Thoughts on the Disciple Jesus Loved

History 015B: New Testament Studies
Profs. Buck & Luotto
Copyright © 1993, 2000 B. Collie Collier

Comments added later for clarification are in [].


There has been much speculation on the identity of "[T]he disciple he [Jesus] loved..." [John 13:23]. This is the person who claims to be the witness who wrote the Gospel of John. This paper is an unsolicited speculation on the identity of that person. It is my assertion that this person was in fact a woman, namely Mary Magdalene. There are several assumptions I have made which I will delineate to show my reasoning.

One should first look at the time in which the Gospels, Synoptic [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] and otherwise [mostly John], were written [since they weren't written while Jesus was alive]. Women were definitely second-class citizenry, and often weren't considered independent people unless they were widows who had inherited enough money to make them a force to reckon with. It would be acceptable (barely) for Jesus to witness [proselytize] to women, and even to have women followers. However, to have one of Jesus' chosen not be male might be an uncomfortable thing for most Christians of the time. To top that problem off, Mary Magdalene apparently wasn't a widow, and was thus of questionable worth when it came to witnessing the words of Christ. Indeed, to have women present in any important meeting between Christ and his disciples seems to have been anathema.

This seems odd if one believes Paul's assertion that there is no male or female in Christ, and Mark's belief that Christ was there for all, including women. Why were there no female disciples? Some of the disciples must have had sisters -- [according to the scriptures] Jesus himself is supposed to have had a few. This may be a possibly deliberate omission on the part of Jesus' chroniclers. Consider as an example the fact that a man's word was worth more than a woman's in a Jewish court of law. It would be in the best interests of anyone wanting to insert the Gospel of John into accepted New Testament texts to have the work credited to a man, not a woman.

This leads to my second thought -- why is this particular disciple never referred to by name? Could it be that the name was easily recognizable as that of a woman? If the Johannine texts are indeed edited, as most modern scholars assert, then it would be easy for an intelligent and educated person of that time, of either gender, to realize a man would be more acceptable as author than a woman. How easy it would be to simply change all references to "her" into "him," and to change the female name to that of "the disciple he loved."

With this thought in mind, I re-read all the references to this particular disciple. The first one is the above-quoted verse from John 13 [the description of the Last Supper]. If the group was indeed using Roman couches and reclining two by two, face-to-face on them, this would be a very intimate seating arrangement. Jews apparently heartily disapproved of homosexuality. Would not that seating arrangement smack of "decadent Roman" homosexuality -- if the apostle reclining with Jesus was male? On the other hand, to recline so with a woman would be acceptable.

The second time this disciple is possibly mentioned is when s/he intercedes for Simon Peter so that he may enter Annas' courtyard. It is not clear if this disciple is the one Jesus loved. However, why would a fisherman following an itinerant [wandering] preacher know the High Priest's father-in-law? On the other hand, perhaps a wealthy and high-born young woman [as Mary Magdalene was supposed to have been -- the assertion that she was a whore is a medieval fantasy] might be able to speak with Annas. As it turns out, this person was able to go into the house to speak to Annas (albeit fruitlessly), while Peter was made to wait outside in the cold, with Annas' servants.

The most telling part of the identity of this disciple occurred for me in John 19:25-27. The names of the people standing at the foot of Jesus' cross are all given. I quote "[N]ear the cross where Jesus hung stood his mother, with her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Jesus saw his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her." There are only two people standing near his mother. It is unlikely a married woman would recline with a somewhat disreputable [he was disreputable because he wandered about teaching peculiar ethics rather than settling down and marrying] preacher, even if he was her nephew. Who is left? Only Mary of Magdala. She is never described as married, she is a devout follower, and she seems to not be of a respectable age to be running around by herself. Surely it seemed better to the author or editor of John not to name her directly [as the disciple Jesus loved].

