Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The disciple whom Jesus loved

As a Bible student, I want my first loyalty to be to God himself, and not to any tradition. I want to go wherever the evidence leads me.

There came a time when I was assigned to teach John's gospel in Bible college. As part of this, I taught the evidence that John's gospel was in fact written by John. Those familiar with this question will be aware that John does not name himself; the writer is referred to as "the disciple whom Jesus loved".

This blog post here summarises the traditional case - which is very strong.

However, as I studied, it seemed to me that there was also a strong case for another author. The author of the above post briefly refers to Lazarus as follows:

The internal evidence from the Gospel of John implies that the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was in fact John, the son of Zebedee. The “the disciple whom Jesus loved” could have been one the two unnamed disciples in John 21:2, but this seems unlikely. Other suggestions for the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” include Lazarus, who is identified as a person whom Jesus loved (John 11:5, 35-36), or the rich young ruler of Mark 10:21, because Jesus is said to have loved him. There were probably dozens of disciples that could have qualified for the title if all it took was being loved by Jesus. Lazarus and the rich young ruler simply do not qualify because they were not at the last supper.
But on the contrary, note that:
  • The rich young ruler is not in the fourth gospel. Only one individual is given this appellation in the gospel. The appellation is obviously some kind of authorial device; it does not do justice to the text to flatten away that self-conscious device by speaking about what "could have" been done, in distinction to what the author obviously did intend to do.
  • Earlier in the post, the author refers us to Mark 14:17 as the proof text that nobody except the twelve was at the Supper (which is how he rules out Lazarus). Mark 14:17 says: "And when it was evening, he came with the twelve." The word "only" is not there. It is an assumption, that Mark intended to give us a full list. However: 1) The gospels prove that often this assumption is wrong; e.g. Matthew 8:28 tells us that two men came us from the tombs at Gadara (8:28), whilst Mark wrote "immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit" (5:2) and never mentions the second man. 2) We can detect reasons why Mark would focus on the twelve - Jesus immediately goes on to explain that one of the twelve would betray him (v17); and then we read of the Lord's Supper, in which the twelve disciples stand as the counterparts of the twelve tribes who were redeemed at the original Passover - thus they are the New Israel, the true people of God. So there are contextual reasons to focus on the presence of the twelve, and which may explain why he does not trouble himself or muddy the waters by mentioning others.

The writer of this blog post has also significantly understated the suggestive evidence that the "disciple whom Jesus loved is in fact" Lazarus:

  • He correctly notes that Lazarus is specifically said to be one "whom Jesus loved";
  • But it is also true that Lazarus, alongside his sisters, are the only people to whom this attribute is given in the book
  • What is more, the name is only used after we meet Lazarus. Lazarus appears in chapter 11 - the title is not used before that point. The "beloved disciple" only appears after Lazarus appears.
  • It would be very natural for Lazarus, having been raised, and having heard Jesus' teaching that he was shortly to die, to "stick to him like a limpet" in that final week, and to be the one who was reclining on his chest at the Last Supper - so grateful for the life that had been so graciously returned to him, so that he could see Jesus bringing in the kingdom and continue to care for his single sisters.
  • The fourth gospel contains unique material from Bethany and concerning Lazarus - where that family stayed - from that last week. It would be quite natural for him to provide such extra detail.
  • The words in chapter 21 concerning whether the "beloved disciple" would die or not are also suggestive. Why would there be a rumour that John would not die? Why would Peter ask such a question? But in the case of someone who had, only a week earlier, been raised from the dead, the question is very natural - will he die again?
  • Also, we might think it more natural that Jesus would entrust care of his bereaved mother (19:26) to Lazarus, who lived near Jerusalem, in a loving home, apparently where there were no spouses or children but where she could be well-provided for by the brother and sisters - rather than to the apostle John (who we believe was single), who was shortly to be commissioned by Jesus to take the gospel to the nations and face imprisonment, beatings, constant danger and turmoil etc. Who would you entrust your mother too?

A lot of that is circumstantial. A good amount of it can also be explained on the thesis that the author is John. If Lazarus is the author, then unanswered questions remain. Why is John never named? The gospel must have a strong connection to John - the very strong thematic and even word parallels with the letters of John require an explanation. The gospel evidences the hand of a later editor; the author is spoken of in the third person in the closing section, and that from the vantage point of another person ("we" know that "his" testimony is true) - presumably the editor. Perhaps not an editor as such, but someone adding his commendation; though it seems possible that the whole incident around the question of whether he would die came from this "other" writer.

It is widely believed and accepted by Bible-believing people that the "second gospel" could have been largely written by Mark under Peter's oversight. I think that the above at least raises the possibility that the fourth is in some way a joint production of John and Lazarus, and that the "beloved discipled" is not John but Lazarus. On that reasoning, the reason why Lazarus did not name himself is simple - he did not want to usurp his apostolic friend, or want to be seen as trying to stake a claim for himself in the church. It was known that he was an associate of John, and the book was generally distributed in John's name and thus with his apostolic imprimatur, which is why it came to be known in church tradition, quite properly, as the "gospel of John". I think it's interesting that the Mark/Peter thesis is considered acceptable amongst evangelicals, but discussions of the fourth gospel tend to always look for a single author; why is that? As a matter of logical consistency it makes no sense to me.

Anyway, those are my musings. They are not a developed thesis. No time, no time... perhaps someone out there can pick it up and run with it.


Ned Kelly said...

Hi David,
Ok, I'll bite. You state "in which the twelve disciples stand as the counterparts of the twelve tribes who were redeemed at the original Passover - thus they are the New Israel, the true people of God."
We have no evidence that these twelve turned from Judaism, and much evidence in the Book of Acts and Josephus that the early Church in Jerusalem, headed by James, retained their practice of Judaism.
On that basis, the New Israel, the true people of God, continue to be Torah observant Jews.
N'est ce pas?

David Anderson said...

The church of God are all Torah observant Jews? Obviously, ce n'est pas.

Or to be more Biblical, me genoito.

"5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,
9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?"

Acts 15:6-10

11 But if I, brothers, I still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Galatians 5:11-12