The gospel of John refers several times to “the disciple Jesus loved.” But this gospel never tells us exactly who this disciple is. And no other book of the Bible gives us any direct evidence about this disciple’s identity.
You’ve probably heard many times that it’s “obvious” that the Beloved Disciple was John the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve. But many biblical scholars think that it’s not really obvious at all. They’ve suggested a number of other options.
The problem is that there isn’t any consensus on this question among scholars. In this blog post, we’ll look at the evidence.
It’s worth noting that the gospel of John doesn’t ever give a list of the names of the Twelve, the way the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and the book of Acts do.
Even though the gospel of John mentions “the twelve,” it actually mentions only nine disciples, and two of these are not called out by name. John names Simon Peter, Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, Thomas, Judas Iscariot, and another Judas who was “not Iscariot.” The gospel of John also mentions two “sons of Zebedee,” without ever giving their names (James and John, as we know from the other gospels).
Mark, Matthew, and Luke list out the rest of the disciples by a variety of names: Bartholomew, Levi, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Lebbaeus Thaddaeus, and “Judas of James.” If you’re keeping count, that adds up to 8 names, which would give us 17 disciples if they were all different men. Church traditions have usually reckoned Levi and Matthew to be the same person, Bartholomew and Nathanael to be the same person, and “Judas of James” to be the same as Lebbaeus Thaddaeus and also the same as “Judas not Iscariot.”
So the problem of identifying the Beloved Disciple breaks into three questions:
- Was the Beloved Disciple one of the Twelve, or not?
- If he is one of the Twelve, then which one?
- If not one of the Twelve, then who else might fit the description?
We’ll look at the evidence to see what it tells us.
The Beloved Disciple at the Last Supper
The very first reference to this mysterious disciple is in John 13. Jesus and his disciples are gathered for the Last Supper. We know that the Twelve were there, but we also know Jesus had more disciples beyond the Twelve. It’s possible that some of these were there also, even though they aren’t mentioned.
At the Last Supper, Jesus says one of his disciples will betray him. They’re all shocked and wonder who would do such a thing. Peter tells “the disciple Jesus loved” to ask Jesus who the traitor will be. Jesus tips off this Beloved Disciple that Judas Iscariot will be the traitor. And then Judas walks out. A masculine verb is used for the Beloved Disciple, which indicates he was male.
We can deduce from this that the Beloved Disciple is not Peter and not Judas Iscariot. But that doesn’t narrow things down much. It still leaves ten of the Twelve as candidates, along with any disciples who weren’t counted among the Twelve.
Peter and a Disciple at the Trial of Jesus
Later that night, after Jesus is arrested, John 18 tells how Peter and one of the other disciples want to sneak into the trial at the palace of the high priest. Peter can’t get in, but this other disciple can—because he is somehow known to the girl watching the gate.
It’s surprising enough that a disciple of Jesus would know the servant girl guarding the gate at the palace of the high priest. But the gospel of John makes the even more startling statement that this disciple “was known to the high priest.”
Who was this disciple, and how did he know the high priest? The high priest lived in Jerusalem and came from an aristocratic circle that had nothing to do with the ordinary “people of the land.” Whereas the Twelve came from the area around the Sea of Galilee, ninety miles north. And most of them were definitely “people of the land.”
The gospel of John doesn’t explain this strange situation. It says that this unknown disciple speaks to the girl, and she lets Peter in, and then Peter gets into big trouble by denying he knows Jesus. But it’s very odd that nobody challenges the disciple who got Peter in the palace in the first place. Was this disciple a Jerusalem local? Did he move in aristocratic circles like the high priest? If so, then it sounds like he’s not one of the Twelve.
Many people have speculated that this disciple “known to the high priest” was also “the disciple Jesus loved.” That goes beyond our evidence. It’s possible, but the passage in John 18 doesn’t actually say so. One reason that people speculate on this is because of the close connection between Peter and the Beloved Disciple, which shows up in almost all the stories about this disciple. They seem to have been tight buddies.
The Beloved Disciple at the Cross
In John 19, it’s the next day and Jesus is hanging on the cross. His mother and some other women are there crying for him. But none of the male disciples are mentioned, except one. The disciple Jesus loved is right there. Jesus asks this disciple to care for his mother. And according to the account, this disciple took her into his home.