Mary of Magdala is mentioned again, on Easter Sunday. It is she who finds Christ's empty tomb. It is unsurprising to me that someone who is so loved by Jesus should return that love. How logical then that she should go alone to his tomb to grieve in private. Unfortunately for my theory, she is described as talking to Peter and "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved." [John 20:2]. Still, some wild- er, resourceful speculation can come up with an answer to this dilemma. Mary mentions "...and we do not know where they have laid him." [John 20:2]. Obviously she was alone, and is not a plural person. Perhaps the mention of "we" is literary license, and thus the mention of her running up to Peter and the other disciple is more of the same, to keep people from drawing the obvious conclusion concerning the identity of the other disciple. Indeed, it would make sense a small, slight woman afire with conviction could outrun a disbelieving Peter, and yet might still be too frightened to enter the tomb alone [as happens later in the verse]. Better to wait until Peter entered first and verified the absence of possibly hostile grave-robbers.

There is no doubt in the writing of the author of John as to whether Jesus loved that disciple. Is this a physical as well as spiritual love? There is nothing in John to either verify or deny this speculation. However, in the Gnostic [also known as the Dead Sea scrolls] scriptures, there is some mention of Mary Magdalene being Jesus' favorite. [There is also a verse where Peter resentfully asks Jesus why he loves Mary Magdalene, a mere woman, best of all his followers. Jesus' rather tart reply is that Peter might want to try emulating Mary more, rather than ranting against her. Peter was always jealous of Mary for that, according to the Gnostic scriptures. Unfortunately he seems to have had the "last laugh," so to speak. He and Paul are historically credited with the creation of the fledgling christian church, rather than Mary, even though Jesus was supposed to have taught Mary more of his mysteries than any other of his followers].

This [a "mere woman" being Jesus' favorite] might not be such a radical thought to the Gnostics, since they believed Jesus was pure spirit, and there is no carnality in spirit. However, the later Apostles or their followers might find the notion, even if true, of a female being Jesus' favorite disturbing -- it brings up unwanted allegations of possible sexuality. This would be doubly annoying if it was indeed true -- that God's "Chosen Pure One" might enjoy sex would be to sully the pristine public relations image of Jesus that was being presented to the world at that time. Carnality is not part of the Christian concept of Christ. Better to simply remove any mention of such a religiously embarrassing thing.

It would also be symmetrical, in a way, for Jesus to have a female companion. [Many of the Apostles were married -- there is a later verse in the New Testament where Peter is mentioned going to visit his mother-in-law. Also,] was not Jesus' Father supposed to have had his Sophia [in the Old Testament]? Proverbs mentions "Sophia" [which roughly means wisdom in female form; Yahweh and Sophia were male and female, and creation came about by their union]; Philo Judaeus [an early Christian writer -- not a Gnostic!] used "Logos" [which roughly means wisdom in the male linguistic form; P.J. probably wanted Logos to be male so that Yahweh and Wisdom were respectively exemplified by God and Jesus, his son. Including the sexless Holy Spirit in this group formed the Trinity -- no females need apply!]. This doesn't mean the female concept is lost, only that Philo wished Jesus to be God's "companion." The divine Logos [Jesus] may have wanted some wise counsel while he was flesh. How appropriate to emulate his Father, and to pick a wise woman to counsel him.

Finally, in John 21:21 [the scene where Jesus has risen from the dead, and is telling his apostles good-bye and good luck], Peter asks "Lord, what will happen to him [the disciple Jesus loved]?" Why should Peter care more about this person than any of the other apostles? It would make more sense if this person were a female, and now with Jesus' death legally without a protector or guardian. Furthermore, Jesus tells this person to follow him, away from all the other apostles, for some small, unspecified amount of time. As far as I know, privacy is a requirement for love-making in almost all cultures, Judaism included. My fanciful thought was perhaps Jesus wished one final night in the flesh with the disciple he loved.


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    Last Updated: Mon Mar 27 2000