Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rethinking the Identity of the Beloved Disciple

I tweeted some weeks ago my reaction to hearing a Ben Witherington lecture where he argued the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel According to John is not the Apostle John but actually Lazarus who was raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11. In addition, Witherington makes an additional argument that John the Apostle did not write the Gospel attributed to him, but rather the eye witness testimony is from Lazarus whose account was compiled by the mysterious "we" of John 21. He would go on to conclude that John of Patmos is the final editor of Lazarus' account, an argument we will have to save for another time.

Soon after listening to Witherington's lecture (which you can listen to here) I did a quick Google search and found a fuller argument by Witherington on his blog in an article entitled Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple? Below I offer only Witherington's basic argument being that it is long and detailed and do not interact with other scholars and resources who make the same argument. Witherington is a well-respected scholar  and makes his case well. Furthermore, I do not interact with those who disagree with him. This is, after all, a blog post and not an academic discussion.

Traditionally it has been assumed that the Beloved Disciple or, "the one in whom Jesus loved," was John the Apostle for several reasons. First, John, unlike the other disciples, is never named in the Gospel. Secondly, only the Gospel According to John uses this language. The Synoptics each offer a full list of the Twelve Disciples. Thirdly, John the Apostle was part of the inner three. The Beloved Disciple cannot be Peter and James dies too early, leaving John. Finally (and more reasons could be added), the Gospel's emphasis on love is consistent with the other writings in the New Testament attributed to John.

In spite of this, Witherington rejects this conclusion and believes instead that the Beloved Disciple is actually Lazarus. I offer Witherington's argument below:

1. Lack of "the sons of Zebedee" stories
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).

2. "The One in Whom Jesus Loved" First Mentioned in John 11, not 13
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.

3. John 13 - Reclining on the Bosom of Jesus
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.

4. Clearing Up Conundrums
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 phileĊ 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.[1]

5. The Conclusion to the Gospel
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. . .
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.
This is most of Witherington's argument which leads to his conclusion that John the Apostle did not compose the Gospel traditionally attributed to him. Instead, we are reading an edited account of Lazarus' memoir.

I do not endorse this view, at least not yet, but do admittedly find it compelling and worth exploring. I do not think his argument, if proven to be true, ought to call into question the canonization of the Gospel nor its infallibility. The question of authorship will not be explored here, but I find the suggestion of Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple too fascinating to not at least consider here.


[1] Witherington goes on here to argue that Mark 14:3-11 and John 12:1-11 can be harmonized if Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple. His assumption is that Simon the Leper in Mark is Lazarus' father which explains why Lazarus nor his sisters ever married. Furthermore, Witherington suggests it is possible that Lazarus may have died of leprosy contracted from his supposed father Simon. Thus the resurrection of Lazarus means his leprosy was cleansed.


Ben Witherington - Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple? 




For more:
"The Historical Jesus": A Lecture by Ben Witherington 
Blessed on the Cheesemakers: Ben Witherintong on "The Bible" Series
Theology Thursday | The End: John 20:31 or 21:25?
Bibledex on the Four Gospels
12 Proofs of Jesus' Deity From the Synoptic Gospels
"Lukan Authorship of Hebrews"
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