Was John the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved?

Before approaching the Letters of John, I thought I should touch on a question which will bear on the authorship of the Letters.  Few scholars will deny a relationship between the letters of John and the Gospel of John.  On the basis of style and vocabulary alone it is clear that the same person (or persons) wrote the Gospels and the Letters of John.  Traditionally, the fourth Gospel and the letters have been thought to be written by John, the Apostle, the son of Zebedee.  It is also  a long standing tradition to equate John, son of Zebedee with the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Neither John nor James appear in John’s Gospel, which is unusual since they are the only disciples features in the synoptic gospels other that Peter. In the Gospel of John, many of the other disciples are given a more clear role in stories where they had been anonymous. For example, in the feeding of the 5000, we are told specifically Philip and Andrew are the disciples who spoke to Jesus about the crowd and the impossibility of feeding such a large crowd (John 6:5-9).

John’s gospel also features a character who is never named, but rather is called the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Traditionally, the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is John, the son of Zebedee.

  • The “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was at the last supper (13:23), and in the Synoptics we are told only the disciples joined Jesus for the Passover meal (Mark 14:17). This places the “the disciple whom Jesus loved” within the inner circle of the twelve.
  • In many of the passages that he appears he is linked with Peter (John 13:23-24; 20:2-9; 21:20), and cannot be any of the disciples mentioned by name in John 13-16.
  • He is one of the seven who are fishing in chapter 21. This eliminates all the disciples except James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and two unnamed disciples.
  • The “disciple whom Jesus loved” is likely not James, since he was killed by Acts 12, much too early to have written the Gospel.

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.

Thus the title “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is a humble indication that the author uses to identify himself. The only real candidate from among the group of twelve disciples is John, the son of Zebedee.  While it is possible that the Beloved Disciple is not John, The fact that the Gospel of John is so concerned with eyewitnesses to Jesus that it is unlikely that the author could be creating this witness out of thin air.

Does this matter for our reading of the Gospel of John or the Letters of John?  The letters of John are very concerned with the love of God and the love the Christian has for God and other believers.  It seems to me that this emphasis on the Love of God comes from the writer’s own experience of the Love of Jesus, having been “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”