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The phrase the disciple whom Jesus loved ("ο μαθητης ον ηγαπα ο Ιησους") or, in John 20:2, the Beloved Disciple ("ον εφιλει ο Ιησους") is used five times in the Gospel of John,[1] but in no other New Testament accounts of Jesus. John 21:24 claims that the Gospel is based on his written testimony.

Since the end of the 2nd century, the Beloved Disciple has been considered to be John the Evangelist, since otherwise John would not be mentioned in the gospel attributed to him. Many modern scholars hold that the Apostle John did not write this gospel, however,[2] although others accept the traditional identification,[3] and the true identity of the author of the Gospel of John remains contested.



There are four occurrences of the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John, with a total of five mentions of him.

  • It is Beloved Disciple who, while reclining beside Jesus at the Last Supper, asks Jesus, after being requested by Peter to do so, who it is that will betray him.[Jn 13:23-25]
  • Later at the crucifixion, Jesus tells his mother, "Woman, here is your son", and to the Beloved Disciple he says, "Here is your mother."[Jn 19:26-27]
  • When Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, she runs to tell the Beloved Disciple and Peter. The two men rush to the empty tomb and the Beloved Disciple is the first to reach the empty tomb. However, Peter is the first to enter.[Jn 20:1-10]

None of the other Gospels has anyone in the parallel scenes that could be directly understood as the Beloved Disciple. For example, in Luke 24:12, Peter alone runs to the tomb. Mark, Matthew and Luke do not mention anyone of the twelve disciples have witnessed his crucifixion.

There are also two references to an unnamed "other disciple" in John 1:35-40 and John 18:15-16, which may be to the same person based on the wording in John 20:2.[5]

Identity of the Beloved Disciple

John the Apostle

This anonymous and idealized disciple is often identified as John the Apostle, thought to be also the Evangelist; others have proposed Lazarus or Mark the Evangelist, or supposed him to be a fictitious character.[6] A major difficulty in supposing that the Beloved Disciple was not one of the Twelve is that he was present at the Last Supper which Matthew and Mark state that Jesus ate with the Twelve.[7]

Conservative bible scholar Merrill F. Unger presents the prima facie case that the beloved disciple actually is John the author of the gospel, essentially by using a process of elimination. Unger writes that John's identification and authorship:

"... can be deduced in a general sense from the [following] facts. He indicates the precise hours when particular events took place (John 1:39; 4:6,52; 19:14). He records quotations of the disciple Philip (6:7; 14:8), Thomas (11:16, 14:5, Judas (14:22), and Andrew (6:8-9). He leaned on the breast of Jesus at supper on the night of the betrayal (13:23-25) and was among the three 'inner circle' apostles, Peter, James, and John. Peter is distinguished from this author by name in 1:41-42; 13:6,8 and James had become a martyr very early, long before the Gospel was written (Acts 12:2). He has a particular way of introducing himself (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20). These facts cumulatively make it difficult to come to any other conclusion, but that John was the author of the Gospel which bears his name."[8]

The closing words of John's Gospel[21:24]state explicitly concerning the Beloved Disciple that "It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true."

Another basis for linking the beloved disciple's identity with John the Evangelist is that this idiom does not appear in other gospels, so therefore it may reasonably be understood as a self-reference.

A related question is whether John the Evangelist can be equated with John the Apostle, and thus, with the beloved disciple.

As for early Church opinions on the disciple's identification, a second century quote of Polycrates of Ephesus (c. 130s - 196), recorded by Eusebius in his Church History, supports the classical identification of Beloved Disciple, who reclined beside Jesus at the Last Supper, with John.

John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus.[9]

Modern scholarly opinions on all these interrelated questions vary considerably. A popular scholarly opinion is that that John the Apostle did not write the Gospel of John or any of the other New Testament works traditionally ascribed to him, making this linkage of a 'John' to the beloved disciple difficult to sustain.[2] Yet, other contemporary Christian scholars,[10] consider it plausible or even likely that the Apostle John authored the gospel attributed to him.[11]


The Beloved Disciple has also been identified with Lazarus of Bethany, based on John 11:5.[12]

Mary Magdalene

One school of thought has suggested that the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John really was originally Mary Magdalene. In order to make this claim and maintain consistency with scriptures, the theory is suggested that Mary's separate existence in the two common scenes with the Beloved Disciple (19:25-27 and 20:1-11) were later modifications, hastily done to authorize the gospel in the late 2nd century. Both scenes are claimed to have inconsistencies both internally and in reference to the synoptic Gospels, possibly coming from rough editing to make Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple appear as different persons.[5]

