One of the biggest mysteries in biblical scholarship concerns the identity of "the disciple whom Jesus loved." According to the Gospel of John, this was the disciple who leaned on Jesus during the Last Supper, and the only male disciple present at the crucifixion. In addition, John 21:24 implies that the entire Gospel of John is based on this disciple's memories. Yet, oddly, it never gives his name.
The other three gospels don't give his name either. In fact they never even mention this "Beloved Disciple" (as he is often called). They also say nothing about any disciple leaning on Jesus during the Last Supper or witnessing the crucifixion. Their total silence on the matter only adds to the mystery.
Church tradition does provide a name. It asserts that the Beloved Disciple was none other than John the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and one of the original twelve disciples. This is why the fourth gospel is named John. In fact the tradition identifies John as the actual author of the gospel, not just the source of information for another writer.
Most biblical scholars doubt that John was the final author. The gospel is written in elegant Greek, and it makes use of advanced theological concepts. It isn't the type of book that a Galilean fisherman like John, whose native language was almost certainly Aramaic, likely would have written.
But the gospel, or parts of it, could still be based on John's memories. Thus, he could still be the Beloved Disciple. Obviously he was in a position to know a great deal about the events that the gospel describes. He could have passed this information to other people, and someone else could have later used it as the basis for the final version of the gospel.
However, the evidence for identifying John Zebedee as the Beloved Disciple is far from conclusive. And many scholars believe that there are better candidates. But before we get to their arguments, we first need to list the main items of evidence:
Item 1. The Gospel of John sometimes uses the word "disciple" to describe any follower of Jesus. Thus, the Beloved Disciple wasn't necessarily one of the original twelve.
Item 2. References to this disciple always use the words "he", "him", and "his". Thus, unless this is a deliberate attempt to deceive, the person in question was a male.
Item 3. John 19:27 says that Jesus' mother Mary went to live at the home of the Beloved Disciple after the crucifixion. Acts 1:14 says that she was part of the early community of believers, known as the Nazarenes, who lived in Jerusalem during that same period. Taken together, these two pieces of information indicate that the Beloved Disciple must have had a home in or near Jerusalem.
Item 4. The Gospel of John gives a detailed description of the interrogations of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and by Pilate. Presumably this information came from the Beloved Disciple. This implies that he was able to gain access to the locations of both interrogations, and therefore must have had a personal connection with at least one member of the Jewish religious establishment.
Item 5. During the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple stood near the cross. This could indicate that he wasn't afraid of being arrested as a known follower of Jesus.
Item 6. The Gospel of John says that Jesus made several visits to Jerusalem prior to his final visit during the week of the crucifixion. He could have met the Beloved Disciple during one of these earlier visits. The authors of the other gospels appear to be unaware of any earlier visits to Jerusalem. That could help explain their silence about this disciple.
Taken together, these items of evidence seem to indicate that the Beloved Disciple was a man, that he lived in or near Jerusalem and had a home there, and that he may have personally known at least one high-ranking Jewish religious official. Another possible conclusion is that Jesus met him during an earlier visit to Jerusalem, and formed a closer relationship with him than the other disciples realized.
We know that Jesus had at least one secret disciple in Jerusalem. According to John 19:38, Joseph of Arimathea "was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews." This man had enough social prominence to be able to personally ask the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for permission to remove Jesus from the cross and bury him. Another influential man that Jesus knew was Nicodemus, who John 3:1-21 calls "a member of the Jewish ruling council". Thus Jesus had at least two friends or secret disciples who lived in Jerusalem. The Beloved Disciple could have been a third.
So who was this "disciple whom Jesus loved"? Now that we have reviewed the main items of evidence, we can look at specific possibilities:
As already noted, the main reason for identifying John Zebedee as the Beloved Disciple is church tradition. However, there is no known mention of this tradition until near the end of the second century, probably at least 80 years after the gospel was written. Also, the identification could have resulted from confusion between John Zebedee and John the Elder, a later figure who may have put the gospel into its final form. For these reasons, many scholars doubt the validity of the tradition.
