Who is the Beloved Disciple? The Contenders

I am teaching for the first time a class on the Gospel of John, and having a great time doing so. One of the first things I tackled in the class was authorship – namely, who is the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel? While church tradition has always pointed to the apostle John, son of Zebedee, there have been other scholarly opinions that have gained traction. As with all of the canonical Gospels, they are written anonymously. In this post I want to very briefly summarize the current positions on Johannine authorship, as well as point readers to further scholarly work on the options.


Contender 1: John the Apostle

The strengths of the traditional position are still quite strong in my opinion. John the son of Zebedee is one of the seven "acknowledged" apostles in John (see John 21:2), but is not specifically named (unlike Peter, Philip, Thomas, Judas, and Judas Iscariot). This leaves him known but anonymous. From the synoptic Gospels we that Peter, James, and John composed an inner circle of disciples, and in the Gospel of John it is the beloved disciple and Peter that are sometimes paired together. I think it is likely that early readers who knew of the synoptic gospels would have been predisposed to see John as the beloved disciple. Outside of the canon, the early church is for the most part unanimous in their attribution to John, though there are some interesting "quirks" in the early church discussion about John (mentioned below). Part of this early tradition is the early manuscript tradition in the form of the title: all evidence and manuscript evidence we have points to this gospel always being called "According to John."

Against the traditional position, we may look to the same verse above (John 21:2). If the epithet "beloved disciple" was meant to be anonymous, why mention the sons of Zebedee at all? And if the beloved disciple was John, and his brother James was by now martyred, why completely remove him from the entire Gospel? James is never mentioned by name. Furthermore, as the inner circle of disciples, we know from the other gospels that John was privy to several unique events: the transfiguration, the raising of Jairus's daughter, and Gethsemane. All of these are absent from the Gospel of John. Finally, in John 18:15 it seems clear that the beloved disciple was known by the Jerusalem leadership, yet John the apostle was a Galilean fisherman, and it seems odd that John would be known by the leadership. Finally, the "testimony" of the beloved disciple is a very important theme in John. It seems somewhat odd that this defense for the beloved disciple would need to be made if he were John of Zebedee.

Andreas Köstenberger, who is one of the finest Johannine scholars today, has argued in numerous writings on John for John the apostle as the author. See his 2004 commentary in the BECNT.


Contender 2: John the Elder

Many Christians don't realize that early church testimony, specifically from Papias (via Eusebius) tells us about two other apostles, Aristion and John the Elder. He was called "the Elder" because he was, well, old. He was a long-lived disciple, with Papias indicating that he out-lived the other disciples. If this is the case, then it would make sense of John 21:22-23, as this passage indicates that the beloved disciple had in fact died by the time John 21 was added as an epilogue. Identifying John the Elder as the author would for some help to tie in the Johannine letters as well, as 2 John and 3 John both state that they are from "the Elder," quite possibly indicating that these written by John the Elder. If John the Elder were the beloved disciple, the integrity of the title of the Gospel is maintained. It could also help to explain the weaknesses of contender 1 – perhaps John the Elder did hail from Jerusalem and was known by the leadership, perhaps even being a priest at some point. (This would possibly explain Polycrates's reference to John wearing the sacerdotal plate. cf. Eusebius, Church History, 5.24.2-3)

The weaknesses of this position are precisely the strength of arguments for contender 1. An addition weakness is the presence of the beloved disciple at Jesus' final meal with his disciples. While Mark is unspecific enough to allow for other disciples beyond the twelve, Luke (with his use of "apostle") and especially Matthew 26:20-21 restrict that meal to Jesus and the twelve. While John the Elder (and Aristion) may have been disciples of Jesus, they certainly were not part of the 12.

For those interested in this position, I encourage you to see the excellent book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.


Contender 3: Lazarus

Beyond being a fun option to consider, there is some decent internal evidence for seeing Lazarus as the beloved disciple. The main champion of this position has been Ben Witherington III, with a good blog post defending the position here. The biggest point in favor of this, in my opinion, is chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. Specifically, it is Lazarus (John 11:3) and his sisters who are the first people that Jesus "loves" in the gospel (John 11:5). Later, when Lazarus is sick, the sisters call for Jesus saying "the one whom you love is sick" (John 11:3) and later the love Jesus has for Lazarus is mentioned (John 11:36). It is not until after this episode that the "beloved disciple" is so-named (John 13:23). Based on internal evidence, it is not hard to make the move from chapter 11 to then identifying the beloved disciple as Lazarus. In addition, John 12:2 has Lazarus reclining with Jesus at a meal. The first mention of the Beloved disciple in John 13:23 has him reclining at a meal with Jesus (same Greek word ἀνάκειμαι used). Lazarus and his sisters live nearby Jerusalem, which may explain the focus on Jesus' Judean ministry, as well as how Lazarus was known by the Jerusalem leadership (John 19:27). Furthermore, if Lazarus were the beloved disciple, it may explain how the rumor that the beloved disciple would not die came about (John 21:23): Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus. Perhaps the earliest followers believed he would just go on living!