But the passage doesn’t say who this disciple was. The most natural person for Jesus to ask to care for his mother would be James, the oldest of the four brothers of Jesus. For more about James, see my blog post on James, the Brother of Jesus.
We don’t know if James was a disciple of Jesus at this time. Two men of the Twelve were named James, and plenty of people believe that one of these, James the son of Alphaeus, was the brother of Jesus. But plenty of people don’t believe that.
It seems likely that the male disciples of Jesus were mostly too terrified to show up at the cross. They had all cut and run the night before when Jesus was arrested. The only male disciple named as being at the cross is this mysterious Beloved Disciple. What was special about him?
My own guess is that he was very young, and maybe didn’t look like a man yet. The Roman soldiers might plausibly have arrested adult male disciples of Jesus, but they would likely ignore a very young man if he looked harmless. But that’s just a guess. We don’t know.
Peter and the Disciple at the Empty Tomb
In John 20, it’s now Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene finds the empty tomb and runs to tell the disciples. Peter and the disciple Jesus loved come running to look. The Beloved Disciple gets there first, but doesn’t go in. Then Peter arrives, and he does go in. Finally, the Beloved Disciple also goes in and he “sees and believes.”
Once again, we don’t get any ID on this Beloved Disciple. But we see another example of the special connection between Peter and this Beloved Disciple. We’ve seen them whispering together at the Last Supper. We see them now running together to the empty tomb. We’ll see them again in one final story of the Risen Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
One hint we have here is that the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter. It sounds like he was younger. We don’t know how much younger, but I like to imagine that he was small and light, a young guy in his middle to late teens. Again, that’s just a guess. We don’t know.
The Beloved Disciple and the Risen Jesus
In John 21, we read our last story of the Beloved Disciple. Seven disciples have returned to Galilee. One night, they go fishing on the Sea of Galilee but catch nothing. In the morning, they see Jesus on shore. Jesus tells them to throw out their nets on the right side. They do, and catch a large haul of fish.
The seven disciples are Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the two sons of Zebedee, and “two others” who are anonymous. We know that one of the seven is the disciple Jesus loved, but the passage doesn’t say which one—except to make clear it isn’t Peter. The seven disciples eat breakfast with Jesus.
Then Jesus takes Peter aside to talk. And the Beloved Disciple follows after them. Jesus tells Peter that this Beloved Disciple will live longer than Peter. And the book ends with the claim that this anonymous Beloved Disciple is the source of the gospel of John. It also says that “We know his testimony is true.”
Again, the fact that the Beloved Disciple outlived Peter is a hint that he was younger than Peter. And this story narrows down our candidates to Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and “two others.”
The Enduring Mystery of the Disciple Jesus Loved
So who was this mysterious disciple Jesus loved? Why doesn’t the gospel of John ever reveal who it is? And what group is saying at the end, “We know his testimony is true?” We don’t know for certain the answer to these questions.
For most of history, the traditional view was that the Beloved Disciple was John the son of Zebedee. This John was thought to be the author of the gospel of John, which is why that gospel bears his name.
Modern scholars generally doubt this is correct, although some defend the idea. Some scholars have argued that the Beloved Disciple was James, the oldest brother of Jesus. Or “John the elder,” a follower of Jesus from a priestly family in Jerusalem.
Some other candidates are Thomas, the guy who is most famous for his doubts. Or Andrew, the brother of Peter. Or Philip, one of the Twelve disciples. Or Judas, one of the younger brothers of Jesus. Or Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, who lived in Bethany.
Some have even suggested Mary Magdalene. And you can find a few people who think it was Judas Iscariot. Some say that the Beloved Disciple is a mere literary device, and doesn’t correspond to any particular person.
I don’t really have a dog in this fight. From where I sit, it seems that the leading candidates are John the son of Zebedee, James the brother of Jesus, and the mysterious “John the elder,” who is hinted at in the writings of the second-century Christian writer Papias.
Nobody knows with any kind of certainty, and it’s above my pay grade to try to make a decision when the scholars have no consensus. We can still love and value the story of Jesus, even if don’t know the identity of the Beloved Disciple.
Here’s what I think. I have a hunch that the person labeled as “the disciple Jesus loved” was the disciple who loved Jesus the most—or thought he did. Because I don’t really see Jesus as playing favorites. But that’s just a guess, and I might be wrong.