Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

A mysterious figure threads his way through the Gospel of John, from its beginning (see John 1:35, the unidentified partner of Andrew) to its end. This person, one of the few who had “been with [Jesus] from the beginning” (the requirement listed in verse 15:27 for a legitimate witness) appears to be finally obeying Jesus’ request to “testify,” by writing this Gospel.

John’s Gospel usually calls this person “the disciple whom Jesus loves,” though sometimes he appears as merely a silent witness. This shadowy figure invites speculation among scholars, who argue for anyone from an idealized image of the perfect Christian (rather than a historic person) to a female lover and follower of Jesus. I’m unable to entertain these speculations and instead find myself succumbing to the earliest tradition, that this figure represents John the Apostle. John, though a very important figure in the story of Jesus, appears nowhere in this Gospel … unless he is the mysterious Beloved Disciple.

Current scholarship has grown skeptical. Perhaps the most noted Johannine scholar of the twentieth century, Raymond E. Brown, once accepted the traditional identification of the Beloved Disciple as the apostle John but later changed his mind.

One thing stands out about this unidentified person: whereas many events are reported in other Gospels for which no eyewitness is presented, if we consider this shadowy figure in John to be one of the Twelve, at first a disciple of John the Baptist, then it turns out that this man was a probable eyewitness to every word and event reported in John’s Gospel, with but three notable exceptions—the conversation with the Samaritan woman, the examination before Pilate, and Jesus’ Resurrection. The first exception is probably meant to be understood as a parable, not a literal event, the second could have been relayed by Nicodemus, and the third told by Mary Magdalene.

The attestation that the mysterious figure is “the one Jesus loved,” coupled with the fact that he is privy to everything going on in Jesus’ life, suggests further that he is one of the inner three: James, John, or Peter. Since Peter is accounted for often by name in this Gospel, that leaves us with only two other options, and I think it’s reasonable in my story to trust tradition and assume this figure is intended to be John the Apostle.

This has been an admittedly short discussion, given the reams of paper that have been sacrificed to this topic, but these are the foundational points in the argument for identifying the Beloved Disciple as the apostle John.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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