As with all of the positions, there are difficulties with Lazarus as well. As far as the internal evidence goes, readers need to note that John 11:3 uses the Greek word φιλέω rather than ἀγαπάω in reference to Lazarus, but the "disciple whom Jesus loved" is always ἀγαπάω. As with Contender 2, the presence of Lazarus at the final meal is also potentially problematic. While the titles of the Gospels were not original to the first copy, they are still very early tradition that cannot be easily dismissed. As mentioned previously, church tradition has quite uniformly pointed to John the apostle as well.

For those more interested in this position, I point you towards Witherington. But I also want to point to a very fine MA thesis recently written by one of our grads at ADC. Dwight Crowell wrote on the authorship of John and defended Lazarus. Within the thesis, Dwight also did some very good work on the early church traditions surrounding John's authorship. You can access the thesis online here.


Contender 4: The Johannine Community

More than any other gospel, John has been connected with a Johannine community in academic discussion. Not only do we find "we" passages in the final epilogue chapter (John 21:24), but "we" is present in the prologue (John 1:14, 16) and at various spots through the gospel as well (John 3:11, 4:22, 9:4). The majority of Johannine scholars recognize some literary puzzles, with internal evidence of source usage and rough transitions (See John 1:18-19; 2:11, 4:54; 3:22; 7:3-5; 7:53-8:11; 11:2; 14:31; 16:5; 19:5, 9, 13; 20:30-31). This has led some to see the gospel as a community-compiled document, with much of the source material perhaps originating with John the apostle, but perhaps not. Most scholars of John see at least some sort of evolution, with stages or editions, to the Gospel of John (though see Stan Porter's article The Ending of John's Gospel)

The strength of this is the "we" passages. As mentioned, the literary seams in the Gospel seem to at least indicate multiple editions or a multi-stage composition. The weakness of a community-author idea is the frequent emphasis on the testimony of the beloved disciple. The gospel of John wants the reader to know that the testimony comes from this person, and I find it hard to believe that we ought to see the beloved disciple as a literary creation that is symbolic of a group.


Contender 5: The Gospel of "Johns"

I must admit that through my research in preparation for this course, I have become a fan-boy of the Johannine scholar Paul Anderson. I think Anderson has provided a strong-case for the Gospel of John to be understood as the Gospel of "Johns." Anderson agrees with most scholars that there was stages in the writing process, in his case he argues for two. He also agrees with the recent trend in scholarship to reclaim John as a source for the historical Jesus. At the same time, he recognizes the "community voice" that is sometimes heard in the Gospel.

The result is his two-stage edition hypothesis. It looks like this:

  1. 1st Edition, 80-85 CE. John the Apostle composes a short gospel, as a response/augmentation of Mark, in order to supplement the church with Jesus' ministry in Judea and other teaching. This first edition ended at John 20:31, and begun with John the Baptist (just like Mark).
  2. interim period, 85-95 CE. John the apostle and his community of disciples, which included John the Elder, continue preaching and ministering. During this time, the 3 letters of John are written by John the Elder, and John the apostle dies.
  3. Final edition, 100 CE (or so). After the death of John the apostle, John the Elder compiles the gospel that we now have, adding the prologue (John 1:1-18), inserts chapter 6, inserts additional teachings of Jesus (chs. 15-17), inserts some other material to highlight the eyewitness material (John 13:23; 19:26, 34–35; 20:2)  as well as added the chapter 21 prologue.

I see this theory as quite unifying and worthy of serious consideration. It has the advantage of taking seriously the above evidence for contenders 1, 2, and 4 and incorporates them together, along with helping to capture the relationship between the Gospel and the letters of John. The theory also maintains the integrity of the title and church tradition, while cogently responding to literary puzzles of John and incorporating the community aspect. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that it is a little complicated, but John is a complicated beast!

For those interested in this argument, I encourage you to check out Paul Anderson's book, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel.



You can probably tell that I think Contender 5 is the best and has the most explanatory power. The authorship of John and the identity of the Beloved Disciple is a fun topic, and I hope I've peaked your interest in not only this topic, but this masterful text that we call John.



Posted by Danny Zacharias.
Posted on October 4, 2016 and filed under Biblical Studies.