In the Gospel of Mary, part of the New Testament Apocrypha, a certain Mary who is commonly identified as Mary Magdalene, is constantly referred to as being loved by Jesus more than the others.[13] In the Gospel of Philip, also from Apocrypha, the same is specifically said about Mary Magdalene.[14] For example, compare these passages from the Gospel of John and the apocryphal Gospel of Philip:

Gospel of Philip: There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary[15]

Gospel of John: Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said… (John 19:25)


The Talpiot Tomb discovered in 1980 is postulated by some, not of the Christian faith, to be the tomb of Jesus and his family. It contained 10 sets of remains, and one of a child with the inscription "Judah, son of Jesus". The Discovery Channel documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus speculated that the "Beloved Disciple" was Judah.

It has been suggested that when Jesus was crucified, a conversation purported to be with his mother, was actually between Mary Magdelene, his wife. Where he said "Behold your son", and to his son, Judah, "Behold your mother"[16] [17]

Unknown priest or disciple

Passover Plot author Hugh J. Schonfield imagined the Disciple to be a highly placed priest in the Temple and unavailable to follow Jesus in his ministry in the north. Schonfield uses this theory to account for the Beloved Disciple's absence in the north and accounts of Jesus' ministry in the Temple during the week before the Crucifixion. [18]

The prolific British scholar Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony (paperback 2008) reaches the similar conclusion that the beloved disciple, who also authored the gospel attributed to John, was probably a literarily sophisticated member of the (surprisingly extensive) high priestly family clan.

The author may also have been a lesser known disciple, perhaps from Jerusalem.[19]

Jesus' brother James

James D. Tabor, in The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, (2006) argues that the beloved disciple is Jesus' brother James. One of several pieces of evidence Tabor offers is a literal interpretation of John 19:26 "Then when Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, Woman, behold your son." However, elsewhere in that gospel, the beloved disciple refers to the risen Jesus as 'the Lord' (John 21.7) rather than as 'my brother.'


Consideration must also be given to a possible homo-erotic interpretation of Christ's relationship with the Beloved Disciple[20]. Tilborg suggests that the portrait in John is "positively attuned to the development of possibly homosexual behaviour". However he cautions that "in the code... such imaginary homosexual behaviour is not an expression of homosexality"[21]. Dunderberg has also explored the issue and argues that the absence of accepted greek terms for "lover" and "beloved" discounts a purely erotic reading[22].

Despite an absence of an unequivocal scriptural basis, the idea has nonethless found some sympathy in the medieval, early modern and modern eras. Dynes[23] has noted that in medieval art the figure of John, where identified as the Beloved Disciple, often appears beardless in contrast to his fellow apostles. Thus underlining his youthfulness. He is also frequently depicted with his head in the lap of Christ; but while certainly reflecting intimacy such images are unlikely to support a homoerotic interpretation[24].

That such an interpretation of a physical erotic relationship did exist, however, as early as the sixteenth century is documented for example in the trial for blasphemy of Christopher Marlowe accused of claiming that "St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma" [25]. Calcagno[26] of Venice in 1550 faced trial for believing that "St. John was Christ's catamite". While James I of England drew comparisions between his own relationship with the Duke of Buckingham[27].

Finally, Dynes makes a link to the modern day where in 1970s New York a popular religious group was established called the "Church of the Beloved Disciple", with the intention of giving a positive reading of the relationship to support respect for same-sex love[28].

Reasons for concealing the identity by name

Theories about the reference usually include an attempt to explain why this anonymizing idiom is used at all, rather than stating an identity.

Suggestions accounting for this are numerous. One common proposal is that the author concealed his name due simply to modesty, even though calling him/herself as the "beloved" disciple may not sound that humble. Another is that concealment served political or security reasons, made necessary by the threat of persecution or embarrassment during the time of the gospel's publication. The author may have been a highly placed person in Jerusalem who was hiding his affiliation with Christianity (see above reference to Richard Bauckham). In case the unnamed disciple was female, the purpose may have been to prevent the Gospel being labelled as heretical at a time when women's position in the 2nd century Church was in steep decline and any reference to a woman being beloved by Jesus would have had immediate sexual innuendos.

