens and different functions. But I have concluded even this line of thinking is insufficient to explain the differences from the Synoptics we find in the Fourth Gospel. There is one more factor in play.
Our author, the Beloved Disciple, had been raised not merely from death’s door, but from being well and truly dead— by Jesus! This was bound to change his worldview, and did so. It became quite impossible for our author to draw up a veiled messiah portrait of Jesus like we find in Mark. No, our author wanted and needed to shout from the mountain tops that Jesus was the resurrection, not merely that he performed resurrections, that he was what E. Kasemann once said about the presentation of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel—he was a God bestriding the stage of history. Just so, and our author pulls no punches in making that clear in various ways in this Gospel, especially by demonstrating that everything previously said to come only from God, or the mind and plan of God known as God’s Wisdom is now said of and said to come from Jesus. He is the incarnation of the great I Am.
The Beloved Disciple would not have been best pleased with modern minimialist portraits of the historical Jesus. He had had a personal and profound encounter of the first order with both the historical Jesus and the risen Jesus and knew that they were one and the same. This was bound to change his world view. It is no accident that the book of Signs in the Fourth Gospel climaxes with the story of Lazarus’s own transformation, just as the Book of Glory climaxes with the transformation of Jesus himself. Lazarus had become what he admired, had been made, to a lesser degree, like Jesus. And he would have nothing to do with mincing words about his risen savior and Lord. Rather he would walk through the door of bold proclamation, even to the point perhaps of adding the Logos hymn at the beginning of this Gospel. This was the Jesus he had known and touched and supped with before and after Easter, and he could proclaim no lesser Jesus.
This then leads us to the last bit of the puzzle that can now be solved. How did this Gospel come to be named according to John? My answer is a simple one—it is because John of Patmos was the final editor of this Gospel after the death of Lazarus. Once Domitian died, J
ohn returned to Ephesus and lived out his days. One of the things he did was edit and promulgate the Fourth Gospel on behalf of the Beloved Disciple. Somewhere very near the end of John’s own life, Papias had contact with this elderly John. It is not surprising, since this contact seems to be brief, that Papias learned correctly that this John was not the Zebedee John and that this elderly John had something to do with the production of the Fourth Gospel. This I think neatly explains all of the various factors involved in our conundrum. It may even have been Papias who was responsible for the wider circulation of this Gospel with a tag ‘according to John’. It is not surprising that Irenaeus, swatting buzzing Gnostics like flies, would later conclude that the Fourth Gospel must be by an apostle or one of the Twelve.
If I am right about all this it means that the historical figure of Lazarus is more important than we have previously imagined, both due to his role in founding churches in and round Ephesus and of course his role in the life of Jesus and Jesus’ mother. Jesus must have trusted him implicitly to hand over his mother to him when he died. Lazarus was far more than one more recipient of a miraculous healing by Jesus. He was “the one whom Jesus loved” as the very first reference to him in John 11 says. We have yet to take the measure of the man. Hopefully now, we can begin to do so.