Several items of evidence also seem inconsistent with the idea that John was the Beloved Disciple. For example, it is unlikely that a Galilean fisherman would have had a house in or near Jerusalem, or would have been allowed to witness the interrogations of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and Pilate. Also, if a prominent disciple like John was the authority behind the fourth gospel, its author most likely would have mentioned it within the gospel itself, since this would add legitimacy and prestige to the work.
These arguments seem plausible to many people. But they are not conclusive, and for that reason the traditional view that John Zebedee was the Beloved Disciple can't be completely ruled out. And many Christians still accept it.
In his book The Passover Plot, author Hugh Schonfield argues that the Beloved Disciple was an otherwise unknown priest who lived in Jerusalem. Schonfield says that this priest was a secret disciple of Jesus who was also well enough acquainted with top Jewish officials to be able to gain admittance to the interrogations of Jesus.
The book also suggests that the Last Supper took place in this priest's home. That would explain why he was present. And since he was the host, he would have had the privilege of sitting next to Jesus during the meal.
This proposal appears to fit the known facts. But it is incomplete in that it doesn't identify a specific person.
A number of scholars have argued that the Beloved Disciple was Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany, and the man that Jesus raised from the dead. Much of the argument is based on John 11:1-3, which says that as Lazarus lay sick, his sisters sent a message to Jesus which said "Lord, the one you love is sick." John 11:5 and 11:36 also say that Jesus loved Lazarus.
The Gospel of John never mentions Lazarus by name after Chapter 12, and it first mentions the Beloved Disciple in Chapter 13. Some argue that this isn't a coincidence, but that the gospel simply changed its way of referring to Lazarus.
John 11:18-19 indicates that Lazarus' house in Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and that he knew many people in the city. This could mean that he had enough social status to gain admittance to the interrogations of Jesus. His house was also close enough to Jerusalem to serve as a home for Jesus' mother.
The other three gospels never mention Lazarus, at least not by name. John 11:16 indicates that some of the other disciples saw Jesus raise him from the dead, so they must have known about the incident. It seems odd that the other gospels would fail to mention such a remarkable miracle. However, a fragment of the Secret Gospel of Mark does appear to describe the incident, although it doesn't give the raised man's name.
Overall, Lazarus seems a good fit for the evidence, and many scholars think that he is the best candidate.
Several books and movies have promoted the idea that Mary Magdalene was the Beloved Disciple. Some people have gone even further, claiming that she secretly married Jesus and bore him a child.
While most scholars dismiss the idea that she married Jesus, or bore him a child, a few still think that she could have been the Beloved Disciple. In fact there is some evidence that she did have a "special" relationship with Jesus. For instance, in a fragment of the apocryphal "Gospel of Mary", the disciple Levi tells Peter "Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us." Another apocryphal work, the Gospel of Philip, also may contain hints of a special relationship between Mary and Jesus.
Some people think that the figure immediately to the left of Jesus in the painting The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, traditionally identified as John Zebedee, looks more like a woman than a man. This has led to the theory that Leonardo had secret knowledge about Mary Magdalene which indicated that she was the Beloved Disciple.
One problem with this identification is that the bible always uses "he', "him" and "his" when referring to the Beloved Disciple. Also, John 20:2 clearly depicts Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple as two different people. But some people argue that these are false clues which an unknown person deliberately inserted into the text to try to hide the truth.
The individuals listed above are generally regarded as the best candidates for the role, but others are occasionally proposed. These have even included such unlikely possibilities as Saint Paul and Judas Iscariot. Some scholars even argue that the Beloved Disciple wasn't a real person, but a symbolic figure created to represent anyone who embraces Christ as his redeemer.
To many scholars, Lazarus appears to be the most likely possibility. But John Zebedee can't be completely ruled out, and many Christians hold to the traditional view that he was the Beloved Disciple.
Note: Most scholars reject the frequent assertion that Jesus had a homosexual relationship with the Beloved Disciple.