Martin L. Smith, a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, writes that the author of John's gospel may have deliberately obscured the identity of the Beloved Disciple in order that readers of the gospel may better identify with the disciple's relationship with Jesus:

Perhaps the disciple is never named, never individualized, so that we can more easily accept that he bears witness to an intimacy that is meant for each one of us. The closeness that he enjoyed is a sign of the closeness that is mine and yours because we are in Christ and Christ is in us."[29]

The idea of a beloved or special disciple is sometimes evoked in analysis of other texts from the New Testament Pseudepigrapha. In the Gospel of Thomas, Judas Thomas is the disciple taken aside by Jesus. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas Iscariot is favored with privy enlightening information and set apart from the other apostles. Another more recent interpretation draws from the Secret Gospel of Mark, existing only in fragments. In this interpretation, two scenes from Secret Mark and one at Mark 14:51-52 feature the same young man or youth who is unnamed but seems closely connected to Jesus. As the account in Secret Mark details a raising from the dead very similar to Jesus' raising of Lazarus in John 11:38-44, the young man is identified as Lazarus and associated with the Beloved Disciple.

Beloved Disciple in art

Jesus Christ and St. John the Apostle (detail from 14th century fresco of the Last Supper), Ubisi, Georgia.

In art, the Beloved Disciple is often portrayed as a beardless youth, usually as one of the Twelve Apostles at the Last Supper or with Mary at the crucifixion. In some medieval art, the Beloved Disciple is portrayed with his head in Christ's lap. Many artists have given different interpretations of John 13:25 which has the disciple whom Jesus loved "reclining next to Jesus" (v. 23; more literally, "on/at his breast/bosom," en to kolpo).[30]


  1. ^ John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20
  2. ^ a b "Although ancient traditions attributed to the Apostle John the Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the three Epistles of John, modern scholars believe that he wrote none of them." Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1985) p. 355
  3. ^ "As this is also the consistent testimony found in the writings of early church fathers, it is hard to pass by this conclusion, despite widespread reluctance to accept it by many, but by no means all, modem scholars." Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, Eerdmans, 2004, ISBN 0802827713, p. 28.
  4. ^ James D. G. Dunn and John William Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003, p. 1210, ISBN 0802837115.
  5. ^ a b Brown, Raymond E. 1970. "The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi)". New York: Doubleday & Co. Pages 922, 955.
  6. ^ "'beloved disciple.'" Cross, F. L., ed. (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; 3rd ed., revised by Elizabeth A. Livingstone. New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 0192802909
  7. ^ Matthew 26:20 and Mark 14:17
  8. ^ "The New Unger's Bible Dictionary", Merril F. Unger. Chicago: Moody, 1988; p. 701, quoted at
  9. ^ Eusebius. Church History. Book V, Chapter 24:2
  10. ^ as Hahn, Scott (2003). The Gospel of John: Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. p. 13. ISBN 9780898708202. 
  11. ^ Morris, Leon (1995). The Gospel according to John. p. 12. ISBN 9780802825049. 
  12. ^ W.R.F. Browning, A Dictionary of the Bible, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 207.
  13. ^ King, Karen L. Why All the Controversy? Mary in the Gospel of Mary. “Which Mary? The Marys of Early Christian Tradition” p. 74. F. Stanley Jones, ed. Brill, 2003
  14. ^ See
  15. ^ NHC II.3.59.6-11 (Robinson 1988: 145)
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot
  19. ^ Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Fortress Press. 1998. translated from German (1996 edition). Chapter 2. Christian sources about Jesus.
  20. ^ Martti Nissinen, Kirsi Stjerna, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, 2007
  21. ^ Stej Tilborg , Imaginative Love, 247-248 and p.109, 1993, Netherlands
  22. ^ Ismo Dunderberg, The Beloved Disciple in conflict?: revisiting the Gospels of John and Thomas, Oxford University Press, 2006, p176
  23. ^ Ed. Wayne Dynes, Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality, New York, 1990, pp125-126
  24. ^ John Ferguson, Brian Stone, The mediaeval inheritance and the revival of classical learning, 1972
  25. ^ M. J. Trow, Taliesin Trow, Who Killed Kit Marlowe?: A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England‎, London, 2002, p125
  26. ^ Scott Tucker, The queer question: essays on desire and democracy South End Press, 1999
  27. ^ David Moore Bergeron, King James & letters of homoerotic desire, London, 1999
  28. ^ Ed. Wayne Dynes, Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality, New York, 1990, pp125-126
  29. ^ Smith, Martin L., SSJE (1991). "Lying Close to the Breast of Jesus". A Season for the Spirit (Tenth anniversary edition ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications. p. 190. ISBN 1-56101-026-X. 
  30. ^ Rodney A. Whitacre,"Jesus Predicts His Betrayal." IVP New Testament Commentaries, Intervarsity Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-8308-1800-6


  • Charlesworth, James H. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John?. Trinity Press, 1995. ISBN 1-56338-135-4.
  • Smith, Edward R. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved: Unveiling the Author of John's Gospel. Steiner Books/Anthroposophic Press, 2000. ISBN 0-88010-486-4.

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